George IV’s 1821 coronation was a lavish affair, costing upwards of $26 million in today’s dollars. An estimated 4,656 guests flocked to Westminster Abbey in London, many of them dressed in costumes inspired by fashions of centuries past. After the British king was crowned, a select group of attendees moved to Westminster Hall for a banquet featuring 160 dishes of fish, 480 sauce boats, 80 savory pies and 100 gallons of iced punch. The highlight of the feast was the ceremonial arrival of the king’s champion, a nobleman who rode into the hall in full armor and threw down his gauntlet as a challenge to anyone who might object to George’s rule.
It was one of the more notable in the thousand-year history of British coronations—George’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline, tried to crash the occasion. The ceremony marked the last time a banquet and an appearance by the king’s champion formed part of the day’s festivities.
Held at Westminster Abbey since 1066, coronations are largely symbolic formalities. They don’t signal the beginning of a monarch’s reign. When Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022, at age 96, her eldest son, Prince Charles, immediately became king of England.
“The ceremony is no longer understood to make the king, but is really to make visible and make legitimate the fact that he is king,” says Alice Hunt, a historian at the University of Southampton in England and an expert on coronations. To put it another way, says George Gross, a historian at King’s College London and the co-founder of the British Coronations Project, the moment the previous ruler dies and the new one ascends to the throne is like their engagement to the state, while the coronation is a wedding solidifying that union.
Ahead of the coronation of Charles III on May 6, here’s what you need to know about the tradition’s origins and evolution, the most memorable ceremonies in British history, and what to expect from the first coronation to take place in the United Kingdom since 1953.
What is a coronation, and how did the tradition begin?
Defined simply, the word “coronation” refers to a ceremony in which a king or a queen is crowned. The tradition traces its roots to antiquity, when Egyptian pharaohs, biblical kings and Gallic chiefs alike were inaugurated as rulers in public ceremonies. During the Middle Ages, coronations took on new religious significance, combining the crowning of monarchs with Christian rites like anointing. “Coronations emerged from a European tradition of increasing church involvement in the state, as well as the need to bring stability to often volatile societies in which several individuals had a claim to the throne,” notes the House of Commons Library on its website. Today, Britain is the only European country to hold a coronation, with other monarchies opting for simpler inaugurations or church services marking the accession of a new ruler.
As outlined in the 14th-century Liber Regalis, or Royal Book, the main components of the British coronation service are the recognition, in which the monarch is presented to the people, who must formally accept them; the oath, in which the monarch swears to govern justly and mercifully; and the anointing, in which the archbishop of Canterbury places holy oil on the monarch’s head, heart and hands. Considered the most sacred part of the coronation, the anointing asserts the sovereign’s divine right to rule. During the medieval period, says Hunt, people believed the anointing “conferred special magical healing powers on the monarch,” who could then supposedly heal the sick by touching them.
After the anointing comes the investiture, in which the monarch receives the coronation regalia, including St. Edward’s Crown and the Sovereign’s Scepter and Orb. Finally, they sit in the Coronation Chair—a wooden throne built to house the Stone of Scone, a slab of red sandstone stolen from Scotland in 1296—and accept homage from their most esteemed subjects. Following the ceremony’s conclusion, the monarch embarks on a coronation procession through the streets of London. (A separate procession from Buckingham Palace to the abbey begins the day.)
If the monarch has a queen consort—the wife of a reigning king rather than a queen regnant who rules in her own right—at the time of the coronation, she is typically crowned alongside him. (This weekend, Queen Camilla, wife of Charles III, will be crowned with a modified version of Queen Mary’s Crown, refurbished to remove the controversial Koh-i-Noor diamond.) If the couple weds after the king’s coronation, the queen consort may receive her own coronation, but this isn’t guaranteed. Of Henry VIII’s six wives, for example, only two—Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn—were officially crowned.
The first ruler known to be crowned at Westminster Abbey was William the Conqueror, who held his coronation on Christmas Day in 1066, a few months after his victory at the Battle of Hastings. When William was presented to the congregation, members of the crowd shouted affirmations of his rule. But the soldiers stationed outside the abbey “thought a riot was taking place and reacted accordingly,” setting fire to nearby buildings and causing real riots, says Hunt. It was a moment that showed “things don’t always go quite according to plan” during coronations.
Only two British monarchs—Edward V, who vanished while being held at the Tower of London in 1483, and Edward VIII, who abdicated before he could be formally crowned—have forgone coronations. Charles will be the 40th sovereign crowned at Westminster, where all British coronations have taken place since 1066.
How have coronations changed over the centuries?
The basic elements of the British coronation have remained intact for centuries. Consider, for instance, anointing, a practice that dates back to as early as 973, when King Edgar was crowned at Bath Abbey. (The Coronation Spoon used to anoint monarchs today dates to 1349 and was one of the only pieces of royal regalia to survive the 17th-century period known as the Interregnum, when England was briefly a republic.) According to Hunt, however, it would be misleading to say the coronations are “forever unchanged. That is not the case. Things have had to change.”
The recognition, for example, stems from a Norman practice rather than one native to the British Isles. During the early medieval period (also known anachronistically as the Anglo-Saxon era), a council elected the kingdom’s ruler. Normandy, in contrast, had a hereditary monarchy in which the sovereign’s firstborn child or next closest living relative inherited the throne—the same system used in Britain today.
According to Gross, the recognition fused these two traditions following the Norman Conquest. It “represents a contractual relationship, one based almost on election,” he says. “At no point in British history has the audience ever gone, ‘No, we don’t want you. Bring us somebody else.’ But they’re still asked. And that’s significant, because nobody asks the serfs in Russia whether they’re happy with the czar. It’s simply not a tradition elsewhere.”
After Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church in the mid-16th century, coronations changed accordingly. Henry’s only surviving son, Edward VI, was a fervent Protestant whose coronation featured his anointment as supreme head of the Church of England. Edward’s successor, his older sister Mary I, reversed many of her brother’s religious reforms, bringing England—and the coronation service—back in line with Rome. She ordered new coronation oil for the ceremony, fearing Edward had “tainted” the old oil, and eliminated aspects of the service that she found offensive. As the first woman to rule England in her own right, Mary also adapted the coronation’s language and imagery to reflect her status as a queen regnant.
Elizabeth I, who succeeded her sister Mary in 1558, combined Catholic and Protestant practices during her coronation. Though she was crowned in Latin by a Catholic bishop, she had other sections of the service read in both Latin and English. James VI of Scotland and I of England, who inherited the throne after Elizabeth died childless in 1603, was the first monarch to hold his coronation entirely in English, with “the texts and prayers translated and adapted to … incorporate the Protestant Church,” says Hunt.
Over the centuries, the ceremony has been shortened significantly. Mary I’s lasted five hours, while Elizabeth II’s ran for just three. In response to the backlash over the cost of George IV’s coronation, his successor, William IV, held a heavily stripped-down 1831 ceremony that came to be known as the “penny coronation.” Other changes to the day’s sequence of events include the opening procession, which used to begin at the Tower of London but now starts at Buckingham Palace.
The earlier route combined “all the elements of the state,” says Gross, “the financial center in the City of London [and] the political and religious center at Westminster … in support of the new monarch. That changed, not so much because people thought that was a bad idea but rather [because it was] cumbersome to have such a long procession.” The wording of the coronation oath, which is the only part of the service that’s legally required, has also changed several times.
What are some of the most memorable coronations in British history?
Gross cites the 1533 coronation of Anne Boleyn as a standout ceremony. The second wife of Henry VIII, Anne fought tirelessly to win the crown, even pushing Henry to break from Rome to secure her hand in marriage. After their wedding ceremony, Henry demanded his new queen be crowned with St. Edward’s Crown—an honor previously reserved for reigning kings. He was doing “everything [possible] to legitimize Anne,” an unpopular consort who many saw as directly responsible for Henry’s abandonment of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and eldest daughter, the future Mary I, says Gross. Anne is the only queen consort to be crowned with St. Edward’s Crown to date.
Hunt describes Charles II’s 1661 coronation as one of the strangest in British history. The son of Charles I, whose execution in 1649 marked the beginning of the Interregnum period, the younger Charles restored the monarchy after England’s 11-year stint as a republic. Virtually all of the Crown Jewels had to be remade for his coronation, as most of the royal family’s medieval-era regalia was sold or destroyed during the Interregnum.
Diarist Samuel Pepys was one of the thousands who attended Charles II’s coronation, which was the first to feature tiered seating at Westminster Abbey. In his journal, Pepys marveled at the display of majesty, writing, “Now, after all this, I can say that, besides the pleasure of the sight of these glorious things, I may now shut my eyes against any other objects, nor for the future trouble myself to see things of state and show, as being sure never to see the like again in this world.”
