May 6 2023 Coronation Day.
It was raining – of course it was – with the steadiness that puts up umbrellas and gives rise to the English complexion. It was not cold.
But in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, the King and Queen looked cold as they emerged from the Buckingham Palace archway driven through the gates and onto the Mall. The coach hangs like Cinderella’s coach. The eight Windsor Gray horses are harnessed with gleaming leather, brass, and heavy blue ribbon braids. The King and Queen are both dressed in white, Camilla wearing a more than striking diamond necklace, and their long ermine trains are tucked up around them. They look almost naked and shy of the mixed reception that could greet them, taking turns nervously waving at the crowds lining the Mall who are wishing them well. Watching the coach leaving the Palace I couldn’t help wondering what was passing through their minds. Their lives together and apart, have been fraught with protocols followed, mistakes made, anguish, remorse and family ripped asunder and patched back up again. Now they are here entering their final chapter of devoting their lives to service.
The Household Cavalry Mounted Band of 48 horses and musicians joined the procession. Either Atlas or Apollo, one of the two drum horses, insistently did a half-pass along the Mall rather than a working walk. But they made it – along the Mall, around Trafalgar Square, and down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey where the first William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned 957 years ago.
It is perhaps special to see all of this through a child’s eyes. Four days before the coronation Granny took seven-year-old David – and his mother – on the number 88 bus down to the Mall to see the preparations and flags and bunting going up. And we lucked out with a fish and chip lunch at the Admiralty Pub just off of Trafalgar Square. But no desert – as surely – with so many politicians around there would be an ice cream van at every corner on our way to Westminster. But we were wrong. There were far too many policemen and women, barricades going up everywhere and there was not an Ice cream van in site – such was the security already put in place. We had to walk down to the river for our vanilla smoothie with a chocolate stick before getting back onto the number 88 bus and home.
Saturday came – with the rain – and pancakes for breakfast – as we watched along with millions around the world the pageant unfold before us. Some of us remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 on a new television set with family and friends and sandwiches in the drawing room. Much has changed in those 70 years and the new King knows it.
‘Give all the money to the people’ say the Americans but lord knows no pounds would reach the people, never improve services in schools and hospitals, only dribble into and linger in the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. The Monarchy knows this as they keep their enemies close by inviting so many to this day. We caught glimpses of arrivals; the French president Emmanuel Macron and his hatless wife Brigitte, Jill Biden with her granddaughter Finnegan. Jill Biden sat beside Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine. Two Arab Skeiks seemed a little lost as they looked for their seats.
But then along came the past British Prime Ministers with their partners.
After the beauty and dignity of the Commonwealth, World, and European leaders, they seemed a scurrilous lot. John Major led, looking almost like an elder statesman before being joined by Tony Blair – who took us to war. Gordon Brown, who tried to speak the unpopular truths of our country, stood a little aside of David Cameron, who tossed us out of the European Union. Teresa May was followed closely by the Johnsons – Boris was having another bad hair day – and Liz Truss, who had both ushered the Queen to her death bed.
The sudden departure of Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister left the new Humza Yousaf to scramble a bit for his kit. He came up with a Slanj Asian fusion-style jacket and a mighty sporran bouncing along with his stride all actually quite becoming.
The First Minister of Wales and his wife both looked so very – Welsh. Then the non-working Royals arrived. Prince Harry a little unsteady but carefully flanked fore and aft by his cousins Eugenie and Beatrice whose father Prince Andrew was slipped between an uncle and an aunt. Next came the working royals but the four front chairs were empty. It appeared that the new Prince and Princess of Wales were stuck in traffic! A little rushed they showed up wearing the formal robes of state. Prince George was away helping with Grandpa’s train while Charlotte and Louis were tucked neatly in beside their parents. Beyond the world leaders, the over 2000 guests seated in the Abbey came from the not-so-great but surely the good among the British people. Charity leaders, leaders in conservation, ecology, medicine, science, education, and youth programs.
Finally, the King and Queen arrived at the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey. There was a little robe shaking and adjustment here and there before they were escorted along the nave, through the choir to the sanctuary to take their oaths – swearing to serve the people of The United Kingdom and his territories, whatever they may be in the foreseeable future. It is here that maybe tradition and history serves us best. As godparents, we swear to guide our godchildren into the way of Christian faith – not that I was so good about that. At marriages, we swear in front of our Gods – or the state – family, and friends to ‘plight thee my troth’. And when we say those vows we mean to keep them. The king swore on his Bible that “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.” There was a fifty-page ‘order of Service’ to follow to keep everyone on track and explain every moment, every gesture, every act, and there was a lot to get through. The coronation service has evolved over almost a thousand years, changing with each monarch. Today there was music old and new, there were women priests and religious leaders from all faiths in this country.
The king is stripped – very carefully – of his ermine robe and jerkin and left kneeling in a cotton shirt and trousers with what at first appears to be the most incongruous black buckled shoes. It is time for the King to be hidden behind a screen and be anointed. This part of the service is the most sacred time. A King, his God, and oath to that God.
And then comes the crowning. The day before, Friday, the King and Queen had gone to the Abbey with – presumably almost everyone else – from Bishops to choristers and pages – and walked through the service. But still, there are tricky bits. The Saint Edward’s Crown has always been a problem. The new King remembers how his mother – the late Queen – would wear it, coming to kiss him goodnight, as she practiced carrying its 2.25 Kilograms on her head. Physically and metaphorically it is a heavy burden.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. William Shakespeare gave these words to King Henry IV in that play, as he ponders and accepts the duties and responsibilities of Kingship.
The Archbishop of Canterbury swears allegiance to the King and the crown. He is followed by Prince William who comes forward, and kneels as he swears his allegiance, kissing the crown and then the king – his father. ‘Amen’ says Charles and it is here that we miss the brother, Harry, to be a part of this – helping support and care for the king and his people.
Now it is the turn of Queen Camilla whose crown was made for Queen Mary in 1911. When the Queen joins the king they are presented, united by their oaths and commitment before God. The Archbishop prays again, telling the monarch to: “Stand firm and hold fast from henceforth.” He will need to.
Those familiar with the Anglican Eucharist Service know we are now on the home stretch. It is time for holy communion, a few more prayers and singing followed by the blessing and procession out of the Abbey and – into more rain. But there are smiles of relief. It has gone well. The King is crowned, the family more or less in one piece, and though the demonstrators can be heard calling ‘Not my King’ the police are using their – new and improved – from their point of view – powers to arrest the leaders.
The King and Queen are helped into the old Gold State Coach, a beautiful but uncomfortable vehicle. They process at a walking pace and it is clear that though the crowds are thrilled, the footmen are getting weary. They will be glad to get those black pumps off of their feet and be out of their heavy tunics. A full pint of beer will go down a treat.
Upstairs in the Palace lunch must be ready but there is still the balcony performance. The police slowly guide the crowds down to Buck House, letting them build around the gates for the balcony appearance showing who is working and who has been retired. But before that happens there is another quiet touch. The soldiers who marched in procession are on parade in the Palace Gardens. They want to play the national anthem, sing God Save the King and give three cheers for His Majesty. And the King wants to see them and by his presence say ‘Thank you.’ It is a small thing, and turns the schedule a little on its heels – lunch may be tea-time sandwiches. But it is of such small things that this monarchy may stand firm and survive.
This has been A Letter From A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch