Discover more from History, Etc
THE CORONATION: WHAT'S THE POINT?
The key to understanding the modern monarchy is its investment in faith
This Saturday, in Westminster Abbey, something will happen that perhaps no living person has ever seen before.
A new King of the United Kingdom, etc, will be anointed. The Archbishop of Canterbury, ranking primate in the Anglican Church, will dab holy oil, sourced from the Mount of Olives and scooped using a medieval spoon, onto Charles III. In doing so, the cleric will mark the king indelibly with sacral status: separating him forever from the ranks of ordinary men.
This is the holiest moment of the coronation ceremony. As such it will occur quite literally behind a curtain: Charles will be protected by the privacy of an embroidered screen, hidden from the gaze of almost everyone in the church, as well as the television cameras capturing the ceremony for millions of people worldwide.
In our age of panoptical overshare, that is strange.
The early twenty-first century is a time in which all events, from the profound to the mundane, from death to breakfast, have become media or social media events.
Addicted to information, and with the means to binge greedily on it, human beings have radically reconsidered their attitudes to privacy.
But there remain, evidently, some things which remain secret and sacred. Queen Elizabeth II supposedly once quipped that the monarch had to be seen to be believed. Her eldest son has divined that at the moment of his official transition from man to king, the opposite is true.
Is he right to do so? Or is this just one more piece of magical thinking which ought to be swept into the recycling bin of history, along, in due course, with the monarchy itself?
Or to ask the question that lies beneath these: what, today, is the monarchy for?
A king is a sort of priest. That is what anointing means. The practice was borrowed by royalty from churchmen in the Middle Ages, and from the age of the Carolingians onwards, European monarchs have had themselves anointed as well as crowned, explicitly to represent themselves as being in a special communion with God.
A crown is a nice hat, and a symbol of rank, power and title. But the crown, by definition, can be seized and squabbled over. Anointing cannot. It is more permanent even than a tattoo, often more painful in the long run, and certainly a good deal more meaningful. Once anointed, you are marked by God. That mark can never be rubbed off, even if you are deposed.
Over time, of course, different kings and queens have interpreted their anointed status in different ways. Some have done so well; others badly. The most extreme expression of a sacerdotal monarchy has been belief in the ‘divine right’ of kings to do, in short, whatever the hell they want. But to take things this far has, generally speaking, been suicidal. The kings most convinced that being touched by God was more or less equivalent to being God have tended to meet God earlier than they might have chosen.
King Charles III is an odd man, but he is not stupid or ignorant of history. And plainly, he is not King Charles I.
Yet Charles III does seem to have a particular view of monarchy which is at heart more mystical than many people realise. What’s more, it is a novel and even an expansive view of monarchy, whose consequences will be interesting to see during the course of the new reign.
Charles III is a Christian. This ought to go without saying, but since in Britain today most people are not Christians - at least, not in the sense that they do anything about it or act like it - it’s worth spelling out.
Indeed, he is more than just ‘a’ Christian. Charles is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, an international religious community of roughly 85m people. (For context, there are about three or four times as many Anglicans in the world as there are Sikhs or Jews.)
Charles inherited the title of Supreme Governor ultimately from Elizabeth I. Even more pertinently, from Henry VIII he also inherited the title Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith.
The latter, on the face of things, is rather comical. It was granted by the Pope in recognition of Henry VIII’s work denouncing Martin Luther; thus the faith being defended is Roman Catholicism. The initials f.d. have been misused by English and British rulers since Parliament passed the 1534 Act of Supremacy.
All the same, Charles still claims this title. In fact, he claims more than this title. He intends, he says, to be not just defender of the faith, but defender of faiths. His anointing will mark his special connection with the Christian God of the Anglican Church. But at the coronation ceremony, there will be roles for leaders of many different religions. When it comes to religion in general, Charles seems to want to reign omnivorously. Ecumenically. Polyamorously.
Which is, on the face of things, a very odd sort of priesthood. Is there any other person on earth - indeed in history - who would, with a straight face, try to position themselves as the sole guardian of all belief systems?
Many British monarchs have found it hard enough simply to try and accommodate the component sects of post-Reformation Christianity. So this is quite a case of mission creep.
And yet. Even if the job is hard - even if it is hilariously impossible to imagine how it might be achieved in any meaningful way - perhaps there is something serious and thoughtful in Charles’ wish to be ‘defender of faiths’.
Not being stupid, Charles is aware that he has no active political power available to him.
The King today can lobby and advise - if he does so very cautiously. But ultimately he is no more than the ceremonial head of the British military and the docile, biddable symbolic head of state for the UK and a clutch of Commonwealth nations. The minute he tries to impose any sort of will on British politics - even with the best intentions; even if he is right - he will find himself in a very sticky situation, perhaps even an existential crisis for the monarchy itself.
In lieu of wielding power, the monarchy under the late Queen rebuilt itself on the cornerstone of duty and public service. Charity, chivalry and the benign exercise of celebrity are the core duties of a (good) working royal. (Not all have understood this, or been able to fulfil the brief, but that is what it is.)
Charles does not seem inclined to abandon any of that, and he is actively engaged in what amount to a massive round of redundancies within the royal family, keeping beside him only those of the family who accept that this is what they have been sired or hired to do.
He is also trying to push through another round of defeudalisation: thus the coronation ceremony will invite the whole public to join in the declaration of homage to the monarch, rather than simply the aristocratic attendees at the ceremony. (This attempt to encourage a ‘people’s pledge’ has been roundly mocked online, but the intention seems to me to be obvious enough, and no one is coming round to take your home and lands away if you refuse; homage has lost its bite somewhat since the Middle Ages.)
Yet if these things sound like exercises in royal dilution, Charles is in no way abandoning the mystical and priestly functions of kingship. If anything, he is insisting on them as non-negotiables and looking for ways to extend them.
The king cannot any longer offer independent leadership. He cannot wield power. He is losing his ability to dispense lucrative patronage.
But what he can do is offer the allure of the mystic. The king is still God’s anointed. He is still a faith leader, of sorts. If Charles has his way, he will be a faiths leader. And he recognises that when all the arguments against monarchy are based on reason, the appeal of the institution must be rooted in another system of understanding. Belief. Faith. Emotion. Mysticism. Feeling.
Many people in the UK are angry about the coronation. Some complain that it is a waste of money, an affront to the needy, a tone-deaf celebration of a country that has some deep-seated social and political problems. Others would argue that the fact of monarchy per se is anachronistic, anti-democratic, incompatible with progressive politics or rational thought.
Yet just as many are looking forward to the coronation. For some this is because they like pageantry, they enjoy public celebrations, or they just are happy to have a day off work.
For others it is because they feel a real bond with monarchy, royalty and history which defies rational explanation. Which does not want to be demeaned by subjection to rational analysis. Many people will tell you that for all its faults they love their country, they love their monarch and that’s an end on it.
Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But you can pick your battles - or at least your battlegrounds. Charles III seems to have chosen his. There will be many challenges ahead, and it could be that monarchy in the twenty-first century has a shelf-life that no king, however thoughtful or wise, can extend. But my hunch is that for the moment at least Charles has chosen thoughtfully, and perhaps even well. Which is about as much as one could ask.