For generations of Britons, the coronation of King Charles III will be the first crowning of a new sovereign they’ll experience. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the pageantry of royal weddings and jubilee celebrations, but few will be familiar with the coronation rubric, some of which has remained unchanged for more than a thousand years.
The ceremony on May 6 — conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — takes place at London’s Westminster Abbey, Britain’s coronation church since 1066. It’s a solemn yet celebratory occasion where church and state come together to formally confer the monarch as their new leader complete with regal powers.
In a rare interview ahead of the coronation, Charles’ sister Princess Anne addressed the conversation around the royal institution’s relevance in modern Britain. She told Canadian broadcaster CBC News that “the monarchy provides, with the Constitution, a degree of long-term stability that is actually quite hard to come by any other way.”
She added that the public shouldn’t expect any surprises from her brother’s reign. "You know what you're getting because he's been practising for a bit, and I don't think he'll change," the Princess Royal said. "He is committed to his own level of service, and that will remain true."
The coronation will be a theatrical affair unlike anything the nation has seen for nearly seven decades. A dazzling collection of sacred regalia usually kept in the Tower of London will be presented to Charles during the ceremony, formalizing his metamorphosis from prince to monarch.
Journey to Westminster
▲ Diamond Jubilee State Coach, 2010. The celebrations begin when King Charles and Queen Camilla travel from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. In a slight deviation from tradition, the couple will ride in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach drawn by six Windsor Grey horses. They’ll be accompanied on the 1.3-mile route by the sovereign’s most trusted bodyguards, the Household Cavalry. Built in Australia in 2010 and delivered to the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2014, the coach’s interior is immaculately upholstered in primrose yellow silk and inlaid with materials tied to Britain and its history. “It’s a real microcosm of British and world history. There’re woods from the royal residences, from explorations and from other countries and nations as well,” explained Sally Goodsir, the Royal Collection Trust’s curator of decorative arts. Credit: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
▲ Gold State Coach, 1762. Following the service, King Charles and Queen Camilla will be conveyed back to the palace in the Gold State Coach, which has been used in every coronation since William IV in 1831. This coronation procession will follow the same route but be much larger in scale than the one preceding the coronation service. It will feature “Armed Forces from across the Commonwealth and the British Overseas Territories, and all Services of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, alongside The Sovereign’s Bodyguard and Royal Watermen,” according to the royal household. Goodsir has said the grand 260-year-old carriage — which is seven meters (23 feet) long, 3.6 meters (11 feet 8 inches) tall and weighs four metric tons — can only be used at a walking pace “which really adds to the majesty and stateliness of this great royal procession.” She added: “There are very few monarchies which have retained coaches working of this age, and therefore it’s an incredibly special thing to see.” Credit: Dominic Lipinski/Getty Images
Modernizing an ancient ritual
Saturday’s coronation is set to begin at 11 a.m. (6 a.m. ET) and is expected to last around two hours.
Processions into the abbey will start with faith leaders, followed by representatives from each of the realms where the King is head of state. The flagbearers of each nation will be accompanied by the governors general and prime ministers. King Charles and Queen Camilla will each be attended by four pages throughout the service. The pages — among them Charles’ grandson, Prince George, and Camilla’s three grandsons, Gus and Louis Lopes and Freddy Parker Bowles, as well as her great-nephew Arthur Elliot — will also participate in the processions.
The service will lean on tradition but also be full of firsts, according to Lambeth Palace organizers. Some of those changes to the ancient Christian ceremony — the theme of which is “called to serve” — include the King praying aloud, participation of religious leaders from other faiths, involvement of female clergy and the incorporation of other languages spoken in the British Isles. Additionally, the traditional homage of peers has been replaced with a “homage of the people.” This tweak will see the public invited to join “a chorus of millions of voices enabled for the first time in history to participate in this solemn and joyful moment.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury said the service would “celebrate tradition” while containing “new elements that reflect the diversity of our contemporary society.”
It will also be elevated by a musical program personally selected by Charles III, who enlisted the help of acclaimed British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to write one of 12 new pieces for the occasion.
