The power of royal pomp and pageantry
Henry III believed that spectacle elevated him into the sphere of the sacred; Elizabeth I used it to emphasise her Protestant credentials; and Queen Victoria turned it into a celebration of her imperial might. In the year that King Charles III prepares for his coronation, Alice Hunt reveals how generations of British monarchs have used pomp and pageantry to project power
In 1838, during a debate about Queen Victoria’s forthcoming coronation, the rather radical Earl Fitzwilliam declared that “coronations were fit only for barbarous or semi-barbarous ages, for periods when crowns were won and lost by unruly violence and ferocious contests”.
What, he wondered, was the point of an extravagant show when Victoria’s legitimacy was not in doubt, and when she became queen as soon as her predecessor was dead?
Monarchs have long worried about what functions such royal rituals actually perform, or why they might need them. A look at the various coronations and other ceremonies staged by and for British rulers through the centuries reveals much about both the motives and personalities of those kings and queens, and the power and impact of such events.
Ceremonies as displays of “true and real power”
In the 13th century, Henry III pondered the ways in which ceremony elevated him into the sphere of the sacred. Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, had to tell him that while being anointed meant he was “above his fellows”, he was nowhere near the level of a priest.
Four centuries later, Charles I worried about being only ceremony: “We may have swords and maces carried before us, and please our self with the sight of a crown and sceptre,” he said, but without “true and real power, we should remain but the outside, but the picture, but the sign of a king.”
Through the preservation and display of crowns, sceptres, costumes and coaches, it is the steadying and benign power of tradition that our monarchy wishes to communicate
Today, the fact that royal ceremonies are not displays of “true and real” political influence is what has ensured the survival of both monarchy and its rituals. Elizabeth II understood that her role was to be an effective national symbol – “a thing that existed only to be looked at”, said Hilary Mantel. British royal ceremonial is no longer about the personal power of the monarch, but – so the story goes – about the success of the constitution and, by extension, the stability of the nation.
Through the preservation and display of crowns, sceptres, costumes and coaches, it is the steadying and benign power of tradition that our monarchy wishes to communicate. Ceremony “doth everything”, Charles II was advised by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. But the ways in which monarchs and their advisors have exploited ceremonies – and the reasons why – have changed according to context, different understandings of the purpose of ceremony, and the kind of power they needed to exert at a particular moment.
The tradition of anointing with oil
For a long time in England, following the shift from Anglo-Saxon elected kings to “divinely appointed” kings, it was the sacred power of a monarch that mattered. The introduction of the tradition of anointing kings with oil – echoing the Old Testament anointings of David and Solomon – turned the ruler into the “Lord’s anointed”. King Edgar was the first monarch recorded as being anointed, as part of a service conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury in AD 973 in Bath Abbey.
With the establishment of hereditary monarchy and the doctrine of divine right, the already sacred monarch was made more so by the act of anointing. In 1307, Edward II began his rule on the day after his father’s death, but his coronation service clearly articulated that being anointed turned him into something semi-divine.
For kings whose claim to the throne was tenuous, this proved useful. Henry IV, who had deposed Richard II in 1399, broke with precedent by choosing to remain visible while he lay down before the altar for his anointing. After Henry VII had defeated Richard III on Bosworth Field in 1485, he was swiftly and “with great pompe” conveyed to Westminster Abbey for his coronation. Being anointed and crowned secured his claim in the eyes of the people and, crucially, demonstrated that God approved of – even enabled – his succession.
Monarchs: touched by divinity
Today, few believe – as James VI and I did – that “kings are justly called gods”, but the idea that monarchs are touched by divinity proved hard to shift. Having been anointed with holy oil in 1154, Henry II believed he could cure the sick. He wasn’t alone. Monarchs participated in a ceremony in which they touched those suffering from the “king’s evil” (scrofula, a form of tuberculosis) up to the reign of Queen Anne in the 18th century.
