When William, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold at Hastings in 1066, he was determined that he should be seen as the legitimate king of England. He set his sights on being crowned in the new Abbey Church that Edward the Confessor had built beside his Palace at Westminster. For almost a thousand years, Westminster Abbey, with the Shrine of St Edward, King and Confessor, at its heart, has remained the place of coronation for our Monarchs.
The rite of Coronation in England, which is really a series of ancient rituals, has its roots in the ninth century and was codified in the fourteenth in a book called the Liber Regalis, which the Abbey still possesses. It was further modified over the following centuries, adapting to changing needs. Today’s service draws on that long tradition, set once again within the context of the Eucharist, which is the defining act of worship for the Church universal. Bible passages will be read from the letter to the Colossians and the Gospel according to St Luke; the Archbishop will preach a short sermon; hymns will be sung; and bread and wine will be offered, consecrated, and received by The King and Queen, to strengthen and guide them in their public service.
Early in the service His Majesty The King turns to each of the four points of the compass and is recognised by his peoples as their ‘undoubted King’, who acceded immediately upon the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A Bible is presented to The King, upon which he swears oaths to govern the
peoples with justice and mercy and uphold the Churches. Then, for the first time at a Coronation, The King prays publicly for grace to be ‘a blessing to all … of every faith and belief’ and to serve after the pattern of Christ.
After the sermon, the ancient hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus is sung in languages from across the United Kingdom, calling on the Holy Spirit just before the most sacred part of the Coronation rite—the anointing with holy oil. A Screen shields The King from view as he sits in the Coronation Chair for this most solemn and personal of moments. Beneath him, the Cosmati pavement symbolises the whole cosmos on the Day of Judgement, when Christ will judge all things in his mercy; the King of kings, whom all Monarchs are called to reflect, and to whom all must give an account.
Once anointed, The King is vested in priestly garments that symbolise both humility (the Colobium Sindonis) and splendour (the Supertunica, Stole, and Robe); reflecting the two natures of Christ who ‘though he was in the form of God … emptied himself … being born in human likeness’ (from Philippians 2: 6–8). The King represents humanity restored to its full dignity and glory in Christ, as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Peter 2: 9).
Various items of regalia are presented to The King, each a visible reminder of his great responsibility under God. There are Spurs and Armills, which would have been worn by a medieval knight, and a Sword which The King first wears and then offers in the service of God. Then come the symbols of secular and spiritual power: an Orb, representing the world under Christ; a Sceptre with Cross, representing earthly power, held in a restrained, gloved hand; and the Sceptre with Dove, representing spiritual authority exercised chiefly in mercy. There is also a Ring symbolising the faithful ‘marriage’ of a Monarch to his peoples. In particular, those presenting the regalia to The King reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom and its peoples, in striking contrast to seventy years ago. A moment of great symbolism follows when the Archbishop places St Edward’s Crown on The King’s anointed head, all cry ‘God Save The King’, a fanfare is sounded, the Abbey bells are rung, and gun salutes are fired.
The King then moves from the Coronation Chair to his Throne in the centre of the Abbey and is encouraged by the Archbishop to ‘Stand firm and hold fast’, confident in God ‘whose throne endures for ever.’ Once enthroned, The King receives Homage (a promise of allegiance and faithfulness, recognising his spiritual and earthly authority), first from the Archbishop of Canterbury, then from His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and finally the opportunity for the congregation and people elsewhere to participate in various ways. Before joining The King, enthroned alongside him in the centre of the Abbey, The Queen is herself anointed and crowned, and presented with her own items of regalia.
The Liturgy of the Sacrament, with the giving of Holy Communion to The King and Queen, constitutes the remainder of the service, after which they retire into the Chapel of St Edward to prepare for the final procession. In 1547, Archbishop Cranmer preached at the Coronation of Edward VI, The Almighty God of his mercy let the light of his countenance shine upon your majesty, grant you a prosperous and happy reign, defend you, and save you; and let your subjects say, Amen.
Throughout the changing centuries, the Coronation Service has held together hopes both for our immediate and our eternal destinies. It has been and still is an occasion for prayer. Today we pray for our King, and pray with him, for a nation united and rejoicing in its diversity, and, ultimately, for a world healed and reconciled in the eternal banquet of the saints in heaven.
Click the image below to watch the coronation service live from Westminster Abbey.