While there have been efforts to modernize, the core elements of the historic coronation rite — the recognition, oath, anointing, investiture and crowning, enthronement and homage — all still remain. It is during some of these key moments that the coronation regalia — powerful symbols of the monarchy amassed by Kings and Queens throughout history — will be presented to Charles.
The first core element is the recognition. It is a symbolic moment when Charles will stand on a special platform erected in the abbey and be presented to the people.
The King will then receive the Coronation Bible and take the Coronation Oath, administered by the Archbishop but a legal requirement rather than part of the liturgy. Charles will vow to rule according to law and exercise justice with mercy.
▲ Ampulla and Coronation Spoon, 1661 & 12th Century. The third element of the coronation service is when the monarch sits in the Coronation Chair and is anointed with sacred oil by the Archbishop. Considered the most sacred part of the service, it has been described by Welby as a moment between the King and God. This part will not be visible as a special three-sided screen will be raised to preserve the sanctity of the act. The Archbishop will pour “chrism oil” from the Ampulla, a gold flask in the form of an eagle, on to the silver-gilt Coronation Spoon before anointing Charles on his head, breast and hands. The 12th-century spoon is the oldest object used in coronations, having survived the obliteration of royal regalia during the English Civil War. The original Ampulla however was most likely melted down and so a new one was created for King Charles II’s coronation in 1661 following the restoration of the monarchy the year before. Inspiration for its design was taken from a 14th-century legend “in which the Virgin Mary appeared to St Thomas à Becket and presented him with a golden eagle and a vial of oil for anointing future Kings of England,” according to Buckingham Palace. Credit: Matt Dunham/Getty Images
▲ Sword of Offering, 1820. The next part is the investiture, when the sovereign is dressed in golden vestments and presented with the coronation regalia. Among these precious objects is the Sword of Offering, or Jewelled Sword. It’s a breathtaking piece made in 1820 and first used at the coronation of King George IV. It has a steel blade, mounted in gold and set with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds forming a rose, thistle, shamrock, oak leaves, acorns and lion’s head. The sword is contained in an elaborate gold-covered leather scabbard. Representative of knightly virtues, it is blessed by the Archbishop, delivered to the King and then offered up at the altar. Credit: His Majesty King Charles III 2023/Royal Collection Trust
▲ Sovereign’s Orb, 1661. Used in every coronation since 1661, the Sovereign’s Orb symbolizes royal power and the Christian world. It is made of two hollow gold hemispheres fitted together with an intricate band of jewels in white enamel settings. The orb is split into three sections which represent the three continents known during the medieval period. It’s set with 365 diamonds, 18 rubies, nine emeralds and nine sapphires, many of which are the original gemstones. The most precious jewel is the deep purple amethyst that surmounts the orb. Credit: His Majesty King Charles III 2023/Royal Collection Trust
▲ Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, 1661. Two Sovereign’s Sceptres will feature in Charles’ coronation. The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross denotes temporal authority and is associated with good governance. Over the years, it has undergone some transformation — most notably the incorporation of the Cullinan I diamond, which weighs an incredible 530 carats and has adorned the top of the gold rod since 1911. Also known as the “Great Star of Africa,” it was cut from a spectacular 3,106-carat rough diamond mined in South Africa in 1905 and handed over to the British royal family by colonial authorities. A jewel that embodies the complex legacy of empire, many South Africans today view its acquisition by Britain as illegitimate and have called for it to be returned. Meanwhile, the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Dove, which is also referred to as “the Rod of Equity and Mercy,” symbolizes spiritual authority and its enameled bird represents the Holy Ghost. Credit: His Majesty King Charles III 2023/Royal Collection Trust
Crowning the monarch
The pinnacle of the coronation ritual is the moment of crowning. There are 13 crowns in the Crown Jewels collection but none more venerated than St. Edward’s Crown. King Charles III will only ever wear it once — at the ceremonial start of his reign. After the crowning, King Charles will take the throne, following which it is traditional for royals and peers to make their way to the sovereign to pay their respects, in what is known as homage. This time though, it’s thought that only Prince William will kneel before the King. Meanwhile, the peers’ role has been replaced by an invitation to the public to swear allegiance to Charles if they wish.
