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Mystery remains at the heart of a 21st-century Coronation

06 May 2023

Glyn Paflin reports from Westminster Abbey


The Archbishop of Canterbury places St Edward’s Crown on the King

The Archbishop of Canterbury places St Edward’s Crown on the King

BY THE time Coronation Day dawned, we had an idea of what to expect. Lambeth Palace had published and explained the rite. Buckingham Palace had been releasing stories and photos about the preparations for weeks.

But there had been too much for any except the most leisured or devoted to take in; and so it was inevitable that, even with all this briefing, the press approached Westminster Abbey in the early hours of Saturday morning with a great deal of curiosity about how it would all, in fact, come together. Would the language, rather “Series 2” to Church of England folk of a certain generation, still work without so many of the rolling phrases heard in Geoffrey Fisher’s even tones, so “class” as to be almost Germanic, all of 70 years ago bar a few days?

The initial suggestion of a rendezvous time for journalists of 7.30 a.m. had moved back to 7.00. Instead of queuing for airport-style security with the guests in Victoria Embankment Gardens, as we had for the late Queen’s funeral last September, we assembled separately a few streets away to enter (through similar arrangements) with musicians and others in Dean’s Yard. Church House, on the other side of Dean’s Yard from the Abbey, had temporarily become a hub of international relations as foreign and Commonwealth dignitaries had been entertained there the night before.

We were handed our orders of service in the cloister — each of us was ticked off on a sheet: there were no spare copies if we lost our own — before entering the Abbey, where I was reminded that it was just such a stream of blue carpet, sweeping up the nave, which had apparently most impressed the Church Times reporter at King Edward VII’s coronation in 1902.

But the “theatre”, as it is called in coronation language, was demarcated by a golden-yellow carpet underneath the lantern. Here, the eye was immediately drawn to the ancient Coronation Chair of St Edward, with the Stone of Scone beneath it, and the Chairs of Estate from the 1953 Coronation, which had been newly upholstered in red damask for re-use — one of the touches of economy in 2023.

From the north transept, it looked as if we might have a good view of the Coronation Chair, and therefore of the King’s crowning itself; but, as the Abbey began to fill up with many people in hats and ceremonial headdress, it became clearer that even for that we would still need the monitors provided to see as much as the television viewers at home, who are often described as having the best seats.

Well, maybe. There is, as the lockdowns taught us, no exact equivalent to attending a church service in person; and part of that is the proximity of other people.

In contrast with the arrangements of 1953, when our reporter wrote of having 17 inches to kneel in, the congregation of 2200 was a modest one, but the lack of majesty of numbers was compensated for not only by greater comfort but by the assurance of modern health and safety. This time, there had been no massive construction of temporary and rather precarious-looking galleries, draped in velvet, as at previous coronations.

AlamyThe screen placed round the King during the anointing

Many of the congregation, who were not to enter in procession, were already present when the press were admitted, including holders of the British Empire Medal, members of the emergency services, and people associated with charity work, who had been assigned seats in the nave.

The rows in front of me had a theatrical element: two pleasing sightings close to hand were Joanna David and Edward Fox; and plenty more followed, as we were on the route to certainly much wanted facilities as a long morning wore on before the service. But the north transept also provided seating for privy councillors, representatives of Crown dependencies, great officers of state, the Law, former Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and members of the processions that were yet to come. Under the north lantern were to be seated the non-royal relatives of the King and Queen.

Facing them across the “theatre” would be the Royal Family, the governors-general and prime ministers of the Commonwealth realms, the foreign royalty, and the representatives of other nations, among whom we noted, of course, the Biden ladies.

Members of the Cabinet and the Opposition and other politicians were to be seated in the quire.

The music began at 9 a.m., encouraging us to feel that waiting till 11 wouldn’t be so bad; and there was plenty of it. When the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardener, began with the Bach Magnificat in D and two other items, the chatter took a while to subside. But then the acclamatory opening of Bruckner’s Ecce sacerdos magnus startled many into silence: it seemed to imply that something might happen.