When Mary, the wife of George V, was crowned alongside her husband in 1911, a newspaper reported that it was “as if she had undergone some marvellous transformation”. In 1953, television cameras were allowed into Westminster Abbey for the first time – but the BBC was asked not to film the moment at which Elizabeth II was anointed, thereby preserving its magic.
A medieval and Tudor monarch’s ceremonies at court were bound up with the liturgical calendar, with rituals such as crown wearings emphasising the monarch’s piety and divinity. Modern royal ceremonial is still bound up with the church – now the Anglican, not the Catholic – and royal and religious pomp are combined to emphasise the monarch’s faith, as well as their status as Head of the Church of England.
How a ceremony can send a message
Sometimes there is a coherent message – a statement about royal power that a ceremony is intended to make. When Elizabeth I was crowned in 1559, a series of pageants dotted along the procession route portrayed Elizabeth as a caring, Protestant queen who would love her subjects and heed the advice of her male councillors – as well as hopefully marry to secure the succession.
In the pageant at Cornhill, for example, a child dressed as Elizabeth sat on a throne supported by actors representing “Pure Religion” and “Love of Subjects” who trampled on “Superstition”. At another, a young child addressed Elizabeth, and hoped that she would “barrenness displace”. And the pageant at Fleet Street reminded the new queen, according to the pageant writer Richard Mulcaster, that “it behoveth” rulers to “use advice of good counsel”.
- Read more | Why has the British monarchy survived?
Like her father, Henry VIII, Elizabeth understood the value of being on show, and of using dress and her appearance to symbolise her material worth and, hence, her power, inspiring loyalty and affection. But the pageantry of Elizabeth’s reign is also notable for the opportunities it gave her subjects to communicate what they wanted from their monarch, and to warn her. Even when monarchs believed in their absolute power, ceremonies became spaces in which their power could be commented on by those choreographing or participating in the ceremony, such as heralds, court advisors, churchmen and city leaders.
When Charles II was crowned in Scotland in 1651, he was reminded that crowns can “totter”, and that he must keep the promises he had sworn under the covenant to uphold the Church of Scotland. In 1661, the classicist John Ogilby and the chief herald Edward Walker looked back to the elaborate state ceremonies of Tudor England for inspiration as they designed the ceremonies to accompany the restoration of the monarchy after 11 years of republican and protectorate rule.
They wanted to portray Charles “with the greatest magnificence immaginable”, and to dazzle subjects with the “glorious light” of monarchy. In this ceremony, royal power needed to be seen as natural, healing and permanent, and to obliterate the “dismal night of usurpation”. As Samuel Pepys, who had served Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate, wrote: “It is impossible to relate the glory of this day.”
Yet any consensus about royal magnificence was certainly not shared by all at the time. It was a “pompous shew”, the clergyman Ralph Josselin noted, full of “stately vanity”. When Charles’s brother James II & VII was crowned in 1685, fireworks were considered more economical and appropriate.
Elizabeth II’s love affair with the 17th century
Why, when planning her last great ceremony, did the Queen draw inspiration from the monarchy’s darkest hour?
A number of decisions taken by Britain's longest-reigning Queen – not least about her own funeral – reveal intriguing nods to the 17th century, a period that was hardly a golden age for the crown.
Even her choice of name for her first born son, Charles, could be seen as surprising – ill-advised, even. The public execution of Charles I in January 1649 remains the most shattering event for the monarchy. And the reign of Charles II – a king whose reputation for merriness and laziness has stuck – didn’t wipe the slate clean. In the words of the diarist John Evelyn, he was a man of many virtues, but also of “many great imperfections”.
Yet the Queen reclaimed the name Charles – rather like royalists making the parliamentarian insult “cavalier” their badge of honour during the Civil War.
