When the St Edward’s crown is placed on the head of King Charles III at Westminster Abbey on May 6, it will be part of a continuation of the longstanding traditions and pageantry of more than 1,000 years of monarchy.
But his promise that his coronation “will reflect the monarch’s role today” signals some departure from the scale and extravagance of the ceremonial accorded to his late mother. How significant those departures will be is not yet known, but they are dictated by societal changes that took place over the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
The queen’s coronation could, in retrospect, be described as “the last imperial hurrah”, said Dr Bob Morris, a senior research associate at UCL’s Constitution Unit and the author of a research paper titled The Coronation of Charles III.
Back then, reflecting Britain’s high ranking as a world power, 8,250 guests crammed into Westminster Abbey, with some standing 11 tiers high. Outside, stands were erected for 96,000 paying guests – an attempt by the government to recoup some of the huge costs – with a covered seat selling for £6 (about £127 today) and an uncovered one for £4.
Peers and their wives, and Commonwealth leaders and their entourages were among some of the biggest groups on the government guest list.
The grand procession route from Westminster Abbey covered about five miles. The procession took 45 minutes to pass a stationary point and included more than 40,000 UK and Commonwealth service personnel.
Troops marched 12 abreast to a beat provided by 24 marching military bands. Ten Commonwealth prime ministers, led by Sir Winston Churchill, were carried in open top carriages.
It was an incredible spectacle for a postwar, bomb-scarred Britain, where some food rationing and conscription still existed. Such scale is unlikely today, and not just because the public would likely balk at the cost.
Then, the armed forces numbered more than 850,000. Today, there are about one-fifth of that number. “There just aren’t the troops, so that calls into question the length of the route and the size of the procession,” Morris said. Security issues, too, have changed. Terrorism now is a key concern, rather than public safety, which was the focus of policing the event in 1953.
At its heart, the coronation is a religious service, with the anointing with holy oil and the taking of communion. The 2021 census, however, showed that for the first time less than half of the population of England and Wales (46.2%) identify as Christian. As the UK becomes increasingly secular, more than one-third of England and Wales (37.2%) assert they have no religion at all. In 1953, not only was churchgoing much more routine, a third of people believed that the queen had been chosen by God.
This trend, however, “curiously will make the presence of religion larger”, Morris said. “Because I think we can expect that although it will still be Anglican, and the archbishop [of Canterbury] will still be in charge, and we imagine there will be a communion service, there will be a greater presence of non-Christian religions, and perhaps also of other Christian denominations.”
On the last occasion, the only other denomination invited was the moderator of the Scottish church, he said, but he expects that the religious cast list will be widened, as has been the case in recent years for Commonwealth Day services. The fact that the UK is now more of a union state, with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, also makes this more likely.
A shorter coronation – the queen’s lasted more than three hours – means some of the more archaic elements could be dropped. The lengthy court of claims, where in the past nobles have had to prove their right to undertake a certain service to the king during the ceremony, could be reduced to “an exchange of correspondence”, becoming a “purely administrative process”, Morris said .
The role of the peers, who in bygone days individually paid homage to the new sovereign, was curtailed in 1902 when a system of only the senior peer in each gradation performing homage was introduced. With the 1999 abolition of the automatic right of the majority of hereditary peerages, Morris questioned whether the homage could be further reduced. “Maybe they wouldn’t pursue the homage on this occasion, which is really a feudal relic,” he said.
Overall, Morris said, the coronation of Charles III could be “a more modest affair” than that of his mother, when the Duke of Norfolk as earl marshal, in charge of organizing, all but took over Westminster Abbey for 10 months preceding the ceremony ,
“But this is pure surmise,” he said. “We don’t know what the plans are. They have not made the sort of announcements one would have expected at this stage.”