Golden Coats, Sacred Spoons

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Getty Images

King Charles III waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day, London, May 6, 2023

Is the third time the charm? Charles’s first coronation was at Gordonstoun school in November 1965, when he played Macbeth. There is a photograph in the Royal Collections of him in a get-up nearly as strange as those he is wearing at Westminster Abbey almost sixty years later, sporting a bad fake beard and what seems like a horse harness around his neck and chest as a breastplate. The recently updated online catalog describes the “people involved” in the image as “Charles III, King of the United Kingdom (b. 1948)” and “Macbeth, King of Scotland (c. 1005-1057),” as if this seventeen-year-old boy is floating somewhere between the eleventh and twenty-first centuries and between real and theatrical performances of kingship.

There is in fact a tenuous connection between the two kings. Charles is being crowned while sitting on the coronation chair, which was built around the Stone of Scone, a roughly engraved chunk of sandstone formerly used for the inauguration of Scottish kings. After Macbeth murders Duncan in Shakespeare’s play, Macduff says that he is “gone to Scone/To be invested.” The name returns as the last word in the play, when Malcolm, after Macduff kills Macbeth, invites his allies “to see us crowned at Scone.” As an augury of a happy reign, it does not seem especially propitious.

Nor, indeed, was Charles’s playing of the king in 1965. Eric Anderson, the teacher who directed the production, recalled Charles playing Macbeth as “a sensitive soul who is behaving in a way that is really uncharacteristic of him because of other forces.” This seems a rather accurate foreshadowing of the melancholy Prince of Wales in his long years of waiting, when he was lampooned by the satiric magazine Private Eye as the Heir of Sorrows. And indeed his excitement that “mummy and papa” came to see him play the sensitively murderous Scottish king was greatly diminished by his father’s reaction to his performance. Charles later recalled that as he “lay there and thrashed about” on stage in Macbeth’s death scene, “all I could hear was my father and ‘Ha, ha, ha.’” Afterward, he asked his papa, “Why did you laugh?” Prince Philip replied that “it sounds like the Goons,” the stars of a zany BBC radio comedy show.

There was also something goonish about Charles’s second coronation, when he was invested as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969, in a faux-ancient ceremony concocted by his uncle by marriage, the photographer Lord Snowdon. The coronet with which his mother crowned Charles that day was, as the toff bible Town and Country revealed in 2019, topped by an orb that was in fact a ping-pong ball electroplated with a skin of gold. The ritual, as Snowdon later admitted to the BBC, was “all as bogus as hell.” Snowdon described his own costume for that ceremony as making him look like a “cinema usherette from the 1950s or the panto character Buttons.”


As I settle down to watch Charles’s third coronation on television, I wonder whether it will at last banish the weird aura of gloom that has always seemed to hover over him. He has managed, through a life of extraordinary privilege, to seem very sorry for himself, as though his vast private riches and the constant fawning of lackeys and servants were sacrifices his sensitive soul must dutifully endure. He was a martyr to his mother’s longevity—he became heir apparent in 1952. After more than seventy years of unquiet anticipation, will his coronation seem worth waiting for? Can any show so long expected avoid the feeling of anticlimax?

The odd thing about these British royal ceremonials is that they have become more important as the power and majesty they are supposed to project has diminished. The idea that the English have a natural flair for these things is a recent invention. In the nineteenth century, when Britain ruled so much of the world, its coronations were relatively desultory affairs. That of William IV in 1831 was so cheaply staged that it was nicknamed the “half-crownation.” The monarch himself was so unenthusiastic about the whole prospect that, on a visit to Parliament, he grabbed the Imperial State Crown while in the robing room of the House of Lords, put it on his head, and quipped to the prime minister, Lord Grey, that “The Coronation is over.” At the crowning of his successor, Queen Victoria, according to the House of Commons library, “the coronation ring was forced onto the wrong finger, an elderly peer fell down the steps while making homage and a bishop wrongly told Victoria the ceremony was over, which meant she had to return to her seat to finish the service.” Even at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 the infirm Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, seemed to drop the crown and then placed it on the king’s head back to front.


Yet there is an impressive contemporary film of Edward VII’s coronation in which none of this happens and everything seems perfectly orchestrated. The French silent movie director Georges Méliès was commissioned by an American producer, Charles Urban, to record the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Permission was refused, so Méliès (a professional magician and illusionist) staged it on a painted set in France. It looks wonderful and it was a great commercial success. It also demonstrated the truth about such coronations: that it does not matter whether they are real or fake. It’s all showbiz.

The English ruling class had long understood this: “A coronation,” wrote Horace Walpole in 1746, “is a puppet-show, and all the splendour of it idle.” But gradually, as the twentieth century went on and British power declined, the ruling class began to realize that the puppet show could, through the magic of mass media, be staged for popular consumption. What could be consumed was ancientness, immemorial tradition, sacred ritual. This is the great trick: technological modernity makes it possible to commodify the performance of faux-medieval feudalism.

As the coronation begins, the British TV commentators repeat yet again that we are about to witness a ceremony that is a thousand years old. This is an article of faith, insisted on in almost every discussion or newspaper article I have heard or read on the subject. Does it matter that it’s not really true? The House of Commons library, in its official briefing on the event, rather gives the game away: “The contemporary form of the coronation dates from 1902, when King Edward VII was crowned.” While parts of the ceremony do follow medieval precedents, most of it is a series of relatively recent inventions. Even the polity that the monarch is supposed to rule has changed radically over time, from England to Britain to the United Kingdom (including Ireland) to the UK without most of Ireland. The kings and queens have been Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman, French, Welsh, Scottish, and German. The whole charade of historical continuity is obviously intended to gloss over the history of the monarchy, with all of its dethronings, usurpations, executions, and internecine murderousness. The idea of a coronation ceremony as an enactment of unbroken sovereignty has an inverse relationship to royal reality. It is intended to display as natural and God-given an institution that has shifted its shape over and over again.


Watching all the bits of regalia being presented to Charles, it is easy to forget that this royal bling is actually made up of replacements and replicas. The original stuff was destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in 1649 during England’s experiment with republicanism. Yet the commentators still insist that the coronation is being performed with “Saint Edward’s Crown,” implying that this sacred object belonged to Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century. In fact this crown was made for Charles II in 1661. The scepters and orb are from the same date. The only ceremonial object that is anywhere close to a thousand years old is the spoon that is used to hold the oil with which Charles is anointed. Its genuine antiquity allows it to be fetishized. In the Tory-supporting The Spectator this week, the conservative historian Robert Tombs hails it as “doubtless the world’s most important spoon.” I can’t quite remember whether this deliciously bathetic line is in the script of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, but if not it surely ought to have been.

None of this greatly matters because all of these things are, in the end, just stage props. The coronation succeeds or fails to the extent that it works as a piece of theater. And in truth, the longer it goes on, the duller it seems. The set is wonderful: all those shots of Westminster Abbey’s pillars and arches do convey some sense of majesty. The soundtrack is great: the choirs and the solo singers and the orchestra give perfect renditions of Handel, Byrd, Parry, and Walton. The costumes are suitably camp. The problem is that the central actors do not shine.

One remarkable failure is that they have not bothered to memorize their lines. Given the scale and cost of the production, it would not seem too much to ask that the royals should have learned off their relatively short responses. Instead, they have to read them from cue cards that all of us watching at home can see. The king seems unable to say “I am willing” or “All this I promise to do” without these prompts. His son and heir, Prince William, has thirty-one words to deliver in the whole show, his “homage of the royal blood.” But because he does not have them by heart he has to read them from a card. This means that he can’t actually look straight at his father while giving his homage but has to turn his eyes to the right to see his lines. Time and again, the royal players seem like actors who are not yet, as they say in theater rehearsals, off book.


Camilla, meanwhile, looks fidgety and nervous throughout the performance. It is not her fault that a choir singing “Vivat Regina Camilla” has such a ring of comic absurdity or that, unlike the Windsors, she was not trained from an early age to be in these puppet shows. But she can’t quite get the stricken look off her face. She can’t stop her hands going repeatedly to her hair, even when the crown is placed on her head. She seems very human, but that is hardly the point when you’re supposed to be radiating majesty. It doesn’t help that the other female figure who is constantly on the stage, the Tory politician Penny Mordaunt, who as lord president of the privy council has to stand there holding a bloody great sword in front of her for almost the entire duration of the ceremony, appears so effortlessly regal. Commoners outdoing royals in the performance of pomp is hardly the intended effect of this lavish production.

As for Charles himself, the whole show seems designed to make him look as ancient as the sacred spoon. Because he is so encumbered by the heavy and bulky costumes he has to wear, he is constantly attended by a gaggle of clerics who guide him into and out of his various positions. This makes him resemble an elderly patient in a nursing home who is known to be prone to falls. Again, it is not Charles’s fault that he is not, like his mother was at her coronation in 1953, young and radiant and glamorous. But it is not good staging to make him so doddery.

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Seventeen-year-old Charles III playing the title role in a Gordonstoun School production of Macbeth, Scotland, 1965

I wonder, too, whether part of the problem lies with the technology itself. The black-and-white televisions on which millions watched Elizabeth’s ceremony seventy years ago gave it that half-real, slightly dreamy effect that monochrome images evoke. They retained a sense of distance and of monumentality even as they let the viewer in on this sacred occasion. High-definition color TV, on the other hand, makes everything seem merely real. And the reality, when you are not looking at the elaborate gowns and sometimes garish hats, is of two rather awkward people in their seventies doing a lot of sitting, standing, and slow walking.

And of course we miss the good bit. The most interesting part of the whole affair is when Charles is stripped down to his linen shirt, the oil is poured from an ampulla onto that magical spoon, and the archbishop anoints his head, breast, and hands. The performance of this rite of unction is genuinely ancient and it would be worth seeing. But it’s all done behind a screen, as a private act. The intention is obvious enough: this moment is between the king and God. In the coronation of 1953, this part of the drama worked because very many of those watching on TV still believed that the monarch was indeed being anointed not by a fusty archbishop but by God. Almost no one believes that anymore. Without this shared conviction the coronation is just a show, and it makes no sense to have a spectacle in which the climactic moment is invisible.


Strip away that religious awe and two big contradictions are nakedly apparent. The first is between a narrative of humility and service on the one hand and a drama of pomp and power on the other. Rather wonderfully, the commentor on the British TV channel I’m watching announces that Charles will say “I come not to serve but to be served.” This is meant to be the other way around, but the slip of the tongue actually captures some of the inherent silliness of immense inherited privilege being presented as a form of noble self-sacrifice. This incongruity takes on a farcical edge with the stupidest innovation in the ceremony: the Homage of the People. The original plan was for the Archbishop of Canterbury to “call upon all persons of goodwill” in the kingdom to “make their homage in heart and voice to their undoubted king.” This demand for servility was so embarrassing that the text had to be toned down to “invite” those who wish to “offer their support” to recite an oath to “pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law.” Yet even in this less imperious form, the act of homage clearly imagines the British as subjects of a monarch rather than citizens of a democracy.

Earlier in the ceremony, just after Charles has been anointed, there was a similarly absurd moment. He was wearing the plain linen tunic that, according to the Church of England’s official commentary on the liturgy, “symbolises purity and simplicity”: “The King, divested of all worldly honours and adornments, anointed under God stands humbly and simply, ready to begin a new dedicated life of service.” But Charles was then “vested with the Supertunica, an embroidered gold coat.” The symbolism of unadorned simplicity was canceled out before our eyes and replaced with a display of lavish sumptuousness. You begin to wonder who writes this stuff and why they can’t decide what message they are trying to send. How does a man being dressed in a gold coat by his obsequious attendants convey the idea of “your humble servant King Charles”?

The other contradiction that becomes unavoidable when the glamour of the spectacle is failing so badly is the religiosity. There’s a rather desperate effort to deny the sectarianism of the ceremony and of the British monarchy itself by affording a tiny part to the Catholic cardinal of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. But this cannot obscure the fact that the only aspect of the whole event that has any legal standing is the coronation oath that Charles has to take. He swears to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law” and to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.” He declares “that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers.” The meaning of this is unequivocal: no non-Protestant (and in particular no Catholic) can become head of state of the UK.

This is not just blatantly discriminatory in itself—it is completely at odds with the nature of contemporary British society. One of the most remarkable things about Britain is the depth and rapidity of the decline of its Christian identity. Last year’s census showed that the proportion of people in England and Wales identifying as Christian had dropped to 46 percent from 59 percent just a decade earlier. As for the Church of England of which Charles is the titular head, average weekly attendance at its services stood at a mere 854,000 people in 2019. That’s not much more than 1 percent of the UK’s population. Whatever sacral spell might have been cast over the coronation is broken by its heavy insistence on the king’s duty to sustain the supremacy of a church to which most of his subjects do not belong. Suspension of disbelief in the divine nature of the ritual becomes impossible.

Without that, what does it all amount to? If there is no magic, can there be any meaning? The only thing that seems to be left is a kind of defiant eccentricity. The further this performance is from the reality of contemporary Britain (both its internal nature and its place in the wider world), the more it relies on pride in its own perversity. Since no one else would dream of doing this stuff, the coronation enacts a literal exceptionalism. Being unique is now its own justification—even if it is unique only because every other democracy (even those with monarchies) have long moved on from sacred spoons, golden coats, and the divine right of kings.

In its briefing on the coronation, the House of Commons library said that such ceremonies emerged in Europe because of “the need to bring stability to often volatile societies.” British society and politics are certainly volatile now and the desire for rituals of stability and continuity is all the more understandable. But this one does not seem up to the job anymore. It is a show that feels not ancient but merely old, not immemorial but merely unmemorable, not mysterious but merely odd. It seems neither worth the wait nor deserving of another performance.

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