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Coronation rite imbued with ancient symbolism

05 May 2023

William Gulliford explains the significance of the coronation regalia


The royal regalia, including St Edward’s Crown (top) and the Imperial State Crown

The royal regalia, including St Edward’s Crown (top) and the Imperial State Crown

THE coronation vesture and regalia underline what was understood by the author of the English rite, St Dunstan: that, through the rituals of the Coronation, the King becomes persona mixta: a “mixed person” — one who is both lay and ordained.

In the rite, the King will be consecrated with the oil of chrism. This is an echo of the anointing of the kings of Israel, and most notably Saul, David, and Solomon. The Church’s use of chrism shows there is an echo of baptism at the heart of the rite, as well as ordination.

Several liturgical and ceremonial strands combine in this collection of objects. We find elements from Byzantium, with its direct line of ascent through Constantine to the early Roman Emperors. Much of the coronation vesture proper is a memory and expression of Byzantine court dress, which was appropriated in the West after the coronation of Constantine. There are echoes of pre-Christian Frankish and Saxon tribal insignia, which were Christianised in the early Middle Ages.

Nearly all the English regalia needed to be remade for King Charles II’s coronation in 1661, after the originals had been melted down or broken up in 1649. All that remains from the first set is the Anointing Spoon. It acts as a bridge to ancient items, which were regarded as relics of St Edward as well as coronation ornaments.

The sequence of garments worn by the King — the scarlet parliamentary robes on arrival, linen for the anointing, gold upon gold for the coronation, imperial purple at the recess — tells of our human destiny in Christ. It is the character of Christian baptism that we die, and that, in Christ, we shall be made alive and reign with him, at the right hand of the Father in glory.

Some of the key items of the King’s regalia are replicated for the Queen Consort, who, following her husband, will be anointed and crowned as well. The rituals around her sacring are slightly less elaborate, and she wears the same robes throughout.

The “inthronisation” of the Sovereign after the Coronation itself is a patterning of the King’s new life on that of the ascended Christ. At once, it speaks of the unique and special part that the King plays in society, and of the trajectory for all Christians through baptism.

Arguably, no secular creed can preach such radical transformation, from glory to glory. The vesture and regalia transform the recipient of the coronation rite into a newly begotten person.


The Vesture

The Gloves: Much like the gloves of a bishop, worn when presiding at the eucharist in former times, the gloves, as vesture, underline that the hands that wear them are anointed. Furthermore, in these rites, the King handles holy things, implements with weighty significance, and he holds in his hands the well-being and security of his people. The gloves, therefore, have always spoken of the sanctity of the office that is held and all that signifies that.

The Colobium Sindonis: Sindonis is a Latinisation of a Greek word referring to linen. Colobium, also Greek in origin, implies that the garment is sleeveless. It is a liturgical undergarment, comparable to an alb. In the East it is a chiton. This vestment is divided at the side so that it can be put on the Sovereign without being put over his head, and fastened on the shoulder. It echoes the white baptismal garment, and the white robes of the saints described in the Revelation of St John, as well as the pure-linen high-priestly vestments.

The Supertunica: Also known as the Robe Royal, the Supertunica is a full-length sleeved coat with a belt, made of gold silk. This reminds us that a bishop traditionally wore a tunicle and dalmatic under the chasuble at the eucharist. The Supertunica has been divided down the middle for convenience. The robe above was made in 1911, and has been worn at the past three coronations. The Supertunica is reminiscent of the Eastern sakkos. After being vested in it, the Sovereign is handed the orb and sword, both of which are returned to the altar.

The Imperial Mantle, Pallium Regale or Pall: This robe resembles a cope. It is the Eastern chlamys. It is one of the most obviously priestly vestments worn by the Sovereign for the coronation itself. The one worn by the Queen in 1953 was made for the coronation of King George IV in 1821. It has a golden clasp in the form of an eagle.

The Stole Royal: The last stole was made in 1953 by the Worshipful Company of Girdlers for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; it is the Company’s privilege to present it. It is one of the most potent symbols of sacral kingship. The embroidery on the past three stoles has become progressively more overtly religious.

