A crown of thorns
A diminished, secular Britain means that the next coronation will not match the majesty and mystery of the last
It must have been around 1960 when I first saw the power of monarchy over the English mind, as it once was. It was a summer weekday afternoon, bright and windy, on Portsmouth Hard, that ever-scruffy patch of pavement, bus-stops and tidal cobbles where Pompey meets the sea.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand had gathered them, people—mainly women—began hurrying towards a spot near the great gate of the Naval Dockyard. Within less than a minute a craning, twittering crowd had gathered. I, aged eight, could see nothing but I asked one of the multitude what was going on. “The Duchess of Gloucester is here!”, she replied, as if nothing further needed to be said. I thought, but did not say, “Who?” I think it was the Duchess of Gloucester. It certainly wasn’t any of the major royal figures of the time. I remember being unimpressed, even then, and puzzled that such a person could exert such magic.
Nowadays it would have to be Bob Geldof or George Clooney to have the same effect. All the deference that once laid itself at the feet of royalty, all the Hard Core Fawn, as you might call it, now flows towards show business aristocrats. The Queen herself has an individual stardom which is purely her own. She has sailed through storms and near-shipwreck until reaching port as the nation’s favourite grandmother, too nice and too old to be touched by politics any more, secure on the throne as long as she lives. She has achieved this on her own account. She does not have it by some sort of mystic right. She cannot hand it on to anyone else.
In that England of 1960 which I recall, the old magic of the Lord’s Anointed, of touching for the King’s Evil, of hungering for the very presence of Majesty, even at several removes, still just persisted among the bulbous motor cars, the Second World War warships and the beery breath of waterside pubs. It was not what it had been, but it was genuine and potent. When my beloved Aunt Ena died more than 20 years ago I found, in her tiny, frugal house, among many mementoes of her long, courageous, kind and well-spent life, some ancient albums in which portraits of royal figures, carefully snipped from some magazine, were displayed among the family photographs. To her, the Royal Family was genuinely connected to her own, something once more common than metropolitan snobs can possibly imagine.
About 100 yards from the flash mob that surrounded the Duchess of Wherever on Portsmouth Hard was another contrasting and—in a way—matching piece of street theatre, so impossible that I have begun over time to doubt my own memory. On the clanging steel ramp that led down—still leads down—to the Gosport ferry, the Portsmouth mudlarks, grinning, frightening, tough boys of my age dressed only in swimming trunks and perhaps only in mud, grubbed in the maritime slime of low tide for copper pennies and ha’pennies tossed to them by passers-by. I did not disapprove, I was not shocked. I watched quite without embarrassment or shame. This was life as it was then arranged. I don’t suppose the mudlarks or their parents had much of an opinion of the Duchess of Gloucester or the Queen. But having grown up in the rougher parts of that seamy, old-fashioned naval town, I suspect that at bottom they were monarchists.
On the coins they dived for, many as brown as chocolate and polished smooth by a century of wear, was the name and superscription of the monarch. Our pockets clinked with history. Most usually in those days the superscription was that of old George V, our Queen’s grandfather—GEORGIVS V DEI GRA: BRITT: OMN: REX FID:DEF:IND:IMP. I was diligent at my Latin and knew what it meant. Nowadays a much-abbreviated version of this persists on our debased and tinny coinage, metaphor for a debased and tinny monarchy, and country. ELIZABETH II D.G. REG F.D. looks more like a postcode than an attempt to claim the mandate of heaven over all of Britain and over a mighty empire, and to be the defender of the faith.
I do not think the English people understand this any more. They like the Queen, because of who she is, not because she is their monarch. They grudgingly accept Charles, but see him as an unavoidable interval before the arrival of the new generation. And that generation, having (Meghan and Harry exemplify this) embraced the techniques of modern popularity, will be vulnerable to the loss of that popularity.
The public cannot see the point in hereditary office. They confuse democracy with freedom and are seduced by arguments about the cost of monarchy, trivial beside almost all other state spending. I fear a bare, unpicturesque, hard-edged new era of naked government.
Already—I am guessing here—somewhere in Whitehall, a dreary committee meets every few months to plan the next Coronation. It is all very tactful. There is perhaps a historian, a clergyman or clergywoman, possibly representatives of the other faiths, an envoy from Clarence House. Perhaps someone attends from one of the Commonwealth nations who still have the British monarch as their Head of State. The awful undesired event which will inevitably bring such a ceremony about is referred to with a polite cough and some circumlocution.
