AS THE heavens opened, a chant that sounded like “End the rain” started up in one corner of Trafalgar Square. They were not, however, railing against the inclement conditions in which the crowd were awaiting a glimpse of the King; rather, it was a cry to do away with his position: to “end the reign”.
Several hundred republican protesters had gathered beside the statue of King Charles I, though both the bronze likeness and the road that his namesake would travel were partially obscured by a media gantry doubling as a police look-out tower.
As a crowd waited for the gilded procession to arrive, the republicans — with conspicuous yellow flags, placards, and T-shirts contrasting with the mass of red, white, and blue — periodically took up a chant of “Not my king,” answered with boos from the rest of the crowd, and a counter-refrain of “God save the King.”
Sharon was stood on the edge of the republican protest, but clearly wasn’t part of it, with a CRIII-imprinted Union flag around her shoulders, another in her hand, and a third on her head in the form of a bucket hat.
“I’ve come here to be part of history and just to soak up the atmosphere. Everyone’s making friends, everyone’s chatting, everyone’s in good spirits — apart from this lot next to us . . .”, she said, indicating the protesters.
But, within the yellow-clad ranks, solidarity was emerging between several protesters who, independently, had brought placards carrying slogans drawing on their Christian faith.
Mark Ward, a Quaker, said that he had been “quietly uncomfortable with the monarchy for such a long time, and it was wonderful today to have the opportunity to vocalise it.
“I actually feel quite proud to be British today, because I still have the right to protest,” though earlier in the day several of the campaigning group Republic, including its chief executive, Graham Smith, had been arrested, seemingly under new public-order laws (News, 25 January).
Symon Hill, a Baptist from Oxford who was arrested in September at a proclamation of the King (Comment, 27 January), was also among the small band of Christians in Trafalgar Square.
“I think there’s a real danger today that the Coronation feels like an act of counter-evangelism whereby we give people a bad impression of Christianity: we give people the impression that Christianity is about pomp and privilege, it’s something that’s only relevant on special occasions, and is about celebrating billionaires rather than valuing and affirming all people.”
Annabel and Timmy, a brother and sister from Wiltshire, had travelled up to London, eager to see history in action. Their mum, Helen, said that they weren’t religious, but were royalist, and were glad that representatives from a broad range of other religions, as well as different Christian denominations, featured during and after the service.
Cally and Beth were in Trafalgar Square out of a similar motivation to be present at a historic moment, and admitted to being not quite as ardent as Cally’s mother, Carla, who had joined the crowds for the weddings of Prince William and Prince Harry.
“He’s definitely a servant to the people,” she said of King Charles. “I think he’ll be a good King: he wants to serve, and I think he cares for people from all backgrounds.”
Symon Hill, though, had little time for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s description of Charles as “a King to serve” at the start of his sermon.
“Whatever good intentions [the King] may have, his occasional five-minute conversations with people in poverty is a million miles away from Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and the marginalised,” Symon Hill said.
As we were speaking, a chant of “Not my king” started up from the protesters, swiftly answered with boos and jeers.
The small band of Christian republicans came in for some specific criticism, Mark Ward told me. “We had somebody who came up to us and said: ‘You call yourselves Christians, and you’re making so much noise: Christians should be quiet.’”
DESPITE their evident fervour, none of the royalists I spoke to in Trafalgar Square regretted the last-minute decision to broaden the terms of the Archbishop’s invitation to the public to join in the People’s Homage.
“I don’t know what the purpose of it was, to be honest,” Sharon said. “Pledging allegiance is an American thing, not an English thing. But it’s always been ‘God Save the Queen,’ now it’s ‘God Save the King.’”
Paul Blacker had travelled down from Leeds for the Coronation, and was dressed for the occasion in a Union-flag jacket, white ruffle shirt, gold-coloured crown, and —covering all bases — was wearing sunglasses as well as holding an umbrella.
I asked him what “God Save the King” meant if one didn’t believe in God. “I’m not religious, but what else do you say?” he replied, and likened the religious context of the Coronation as akin to a church wedding, at which the spiritual side registered only if one was a believer. “It’s horses for courses, but to me it doesn’t have any bearing.”
Carla, who grew up in a Methodist family, agreed that the opening words of the National Anthem were more a traditional formula than a theological statement: “I’m quite strange in that I believe in Church — I think Church is great — but I don’t actually believe in God. ‘God Save the King’ is just a saying, isn’t it? It’s just tradition that it’s always been said.”
WHILE most of the crowd, monarchists and republicans alike, seemed to be enjoying themselves, despite the rain, others took a dimmer view.
“I can’t see nowt: I wish I hadn’t bothered and watched it on telly,” Mr Blacker said, and expressed disgruntlement at the protesters: “I don’t want to go anywhere near them dodos!”
But, despite the frustrations of rain, protesters, and a poor view, he expressed his love for the Royal Family: “I just feel that they’re me, you know: they’re who we are as a country.
“It makes you proud of what we’ve got, heritage and history and stuff like that, and it’s still going on today. People moan and groan about it, but if it were ever taken away from us, they’d be complaining again, saying ‘Why did we get rid of it?’”
When the procession eventually arrived, just about visible above the Union flags and upheld smartphones, a cheer went up, sustained and full-throated, rendering the boos inaudible from where I was standing, in the centre of the square.
Almost the moment the carriage had rolled out of sight, people started making for the exits, heading towards the screens in the royal parks, or joining the queue to get into the Sherlock Holmes pub on Craven Street.
Others took shelter from the rain beneath the arches of the Grand Building, watching the service on their phones or tucking into an early picnic lunch.
The republican protesters, though, remained mostly in their place, which happened to be right next to the speakers on which audio from Westminster Abbey was being played.
The choral music was juxtaposed with boos through parts of Zadok the Priest, and chants of “End the reign” — by now clearly a comment on the climate as well as the constitution.
Mark Ward described his fellow protesters as an “amiable bunch”, but said that he found it upsetting when they shouted during the Gospel.
“All of us Christians who ended up gravitating together, we got the impression that most of those around us assumed that a Christian would be a monarchist, and, on the other hand, that there was an assumed atheism about republicanism: that you couldn’t possibly be at that protest and not reject the entire Establishment, God, and King. Of course, our contention is that you can very easily separate God and King.”