The Sovereign’s Parliamentary Robe and Cap of Maintenance: At the entry of the King to Westminster Abbey, he will wear his scarlet parliamentary robe and the Cap of Maintenance. These insignia display the reality that the King is already in office and presides over temporal rule and governance.

The robe underlines that the King is both a part of the parliamentary process, by dint of coming from the peerage, and, by the Crown in Parliament, provides the authority for its workings.

AlamyThe Supertunica (left) and the Imperial Mantle (right), displayed in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace

The Cap of Maintenance was a papal gift to medieval kings, as a token of respect and to underline from where blessing and countenance came. At the State Opening of Parliament, the Lord Privy Seal carries the Cap on a stick, and it is borne during the Coronation by one of the great officers of state after the King removes it. Ian Bradley comments that the monarch enters the Abbey robed in the colour of martyrdom. It is not clear that this is the intention, but the Sovereign’s loss of themselves in this rite is an important theological reality to note. The symbolism of sacrifice continues throughout.


The Regalia Proper 

St Edward’s Crown 1661: The first certain reference to a crown being used in England was for the coronation of King Eadwig, in January 956. There is a possibility that one had been given to the kings of England by Pope Leo in 853, for the coronation of King Alfred, but there is no documentary evidence of this.

The origin of crowns of kingship is most probably oriental, although there is reference to their use in the Hebrew Bible. In Christian terms, the strongest allusion to crowning is our Lord’s crown of thorns, with other New Testament allusions to crowns won through suffering.

We might consider the crown as the outward, visible, and lustrous sign of the hidden and sacred reality of the King’s having been anointed with chrism. At the last coronation, it was said that the then Queen’s “dedicated and royal person stands for all those supreme ideals of her people’s life that are outside and above the sphere of earthly governance”.

Certainly, the St Edward’s Crown is extremely heavy, weighing nearly five pounds. As far as possible, in 1661, it was made to resemble its predecessor. Its extreme weight lays the heavy burden of kingship on the King’s head. Its association with, and echo of, the regalia of St Edward suggests to the recipient that he or she succeeds one who is a saint of the Church, and the items of whose regalia were relics. The setting of the Coronation before the shrine of St Edward underlines this.

The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross (with additions) 1661: Before the crowning, the King is invested with the Sceptre and Rod, which together speak of the rod and staff spoken of as God’s regalia in Psalm 23.4. In 1911, the Crown Jeweller, Garrard, mounted the First Star of Africa, or Cullinan I, into the Sovereign’s Sceptre of 1661. The diamond is so large that the sceptre had to be reinforced to take its weight. Nevertheless, the structure that holds the diamond is hinged; so the stone can be removed and worn separately if desired.

The Rod of Equity and Mercy 1661: The Rod represents the Sovereign’s spiritual role, the dove symbolising the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, it has been known as “the Rod of Equity and Mercy”. The Sovereign is presented with these two sceptres: the one above surmounted by a cross, representing temporal power, and this one, surmounted by a dove.

The Orb 1661: The Orb is generally held to be another form of the Sceptre, but is more probably an elaborated form of the Greek akakia. It represents the Sovereign’s power. It symbolises the Christian world, with its cross mounted on a globe, and the bands of jewels dividing it up into three sections represent the three continents known in medieval times. It is mounted with clusters of emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, and surrounded by rose-cut diamonds and single rows of pearls. A cross on the top is set with rose-cut diamonds, with a sapphire in the centre on one side and an emerald on the other, and with pearls at the angles and at the end of each arm. During the coronation service, the Orb is placed in the right hand of the monarch when invested with the symbols of sovereignty. It is then placed on the altar before the moment of crowning. It is then borne by the Sovereign, on departing from the shrine of St Edward.

The Ring 1821: As previous rings had been made for each sovereign, so this was made for William IV in 1821. It was left to Queen Victoria by Queen Adelaide, who, in turn, left it to remain with the Crown Jewels. It has been worn by all monarchs since Edward VII. It may be compared with both a wedding ring and a bishop’s ring.


