Royal coronations are ceremonies marking the formal ascension of a British monarch to the throne. The event is a mixture of political and religious rites rich in pomp, circumstance, and symbolism, with traditions dating back centuries.
“The institution is over 1,000 years old. With this history on full display, the coronation ceremony is an opportunity for the monarchy to remind everyone of the enduring role it has played in Britain and the world,” says Arianne Chernock, professor of history at Boston University.
Who is on the coronation guest list? What happens at a coronation ceremony, anyway? Here are seven facts about British coronations and the royal rituals behind them:
1. The guest list for royal coronations includes global luminaries, but not always royal family members.
The guest list for British coronations includes royal family members and heads of state from across the Commonwealth and globe; the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the United Kingdom; hereditary peers; and friends of the royal family.
Who is not invited to the ceremony can be as revealing as who is on the guest list.
“At Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, tellingly, the Soviet Union did not participate. The Cold War was very much on everyone’s mind,” says Chernock. Being a royal family member doesn’t guarantee an invite; The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, brother and sister-in-law to King George VI, were not permitted to attend George’s coronation ceremony in 1937. And in 1831, King George IV barred his own wife, Queen Caroline, from his coronation ceremony.
2. There are six parts to the coronation service.
During the recognition, the monarch is presented to the assembled congregation.
In the oath, he or she then swears the Monarch’s Oath, also known as the Coronation Oath, promising to govern the kingdom with law, justice, and mercy. Since the passing of the Coronation Oath Act of 1689, the monarch also swears to uphold the Anglican Protestant Church.
During the anointing, the monarch will sit in the coronation chair, known as King Edward’s Chair, as the Archbishop of Canterbury marks the monarch with holy oil. The moment “sacralizes the reign,” says Andrew Walkling, Professor of Art History, English, and Theatre at Binghamton University.
This is followed by the investiture and crowning, when the monarch receives coronation regalia like the orb, coronation ring, sceptre, and rod. As the Archbishop of Canterbury places St. Edward’s Crown on the new sovereign’s head, the congregation shouts “God Save the King” (or Queen) as bells ring out across the kingdom and a 62-gun salute volleys from the Tower of London.
From there, the monarch is led to the throne for the enthronement.
Lastly, the king or queen receives the homage. The Lords Spiritual like the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops and the Lords Temporal—princes and senior peers—swear their allegiance to the new ruler. If there is a queen consort, they are anointed and crowned following the homage.
3. The most sacred part of the ceremony is off-limits to the public.
Since the British monarch is believed to rule by divine right, the Archbishop of Canterbury pours holy oil from Charles II’s gold Ampulla to anoint each new monarch, “infusing him or her with God’s spirit and rendering them unassailable,” says Tracy Borman, author of Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy.
Known as “the Act of Consecration,” this part of the ceremony is considered so sacred that it was the only portion of Elizabeth II’s coronation that was not televised. Since the 12th century, British rulers have been anointed using the coronation spoon, the oldest piece of coronation regalia.
4. A medieval book, the Liber Regalis, serves as an instruction manual.
The Liber Regalis, or “royal book,” is an illuminated manuscript that details the order of a coronation ceremony. Written in Latin in 1382, it was translated into English in 1603 for the coronation of James I. “The ceremony today is based on that 1603 translation of a document that goes back to the 14th century,” says Walkling.
5. Westminster Abbey has been home to royal coronations for almost 1,000 years.
Royal Coronations have taken place in Westminster Abbey since 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned there. “Westminster Abbey has not just a religious or royal history; It’s the home of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. Cultural luminaries like Charles Dickens are buried there. It symbolizes the ideas that make Great Britain great,” says Chernock.
6. The person responsible for organizing British coronations is the earl marshal.
The earl marshal is a post that is held by the highest-ranking duke in England. Since 1386, it has been held by the Dukes of Norfolk. Responsibilities include organizing not just British coronations, but the state opening of Parliament and state funerals of sovereigns.
7. The monarch wears multiple crowns during the coronation ceremony.
St. Edward’s Crown, made in 1661 for King Charles II, is used for the moment of coronation. It is a copy of Edward the Confessor’s crown, which was melted down by parliamentarians during the interregnum. The monarch dons the Imperial State Crown (1937), a headpiece that includes the Cullinan II diamond and the Stuart Sapphire, when they exit Westminster Abbey following the ceremony.
Special crowns have also been created for queens consort. Mary of Modena had a diadem, coronation crown, and state crown made for the coronation ceremony of her husband, James II, in 1685. Queens Charlotte, Adelaide, Alexandra, Mary, and Elizabeth all had crowns specially made for their husband’s coronations. Queen Mary famously added the Cullinan III, Cullinan IV, and the Koh-i-Noor diamond to her coronation crown, known as Queen Mary’s Crown. The Koh-i-Noor was later added to Queen Elizabeth’s The Queen Mother’s Crown.
While these traditions may seem ornate in today’s more secular and informal world, they serve an express purpose: “Once you take this kind of ceremony away, you are left with this family that we know almost too much about,” says Chernock. “The royal family needs these moments to connect them to their very particular past and to provide justification for the monarchy’s continuation.”