Monday, May 08, 2023

The Coronation - A Theatrical Reading, and why it matters

Penny Mordaunt carries the sword at the coronation

It's not very surprising to find people talking about the coronation as theatre. Great costumes, spectacular setting, a carefully rehearsed rhythmic exchange between spoken text and music, some remarkable characters.... The Guardian has even published a review by Michael Billington, in which he calls it "Shakespearean...  immensely touching", and gives it four stars. However, if you look at what actually happens within the coronation ceremony, it starts to seem a lot less theatrical than it may at first appear. And a lot more significant.

The impression of theatricality comes, I think, from the fact that most of us watched the event on television. That was true of the previous coronation too: a lot of British households bought their first TV in 1953 so they could watch the live broadcast. It was not true of any coronation prior to that, though, and the form of the event is very long established: many parts of it go right back to the crowning of Edgar at Bath Abbey in 973. The televised version is deceptive, in that it shows to the "audience" what is happening in the coronation chair and at the High Altar. Our received image of the ceremony is so ingrained from the endlessly repeated footage of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher crowning Elizabeth II that I was genuinely quite shocked to discover that the coronation chair did not in fact face the public, but rather formed a barrier between them and the very intimate space occupied by the monarch and the clergy. Add to that the fact that Westminster Abbey has a choir screen, and you realise that the supposedly privileged congregation is very much excluded from what is actually happening.

The anointing screens for Charles III

So these recent televised coronations are very different from any others, in that they invite spectatorship, and hence feel theatrical. There's a very real tension in this: a tension made clear by the insistence of the King that the moment of his anointing should be hidden entirely from public view, behind three screens. This was not what happened in 1953 or before, when the anointing took place under a canopy; but Elizabeth II stipulated that the footage of her anointing should never be shown again. Even this still image of the canopy is a rare find.

The anointing canopy for Elizabeth II

The reason that the monarchs are so wary of the anointing becoming spectacle is very simple: they believe it to be a particularly sacred moment, in which they are consecrated as sovereign. Handel's famous anthem sets a text from 1 Kings 1:38-40 - a text which has been used in every coronation since Edgar's - "Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King."  In other words, it is in this physically intimate and vulnerable moment that God places the monarch at the head of the nation. The fact that this is  still not permitted to become spectacle makes it clear that what happens here is still regarded as real. Our hereditary Head of State, referred to in one of the few public-facing moments of the ceremony as "your undoubted King", holds his office because God put him there.

If you think about it, what other theoretical justification can there be for an hereditary monarchy? Other "modernised" European monarchies tend not to bother with coronations: their theoretical underpinning seems to be that "it's just the way it is", and a lot of the debate around monarchy in the UK is also couched in those terms, making it much easier to accept and muddle on. But it won't do really, will it? 

Think about what happens in the coronation when the the Sword of State and Sword of Offering has been strapped to the King's side as part of his sovereign regalia.  It is then passed on to the Lord President of the Council, who represents the King's Ministers, the Executive arm of the government. All the fuss made about Penny Mordaunt's sword carrying skills just serves to obscure the very potent symbolism of this: the government receives the power which this sword represents as something delegated from the King, who in turn receives it from God. And where are the people in this? Nowhere to be seen.

Of course, it is often argued that "in reality" the government draws its power from an elected Parliament, and that we actually live in a democracy. I beg to differ. There are many powers exercised by the executive which are in fact the prerogative powers of the King, and which do not require the consent of Parliament. This was how Tony Blair was able to take us to war in Iraq without a vote in Parliament, even in the face of the largest popular protest in British history. There was nothing remotely democratic about it. It's only one example - there are many more - but it makes the point abundantly clear. Parliament may draft, debate and pass legislation, but it is the King who signs it into law, and there are many precedents for changes being made in order for the monarch to feel comfortable doing this. Many laws, including recent ones, include exceptions for the practice in royal households.

On Saturday, the Metropolitan Police arrested 64 anti-monarchy protestors, not for any public disorder, but on suspicion that they might commit disorder. Many activists and commentators have responded with justifiable concern, mentioning the "right" to peaceful protest. But the problem with this argument is that we don't have a proper Bill of Rights in this country, nor can we have unless and until sovereignty is vested in the people. While the Head of State remains an hereditary "undoubted King", consecrated by God, then we simply cannot say that he is "Not My King": he is, whether we like it or not, and we have no say in the matter. So the Police were correct - we cannot protest against the Coronation. 

We are not citizens, but subjects. In the 21st century, this is surely not tenable.

I had best include a disclaimer on this post, that what is argued here is my personal opinion only and does not represent any political stance by Border Crossings, which is a charity.