This Saturday King Charles III will be crowned at Westminster Abbey. The coronation is rooted not just within our national culture but within our Christian heritage. Monarchs have not always been Christian, but they were appointed as figureheads of a nation’s cultural values. Since its political inception England experienced a succession of invasions and internecine wars. Many were religious or cultural conflicts.
King Alfred was one of the first English Kings to promote cultural and religious cohesion. He believed that a King,
“…must have praying men, fighting men and working men…without these tools no King may make his ability known..nor can he accomplish any of the things he was commanded to do”
King Alfred’s great grandson, King Edgar received the holy rites at his coronation at Bath Abbey in 973 AD. Edgar combined the legacy of Alfred with a sacred ceremony of investiture. He promised to keep the Church and its people in peace, to maintain justice and to forbid iniquity in all forms. He was anointed and then regaled with a rendition of Zadok the Priest. Finally he was presented with the ring, the sword, the crown, the sceptre and the rod. These were the insignia that were awarded in honour of his kingship.
The Scottish monarchs, however, followed a separate rite. The coronations were at Scone Abbey where the monarch would sit on the fabled Stone of Destiny. This Stone has portentous origins. According to legend the prophet Jeremiah brought the Stone of Jacob to Ireland to crown the early Irish Kings, and then transported to Scotland during the fifth century by Fergus, the first King of the Scots.
Aidan received the rites in 574 from St. Columba, the Irish missionary accredited with re-evangelising the Scots. All English Monarchs respected the sovereignty of Scotland until Edward I ascended the English throne.
In 1296 Edward invaded Scotland. The Stone was seized by his henchmen and taken to Westminster Abbey to be integrated into the English coronation chair. Edward looked upon Scotland with disdain. His ransacking of the sacred investitures of the Scottish crown revealed his arrogance and imperial ambition. This soured Scottish and English relations for successive generations.
However arrogant and pious Kings were a familiar part of our history, even to the extent that they believed that their moral authority superseded the Church. King James became the ruler of both Scotland and England in 1603 when the Union of Crowns was enacted.
James` successor, King Charles I held separate coronations in England and Scotland. The Scottish ceremony took place at Holyrood Abbey and it was observed to be reverential and authentic, reflecting Charles’ Anglo-Catholic faith. Many Scottish Presbytarians were affronted by the service. Charles’ belief that he was ordained by God was perceived by his subjects as arrogant and tyrannous.
However the historian David Starkey reminds us that
“King Charles I redeemed a disastrous reign with a noble, sacrificial death as he humbled himself, Christ-like and self-consciously so, to the executioner’s axe”.
The English Civil War led to a radical reassessment of Monarchy. The Monarch had an obligation to the people rather than himself.
These solemn obligations have been interpreted selectively by various Monarchs. The status of Monarch has been subject to reinterpretation over the centuries. Other European nations divested themselves of Monarchs owing to fears of absolutism, but British Monarchs have adapted to ally themselves with their subjects.
Monarchs are appointed by God to do His work but they are not Gods, after the “Glorious Revolution” Protestantism became an unambiguous component in the coronation ceremony. Since then, every Monarch has pledged to be solely spiritual and detached from secular affairs. The mystical and invisible bond that exists between the Monarch and the people is something that is felt by the majority of the nation, it was reanimated after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
It was remarkable to witness the events that unfolded after her death. A nation which often seems so unsentimental and cynical was overpowered by the significance of such monumental news. Now her son has had to take the burden of representing and leading the nation, just as his forebears promised to do with varying degrees of success. His pledge is now going to be shared by the entire nation, it is a refreshing and uncynical attempt to cohere the nation once more, in the spirit and humility of Alfred The Great.