Coronation Day. Understanding the British political tradition

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

It is undeniable that billions of people worldwide, who are culturally and politically removed from the audience of the 1950s, will see for the first time the coronation of a British king after 70 years. On May 6, Britain is going to revel in a ritual unlike anything seen anywhere else in the world and, thanks to modern means of communication, millions will get to watch the coronation ceremony of King Charles III in Westminster Abbey.

Coronation Day. Pic NY Times

Unlike liberal theories of sovereignty that characterize modern states, the British idea of sovereignty, with no constitutional founding moment, has rested on an older, pre-ideological, idea of nationhood, defined sacramentally as a covenant between the governor and the governed. The common law is in principle and essence customary and pre-political. British monarchs are given the appearance of supreme worldly authority, embodied by orb, sceptre and crown, and yet in the same ceremony swear solemn oaths to rule their subjects according to their respective laws and customs. In this organic model of law and authority, rights are recognised rather than invented.

Despite the Civil War and the transition in Royal Houses, and contrary to the European continent, Britain did not adopt absolute monarchy nor a pared-down constitutional monarchy. It remained a medieval constitution that survived into modernity by adapting itself to the age of popular democracy through the gradual raising of the power and primacy of the Commons.

Unlike the constitutional monarchies in Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands that are popularly lauded as alternative models, British monarchs do not meekly make oaths before parliament to uphold the constitution, they do not leave their crowns resting politely on cushions. They are anointed as God’s regent on earth in a ceremony whose roots stretch back to the kings of the Old Testament.

The Christian background

Ever since St Dunstan created the service for King Edgar, the King is vested almost as a priest, given an orb symbolizing the power of Christ over the whole globe, crowned with a golden crown surmounted by a cross, and anointed. It bears similarity with the French form of coronation, with the monarch wearing priestly garments, and being anointed with the same oil used to consecrate bishops. Both had tense relations with the papacy, with the sacred authority of the monarch used to assert control over the appointment of bishops and the governance of the Church of England. The chief difference is that the English coronation combines anointing and the oath of the sovereign to their subjects.

The anointment ceremony is the one part of the service the public will not be allowed to view, even in an age when nothing can be hidden from the intrusion of cameras. In the first series of ‘The Crown’, George VI pointed out the importance of the anointing ceremony:

‘You have to anoint me. Otherwise, I can’t be king. … When the holy oil touches me, I am transformed ; brought into direct contact with the Divine ; forever changed ; bound to God…’

Monarchs are vested with power, and power that flows from a specifically Christian concept of authority. Words with strong biblical allusions are used when the bishops present the King with a sword, and as the sceptre (which represents the sovereign’s spiritual role) with the dove representing the Holy Ghost is placed in his hands. 

Survival of the Coronation

The British monarch is the only Christian sovereign left in Europe who is still crowned and anointed. Every other monarchy that still exists has dispensed with the rituals, and even the Pope in Rome laid his crown aside in 1963 in the spirit of Vatican II.

All this may not be in tune with the ideas of liberal modernity, and may be perceived as a humiliating anachronism, but it is the reality of British exceptionalism. Republican secularists may fall into nervous collapse upon witnessing the sheer unadulterated religiosity of the service – their high point of any political system is an anaemic swearing-in service by a member of the judiciary wearing a black gown or a President in a bleached pine office.

The survival of the coronation, in spite of the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the tumults of twentieth century, is in itself extraordinary. The anointing, in particular, and the coronation, in general, are a rejection of the entire worldview of liberal modernity and republican secularists. The pretence of neutrality and rational common sense liberal modernity boasts about, besides its posturing as the ruling spirit of our time, overweighing religious bodies, private institutions, family and even the human body, is being challenged by a new breed of thinkers. The system will be saved by fearless advocates who understand and explain the system to the public rather than being embarrassed by a supposedly humiliating anachronism.

The resilience of tradition is what the world public probably appreciates most at the end of the day. It is what we rejoice in, whether we are Christian or not. It places the monarch above the political fray. Monarchs are not there because a majority of the population dislike you less than your opponent, or because of horse-trading within Parliament. They owe their authority to something beyond the here-today-gone-tomorrow fights of general elections. They also owe position to no particular group of society whom they have to reward. They are there safely outside politics. Placed there by God, or Providence, or lucky genes. Folks worldwide may like the idea of politicians sitting in Parliament under a monarch whose authority comes from somewhere imperceptible.

The coronation is the supreme moment of British statehood, it is the United Kingdom’s central constitutional ritual, and the cornerstone of its political traditions. It is more than a magnificent piece of theatrics. It stands for a sense of continuity with a pre-ideological era. It will be full of colour and music and pageantry and beauty. What with the procession with bands, soldiers, golden carriages and flags, the coronation service is going to be epic. The younger generation may be lucky to witness another Coronation Day in this century.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 5 May 2023

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