Hunt points out that many of the individuals involved in Charles’ coronation had been ardent supporters of Oliver Cromwell, the driving force behind the overthrow of the monarchy. “Yet here they were,” she says, quick to “transfer their loyalty.”
Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the poor leadership of his son and successor, Richard Cromwell, enabled the royals’ restoration. But those in attendance at Charles’ coronation must have realized that “monarchy was not this constant, unchanging, infallible institution,” Hunt says. “It had been abolished, and it nearly didn’t come back. … What had happened [to Charles I] could happen again.”
William and Mary, who ruled jointly following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, were the only monarchs to be crowned alongside each other as equals, rather than as a king and his queen consort or vice versa. William sat in the Coronation Chair, while Mary used a newly commissioned throne.
During the Hanoverian era, which spanned 1714 to 1901, “public spectacle sometimes overshadowed [the] religious significance” of coronations, notes Westminster Abbey on its website. George III’s service ran so long that members of the congregation started eating during the sermon. And the estranged queen’s gatecrashing attempt wasn’t the only mishap to take place during George IV’s coronation. As Gross says, “The banquet was even more of a trial for the peers’ wives sitting in the hall of the galleries, because nobody thought to protect them from the hot wax that was dripping from the candles above.”
According to the abbey, Queen Victoria’s 1838 coronation signaled a “renewed appreciation of the true religious meaning of the ceremony.” Still, the service came with its own pitfalls, most of them stemming from the fact that the coronation was “very badly rehearsed,” says Gross. “Almost nothing went right other than the public [was] very enthusiastic about her taking over and being queen.” A bishop told Victoria the service was over too soon, so she had to be “hastily retrieved” to continue the ceremony, Gross notes. As the young queen later recounted, “The archbishop had (most awkwardly) put the ring on the wrong finger, and the consequence was that I had the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which I at last did with great pain.” Toward the end of the service, an elderly nobleman fell down the steps of the throne while paying homage to Victoria.
In 1937, when television was in its infancy, the BBC showed live footage of George VI’s coronation procession but not the service itself. His daughter Elizabeth II held her coronation in June 1953, more than a year after her accession to the throne. It was the first coronation to be televised live.
The queen’s husband, Prince Philip, was instrumental in the decision to broadcast the coronation. When the prince first suggested a live broadcast, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reacted with abject horror, saying, “It would be unfitting that the whole ceremony … should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance.” Though Elizabeth initially shared Churchill’s concerns, she soon came around to the idea, which Philip framed as a crucial step in modernizing the monarchy. Only the anointing was omitted from the broadcast, which was watched by 75 percent of the United Kingdom’s total population and around 250 million people worldwide. As the London Times reflected after the ceremony:
For the first time in perhaps a thousand years, the sovereign was crowned in the sight of many thousands of the humblest of her subjects. By penetrating at last, even vicariously, into the solemn mysteriousness of the abbey scene, multitudes who had hoped merely to see for themselves the splendor and the pomp found themselves comprehending for the first time the true nature of the occasion.
What will happen at Charles III’s coronation?
Charles’ coronation will be far less extravagant than his mother’s, reflecting the “division and economic uncertainty” of contemporary Britain, Sally Bedell Smith, author of George VI and Elizabeth: The Marriage That Saved the Monarchy, told Time last month. “We see the king trying to strike a balance between honoring that [coronation] tradition and underlining the continuity of this ceremony while acknowledging that Britain is very different.”
While Elizabeth welcomed around 8,000 guests to Westminster Abbey, Charles will only host some 2,000 attendees. Charles’ procession route will also be significantly shorter than Elizabeth’s, meaning fewer members of the public will be able to see the king and his queen consort as they travel to and from the abbey.
In another break from tradition, Charles’ ceremony will actively spotlight leaders from non-Christian faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, as well as female bishops and hymns and prayers sung in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. Overall, the schedule of events seeks to make the coronation more “inclusive” and “less archaic,” bringing the ceremony in line with Charles’ vision of a more modern, streamlined monarchy, royal expert Jennie Bond tells OK! magazine.
As Hunt explains, “The trick is that [the coronation] looks like it hasn’t changed. It looks seamless. It looks like this [event] connected to the past, like we’re witnessing history. … And we are, to a certain extent.” Still, she adds, the coronation has “had to be flexible and be adapted to suit different circumstances and different personalities at different times.”