Charles II was a king who understood the value of ceremony. He had absorbed the advice that it was symbolically powerful, even if “it is nothing in itself”, and knew deep down that the body of the king could no longer claim to be sacred. For his coronation, the items of the regalia (including St Edward’s Crown) that had been destroyed in 1649 as parliamentary forces closed in on victory, were lovingly remade – and the same ones will be used for Charles III’s coronation on 6 May 2023.
Many modern royal ceremonies echo their 17th-century counterparts. Charles II restored and imposed the Anglican church through the 1662 Act of Uniformity and a new Book of Common Prayer. Elizabeth II was a committed Anglican, devoted to the form and the words of the ceremonies in the 1662 Prayer Book. Her funeral service, for example, followed that book’s order for the burial of the dead.
In fact, various elements of the Queen’s funeral harked back to the 17th century. Hubert Parry’s music for the song “My Soul, There Is a Country” was composed during the First World War, but the words are by Welsh royalist poet Henry Vaughan, written in the 1650s when there was no king. The text used for Psalm 23 was from the Scottish psalter of 1650, compiled by the Puritan Francis Rous. And the poet John Donne (1572–1631) provided the words for the prayer “Bring us, O Lord God, at Our Last Awakening”.
But why? When imparting instructions for her funeral, what led the Queen to draw so heavily on that turbulent era? It’s worth remembering that it was a century in which Britain – instead of just England – was imagined, and in which the British monarchy was redefined through the period of the republic, the exclusion crisis, and the succession of William and Mary.
Recalling the 17th century draws attention to the survival and, some might say, the success of the British monarchy. But it also, perhaps more humbly, evokes the fragility of the crown.
Criticism of ceremony: ostentatious and personalities
The taste for carefully choreographed ceremony declined after the 17th century, and any show of ostentation began to be considered inappropriate. The Coronation Oath Act of 1688 ensured that William and Mary, and their successors, would all swear at their coronations to “maintain the Statutes, Laws and Customs” of England, as made by parliament, removing any doubt that royal prerogative would not be curtailed.
This was the first step along the road to constitutional monarchy and a new relationship between power and ceremony. William and Mary and their 18th and 19th-century successors remained politically influential, and ceremony might uncomfortably draw attention to this.
At Queen Victoria’s coronation, the clergy lost their way and her finger was too big for the ring. When the queen withdrew from the public gaze after Prince Albert’s death, royal ceremonial went into abeyance until her golden jubilee
Precedent and tradition were yet to be valued as potent assets of a monarchy whose power was becoming increasingly limited and frequently ridiculed. In 1761, the congregation at George III’s coronation in 1761 began eating their picnic during the sermon. Royal weddings and royal funerals could draw the crowds, but these events were even less revered.
Personalities also contributed to the declining importance of ceremony in royal interactions with the public. William IV (reigned 1830–37) did not like ceremony, and did not think it a necessary part of the office. He suggested doing away with the coronation completely, as had already happened throughout Europe. Following her coronation, Queen Victoria may have been inclined to agree with her predecessor. The clergy lost their way, and Victoria’s finger was too big for the coronation ring. When the queen withdrew from the public gaze after Prince Albert’s death, royal ceremonial went into abeyance until her golden jubilee in 1887.
Celebrating the survival of monarchy
In fact, it fell to Victoria’s son and successor, Edward VII (reigned 1901–10), to make ostentation fashionable once more in royal ceremonies. Edward had a real flair for grandeur, uniform and ceremonial innovation, matched by a willing household team under Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher. The slick and polished pageantry that we see today, emphasising the loyalty and efficiency of the military and the service of the royals, was perfected in the Edwardian era.
The awareness that regimented but splendid ceremony could be effective coincided with the rise of photography and a press that was well disposed towards the monarchy. Where once magnificence was about the very real personal and political power of the monarch, spectacle now served to celebrate the survival of monarchy, its history and the confidence of its new constitutional role.
