Coronations are complex and clear, says Robin Ward, in considering the liturgy


The coronation rite of an English King – for that is what the service to be held on 6 May will be, albeit with some ceremonial recognition of the monarch’s other kingdoms and dominions – is a unique public and religious ceremony, not witnessed in this realm for seventy years, and without any comparable inauguration abroad since the coronation of Charles X as King of France in 1820. Its survival is a remarkable testimony to the conservatism of English ceremonial instincts, and more recently the capacity of those with responsibility for our State functions to update them for the age of film, microphones and television. 

Although the coronation rite, and in particular the anointing of the monarch, comes to us with some important biblical resonances, it is essentially a mediaeval rite of recognition and investiture. Early witnesses speak of Anglo-Saxon crownings, but the coronation as we now know it carried out in Westminster Abbey takes its current form in the so-called Liber Regalis, prepared initially for the crowning of Edward II and then expanded for that of Richard II. This was the text of the rite from the reign of Edward until that of James II in 1685, although the service was translated into English for the coronation of James I in 1603, and the Communion rite of the Book of Common Prayer substituted for the Roman Mass. 

The coronation has suffered liturgical mutilation in various ways over the years: the first and most serious occasion was at the hands of Archbishop Sancroft, who took the opportunity in 1685 to remove the blessing of all objects except the actual oil of anointing, the King having asked for the rite to be abbreviated and the communion office omitted as he was a Roman Catholic. Further mutilation took place for the Coronations of William III and Mary II in 1688, when Bishop Compton of London introduced more disordering of the texts and ceremonies. Since then some work has been done to repair Compton’s activities, and also abbreviate the service by removing the sermon and extracting the Litany from the rite itself, but essentially the text used most recently in 1953 is Compton’s 1689 order.

The coronation rite consists of a succession of separate ceremonies: the Recognition; the Oath; the Anointing; the Investiture; the Inthronisation; the Homage; and the Communion rite. The Recognition, at which the King is shown to his subjects by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the four corners of the ‘Theatre’ – the raised platform in the crossing of the Abbey – is essentially a secular presentation, at which the monarch is acclaimed, having already been greeted at the door of the church by the Vivats of the King’s Scholars of Westminster School. The Oath is administered by the Archbishop, and then made by the King at the high altar, where he signs it. 

The Communion office then begins and continues to the end of the Creed, after which the King moves from the Chair of Estate to the Chair of King Edward, is divested of the crimson robe of state and anointed and blessed by the Archbishop beneath a canopy (hitherto) held by knights of the Garter. Having been anointed, the King is then clothed with royal vestments of Byzantine splendour, and invested with the insignia of his dignity: the Spurs, the Sword, the Armills, the Royal Mantle and Orb together, the Ring, the two Sceptres and finally the Crown of St Edward. The King is then blessed once more and taken to his throne which is raised in the centre of the Theatre, where seated he has in the past received the homage of the Archbishops and Bishops, and then that of the lay peers. 

After this follows the coronation of the Queen, which is shorter and more conformable to mediaeval precedent: she receives the anointing kneeling rather than seated, and is invested with the regalia in the more traditional order, in which the sceptres are conferred after the crowning. The Communion office then resumes, just as it is set out in the Book of Common Prayer although with the preservation of the mediaeval prayer over the offerings, and the King and Queen alone communicate with the officiating ministers. The rite concludes with the Te Deum, an innovation of 1902, and the King and Queen depart, the King wearing the Imperial State Crown and the great Purple Robe of Estate.

The coronation is a rite of investiture, and so distinctive objects play a critical role in carrying out the ceremony. The Royal Regalia is essentially a 17th century collection, the older objects with the exception of the anointing spoon having been destroyed during the Commonwealth. St Edward’s Crown with which the King is crowned is used only at the coronation, and went out of use after 1688 until George V’s coronation in 1911, on account of its weight. The two sceptres, one of which houses the largest diamond in the world, Cullinan I, and the orb date from 1661, as does the ampulla for the oil. 

More recent are the ring, which used to be personal to each monarch but which is now that made for William IV, the Sword of Offering which was similarly personal but is now that of George IV from 1821, and the Armills, ceremonial bracelets given by the Commonwealth in 1953. The Imperial State Crown which the King wears to leave the Abbey dates from 1937, but contains some outstanding gems, including the Cullinan II diamond, the Stuart Sapphire given by the Cardinal Duke of York to George III, the Black Prince’s Ruby worn at Agincourt by Henry V, and St Edward’s emerald. 

These constitute the principal regalia than have a role in the service, although four swords are also carried: the great Sword of State, the two swords of temporal and spiritual dominion, and the sword of mercy called Curtana. These latter three date from the coronation of Charles I, having been saved from the depredations of the Commonwealth. There is also a staff of King Edward, remade in 1661, but whose purpose is obscure.

The Queen’s regalia dates from 1685 and was made for the coronation of Mary of Modena, although there are three 20th century crowns from which the consort may choose, one made for Queen Alexandra, one for Queen Mary, and one for Queen Elizabeth. The Queen consort has traditionally worn the Koh-i-noor diamond, a spoil of the Second Sikh War, although because its ownership is disputed it will not be worn by the Queen in May, who has elected to wear Queen Mary’s crown with one of the ‘smaller’ (sic) Cullinan diamonds.

The King changes his clothes twice in the course of the coronation rite. He arrives in the crimson robe of State which he also wears in Parliament, and with a cap of estate upon his head. This robing and the crimson surcoat beneath is removed when the King is anointed. During the investiture the King receives the linen Colobium Sidonis, and the cloth of gold Supertunica, Stole (sometimes confusingly called the Armill), Girdle and Pallium Regalis or Mantle. These correspond to the ecclesiastical alb, tunicle, stole, girdle and cope. So vested the King receives his regalia which he wears until after the Communion office concludes, when he withdraws to the traverse in St Edward’s chapel and there takes off his vestments and puts on the purple surcoat, the purple robe of Estate and the Imperial State Crown.

Seats play an important part in the coronation: initially the King and Queen are seated on the right hand of the sanctuary of the Abbey on the Chairs of Estate. From his Chair the King then goes to be anointed in the Chair of King Edward, a magnificent work commissioned by King Edward I to house the obscure war spoil known as the Stone of Scone captured from the Scots, and decorated by Walter of Durham. This chair stands facing the high altar, and is unique to the English Coronation rite, and gives to it the distinctive feature of investing the King with his regalia while he is seated. From the Chair of King Edward the King is then taken for his actual Inthronization to the raised throne on a dais of five steps at the centre of the Theatre. This throne and that of the Queen consort on three steps have no special historic significance, and are generally used in one or other of the royal palaces subsequently.

The coronation of 2023 will not be the same as that of 1953, because social and political change in the seventy years that have passed has made the country a very different one from what it was at the late Queen’s Accession. It is a great pity that as I write this two weeks before the ceremony there is still no published Order of Service for this most momentous of rites in the life of the Church and State. But we can pray for the King, and look forward to that moment when, in the words of the 1937 Order, ‘The Dean of Westminster shall bring the Crown, and the Archbishop taking it of him shall reverently put it upon the King’s Head. At the sight whereof the People, with loud and repeated shouts, shall cry, GOD SAVE THE KING.’


The Revd Canon Robin Ward, PhD, is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.