The repertoire was a varied mixture of new and old, provided by the organist and the special Coronation Orchestra, under Sir Antonio Pappiano. Judith Weir’s Brighter visions shine afar suffered, perhaps, from being the first of the new commissions to be heard while everyone was still settling down. After Holst’s “Jupiter”, the harpist Alis Huws was heard more attentively in Karl Jenkins’s Crossing the Stone/Tros y Garreg — Jenkins, seated in the quire next to Lord Lloyd-Webber, gave a thumbs-up after the performance — and then the South African soprano Pretty Yende, in a billowy, scene-stealing daffodil-yellow gown — held us in thrall with the first of her solos, the newly commissioned Sacred Fire by Sarah Class.

After Walton (Crown Imperial from the 1937 coronation) and Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on Greensleeves), the newly commissioned Be thou my vision: Triptych for Orchestra, based on the traditional Irish melody, was sweeping and lyrical (by Nigel Hess, Roderick Williams, and Shirley Thompson), before another new work, Iain Farrington’s Voices of the World, with its jaunty jazzy rhythms, was played by Matthew Jorysz, the Assistant Organist, providing a heart-lightening moment.

This was followed by Patrick Doyle’s new Coronation March, before we were back to the world of Purcell (trumpeters Jason Edwards and Matthew Williams) and to Handel, with Ms Yende again. Elgar’s Nimrod provided a note of melancholy, if only by association, before Peter Holder, sub-organist, played William Harris’s Flourish for an Occasion and Vaughan Williams’s ever popular Prelude on “Rhosymedre”, which surely reminded us that we were in church for a communion service — although one or two reporters jibbed at being asked not to “tweet” during the service. The presence of military drummers approaching began to make itself heard.

Indeed, there was, of course, plenty going on. Like the TV viewers, we noticed that the camera was loving Dame Emma Thompson; and Ant and Dec even walked by a few feet away. Some of the great and the good in the north transept, such as the two former Archbishops of Canterbury, or Dame Margaret Beckett MP, seemed (if I remember rightly) to be almost exactly in the same place as they had been at that more sombre service last September.

The procession of faith leaders and representatives entered, pairing Anglicans and Roman Catholics, Methodist and Copts, and led in by Baha’i, Jain, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Sikh figures, followed by the Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish leaders.

The standards of the Commonwealth realms presented something of a general-knowledge challenge, as they preceded the governors-general, prime ministers, and other representatives, and were placed in the sacrarium.

AlamyThe Prince of Wales assists in the robing of the King, placing the Stole Royal on him, with the aid of the Bishops of Durham and Bath & Wells, the King’s Bishops Assistant

The arrival of the Westminster choristers — including the Chapel Royal in their crimson and gold tunics, as well as choristers from Methodist College, Belfast, and Truro Cathedral — was during the Purcell’s Trumpet Tune; and one began to associate each group of arrivals with the music playing at the time. Foreign royalty took their seats during “Care selve” from Handel’s Atalanta.

The arrival of members of the Royal Family created a perceptible upturn in excitement, together with a display of the mantles of the most senior orders of chivalry which they hold: the Duchess of Edinburgh (formerly the Countess of Wessex), for example, wore her RVO mantle over a white gown, while Princess Alexandra and Prince and Princess Michael represented the late Queen’s generation. The notable exception in this matter was the Duke of Sussex, who simply wore morning dress.


A FANFARE was the signal to stand, and the service began. The royal carriage had arrived outside, and during Parry’s famous “I was Glad”, we heard for the first time the new Vivats, the historic privilege of the Westminster Scholars to hail the monarch in Latin. John Rutter had presumably been the musician with the responsibility for fitting “Vivat Regina Camilla” and “Vivat Rex Carolus” to the music. It was a dramatic moment.

The King and Queen’s procession was headed with the new Cross of Wales, held before the dignitaries of the Chapel Royal; then the Archbishop of York; then the Pursuivants in their splendidly quartered tabards; and the representatives of the Orders of Chivalry, one of whom was Lord Eames, former Archbishop of Armagh, who earlier had waved a cheerful greeting as we were entering the Abbey precincts.

More Alice in Wonderland figures followed: the Heralds of Arms; then came the Westminster Chapter, and the bearers of the regalia, including an array of dukes and earls. This was a people’s coronation, and coronets were almost, but not quite, banished, while there was a handful of example of peers’ coronation robes, as well as, more numerous, the more everyday parliamentary ones.

At last came the Queen and King with their Bishops Assistant, the little pages, and companions, the King looking benignly, even affectionately, at the guests on his right and left as he proceeded up the nave.