Lambeth Palace says any information on coronation planning would be confidential, and it therefore cannot comment. But the problem seems insurmountable. How can our fast-disintegrating nation, many times reinvented in the past 60 years, possibly hold a Coronation remotely like the triumphant, ancient and imperial ceremony of 1953?
You may still watch a recording of the original ceremony. It is impossibly distant from now, not least because of the number of old people in it, not like the old of today but white-haired and slender, born long enough ago to have seen Queen Victoria and fought in the Great War. The London glimpsed in the background is still an English city, black from coal smoke, closer to the ground than any other capital and sombrely Protestant in appearance. The voices of the clergymen are sepulchral, stately and quite devoid of the matey empathy we now expect from such people. The upper classes, still very much in existence, still have the “damn-your-eyes” swagger of victory and have yet to efface themselves into their modern impotence and irrelevance. The aristocratic young women who attend the Queen have a dewy, wholesome beauty of a sort that makes my ancient heart leap, quite alien from the age of Love Island.
Study the text. Much of it is in fact the Church of England’s 16th-century service of the Lord’s Supper. Those hearing it for the first time will in many cases be seized by its clarity, force and loveliness. But I cannot see the hierarchy of the modern Church wishing to use something before the world which they avoid in their own churches, and which shows up their own services as the ugly banalities they are. They will, I suspect, claim that the 1662 version is “too difficult”, when the real problem is that it is too Christian. That, and the specifically Protestant character of the ceremony, no longer acceptable in the multicultural UK, is the gateway through which revisers and meddlers will get their bulldozers. Can the next monarch promise, as Elizabeth did in 1953, “to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?” Hardly. The “Defender of Faiths”, as Charles has hinted he seeks to be, cannot be so specific.
As for the rite itself, I am very fond of this passage concerning the Sword of State:
Hear our prayers, O Lord, we beseech thee, and so direct and support thy servant Queen ELIZABETH, that she may not bear the Sword in vain; but may use it as the minister of God for the terror and punishment of evildoers, and for the protection and encouragement of those that do well, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Terror and punishment of evildoers? I cannot hear these words in the bureaucratic accents of Justin Welby, try as I may.
I hope I am wrong. I hope that the great ceremony, the oldest in the world, survives unbroken for another generation. It is, I recently learned to my surprise and sadness, the last Coronation Ceremony in Europe. No other country embraces the almost pagan ritual of anointing with holy oil, with the Archbishop wielding the ampulla and spoon, while four Knights of the Garter hold “a rich pall of silk, or cloth of gold” over the new monarch. Then: “The Archbishop shall anoint the Queen in the form of a cross.” This he does in a way that would be recognisable to King Solomon in all his glory, to Edward III, to Charlemagne and to Louis XIV. The instructions run, to pour the holy oil
On the palms of both the hands, saying,
Be thy Hands anointed with holy Oil.
On the breast, saying,
Be thy Breast anointed with holy Oil.
On the crown of the head, saying,
Be thy Head anointed with holy Oil:
as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed:
And as Solomon was anointed king
by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet,
so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen
over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God
hath given thee to rule and govern.
This is not a legal formality, it is a sacramental ceremony, the unequivocal summoning of the power of God Almighty into the affairs of men, and dedication of a soul to service and to separation from the rest of us. It cannot be rationalised. No tinkering with the words can avoid the great clanging collision here between materialist reductionism and a universe in which angels, cherubim and seraphim really are assumed to be hovering close overhead. Can our atheistical age bear its reaffirmation in this most Godless of centuries?
And then there is Scotland. Will a Scotland in which there are now so many supporters of independence be prepared to accept a London Coronation, in which the Stone of Scone, Scotland’s mysterious and ancient Coronation seat, is slotted back into the subject space beneath the Coronation Chair from which it was liberated in 1996? I would not be too sure. Or will the new monarch travel to Edinburgh to be crowned separately as King of Scots in a country that increasingly believes it has its own monarchy? Official documents, police cap badges and official vehicles there are decorated with the Crown of Scotland, not the different English Crown of St Edward. Pillar boxes north of the Border rarely carry the Royal Monogram of Elizabeth II, because she is the first Elizabeth to be Queen of Scotland.
The Coronation is the only ritual I know which truly explains the mysterious, complex foundations of how power and law can be wielded over free men. I have long thought that our Monarchy represented above all our sovereignty over ourselves. I hope that the multiracial peoples of a post-Imperial nation can find a common loyalty in the Coronation precisely because it is so old, and speaks so directly to the heart, that it transcends all differences and forges a new but also an ancient nation. I hope so, but I do not think so. I think the spirit is gone.