The coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, 6 May, 2023 will be a hugely significant moment in British history. The first in seventy years, it will symbolically mark the septuagenarian’s accession to the throne, as the new king will be presented with an array of royal regalia at Westminster Abbey and will partake in the religious rituals and public processions that have characterised the one-thousand-year-old ceremony. According to The Spectator, coronation quiches, ‘Big Lunches’ and bundles of bunting are just some of the celebratory elements that both royalists and government figures alike will hope to restore some national pride amongst Britons in the midst of a cost of living crisis and rising inflation. The irony of food and non-alcoholic drinks prices experiencing their sharpest twelve-month increase since 1977 – the year of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee – is uncanny.
Buckingham Palace may have also chosen to hold the coronation on 6 May to instil a thread of personal familiarity and convenience for senior royals. Country Living reported several aspects of significance associated with the date, with 6 May being both the late Princess Margaret’s wedding anniversary and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s son Archie’s fourth birthday. The late Elizabeth II’s father, George VI, also partook in his coronation in May of 1937. It will come as a relief to King Charles III and other senior royals that Meghan Markle will prioritise her motherly duties on her son’s birthday.
The issue with the meticulous planning and attempted concoction of national pride through extortionate financial means characterised by Operation Golden Orb is that, ultimately, Britons do not seem to be interested. YouGov recently conducted a survey that asked Britons how much they cared about the forthcoming coronation of King Charles III. A total of sixty-four percent answered ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’, and just nine percent answered ‘a great deal’. This is understandable given the current socio-political and economic environment, but it should be a warning to Buckingham Palace that the population may not be as invested in or as deferential towards the royal project as they once were under previous monarchs.
King Charles III and the Royal Household have acknowledged the realities of where the royal institution sits nationally and internationally within the coronation plans. Guest numbers and military personnel have been significantly reduced in comparison to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953. This will not however dampen the reigning monarch’s or the royal institution’s desires for the ceremony to indicate a watershed moment in British history and national celebration, signifying the commencement of the new Carolean age.
Dr Tessa Dunlop has described Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation as ‘that fairy tale day in history’ with ‘the public enthralled’ and ‘the press overjoyed’ as Britain basked in ‘a national holiday’ full of ‘unforgettable celebration’. It was a projection of imperial and military might, as well as Britain and the monarchy’s international standing with almost 130 nations represented on coronation day. In the 1950s, questions around the monarchy’s legitimacy were imperceptible.
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation attempted to establish values and visions for the second Elizabethan age. Indeed, this was even understood at the time. Bob Morris articulated that, immediately following the 1953 coronation, sociologists maintained that the event sought to ‘define British identity for the next generation’. Yet those ideals celebrated at the 1953 event rapidly fell out of favour and fashion. The stress on the importance of military might and imperial splendour within the ceremony was fundamentally destroyed no less than three years later after British forces were left internationally floundering after the 1956 Suez Crisis. This imperial vision was obliterated in 1959 after Harold Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech initiated the quickening of decolonisation in Africa, as well as the successive Commonwealth Immigrants Acts of the 1960s that gradually halted colonial subjects claiming citizenship within the British Isles.
Duty, religious commitment, tradition and deference to the monarchy also played a huge part in the spectacle, confirmed by the abdicated Edward VIII being refused invitation to his niece’s coronation in 1953. Those values were similarly threatened and then destroyed soon after the coronation, with the rise of permissive social attitudes and mass consumerism in the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the continual decline of practising Christians in the United Kingdom.
This vision of what kind of country Britain should be in the second Elizabethan age depicted in the 1953 ceremony was completely unrecognisable several decades later. Contemporary historians have acknowledged this, with David Kynaston attributing the ceremony as ‘a farewell party’ in 2009, and Ben Pimlott describing it as ‘the last great imperial display’ and ‘a magnificent funeral tribute to a world order that was ending’ in 1996. These descriptions are however with the benefits of decades of historical hindsight.
Therefore, this raises a fundamental question that most Britons seem to be ignoring at their own peril. What kind of Britain will King Charles III project to his subjects and international audience on Saturday 6 May 2023? Lessons should be learned from Britain’s last coronation seventy years ago not to sleepwalk into a short-sighted demonstration of subjectively idealistic values that disguise geopolitical, economic and social realities and that are unrecognisable several years into a new monarch’s reign. Britons should also take note to answer the future question as to how accurate King Charles III’s projection of contemporary and future Britain is on 6 May, with the same level of historical hindsight Ben Pimlott and David Kynaston had in their assessments of 1953.
These questions should be focused on much more than the incessant media reporting of Meghan Markle, or the faux outrage aimed towards the absence of a non-vegan alternative to the beloved coronation quiche, especially at a time of significant turbulence for both the nation and its people over the past decade. National events such as the 2012 Olympics, the 2016 Brexit referendum and Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee have offered opportunities for Britain to project the narratives it so desires to its citizens and international audiences, with often conflicting and contradictory outcomes. Saturday 6 May 2023 will be one of those rare moments.
It appears there will only be a partial, reluctant recognition of Britain and the monarchy’s contemporary national and international standing and prestige within the ceremony. A clear example will be the scaling back of military personnel to reflect the decline of Britain’s military prowess since 1953 – a time when conscription was compulsory and conflict in Britain’s colonies was forthcoming. Another, as the BBC reported, is the decision not to use the Koh-I-Noor diamond as part of the ceremony due to fears of a diplomatic row with India. The diamond was seized by Britain and put on display at the 1851 Great Exhibition, and the Indian government has argued that if the diamond were to be used on 6 May, it would ‘bring back painful memories of the colonial past’. The Koh-I-Noor remains on display in the Tower of London as part of the British crown jewels.
Yet, as recently confirmed by ITV, the coronation will see ‘the biggest military ceremonial operation in seventy years’. Moreover, the Koh-I-Noor diamond is to be replaced by an even bigger diamond – the biggest in the entire world – the Cullinan diamond. Yet the Cullinan still represents British colonialism just as much as the Koh-I-Noor, with many South Africans viewing the British acquisition of the diamond in the early 1900s as entirely illegitimate. Activist Thanduxolo Sabelo stated that the seizure was indicative of a colonial power expropriating natural resources that ‘continue to benefit Britain at the expense of our people’. Much like the controversy surrounding the Koh-I-Noor, Sabelo demanded that ‘the Cullinan diamond must be returned to South Africa with immediate effect’.
Will King Charles III’s coronation signify a similar nebulosity towards the future of Britain and the decline of the monarchy’s reputation on the international stage? Or will it illustrate a trimmed down celebration of Britain’s constitutional monarchy that has survived for centuries, more appropriately aligned with the social, cultural, economic, religious and geopolitical realities the nation faces this era. This is the question Britons should be asking as they tuck into their coronation quiches. In so doing, it may help define the future of the British monarchy and the British nation this century.
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