The Swords 

There are five Swords borne and used during the coronation rite. They have chivalric overtones, but certainly date from before the Conquest, to pre-Christian Saxon rites. As with many aspects of the Coronation, the deliberate merging of sacred and secular, spiritual and temporal, makes them objects of particular interest.

The Royal Collection’s literature says that the Swords reflect the part played by the Sovereign as head of the British Armed Forces. This is certainly true. But, beyond that, they are weapons of destruction, which, by their use in this setting, become sacred.

Four are carried before the monarch into the Abbey: the Sword of State, which is used for other subsequent occasions during the monarch’s reign, notably the State Opening of Parliament; the blunt Sword of Mercy (also known as Curtana); the Sword of Spiritual Justice; and the Sword of Temporal Justice.

The latter three speak directly of Christian kingly rule, in elevated and spiritual terms, distancing their bellicose function from that which they represent. These three swords are believed to have been supplied at the time of James I, between 1610 and 1620, probably by a member of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, using blades created in the 1580s by the Italian bladesmiths Giandonato and Andrea Ferrara.

They were deposited with St Edward’s regalia at the Abbey by Charles II. Before that point, since the 15th century, new swords had been made for each coronation. Sold in the Civil War, these items were returned at the Restoration, and their use was first recorded at the coronation of James II in 1685.

The Jewelled Sword of Offering was made in 1821 for the coronation of George IV. Unlike the other swords, it is richly embellished with jewels, and cost a staggering £6000 at the time. It is handed to the Sovereign after the anointing and before the crowning; it is then returned — the official term in the rite is “redeemed”. The redemption of a potentially lethal weapon, however disguised by rich adornment, which at once is a sign of the cross, a sign of leadership with an allusion to mercy, could be seen to sacralise the activity of secular rule.

These several swords are potent reminders that leadership involves invidious choices. The dependence on God for guidance and accountability assists the sovereign to know that they are not alone. The redemption of this symbol of office is both a comfort and a cost. 

Before the Sword of Oblation is offered on the altar, the Archbishop prays, in tomorrow’s revised rite:

Receive this kingly Sword. May it be to you, and to all who witness these things, a sign and symbol not of judgement, but of justice; not of might, but of mercy. . .

When the King is seated, the Archbishop continues:

With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God and all people of goodwill, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the tings that gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amisss, and confirm what is in good order. . .

The Sword is then redeemed for 100 shillings by the Lord President of the Council, received from the Dean of Westminster, and it is then borne “naked” before the Sovereign for the rest of the ceremony.


Other regalia

The Spurs 1661 (with 1821 additions): Gold spurs were first included among the English coronation ornaments in 1189, at the coronation of Richard I (the Lionheart). They symbolised knighthood, and their use in the coronation ritual derives directly from the ceremony of creating a knight. These spurs were made in 1661 for Charles II, but were altered in 1820 for George IV, when new textiles replaced the earlier buckles and straps. Traditionally, the spurs were fastened to the Sovereign’s feet, but, since the Restoration, they have simply been held to the ankles of kings, or in the case of queens regnant, presented and then placed on the altar. They are an echo also of Roman Imperial inaugurations, where footwear had a considerable significance. After the investiture with the spurs, the sovereign is crowned.

There is no direct reference to spurs for use when riding, in the Bible, although Psalm 32.9 says “Be not like horse or mule . . . which must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not keep you.” The spurs are reminiscent of the chivalric age. The revised wording describes them as symbols of honour and courage, but also says: “May you bve a brave advocate for those in need.”

The Armills 1953: These were made and presented by the countries of the Commonwealth in 1953. They are of solid gold. They replaced Armills made in 1661 for Charles II. Worn as bracelets, they bind the sovereign to his or her people. As mentioned earlier, it would seem their origin was more as a vestment than jewellery. Although priestly attire, the late Queen wore them after she had left the Abbey in 1953 — the only items of the coronation regalia not to have been removed in the shrine of St Edward.

The Ampulla 1661, and Spoon 11th century: An ancient French legend held that in 496, when Clovis, King of the Franks, was converted, oil from heaven was provided for his anointing. The French Oil was known by its receptacle, The Sainte Ampoulle. It is from this legend that we derive the word ampulla, the eagle-shaped vessel for the anointing oil.

Not to be outdone, in England, a much later legend maintained that the Blessed Virgin Mary handed to St Thomas of Canterbury holy oil for use here. Certainly, in the reign of Richard II, oil, which may have had a much earlier provenance, was found in the Jewel House, and assumed to be this miraculous oil, and it was used for the coronations of Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. It was poured from a small vessel in the shape of an eagle.

When the regalia were remade in 1661, the new ampulla was made to the former design, but stands taller, at 21cm. A yeoman from Charles I’s royal wardrobe, Clement Kynnersley, who had bought the silver-gilt spoon after the regicide, returned it at the Restoration. After undergoing minor repairs, it was considered in order to use it.

The inventory of the regalia of St Edward in 1349 records 12th century, but may originally have served to mix water and wine at the offertory. It has been used with the ampulla for the anointing since 1661, and is a direct connection between the rite of today and at least the Norman period. It is significant that one of the most sacred objects of the regalia is so ancient.

The Gold Chalice and Paten 1661: Much of the plate belonging to the Crown is housed in the Tower of London. The most beautiful examples are the solid gold chalice and paten, the work of the Royal Jeweller, Thomas Vyner, one of London’s greatest goldsmiths.

The bread and wine for the eucharist are presented in these vessels at the offertory, traditionally by the bishops respectively who have read the epistle and Gospel. At the same time, the Sovereign has traditionally offered a linen cloth and an ingot of gold. This is not mentioned in the 2023 rite.

In 1953, Archbishop Fisher, encouraged by earlier students of the rite, placed one of the ancient “secret” prayers from the Liber Regalis, which had fallen out of use since the coronation of William and Mary, and this is retained tomorrow: “Bless, O Lord, we beseech thee, these thy gifts, and sanctify them unto this holy use, that by them we may be made partakers of the Body and Blood of thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, and fed unto everlasting life of soul and body: And that thy servant King Charles may be enabled to the discharge of this weighty office, whereunto of thy great goodness thou hast called and appointed him. Grant this, O Lord, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.”

The Imperial Robe and Imperial State Crown: The reference toImperial” robes and the Imperial State Crown are not to colonial expansionism from the 16th century. The idea of England as an empire is an early-medieval concept, underlining the integrity of the nation and its complete independence. The arches on English crowns make the same point.

After the receiving of communion, the King and Queen will retire to the shrine of St Edward, behind the high altar at Westminster Abbey to be vested in the Robes of State.

The King will remove the St Edward’s Crown, the outer (sacred) vesture and regalia, and will don the Imperial State Crown.

The procession through the Abbey, and from there to the awaiting crowds, manifests a king who is ruler of his lands, whose accountability is to no external secular power. The present Imperial State Crown dates from 1937, and is richly embellished with gems of considerable historic importance. The two largest are the Black Prince’s Ruby (in fact, a large spinel), given in 1367 by Don Pedro of Castille. The “ruby” was later worn by King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415.

The Stuart sapphire may well have been a gem that James II took with him at the Glorious Revolution in 1689, remaining among his pretending descendants, until it was bought back by King George IV, after the death of the last of the Stuarts, Henry, Cardinal York.

The crown also contains Cullinan II, which was inserted in 1909. The four large pearls on the top were most possibly earrings belonging to Queen Elizabeth I. One of St Edward’s precious gems, the St Edward Sapphire, sits on top of the crown. This crown was placed on Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin for the lying in state and funeral, with the orb and sceptre, before being placed on the altar at Windsor, one of the most moving moments of the ceremonies.


Canon William Gulliford is Vicar of St Mark’s, Regent’s Park, in London, and Director of Ordinands for the Diocese in Europe.

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