The greeting by Samuel Strachan, a child of the Chapel Royal, was notable for the smallness of the boy standing before his King; but it was one of the new touches to the service which, like the later People’s Homage, had been much discussed, but was, in fact, soon over, and one wondered what the fuss was about.

AlamyThe Prince of Wales touches the crown as he pledges allegiance to his father

After Archbishop Welby’s short introduction, Sir Bryn Terfel made a thunderous intervention with the Welsh Kyrie in Paul Mealor’s new setting; his last, drawn-out, very soft note was one of those things that, paradoxically, only the strongest singers can pull off.

There was, as several people remarked to me, a great deal of speaking by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the service; but at the Recognition he delegated a traditional task of his at three points of the compass, if not all of them, to others: Lady Elish Angiolini, Christopher Finney, and Baroness Amos all presented our “undoubted King”. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was the next to be heard, as he presented the King with the Bible, described as “the lively Oracles of God”.

Then the Archbishop administered the Coronation Oath, after a brief introduction designed to sweeten its impact on 21st-century ears. What the 17th century would have made of “fostering an environment” seemed like anybody’s guess.

But there was no getting round it. Having been asked whether he would maintain the “Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”, the King then recited his Accession Declaration Oath, about being a “faithful Protestant” and securing the Protestant succession “according to law”. While the King signed copies of the oaths for the Lord Chamberlain, the choir sang some mellifluous counterpoint by Byrd in Byrd’s Prayer Book mode — a composer whose recusant Mass for Four Voices then provided the Gloria in Excelsis. Perhaps someone was trying to tell us something.

Before that, though, the King knelt before the altar and said aloud his specially written Coronation Prayer: another of the 2023 innovations in a service in which he is largely passive, but perhaps it will help to bring kneeling back into fashion in the Church of England (though few of us had anything to kneel on except the floor, let alone the space to try it in).

After the new collect came the new choices of epistle and Gospel suggestive of a gentler monarchy, less conscious of its right to be obeyed than in past ages. It was during the Gloria that the Prime Minister appeared in front of us in our humble transept, as he was led by a virger to the nave pulpit.

Debbie Wiseman’s joyful, floating new Alleluia was sung by the choir before the Gospel, read by the Bishop of London; and then the Ascension Choir, in white suits and ties and full-length dresses, repeated the words of the Alleluia, singing and swaying, in gospel style — bringing a change of tone that seemed to help members of the Royal Family to relax.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon spoke of the weight of a task that was “only bearable by the Spirit of God, who gives us the strength to give our lives to others. With the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the King is given freely what no ruler can ever attain through will, or politics, or war, or tyranny: the Holy Spirit draws us to love in action.”

His sermon acknowledged the service given by many present in the Abbey, in charities and other organisations, in community-building, and in the emergency and armed services. He spoke of the more than 400 young people gathered in St Margaret’s, Westminster, “whose lives speak of service”, and of the King’s life of service so far, and urged all his hearers to go and do likewise. “Each of us is called by God to serve. Whatever that looks like in our own lives, each of us can choose God’s way today.”

The anointing followed, during the singing of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. Here we could, indeed, glimpse for real the new Anointing Screen, which at this coronation replaced a canopy, without having to look at the TV screen.

AlamyQueen Camilla is crowned

The Anointing Screen — a design in strong colours by Aidan Hart, produced under the supervision of the Royal School of Needlework — bears a depiction of a tree representing the 56 member countries of the Commonwealth. The King’s cypher, at the base, represents him as servant of the people. The screen is surmounted by two bronze eagles, traditional symbols associated with the anointing.

Troopers and guardsmen brought the screen, to enclose the anointing ceremony on three sides, and stood at the corners with bowed heads, in a moment that was suddenly reminiscent of the Queen’s lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. As the Archbishop’s prayer could not be heard, this intensely private moment remained sacrosanct, mysterious, but, at the same, of the contemporary world.

There was a comparable sense of mystery when the complicated business with the Sword of State and the Sword of Offering was carried out under the Byzantine Chant Ensemble’s singing of verses from Psalm 72 in Greek: among them, “. . . May he defend the poor among the people, deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. Alleluia.”

In charge of the heavy sword was the Lord President of the Council, Penny Mordaunt MP, in a striking teal dress, which was decorated with ferns. She is the first woman to have had this responsibility in a coronation, and she was notable for the strength involved and the dignity that never faltered.

