As we celebrate the coronation of King Charles III, Clemmie de la Poer Beresford explores how previous monarchs marked their coronations in suitably extravagant ways
Steeped in nearly 1000 years of royal tradition, coronations have changed little since William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Christmas Day 1066. Today they follow the same ritual as then, centred around the affirmation, oath, anointing with orange, rose, cinnamon and musk oils (representative of the Holy Spirit), and the crowning of the monarch on the ancient St Edward’s Chair.
Coronations have traditionally been captivating and dazzling affairs, glistening with ostentation. King George IV’s famously glittered with more opulence than the rest. The king lavished the equivalent of £20 million on it. His 27ft-long erminelined velvet train required nine pages, rather than the usual six, to carry it. Spectators glimpsed a crimson surcoat lined with cloth-of-silver and embroidered in gold thread and sequins beneath and marvelled at his wide-brimmed Spanish hat that was ablaze with a diadem made up of 1,300 diamonds and plumed with amazingly tall ostrich feathers.
Had George outshone Napoleon in appearance? That was his intention. Spectators too were required to don sensationally magnificent costumes. An antique flair incorporating medieval, Tudor and Stuart designs was the order of the day, which reportedly caused “much amusement among the ladies”.
Afterwards, 1,268 diners gorged on cakes, meats, sweets and treats in a banquet in Westminster Hall, reminiscent of the first coronation feast held for King Edward I.
True to tradition, at the pivotal moment, the King’s Champion entered on horseback and threw down his gauntlet before the king. This fantastic relic of the medieval past was continued right up until Queen Victoria’s reign.
Other coronations also showed much splendour. In 1661, King Charles II cut a splendid figure in his coronation procession from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, wearing a richly “embroidered suit and cloak” that caught the eye of famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.
Charles rode on horseback in imitation of Ancient Rome, through five richly decorated triumphal arches that towered nearly 100ft high. In 1838, Queen Victoria began her procession from Buckingham Palace, and The Gentleman’s Magazine noted it was the longest procession since Charles II’s. Along the route, the queen delighted 400,000 visitors in her Gold State Coach, the very same coach that Queen Elizabeth II used for her coronation in 1953.
Since time immemorial, the investing of the monarch with Crown Jewels has enhanced the pomp and ceremony of coronations. Charles II’s reign saw the forging of new jewels as Oliver Cromwell had melted the originals down after triumphing over Charles I in the Civil Wars. To replace Edward the Confessor’s 11th-century crown that now circulated as newly minted coinage, the St Edward’s Crown was made, weighing a staggering 5 pounds.
Queen Victoria deemed it far too heavy and in 1838 commissioned The Imperial State Crown. New was made with old, with the crown incorporating a ruby that had belonged to the Black Prince in the 14th century and been worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in the 15th century.
Through the ages magnificence has been matched by mishaps. George IV was plagued processing from the Abbey to Westminster Hall by a swaying canopy above him. Fearing for his safety, the king sped up to walk in front of the canopy, but the Barons of the Cinque Ports (whose honour it was to carry it) reportedly “hastened their steps”, making it sway all the greater. Becoming “genuinely alarmed”, the king “broke into a somewhat unseemly jog trot”. In 1902, Edward VII visibly panicked when the archbishop placed the crown on back to front.
When celebrating the King’s Coronation this year, we can delight in looking back on past accession day festivities and splendid coronation ceremonies, realising that perhaps our modern-day celebrations are quite modest in comparison.
Need a guide to this year’s events? You can find our run down of what to expect here.