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The Throne: 1000 years of British coronation by Ian Lloyd

05 May 2023

Sarah Foot considers a new history of the coronation service

REMARKABLE continuity characterises the form and ritual of English (later British) coronations. Despite invasion and conquest, civil war, numerous changes of royal house, and shifts in the language of the ritual, there remain elements in the ceremony by which King Charles III will be crowned tomorrow which have remained constant for more than 1100 years.

Ian Lloyd’s study, published to coincide with the festivities, takes the reader chronologically through every coronation since William I’s. Yet William’s was not the first king-making to be held in Westminster Abbey, nor was the Conqueror the first king anointed with chrism, or the first to wear a crown as the symbol of regal status. A prayer uttered after the presentation of the royal regalia (ring, sword, crown, sceptre, and rod), “Stand firm and hold fast from now on . . .”, which urges the new monarch to remember his responsibilities towards the clergy, required adaptation. The earlier version had referred to a king’s inheritance of his position from his father, which William could not do. Yet the prayer itself long pre-dated the Conquest.

Disappointingly, Lloyd’s brief foreword makes little reference to pre-Conquest coronations of Anglo-Saxon kings and so misses an opportunity to emphasise these historical precedents. Anointing of kings by archbishops first began in England in the eighth century. The earliest English ordo placed a helmet on the head of the new king, but a fresh rite written perhaps by Alfred the Great and first used either for his son (Edward the Elder) and certainly for his grandson, Æthelstan, in 925 replaced helmet with crown.

It is from that time that we have a ritual for the anointing (on the head only) and the crowning of a queen. That same ceremony introduced another consistent element: the singing, at the king’s anointing, of an antiphon: “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.” It was not until George II’s coronation that this verse was first sung to the music of Mr Handel.

Lloyd’s study provides plentiful anecdotes about the liturgy itself (stories from which the clergy frequently emerge rather badly) and about the surrounding ceremonies, especially the processions to and from the Abbey and elaborate dinners, before and after the ceremony. Richard III’s two feasts seem elaborate, including 148 peacocks, 218 pigs, and 156 deer; but Mary Tudor enjoyed 312 dishes herself, while 7112 were served to her guests, of which 4900 were wasted. Among various details relevant to tomorrow’s ceremonies, we might note that Queen Camilla’s sceptre bearing a dove was first given to James II’s Queen Consort, Mary, in 1687.

The Revd Dr Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the University of Oxford, and Dean Designate of Christ Church.


The Throne: 1000 years of British coronation
Ian Lloyd
The History Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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