The King, meanwhile, had been clothed in the simple white colobium sindonis, the shimmering gold supertunica, and girdle. More hieratic vesture was added: the Robe Royal and Stole Royal; and the other items of regalia were brought solemnly one by one: the Armills, bracelets “of sincerity and wisdom”; the Orb, “set under the Cross”; the Ring, “ a sign of the covenant sworn this day”; the Glove, “that you may hold authority with gentleness and grace”; the Sceptre and Rod, “kingly power and justice . . . equity and mercy”.

And then it was the crowning. There was a little pause as the Archbishop and King made sure that it was on properly. Then the Archbishop shouted “God save The King!” and the general cry went up, the bells rang, and Richard Strauss’s Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare was played by the Coronation Brass Ensemble as gun salutes were fired in London and far beyond. The Archbishop of York then led the solemn blessing of the King by an ecumenical group of church leaders.

More Tudor polyphony by Weelkes, “O Lord, grant the king a long life”, followed before the Enthroning and Homage.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prince of Wales, in his Garter robes, paid their homage. There could be no pretending that this was comparable to the iconic moment in 1953 when the young Duke of Edinburgh knelt before his wife; and in the Abbey we could not know how much of the rest of society was responding with enthusiasm to the Archbishop’s revised invitation to “offer their support . . . with a moment of private reflection, by joining in saying ‘God save King Charles’ at the end, or, for those with the words before them, to recite them in full”.

After the cry of “May The King live for ever!” there was another moment when an opera singer, this time Roderick Williams, gave commanding delivery of a liturgical text: a Rutter arrangement of the Walford Davies setting of the Confortare (“Be strong”), one of those things that seems to be tweaked at each successive coronation. (It was “and play the man”; then it was “and be of a good courage” for Queen Elizabeth II; and this has become “and show thy worth” at the present coronation).


THE Queen’s anointing and crowning followed: a much simpler business, at the faldstool; and then she was enthroned, and the choir sang Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new setting after Psalm 98, “Make a joyful noise”. This was distinctively ALW, in the grand mode; and, naturally, there was more than a hint of the West End stage about it. It was the right piece to introduce a hymn: “Christ is made the sure foundation”, although was, perhaps, not quite as well known to the congregation as “All people that on earth do dwell” might have been.

AlamyThe newly anointed King proceeds down the nave, wearing the Imperial Crown, accompanied by the Bishops Assistant

The prayer over the gifts or “secret”, the same as in 1953, followed; and then, slightly different from the 1662 service used then, but familiar to all who lived through Series 1 & 2 and the ASB, the Eucharistic Prayer: “. . . not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences”. The communion did not take long; and this time it was broadcast, although the camera withdrew to a discreet distance. We, too, could distantly glimpse the Archbishop passing to each of the royal communicants, after communicating himself and the Bishops of Chelmsford and Dover. The Agnus Dei, in Tarik O’Regan’s new setting, looked like a restoration at this coronation; for it was presumably part of the coronation masses before the 1552 Prayer Book omitted it.

A short collect served as post-communion prayer; there was a blessing; and then another hymn, “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven”. It was a relief to stand and sing again; and certainly more of the media people seemed familiar with this one. It was followed by Boyce’s coronation anthem from 1761, “The King shall rejoice”, and then Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, arranged by Rutter. This gave many in the congregation a false start: trumpet fanfares towards the end had them on their feet for the King’s return, but there was more of the Walton to come.

There was, then, a slightly anxious pause, during which the organ played, before the return of the King and Queen from the Chapel of St Edward, in their robes of estate, the King now wearing the Imperial State Crown. When they appeared, it was a moment to sigh with relief: the National Anthem, in Gordon Jacob’s arrangement — home and dry.

The procession formed, and Elgar’s fourth “Pomp and Circumstance” March accompanied the King’s progress down the Abbey, flanked by two happy-looking Bishops Assistant, who had had plenty of work during the more nervous-making parts of the ceremonial. The King, too, looked relieved that the onerous ceremonial had been completed.

We did not hear the King’s greeting with the faith leaders at the west door of the Abbey, as we had been warned that it would not be amplified; and soon the press were hurrying out of the north door to be rewarded with a distant view of the King and Queen in the Gold State Coach, pulled by its eight Windsor Greys, and the gleaming military spectacle for which so many people had lined the pavements in the rain.

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