▲ Coronation Chair, 1300-1301. Otherwise known as St. Edward’s Chair, it is another ancient artifact used at the moment of crowning. Standing 6 feet 9 inches tall, it was made at the request of Edward I to house the Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny – the inauguration stone of Scottish kings – after he captured the Scottish crown and sceptre in 1296. Made of Baltic oak, it is decorated with patterns of animals, foliage and birds on a gilt background. Painted on its back is the figure of a King with his feet resting on a lion. Westminster Abbey has described the chair as "one of the most precious and famous pieces of furniture in the world" and says it is in "remarkable condition" given its age. Despite this, it has undergone conservation work ahead of the ceremony. The royal couple will use refurbished Chairs of Estate for the early parts of the ceremony and the Queen Consort’s coronation, while Throne Chairs will be used for the enthroning and homage. Credit: Dan Kitwood/PA Images/Getty Images
Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
St. Edward’s Crown, 1661St. Edward’s Crown, 1661A breathtaking piece of royal history, it’s considered the centerpiece of the coronation regalia as it is exclusively used for the act of crowning. A dazzling item in the Crown Jewels collection, it was made for Charles II following the Restoration. Its medieval predecessor — which was melted down in 1649 — was believed to date back to the 11th century royal saint, Edward the Confessor.
Topping the 2.23-kilogram (nearly 5-pound) crown is an orb and cross to represent the Christian world.
A somewhat simple structure, the solid gold elements were bolted together to construct the crown’s frame. It is not an exact replica of the earlier design but follows the original in featuring four crosses pattée, four fleurs-de-lis and two arches.
It’s adorned with 444 precious stones — including rubies, amethysts, sapphires and other gems — and is fitted with a purple velvet cap and ermine band. The enamel mounts were based on acanthus leaves.
The focus of the coronation then turns to Queen Camilla, who will be anointed, crowned and enthroned in a simpler ceremony. She is using Queen Mary’s crown, which has been modified and reset with several jewels from the late Queen Elizabeth II’s private collection.
Once the spiritual elements of the service are over, the King and Queen make their way to St. Edward’s Chapel, a stone shrine at the heart of the abbey, where Charles will exchange St. Edward’s Crown for the Imperial State Crown in preparation for the return to Buckingham Palace. Before the Civil War, the coronation crown was meant to stay at Westminster Abbey, so a second crown was created for the sovereign to wear elsewhere.
Many will be more familiar with the Imperial State Crown, which is used each year at the State Opening of Parliament. In a BBC interview in 2017, Queen Elizabeth II expressed her fondness for this working crown.
Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
The Imperial State CrownThe Imperial State CrownThis version of the Imperial State Crown is a relatively new addition made in 1937 for the coronation of Charles’ grandfather, King George VI, and is a near-replica of Queen Victoria’s earlier Imperial State Crown.
It’s named for its design of closed arches selected in the 15th century to signify that England was not subject to any other earthly power.
The “Black Prince’s Ruby” is set in the cross at the front of the crown — this gem is actually a splendid 170-carat red spinel. Believed to have been mined in Afghanistan, it was rumored to have been worn by Henry V on his helmet at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, though the legend has never been proven to be true.
The crown features a dazzling 2,868 diamonds, including the massive Cullinan II. The dazzling 317.4-carat jewel was one of several cut from the mammoth rough diamond found in South Africa in 1905.
After the Westminster Abbey service, the couple will parade back to the palace, where they will receive a royal salute and three cheers from the military personnel who took part in the procession. The day will conclude with the customary balcony appearance and a fly-past of more than 60 aircraft.
Questions have been raised over whether it’s appropriate for the British government to stage a coronation for the new King amid a cost of living crisis, but some experts believe those conversations will take a back seat once Charles’ big day arrives.
“They have, in the planning for this coronation, to some extent, taken account of the cost of living crisis,” said Craig Prescott, a UK constitutional law expert and lecturer at Bangor University in Wales. “I know it sounds a bit paradoxical, but the coronation will not be anywhere on the scale that it was in 1953.”
Prescott acknowledged there’s “clearly an issue in that the monarchy needs public consent in order to continue.” He added: “They are reasonable questions [about cost] to ask in the buildup but I think once we see it, I think it will fade away.”
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