Staging a coronation: 5 dos (and 5 don'ts) for crowning a new monarch
In 2023, the coronation of King Charles III will be added to a long line of ceremonies to crown of a new monarch. But in all that time, what has separated a crowning success from a right royal fiasco? Drawing on 1,000 years of British history, Tracy Borman offers her dos and don’ts for pulling off a coronation without a hitch
DO: make a plan... and don’t forget the sausage rolls
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953. Extensive preparations had been under way for months. The pressure was on: it was the first coronation in British history to be televised, and it attracted an estimated worldwide audience of 277 million. The Duke of Norfolk, who as earl marshal was responsible for the proceedings, had drawn up no fewer than 94 diagrams, “each depicting different parts of the ceremony in which every minute was worked out, and every movement within each minute prescribed”.
No detail was overlooked: the Royal Mews staff even strapped a hot-water bottle under the seat of the Gold State Coach because it was an unseasonably cold, wet day. It was a long and exhausting day for Elizabeth and her attendants, who had been up since 5am getting ready for the three-hour ceremony.
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Luckily, Geoffrey Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury, was just as prepared. When the queen and her entourage retired to St Edward’s Chapel towards the end of the proceedings so that she could change her gown and crown, he handed round a flask of brandy and sausage rolls. All the meticulous preparation was worth it: Elizabeth II’s coronation has been widely hailed as one of the most impressive ever staged.
England’s first Norman king, William the Conqueror, chose Christmas Day 1066 for his coronation. The symbolism of a new king being crowned on the anniversary of the heavenly king’s birth was not lost on his Saxon subjects. But it was a tense, sombre affair. The crowds that had gathered outside the abbey were silent and subdued, and the only cheering came from the conqueror’s own men.
During the ceremony, when one of the Norman bishops sought the assent of those present for their new king, the answering shouts were so loud that they alarmed the guards keeping watch outside the abbey. Fearing an uprising, they went on the rampage and torched a number of nearby houses. Meanwhile, the congregation took flight, and the rest of William’s coronation had to be hastily concluded by the handful of “terrified” clergymen who had stayed behind. The episode tested the nerves of England’s newly crowned king, who, according to one chronicler, was “trembling from head to foot”.
DO: set a budget (and stick to it)
When the 18-year-old Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the monarchy was in crisis after the excesses and immorality of her so-called “wicked uncle”, George IV, and the unpopularity of William IV. Young and inexperienced though she was, the new queen appreciated the need to do things differently.
She therefore planned a coronation that was as thrifty as George IV’s had been extravagant (see below) – so much so that it was nicknamed the “Penny Crowning”. It might have been cheaper than most other coronations, but Victoria’s, in 1838, was no less impressive. “Be assured as a pageant it was unsurpassed in all history,” enthused one eyewitness.
The various mishaps during the ceremony – including one of the dignitaries falling down the stairs while paying homage to the new queen – were forgotten in the celebrations. Victoria was deeply touched by the enthusiasm of the 400,000-strong crowd that had turned out for the occasion. “Their good-humour and excessive loyalty was beyond everything, and I really cannot say how proud I feel to be the queen of such a nation,” she recorded in her journal that evening.
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DON’T: smear your predecessor
Henry VIII’s scandalous second wife, Anne Boleyn, tried to dazzle her new subjects into submission at her coronation in June 1533, which was one of the most lavish events in royal history. The theme was the assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary (somewhat disingenuous, given Anne was six months pregnant at the time) and the symbolism was carefully designed to emphasise her legitimacy as queen.
One eyewitness enthused that it was “a right sumptuous and triumphant sight to see and hear… a thing of another world”. But the new queen’s lord chamberlain, Thomas Burgh, sparked outrage by seizing the royal barge of the king’s estranged wife, Catherine of Aragon, and ripping her coat of arms off it so that they could be replaced with those of her unpopular successor.
Eustace Chapuys, an ambassador to Henry VIII’s court, observed that, for all its splendour, the coronation was “a cold, meagre and uncomfortable thing, to the great dissatisfaction, not only of the common people, but also of the rest”. Dissatisfaction soon turned to open mockery. Henry and Anne’s intertwined initials were displayed everywhere along the processional route. But this was turned to parody as the new queen passed, and cries of “HA HA” could be heard among the disdainful crowds.
DON’T: misjudge the weather
Buckingham Palace has confirmed that Charles III will uphold tradition by having St Edward’s Crown placed upon his head at his coronation. The crown, which was made for Charles II in 1661, was removed from the Tower of London well ahead of 6 May so that modifications could be carried out for the new king.
If only another king had thought to do the same for his coronation in 1727. As George II made his way to Westminster Abbey from the cool shelter of Westminster Hall, the unseasonably warm October sunshine came as something of a shock. Quickly becoming overheated in the heavy velvet and thick ermine of his robes, he tried to find shelter under the canopy that his attendants held above him, but the crowds complained that they could not see him.
To make matters worse, his crimson velvet cap – which was also lined with ermine – was too large for him and kept falling over his eyes. By the time the procession reached the abbey, George’s notoriously short temper was almost boiling over.
An even worse misfortune befell Richard II at his coronation in 1377. During the banquet that followed, “a sudden gust of wind carried away the crown from his head”. The chronicler who recorded the event rightly interpreted this as a bad omen. Twenty-two years later, Richard was deposed.
