Editor’s Note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of several books on British culture and politics, including the upcoming “Orwell’s Ghosts,” on the continuing relevance of George Orwell’s writing to the 21st century. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
King Charles III’s coronation on Saturday will be a celebration of ancient traditions. The king will be crowned in Westminster Abbey, just as all but two of his predecessors have been since William the Conqueror’s coronation in 1066.
He will take his seat on the Coronation Chair, built for King Edward I of England in the late 13th century, which contains the controversial Stone of Destiny, seized from the Scots in 1296 and transported down from Edinburgh Castle for the occasion.
And St. Edward’s Crown, which dates back to Charles II’s coronation in the 17th century, will be placed on the monarch’s head at the moment of coronation.
But one element of the ceremony will break decidedly with tradition – British and Commonwealth citizens around the globe have been invited to recite a pledge of allegiance to the new monarch and his “heirs and successors.”
The invitation to recite the pledge has, to put it mildly, not gone down well. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who authorized the new liturgy, presented it as a democratic initiative.
In previous coronations, the homage has been “the prerogative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Heir to the Throne, followed by the Royal Dukes, and then the hereditary peerage in order of degree,” the Church of England said. This time, the “homage of peers” will be replaced by a “homage of the people,” the Church added.
“The Archbishop will invite those who wish, from the United Kingdom and the other Realms both within the Abbey, and those watching and listening at home, to make their homage by sharing in the same words – a chorus of millions of voices enabled for the first time in history to participate in this solemn and joyful moment,” said the statement.
Yet, to many of the King’s subjects in Britain and abroad, the invitation (no one will be required to give the pledge) has struck a tone-deaf chord.
In an online poll for ITV’s Good Morning Britain, 86.5% of more than 164,000 respondents said they would not recite the pledge.
When David Speers, host of the Australian national news program Q&A asked the studio audience if they were planning to say the pledge, only two people raised their hands in assent.
In Canada, Quebecois are unlikely to embrace the introduction of a personal oath of fealty to the new king only months after their legislators voted to end the requirement that they take such an oath before taking their seats in the National Assembly.
While many Brits I’ve spoken to are simply indifferent to the proposed pledge, there has also been an unprecedent degree of public vitriol over the scheme.
Even the broadcaster Piers Morgan, who is generally supportive of the new King, called the pledge a misstep, and claimed that he’d “rather be garrotted than swear my allegiance to either Harry or Andrew. I suspect most British people feel the same.”
Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Mail Australian edition, which takes a much less pro-monarchy line than its British counterpart, reprinted several of the more vitriolic tweets condemning the scheme on social media – including one which likened the ritualistic exercise to “something out of ’1984,’” George Orwell’s dystopian novel in which the citizens of Oceania stand in front of their telescreens and shout their loyalty to Big Brother.
But the notion of a pledge of allegiance, recited in unison, may not seem either unusual or particularly sinister to American readers, especially those who grew up attending US public school.
The American Pledge of Allegiance was penned by Francis Bellamy and published in the children’s magazine “The Youth Companion” in September 1892. In the decades that followed, the pledge gained rapid popularity, and has been widely recited since before the Second World War, although its current iteration, including the words “one nation under God” was only introduced in 1954.
Despite a 1943 Supreme Court ruling that established that no one could be compelled to say the pledge, nearly all American children do recite the thirty-one word oath at the start of each school day.
My six-year-old kindergartener can barely puzzle out the words to “The Cat in the Hat,” but he can stand to attention and recite a word-perfect pledge.
To most Americans, the pledge is a comparatively non-controversial part of US political culture. To outsiders, it does not necessarily look so benign.
To my English husband, the idea of rows of school children standing daily in unison to recite an oath of allegiance has sinister overtones of interwar dictatorship. (Indeed, in 1942, Congress passed a law stating that the pledge should be recited with hand on heart instead of with arms outstretched, as the previous fashion of a stiff-armed salute to the flag could be perceived as having fascist connotations.)
In a country that still routinely harkens back to “the Dunkirk spirit” or the “Spirit of the Blitz”, the large scale public aversion to the proposed pledge is doubtless in part attributable to the sense that ritualized mass action is inherently fascistic, or at very least un-English.
In his famous wartime essay ”The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” George Orwell predicted that the monarchy would outlast even a socialist revolution. Yet, he also underscored that the English were a characteristically private people. “All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.”
He argued that the instinctive privateness of the English effectively immunized them against much of the apparatus of tyranny, as they were culturally averse to such things as “party rallies, … Youth Movements, … or ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations.”
Countless people will gather together in pubs and gardens to drink warm ale and Pimms cocktails and celebrate the coronation on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be heading the call to a communal oath of fealty.
Yet, objections to the proposed pledge are as much about its content as its form. In the United States, opponents of the Pledge of Allegiance have most frequently taken issue with the inclusion of the words “under God,” which is seen by some to elide the distinction between church and state.
But, the 1954 insertion notwithstanding, the content of the US pledge is fairly uncontroversial. In pledging allegiance to the flag, Americans are pledging allegiance “to the republic” for which the flag stands, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Solid principles, even if some feel that America has not always lived up to the lofty goals it claims for itself. We are pledging, through our expression of loyalty to the flag, to support our democracy.
The proposed coronation pledge, in contrast, invites Britons to pledge their loyalty to the King, and to his “heirs and successors” – a positively undemocratic pronouncement.
And the Archbishop has proposed the oath of allegiance at a time when support for King Charles and for the institution of monarchy in general is at a particularly low ebb. A recent YouGov survey found that while 60% of Britons support the continuation of the monarchy, younger voters are increasingly in favor of a republic.
Even amongst those who continue to support the crown, there is a widely held belief that the monarchy needs to “modernize” if it is to stay relevant in the 21st century. The proposed oath has struck many as the opposite of modern.
Americans watching the coronation this weekend can enjoy the spectacle with a healthy dose of detachment. We are no longer his majesty’s subjects. Unlike the leaders of Canada and Australia, our president will not be attending the event, just has none of his predecessors have attended a royal coronation since the United States declared its independence from Britain nearly 250 years ago.
Our pledge of allegiance is to a republic. For British spectators, and particularly for younger viewers whose views about the future of the monarchy are uncertain or conflicted, the significance of the coronation is more complex.
That complexity cannot simply be smoothed away by inviting people to pledge allegiance to the crown.