The English ceremonial which developed was more religious and more elaborate than that in Scotland or Ireland. The first recorded instance in England of a ceremony reflects both its nature and its limitations. In 787 Ecgfrith, son of Offa of Mercia, was publicly anointed to ensure his succession: in the event he survived for only six months before he was overthrown by a cousin, Cenwulf. The coronation of Edgar at Bath in 973 suggests the development of considerable ritual, much of it borrowed from Frankish sources. A ring, sword, and sceptre were delivered as tokens of authority and the anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’ chanted. Æthelred, his second son, was crowned at Kingston upon Thames in 978 where the subsequent order of service seems to have been established. Edward the Confessor was crowned at Winchester in 1043, but all later coronations have taken place at Westminster.
The central features of the ceremony have remained largely unchanged though there have been many alterations in the regalia and the oath. The monarch is first presented, usually by the archbishop of Canterbury; takes a series of oaths; is anointed with holy oil; is crowned, receives the regalia, and accepts homage. A preliminary walk to the abbey was abandoned by Charles I in 1625 and a subsequent banquet in Westminster Hall dropped by William IV in 1831, partly as an economy measure, partly because his brother's banquet in 1821 had ended in unseemly behaviour.
Most of the ancient regalia of the crown was sold off after the execution of Charles I. The spoon and ampulla, in the shape of a golden eagle, survived. The ampulla was believed to contain holy oil, said to have been given by the Virgin Mary to Thomas Becket and rediscovered in time to assist Henry IV at his coronation in 1399. For good measure the same monarch, who needed all the support he could get, was preceded by four swords, while his predecessors had been content with three. The rest of the regalia now consists of replicas fashioned in 1660 for Charles II, or later additions. A copy of the crown believed to have been worn by Edward the Confessor was made at the Restoration, and a lighter crown produced for Victoria in 1838. The coronation chair was made for Edward I, again on the pattern of Edward the Confessor's, and until 1996 included the stone of Scone, brought back from Scotland in 1296. Two swords of state were made in 1660, one of which subsequently went missing: a third was made in 1678. The sword of offering was made in 1821. The spurs dated from Henry IV and had to be replaced. Bracelets have made sporadic appearances. The ring was a personal piece of the monarch. Charles I's fell into the hands of the Stuarts in exile, was returned in the 19th cent., and is now in Edinburgh castle. An orb was introduced in the 15th cent. to reinforce the monarch's imperial claims to the throne of France. A bible was added to the ceremony in 1689. Of the ritual, the ‘vivat’ by Westminster boys dates from 1625 and Handel's setting of ‘Zadok the Priest’ has been used since 1727.
Politically, the alterations to the oath are instructive. The original oaths were fervent but vague, and augmented by the coronation charters. Mistrust of Edward II led in 1308 to a new oath being added, to maintain the laws as chosen by his subjects. Henry VIII wished to modify this and it was much diluted for the coronation of Edward VI. Tampering with the oath in the interests of the royal prerogative was one of the charges against Archbishop Laud in 1644. After the experience of James II's reign, the oath for William and Mary was intended to bolt the door against catholicism and despotism, obliging the monarchs to observe ‘the statutes in parliament agreed on’ and to maintain ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’. A further significant change had the monarch replying ‘I solemnly promise’ instead of ‘I grant.’ When George III and George IV pleaded their coronation oaths against catholic emancipation, it was by no means a specious argument or political ploy: George III wrote that the coronation statute was ‘understood to bind the crown’ not to consent to the repeal of the existing laws for the defence of the protestant religion. Elizabeth II's oath in 1953 included a promise to govern in accordance with the ‘respective laws and customs’ of the Commonwealth countries over which she reigned.
In practice coronation ceremonies have frequently had difficulty in living up to the solemnity of the occasion. William the Conqueror's coronation was marred by a massacre of his new Saxon subjects, whose shouts of acclamation were mistaken by nervous Norman guards as the signal for a rising. The pageantry of the royal champion has often caused problems. In 1377 Richard II's champion appeared at the abbey during mass and had to be told to go away. In 1685 James II's champion fell flat on his face, which suggests that it was just as well that the challenge was not taken up. Lord Talbot, in 1761, who accompanied the champion as lord high steward, had trained his horse to back away from the royal presence, but, to the delight of the onlookers, the animal insisted on entering backwards as well. For George IV's coronation, the horse was prudently borrowed from Astley's circus, where he would be used to noisy crowds. After this, the role of the champion was much reduced. In 1559 Elizabeth I complained that the holy oil was greasy and smelled unpleasant. In 1727 Queen Caroline had to borrow jewels since George I had given the rest to his mistress. A special hazard at the coronation of George IV was the arrival, in the middle of the ceremony, of his estranged wife, demanding to be let in. Victoria's own account tells of the pain she suffered when the archbishop pushed the ring on her wrong finger, and George VI's account of 1937 was that the archbishop juggled so much with the crown that he never did find out if it was on the right way.
The coronation of Scottish monarchs remained much simpler. Until the 13th cent. it was a ceremony of inauguration, usually at Scone, involving the elevation on a stone or chair. Alexander II's aspirations for a crown and anointing met with papal disapproval. Each was granted in 1329 to Robert I by a papal bull and used in 1331 at the coronation of David II. But later ceremony was restrained by the fact that so many Scottish monarchs succeeded as infants or children and could not sustain a demanding role: James III, for example, was inaugurated at Kelso, aged 8, a week after James II's death outside Floors castle in 1460. Charles I's belated Scottish coronation in 1633 added to his difficulties when he insisted on an unpopular Anglican service. The last Scottish coronation, that of Charles II in 1651, was a hasty business in the midst of adversity: Charles was required to swear to the covenant, and anointing was dropped as a superstitious and popish practice.
J. A. Cannon
Cannon, J. A., and and Griffiths, R. , The Oxford Illustrated History of the Monarchy (Oxford, 1988);
Rose, T. , The Coronation Ceremony of the Kings and Queens of England and the Crown Jewels (1992);
Schramm, P. E. , A History of the English Coronation (Oxford, 1937).
cor·o·na·tion / ˌkôrəˈnāshən; ˌkär-/ • n. the ceremony of crowning a sovereign or a sovereign's consort.