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Power of the Crown still a sceptre sways?

by
28 April 2023

Do royal rituals continue to evoke a spiritual response in the British people, as they did in the past, asks Ian Bradley

THERE is a danger in over-spiritualising the Coronation and using somewhat hyperbolic language about its significance. On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, Geoffrey Fisher, as Archbishop of Canterbury, solemnly announced that England had been brought closer to the Kingdom of heaven, and another senior cleric declared that it was “a miracle that might save civilisation”. The prominent humanist and socialist journalist Kingsley Martin was justified in observing that “extravagant views of monarchy are usually expressed at coronations” (The Crown and the Establishment, Hutcheson, 1962).

Other secularist commentators criticised the 1953 coronation for being altogether too religious in tone. In his trenchant attack on the monarchy in general, and the Queen in particular, for being totally out of touch, published in 1958, John Grigg, newly ennobled as Lord Altrincham, complained that “the Coronation had emphasized the priestly aspect of her office and in the ensuing period she had continued to appear more sacerdotal than secular” (Is the Monarchy Perfect? John Calder, 1958).


IN GENERAL, however, journalists and authors writing about the last coronation acknowledged and welcomed its sacred character.

For the former Times religious affairs correspondent and Daily Telegraph and Tablet columnist, Clifford Longley: “The Coronation of our Queen was an act of God performed by human hands, and the assembly held its breath at the mystery and wonder of it. It was one of the central acts of statehood, the moment whereby all temporal authority in the realm flowing from the king was legitimised and sanctified. This is the doctrine of Christian kingship” (The Daily Telegraph, 29 June 1994).

Perhaps more surprisingly, the somewhat cynical and world-weary Jeremy Paxman found himself, in his 2006 book On Royalty (Viking, 2006), acknowledging and affirming the religious character of the coronation and its testimony to the essentially sacred nature of monarchy: “Cold reasoning says that there is no reason why a king should not assume office in a ceremony shorn of religious ritual and anachronistic flummery. An impresario who attempted to stage such an event for a king would find himself having to address some very awkward questions.

“In wealthy western societies the idea of the sacred has been steadily impoverished ever since the Industrial Revolution. Monarchy is almost the last institution in the land to which any mystique attaches. Indeed, the mystique is the most powerful guarantor of its survival. To remove the element of magic from the ritual of enthronement might well leave the institution so exposed that it would wither and die.

Paxman went on to reflect that “monarchs stand for something beyond themselves, and in that sense are less political creatures than religious ones”, and that “there is certainly an argument for saying that royalty can be properly understood only in religious terms.”


THE most profound and, in some ways, surprising reflection on this topic comes in an academic article about the meaning of the last coronation by two sociologists, Edward Shils and Michael Young, in an article in the Sociological Review (New Series, vol. 1), in 1953. For them, “the coronation was the ceremonial occasion for the affirmation of the moral values by which the society lives. It was an act of national communion and an intensive contact with the sacred.”

Their argument was based in part on their observation of the coronation’s impact on “ordinary” people. They noted that it was frequently spoken of as an “inspiration” and a “re-dedication of the nation”. The ceremony had “touched the sense of the sacred” in people, heightening a sense of solidarity in both families and communities.

They pointed to examples of reconciliation between long-feuding neighbours and family members brought about by the shared experience of watching the ceremony together on television, and noted that the crowds lining the streets of London on Coronation Day were not idle curiosity-seekers but “looking for contact with something which is connected with the sacred”.

Shils, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and Young, a former research secretary of the Labour Party, argued that Elizabeth II’s coronation had enabled people to affirm moral values, notably “generosity, charity, loyalty, justice in the distribution of opportunities and rewards, reasonable respect for authority, the dignity of the individual and his right to freedom”. The sacred properties and charisma of the Crown strengthened the moral consensus prevailing in Britain.

“The monarchy is the one pervasive institution, standing above all others, which plays a part in a vital way comparable to the function of the medieval church . . . the function of integrating diverse elements into a whole by protecting and defining their autonomy.”


WHAT is remarkable about these statements is that they came not from churchmen or monarchists, but from left-leaning sociologists who were particularly struck by the morally cohesive effect produced by the actual form of the coronation ceremony.

“The Coronation Service itself is a series of ritual affirmations of the moral values necessary to a well-governed and good society. The key to the Coronation Service is the Queen’s promise to abide by the moral standards of society” (ibid).

In addition to the oath which Shils and Young singled out as being especially important in this regard, the act of anointing, and the investiture with the bracelets of sincerity and wisdom, the orb, and the sword were also identified as being not just symbolic but transformative in bringing Queen and people “into a great nation-wide communion”.

“The Coronation”, they concluded, “provided at one time and for practically the entire society such an intensive contact with the sacred that we believe we are justified in interpreting it, as we have done in this essay, as a great act of national communion.”

Will future sociologists and commentators write in similar terms about the 2023 Coronation? We are a much more fractured, secular, and diverse society now than we were 70 years ago. Yet perhaps, for that very reason, the Coronation of Charles III may speak to, and partially answer, the yearning for unity, healing, and spirituality which so many manifestly feel.

Shils and Young noted that the 1953 Coronation Service, stage-managed by the Church of England, “served the vague religiosity of the British people”. That vague religiosity is still there — latent, barely articulated, but ready to be inspired and touched. The late Queen’s death undoubtedly released it. Maybe so, too, will her son’s Coronation.


The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

This is an edited extract from God Save the King: The sacred nature of the monarchy, published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-915412-52-2.

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