By Jonathon Van Maren
At 5:30 AM this morning, my family was huddled on the couch watching the first British coronation in 70 years—and the last great ceremonial coronation in the world. In a post-Christian age almost entirely devoid of ritual and tradition, the Coronation is an extraordinary living relic from a bygone era. As the great British historian Tom Holland explained in The Guardian:
Charles III sits on the throne of the United Kingdom by virtue of his descent from two fabulously venerable lines of kings. The house of Wessex, which fashioned the united kingdom of England back in the 900s, traced its origins to the early 6th century; Cináed mac Ailpín, or Kenneth I, traditionally ranked as the first king of Scotland, stood in a line of succession to the no less ancient monarchy of the Picts. Countries that can boast a head of state based on criteria reaching back to such a distant age are vanishingly rare. Only Japan and the Vatican can really claim to outrank Britain in such stakes.
Even they cannot rival the sheer antiquity of the ritual that will be staged in Westminster Abbey on Saturday. The United Kingdom is alone in Europe in marking the accession of a new monarch with a coronation. Key elements of the ceremony – that it should be presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury, that two bishops should escort the king, that the congregation at the end of the service should join in acclaiming the newly crowned monarch – date back to the coronation in 973 of Edgar, the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. Dunstan, the formidable archbishop who composed the order of service, had in turn drawn on even older exemplars: some native to Britain, others reaching back to Roman times.
It really was an extraordinary thing to watch, a great historical drama unfolding against a backdrop of ancient pageantry. When Charles sat on the Coronation Chair—which I will cop to gawking at when I visited Westminster Abbey—he was sitting on the oldest surviving piece of English furniture, commissioned by Edward I and carved from oak by Walter of Durham, a carpenter who had also served Henry III. It was completed sometime between the summer of 1297 and March of 1300—the original gilding that covered it has been largely lost, but there it stands.
The Stone of Scone (or the Stone of Destiny) sat beneath it, brought from Scotland for the Coronation. Legends surrounding the Stone, which was taken from the Scone Abbey by Edward I’s forces in 1296, are myriad. Used for centuries in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish kings, some believe that it may once have been used at Tara during the coronations of the High Kings of Ireland. With iron rings on each end for carrying it and a crude cross carved on one side, the Stone of Scone’s origins are lost in the mists of time.
The Anointing stretches back even further. As the Abbey walls rang with the thunderous chorus of “Zadok the Priest”—composed for the Coronation of King George II in 1727—the king was shielded from view by the Anointing Screen in a moment that “has historically been regarded as a moment between the Sovereign and God,” and anointed with oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by the Dean of Westminster and the Archbishop of York on his hands, chest, and head. It is a rite taken from the Old Testament, as the choir sang: “Zadok the priest, And Nathan the prophet, Anointed Solomon king, And all the people, Rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced.” Then the screen was removed, and King Charles III bowed at the high altar.
To watch the Coronation is to understand why so many progressives despise monarchy. The service began with a declaration of truth: “Christ is risen!” And a response from the assembled elite: “He is risen indeed!” How many of them actually believe it? I suspect few. But still, there it was. Roughly 300 million people watched as King Charles III swore to defend the “Protestant Reformed religion”; kissed a large Bible; and recited ancient oaths. They watched as an Anglican clergyman invited the dignitaries to pray the Lord’s Prayer; the choir sing “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” and “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation,” which was also sung at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth; even the new Coronation anthem “Make A Joyful Noise,” sung by the choir as Charles was enthroned, is shot through with the words of the King James Version. Any attempt at making the Order of Service less Christian or more ecumenical would have been to gut it entirely, and thus we saw a Hindu prime minister reading from the Book of Colossians.
There is some stubborn part of me that instinctively supports the monarchy simply because those who wish to tear it down are the same people who want to tear everything else down, as well. Here, for example, is how Stephen Marche sneeringly described the occasion in The Guardian:
In a time of post-post-colonialism, of anti-racist iconoclasm, a time in which the very notion of gender as a legitimate distinction is contested, and Christianity has been reduced to a scandal management system with costumes, a 74-year-old British gentleman will ride a fancy carriage to an old church where a few other elderly British gentlemen in gilded dresses will declare him emperor, patriarch and head of state because God says so.
Good grief. That pompous paragraph is enough to tear a “God save the King!” from the lips of any conservative. It is true that the king hasn’t always behaved himself admirably. The mutual adulteries of Charles and Diana were breathlessly tracked by much of the Western world, and the failing marriages of the House of Windsor provided plenty of tabloid fodder while Queen’s Christian life damned them all by contrast. But that isn’t the argument against monarchy itself as some progressives, who briefly and conveniently resurrect traditional Christian morals in order to do away with a traditional Christian monarchy, would like to claim. Their arguments are disingenuous—it is the institution they wish to destroy.
The publicly acknowledged past personal failings of the king are not a particularly potent argument against monarchy when wielded by traditionalists, either—Charles was guilty of adultery but not promiscuity, unlike great monarchs such as Charlemagne or more recent British sovereigns (the virtuous Queen Victoria was replaced by his great-great grandfather Edward VII, who allegedly bedded at least 15,000 women). As Peter Hitchens has so eloquently explained, the value of the monarchy is not in the person, but in the institution, which is both inextricably intertwined with Great Britain’s Christian heritage—as the Coronation revealed so clearly—and also denies the grandeur and splendor of the head of state to the politicians who so crave it and thus should not have it.
Indeed, the Royal Family faces a conundrum in post-Christian Britain. To survive, the received wisdom goes, cultivating popularity is necessary—and this, to most, means embracing currently popular causes, which is to say, progressive. Those who support the monarchy, however, are likely to feel alienated by this, while the progressives being pandered to are not going to become supporters of a hereditary dynasty simply because Buckingham Palace asked an LGBT choir to be part of the Coronation weekend. Thus, to embrace politically popular causes is to erode the only reliable source of the support the monarchy currently possesses. As Gavin Ashenden, a former chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II, told me in an interview, this Gordian knot “fatally undermines their long-term prospects.”
The Coronation was a reminder that we were once a civilization that believed in something. The question of whether the institution of the monarchy can survive cut off from the source of its legitimacy applies as much to Western civilization itself as to the House of Windsor. At current rates of de-Christianization, there will be no Christians left in Great Britain by 2067. I hope that similarly magnificent coronations will be held for William and George one day, to give new generations a glimpse of what their heritage holds, and perhaps they will. Today’s ceremonies confronted us with our Christian past, and reminded me of a TV appearance made by Peter Hitchens several years ago, when he described the decline of Christian Britain by quoting the words of A.E. Housman. As he reached the third line, an almost respectful hush crept over the studio audience:
Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.