Coronations are events in history that you may heard of, read about or seen in a film, but the details are a little vague. What is a coronation and why do they happen? Find out answers to these questions and more in this introductory guide.
6 minute read
A coronation is a Christian ceremony during which the new monarch is crowned as part of a Eucharist, or Holy Communion service, at which Christians commemorate Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. The word coronation comes from the Latin 'corona', meaning a crown, but monarchs are described as being crowned, rather than coronated. However the ceremony itself is about much more than that moment. The crowning itself is near the end of the ceremony which includes the monarch making promises to God and the people they serve, a sacred blessing known as anointing and the receiving of the royal regalia. During a coronation, the words and actions are a visible representation of the invisible duty and responsibility of the monarch.
Coronations have always been seen as a special and important moment in the early part of a monarch’s reign. To understand why we have coronations, it’s important to understand what has taken place since the death of the previous monarch.
Constitutionally, there is never a moment when we do not have a monarch. When the king or queen dies, their heir instantly becomes the new monarch. This is a process called accession, meaning 'to come to'. It describes how the successor comes to the throne following a monarch’s death. At that very moment, the successor has all the status and authority that they need to be monarch.
Within days, the Accession Council usually gathers at St James’ Palace, London, to legally confirm that the change in monarch has taken place. A series of public accession proclamations follow in locations across the country. For many centuries, this would have been the way the word spread about a new monarch.
In strictly constitutional terms, coronations do not have to take place. In fact, two monarchs, King Edward V and King Edward VIII, did not have a coronation but were still kings. However, a coronation does have three key purposes. First and foremost, it has a religious significance, with the monarch making promises to God as part of a Christian ceremony. Secondly, while the monarch has acquired the status and authority at their accession, it is at the coronation that the monarch makes promises to the people that they serve. Finally, it is a moment for public celebration and affirmation in a way that would be inappropriate in the days and weeks following the accession. In order for the Royal Family and the nation to grieve the loss of the monarch, there is always a significant gap between accession and coronation.
Westminster Abbey became the coronation church more by accident than intention. Before 1066, there was no established location for the coronation of a monarch with known locations including Kingston-upon-Thames and Bath. St Edward the Confessor, who built the first stone abbey in Westminster, was crowned at Winchester Cathedral.
Why move from Winchester to Westminster? The change happened with William I, also known as the Conqueror, who was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, he wanted to be crowned at the centre of government and near the principal palace at Westminster. More importantly, by choosing the burial place of his predecessor as the location for his coronation, he cemented the legitimacy of his rule. Since then, every other monarch who has had a coronation has followed that tradition, claiming their legitimacy through the succession of monarchs crowned there before them.
Precise details of the earliest coronations at the Abbey are not known, but we do know that elements were added to the coronation over time. Eventually, the Liber Regalis was produced in around 1390 which brought all of these elements together. Since then, the overall format has largely stayed the same.
Even guided by a medieval Latin manuscript, there has always been room for adaptations. Following the religious turmoil of the Reformation, it was Protestant Queen Elizabeth I who requested that parts of the service should be said in English instead of Latin for the first time so that the people would be able to understand the promises she was making.
Political changes have impacted coronations too. During the English Civil War, after the execution of King Charles I, the original regalia was destroyed and had to be remade in 1661 for King Charles II’s coronation. Although he did not believe in the institution of monarchy, when Oliver Cromwell accepted the position of Lord Protector, he did so in a ceremony in Westminster Hall sitting on the Coronation Chair.
Music has always played a central role in worship and new pieces of music have been composed for coronation services. Most notably Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” has been played since George II’s coronation in 1727.
With Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, another big change happened. Millions of people all around the world were able to watch on television what had never before been seen by those outside Westminster Abbey.
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.