DO: spread the love and crown your consort
Camilla, the Queen Consort, will be crowned with her husband on 6 May. In the long history of British coronations, there have been a number of other joint ceremonies, all rather impressive. One of the earliest was in 1274, when Edward I and his popular wife, Eleanor of Castile, were crowned at Westminster Abbey. Immediately after being anointed and crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury, Edward removed his crown, saying that he did not intend to wear it again until he had recovered all the lands lost by his grandfather, King John, and father, Henry III.
A more celebratory atmosphere pervaded the joint coronation of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Seeing himself as a chivalrous knight who had rescued the beleaguered Spanish princess from a miserable widowhood, he organised a magnificent crowning for them both.
The streets of London were festooned with tapestries and cloth of gold, and the crowds that gathered to see the royal couple were so large that railings had to be put up to stop them interrupting the procession. Henry splashed out the equivalent of more than £1 million on coronation robes for himself and his consort, and the ceremony was followed by days of banquets, jousts and festivities that would be talked about for years to come.
DON’T: crown the wrong king
On 24 May 1487, “King Edward VI” was crowned at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. His real name was Lambert Simnel, and he was the first of the “pretenders” to challenge the rule of Henry VII. Simnel, who was about 10 years old at the time of his coronation, claimed to be Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, the son of Edward IV’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence. The young pretender became a figurehead for a rebellion against the new Tudor king organised by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln.
The plot quickly won support from within the powerful Yorkist fraternity – Henry VII’s own mother-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, was arrested on suspicion of involvement – but they were defeated at the battle of Stoke Field in June 1487. The king decided to pardon Simnel and set him to work as a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.
The seeds of all this had been sown by Richard of Gloucester, who had been appointed lord protector for his young nephew, Edward V, when he succeeded to the throne in April 1483 at the age of just 12. Richard placed his nephew (along with Edward’s younger brother) in the Tower of London to await his coronation. But as the weeks dragged on, it became obvious that Edward would never be crowned.
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Instead, his uncle had him and his brother declared illegitimate and seized the throne for himself, being crowned Richard III in July that year. However, a coronation was not enough to convince people that he was the rightful king. A little over two years later, Henry Tudor had invaded and vanquished the so-called “usurper” at the battle of Bosworth.
DO: stick to time-honoured traditions
When Elizabeth II’s father, Albert – known as “Bertie” to his friends and family – became king in 1936 after the abdication of his brother Edward VIII, he admitted that he had inherited “a rocking throne”, and tried “to make it steady again”. His first step was to take the regnal name George VI to emphasise the continuity with the reign of his father, George V, who had been widely liked and respected.
To reinforce the impression of “business as usual”, he was crowned on the day that his elder brother should have been: 12 May 1937. Although he privately admitted to “a sinking feeling” when he awoke that morning, throughout the proceedings he took care to present himself as a humble and dutiful king.
The procession was broadcast to a global audience, although the service itself remained the private religious ceremony that this intensely pious monarch believed it should be. Putting the morality back into the monarchy was just what was required following Edward VIII’s crisis-ridden 11 months on the throne, and the coronation set the tone for a reign marked by duty and respect.
DON’T: get upstaged by family drama
By the time that George IV finally became king in 1820, he had courted widespread resentment thanks to his profligate ways. When he was appointed prince regent during his father George III’s prolonged bout of mental instability, he could have used that time to gain valuable experience. Instead, what he termed “playing at king” was not at all to his taste, and he had continued to indulge in a life of excess.
But, determined to assert his sovereignty and win over his subjects, George planned the most extravagant coronation in the history of the British monarchy. Even by his standards, the expense was eye-watering: £243,000 (equivalent to about £21 million today), which outstripped his father’s coronation by a factor of 20. Guests inside Westminster Abbey on 19 July 1821 were agog as the king made his entry, “buried in satin, feathers and diamonds… like some gorgeous bird of the east”.
The occasion was overshadowed, however, by George’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. He had banned her from the service, but she turned up at the abbey and suffered the humiliation of having the doors slammed in her face. The scandal completely upstaged the new king’s lavish display.
DO: seize the day
At 74, King Charles III is the oldest monarch in British history to be crowned. But when it comes to coronations, it seems that age is no barrier. Mary, Queen of Scots, who grew up to be Elizabeth I’s greatest rival, was crowned at the tender age of just nine months. The only surviving legitimate child of James V of Scotland, she had been a mere six days old when she became queen.
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Eager to avoid the turbulence that often accompanied a minority rule, her ministers arranged a lavish coronation. The tiny queen was dressed in a heavy jewelled satin gown, crimson velvet mantle and a train furred with ermine. Not yet old enough to walk, she was carried by Lord Livingstone to the ceremony in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle on 9 September 1543.
He set her on the throne and was obliged to hold her up during the service to keep her from rolling off. He also answered for her when the queen was invited to take the coronation oath. When Mary was disrobed for the anointing, she cried as the chill air hit her. But she was soon distracted when the Earl of Lennox (whose son Henry later became Mary’s second husband) offered her the sceptre and she grasped it in her baby hands.
Finally, the crown was lowered onto the infant queen’s head and held in place by Lord Livingstone, while the assembled dignitaries knelt to pay her homage. Mary’s coronation must have made for a strange spectacle but one thing can’t be denied: it became the talk of Europe.
Tracy Borman is author of Crown & Sceptre: a New History of the British Monarchy, from William the Conqueror to Charles III (Hodder & Stoughton, 2022). Her stage show ‘How to Be a Good Monarch’ is touring UK theatres in spring 2023. For more information, go to her website
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