How ceremony became an emblem of empire
By the time Edward VII ascended the throne, the institution that he headed had something else to celebrate: Britain’s imperial power. The late 19th and early 20th century saw the increased use of royal ceremony to promote the British empire. When Victoria celebrated her golden jubilee, she re-entered public life with a display of pageantry “such as this generation never saw”, in which guests and military personnel from the colonies participated.
Victoria had been Empress of India since 1877, and for her golden jubilee was escorted to Westminster Abbey by Indian cavalry. For poet laureate Alfred Tennyson, it was a celebration of “50 years of ever-widening empire!” He called on “You, Canadian, Indian, /Australasian, African, / All your hearts be in harmony, /All your voices in unison.”
The formal royal tour, begun in the 19th century with the travels of Victoria’s sons throughout the empire, became an integral part of the royal family’s ceremonial duties. But it wasn’t until 1911 that George V became the first British sovereign to visit India on a spectacular coronation tour – an attempt to foster affection and loyalty for the crown in the face of increasing opposition to British rule. “We put on our robes and crowns and showed ourselves to thousands of people stood on a balcony,” recalled Queen Mary of a garden party at Delhi’s Red Fort.
Elizabeth II’s role as monarch of nations beyond the UK was woven into the fabric of her reign, symbolically and literally: her coronation dress featured embroidered and jewel-encrusted emblems of the seven independent states of which she was then queen.
During her reign, she frequently visited the Commonwealth realms in her capacity as their monarch, but the tours and accompanying ceremonies were carefully planned to promote the crown and test or strengthen the bonds of loyalty, particularly during delicate political times. When Elizabeth visited Barbados in 1966, for example, it was on the eve of that island’s independence.
- Read more | Becoming Queen: Elizabeth II’s coronation
At state ceremonies in the UK, the Commonwealth nations are always represented. At the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018, it looked as if the British monarchy’s relationship with, and role in, the Commonwealth could change in interesting ways now that an American woman of mixed heritage was part of the family. As a nod to this, Meghan’s veil was embroidered with 53 flowers, representing the 53 countries of the Commonwealth.
Hope and unity, duty and service
Ceremonies are always about context. Partly because of their illusion of stability and continuity, and partly because the monarch is a symbol, modern royal ceremonies enable the palace to project shifting understandings of royal power. In postwar Britain, the young Elizabeth II was turned into a symbol of hope and unity, and a figure of duty and service.
Royal weddings – more frequent than coronations and funerals, though historically not always the big public events they are today – have increasingly allowed the public to perceive the monarchy as more like them: sharing similar familial values, moved by love. The 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was perceived by The Guardian as rectifying the unhappiness of Charles and Diana’s marriage. Here, after all, was a well-matched couple – the future king and queen – who had married for love, a ray of light in a time of economic gloom.
With such media coverage, the monarchy’s ability to galvanise the nation through a well pitched ceremony seems a sure test of power and relevance. When Charles III is crowned on 6 May 2023, the ceremony will look quite a lot like the coronations of Britain’s former monarchs: legitimate and strange and wonderful. Ceremonies pause time, and collapse time, and this can be deeply affecting.
But a monarch’s ceremonies are and have always been animated by power, albeit of different kinds at different times, and public conversation rarely scrutinises this aspect. By focusing on what the ceremony might mean for the UK, we forget that all of these ceremonies – coronations, funerals, jubilees, weddings – both promote the status quo and provide opportunities for the British monarchy to reinvent itself, and keep itself visible, relevant and effective.
Charles III’s coronation will be significant for the kind of king that emerges from the crowded, unfamiliar symbolism of the religious service, and the more familiar, secular pomp and pageantry that surrounds it. But will it be deemed a success? That will depend on what the palace have consciously created, Charles’s own performance, and how the media and onlookers from across the globe respond to what unfolds before them on this most public of stages.
Alice Hunt is a historian of the monarchy and associate professor at the University of Southampton. Her forthcoming book, England’s Republic: The Lost Decade, 1649–1660, will be published by Faber and Faber
This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine