There will be pomp and pageantry, street parties and extended pub hours, but two thirds of us do not care about the crowning of Charles III. By Etan Smallman
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Have you hung up the bunting, unpacked the trestle tables and baked your spinach and tarragon quiche?
Britain is gearing up for the first coronation in 70 years, and the first double crowning – of both King and Queen – since 1936. However, most of us are yet to succumb to Carolean Fever. Sixty-four per cent of those polled by YouGov said they care about the event “not very much” or “not at all”. More of us (35 per cent) like Coronation Street than say we are “very likely” (19 per cent) to bother to switch on the TV for the coronation of Charles III.
After attending Elizabeth II’s three-hour 1953 ceremony, the Conservative diarist Henry “Chips” Channon wrote: “What a day for
England, for the aristocracy and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we even see the like again?” He was referring to the assumed longevity of the young monarch. But, with republicanism – and general apathy – gradually rising, it is a question that still has merit today.
There is no constitutional need for a coronation; the King has already acceded to the throne and Britain is the last European monarchy to retain the practice, according to the Constitution Unit at University College London. Denmark’s last coronation was in 1840. The post- Napoleonic monarchies of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have never had a coronation.
“Other countries across Europe never had monarchies that were meant to exemplify their country’s national greatness to the extent that we’ve had in the United Kingdom,” says historian Ed Owens, author of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53.
“Is this the last big coronation? I would suggest that it probably should be. Any coronation that takes place beyond Charles’s, we would hope, would be at least in closer keeping to Britain’s place in the world as it stands today – and also an acknowledgement that the Britain of Elizabeth II is long gone.”
Gyles Brandreth, author of Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait, is keeping the faith. “I can foresee another coronation – happy and glorious, but attuned to its time – in a quarter of a century or so when William V succeeds Charles III,” he tells i. “The monarchy has been central to ‘brand Britain’ for more than a thousand years, in different permutations. I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Saturday 6 May will be a day of both change and continuity. It will still feature the 2.3kg solid gold St Edward’s Crown (inset) – there is no-one alive today who has worn it – and a 17th-century sceptre made from ivory, but this time the sacred chrism oil, made from olives grown on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, mixed with sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli and orange blossom, will be vegan. The King and Queen will not travel to Westminster Abbey in the Gold State Coach, but in one boasting electric windows and airconditioning. And while Charles will get a bespoke emoji for his special day, he will have to make do with just a quarter of the 8,000 guests his mother had and an abbreviated processional route.
Elizabeth’s inauguration set us back more than £20m in today’s money, but the price of the 2023 spectacular – that many will see as jarring during a cost of living crisis – will not be published until after the event. Only a third of us think it should be funded by the public, according to YouGov.
While many of us will be distracted by the pomp and circumstance, or the Windsor concert and extended pub opening hours, it is easy to overlook the fact that the most important components will be deeply Christian.
“Britain is the only country really, globally, to retain a sacerdotal coronation,” says Judith Rowbotham, visiting research professor in sociolegal and constitutional history at the University of Plymouth. “That means that there is a sacred dimension as well as a secular dimension. The monarch is anointed in the same way that a priest is, so there is a degree of consecration which accompanies the secular crowning.”
Charles takes this spiritual significance so seriously that – like Queen Elizabeth II (inset) before him – he has banned cameras from filming the moment the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints him with holy oil dripped from “an aperture in the beak” of an eagle-shaped vessel on to a 12th-century spoon, before it is applied to his hands, breast and head.
It is the key representation of the belief that the 74-year-old – in the words of the coronation liturgy, “thy chosen servant” – has been appointed by God. This would be an absurd notion to vast swathes of modern
Britain. The 2021 census confirmed that the majority of us no longer self-describe as Christian. And even back in 1953, only a third of Britons surveyed believed the new Queen had been selected by the Almighty.
But whatever the religious complexion of the population, we will most likely be holding some kind of coronation for as long as the Church of England is the established church and the monarch its supreme governor.
“Much discussion is going on at the moment regarding whether we will follow the example of Sweden and Norway in disestablishing our church,” says Dr Owens. “Quite a lot of constitutional experts have advocated such a move, mainly so the monarchy remains in keeping with the plurality of religious opinion in the UK.
“I think the fundamental question is whether William – who hasn’t exhibited the same interest in national religion as his father and grandmother – wants to carry on that tradition. He, of course, goes to church. But does he feel deeply Christian? We’re not sure.”
One metric to assess levels of public interest may be sales of commemorative mugs and tea towels. “I would expect that waning merchandise sales would be certainly one indicator of a fall in support for the monarchy,” says Pauline Maclaran, professor of marketing and consumer research at Royal Holloway, University of London. (The Royal Collection Trust – which has produced coronation chinaware in a “masculine” blue – has not yet seen a repeat of last year when it had to suspend sales of Platinum Jubilee souvenirs due to “unprecedented demand”).
Another could be registrations for the Great British street party. More than 32,000 Coronation Big Lunch packs have been ordered. But Medway council in Kent said it was processing just 30 road closure applications – exactly half the number for the 2022 Jubilee. And local authorities in Glasgow, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire have received none whatsoever.
If we are to see the monarchy survive to stage more coronations, it will need to sustain interest, despite an ageing King and Queen and a distinct dearth of big occasions in the calendar. In the past 12 years, we have seen the weddings of William and Harry, two jubilees and the first state funeral since 1965. The next major royal event may not come until the end of Charles’s reign.
“We’re probably going to have to wait 20 years before we have another flourishing of royal weddings,” says Dr Owens. “The problem for the monarchy as I foresee it is that, in the past five years, it’s become very centred on a narrative defined by scandal, celebrity and sensationalism. I think that often the right-wing media in the UK are doing much to undermine the monarchy that many of them venerate, because they have turned it into a celebrity-orientated organisation, which often seems trivial and frivolous.”
Sean Lang, senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, argues that the strength of the Royal Family stems more from provincial duties than national celebrations. “Those openings of bridges, hospitals and schools are of enormous importance to people. That’s how the Queen did it – she had that enormous wealth of goodwill that came out at the time of her death because of all those people who could say that they had seen her, she had come to their town or village. No doubt, there will be more dramas to come. But it’s not the drama that gives them the bedrock – it’s the more mundane stuff.”
Graham Smith, a spokesman for the anti-monarchy campaign Republic, says: “The monarchy is in serious trouble. It can’t carry on indefinitely without public support, and while there remains a majority in favour of retention, the public has lost interest in the royals. Some polls show support down to 55 per cent, with almost a third wanting it abolished [the poll conducted on behalf of Republic by YouGov shows 26 per cent in favour of abolishing the monarchy with 16 per cent saying they “don’t know”]. With just 9 per cent enthusiastic about the coronation, this is not going to be a national celebration, but a minority interest.
“With a growing republican movement, this can only go one way in the long term. Even if William becomes king, it’s likely he’ll think twice about having a coronation. The chances of George becoming king are shrinking by the day.” The polls Smith cites were all conducted by YouGov.
Yet John A Rees, professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame Australia, warns against underestimating royalty’s grip on the public imagination.
“Symbolism, particularly its nationbinding power, and service, which connects royal elites to grass-roots communities, remain acknowledged assets of monarchy,” he says. “Whereas the legacy of Elizabeth II infuses royal symbolism with post-war stability, there is opportunity for Charles III to embed a more progressive dimension, such as his long-standing commitments to environmentalism and inter-faith relations. Public service has become never more important, and these multicultural and globally aware elements offer Charles a way to do that whilst maintaining traditional engagements.”
Despite the current tepid interest in proceedings, the bank holiday weekend is guaranteed to feature wall-to-wall television and press coverage. And the coronation itself could be a key driver in altering the public mood towards what will be the relatively brief reign of Charles III – and what comes next.
“In an Instagram age, the pageant is political,” adds Dr Rees. “When done right, high ceremony reaches across generations in a way that can inspire loyalty to the ideals being performed. The bewildering nature of 21st-century life has made these ideals more, not less, attractive.”