The Coronation of King Charles III
03 mei 2023 | John Laughland
The coronation of King Charles III in Westminster Abbey, London, on 6 May 2023 is an extremely rare event, full of important political lessons for conservatives, interested as they are in the conjunction of tradition and statecraft.
It is rare not only because the last coronation occurred in 1953, before most of us were born, but also because there are no other coronations anywhere in the Christian world. All the other European monarchies have abandoned the practice. Even the Pope is no longer crowned, as he used to be, the last papal coronation having been that of Paul VI in 1963.
This rarity is all the more striking in view of the second fact which should interest conservatives, namely that the specific ceremony consecrating the new king is extremely ancient. The British happily refer to the coronation of King Edgar in Bath in the year 959 but in fact the consecration of kings took place in Visigothic Spain in the 8th century.
Indeed, the words of consecration pronounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he applies holy oil to the king’s hands, forehead and breast are exactly the same words as those found in the Benedictional of Freising, a document which dates from middle of the 9th century describing the coronation ceremony of the Frankish kings and which is the oldest written record of what was, by then, already an ancient practice: “Let this hand / head etc. be anointed with holy oil, as kings and prophets were anointed. As Solomon was anointed by Zadok the priest, so be you blessed and constituted king in this kingdom which the Lord God gave you to rule and govern.”
In other words, the ceremony goes back to Biblical times. There are numerous references to the anointing of kings in the Old Testament, i.e. to the millennium which preceded the birth of Christ. The ceremony in London on 6 May has a direct connection with this very ancient practice, in that the oil which will be used comes from Bethlehem, the city of King David, and was consecrated at a special ceremony in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus of Nazareth, “king of the Jews” according to the inscription Pilate put on the cross, was crucified.
This is not just a reference to King Charles’ own connection to the Greek Orthodox church in which his father, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, was baptized, but, much more importantly, to the ancient kings of Israel whose symbolic role in prefiguring the reign of Christ is expressed by their appearance, in the form of statues, on the Western façade of the cathedral of Paris, Notre Dame. (The original statues were defaced and removed during the French revolution, because they were believed to represent not kings of Israel but kings of France, and were re-discovered by accident in the 1970s and are now in the Cluny museum.)
Another precedent for the ceremony, about which we know more than for ancient Israel, is the consecration of the Christian Roman emperors at Byzantium at the beginning of the first millennium. This ceremony is at the origin of the various European ceremonies of the Middle Ages. The key elements of that ancient Roman ceremony will all be repeated in London on 6 May: the oath taken by the monarch; the anointing by the archbishop; the acclamation of the new king by the people; and then holy communion.
In other words, the coronation of King Charles expresses the very essence of European civilization, based as it is on the twin inheritance of Rome (whose culture in turn derives from Athens) and Jerusalem. A ceremony which draws on the practice of ancient Israel and the Roman empire expresses the distinctively European understanding of the state, namely that the sovereign wields his power by the grace of God and according to the terms expressed in the coronation oath (a key part of the ceremony, and the beginning of it), namely to obey God’s law and to uphold the fundamental laws of the kingdom.
Tradition is the great aqueduct which we build and maintain, in order to draw on the very source of our civilisation, which lies outside us, and to transmit it so that it can continue to irrigate both us now and future generations to come. This is the European and worldwide significance of the coronation.