Charles III Charles III. Photo: Public Domain

Coronation pomp and ritual are recent inventions, and they have steadily grown in cost as the propaganda of mystique becomes the monarchy’s only card to play, shows Terina Hine

The coronation, we are told, is part of our tradition and culture, the regalia and ceremony reaching back a thousand years. But most of the regalia had to be replaced after it was destroyed in the English revolution of the seventeenth century, and most of the ceremony, like the modern monarchy itself, was reinvented in the late nineteenth, when myth and mystique were combined as propaganda for an institution challenged by revolutionary forces and rapid social change.

In days of old when rival monarchs competed for the crown, the coronation was an essential rite of passage, the act of anointing the monarch with holy oil critical when there was no automatic right of succession. The king or queen were God’s chosen representatives on earth, and the church, like the military, played a vital role in king making.

In modern times, these rituals have new meanings, intended to promote a sense of continuity and stability, often drawing on an imagined past, to symbolise the permanence of the crown and the hierarchical class structure it represents. The church, the state and the armed forces are combined with the aristocracy in one theatrical display of power.

On Saturday, when Charles III is crowned king, military might will be out in force: 200 members of the armed forces will join the King’s coronation procession, flanked by 1,000 troops from the army, navy and air force. British imperialism, intricately entwined with royal ceremony since Queen Victoria became Empress of India, will be well represented by armed forces from across the Commonwealth and British Overseas Territories. All in all, there will be 4,000 military personnel taking part, making Charles III’s coronation the largest military ceremonial operation in seventy years.

The invention of tradition

Apparently unknown to wistful royal correspondents, the contemporary coronation is very much a modern invention. For the vast majority of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries royal ceremonies were held primarily behind closed doors. Like the monarchy itself, the events were remote and inaccessible. The crown saw little value in extravagant public displays having no need to re-affirm its political position as it had in Tudor or Stuart times.

William IV initially refused to hold a coronation at all; when he dissolved parliament in 1831, he grabbed the crown, put it on his head and said, ‘the coronation is over’. It was only after considerable pressure from the traditionalist Tories that he agreed to be formally crowned, in what was dubbed by the press a ‘half-crownation’ because of the absence of pomp and splendour.

Queen Victoria’s coronation was a chaotic affair, overly long and somewhat farcical; the coronation ring was forced onto the wrong finger, an elderly peer fell down the steps, the Queen was wrongly told the ceremony was over before it ended, the list of gaffes goes on. But by the end of her long reign, royal occasions had been formalised and reinvented, embracing the public pageantry we see today.

Victoria’s reign was a time of social upheaval. Populations faced huge dislocation associated with industrialisation, and revolutions spread across Europe. In Britain, Chartists and trade unionists sent shivers down aristocratic spines. The Queen herself was far from popular and political movements concerned with democracy and equality gained in prominence. Between 1871 and 1874 eighty-four republican clubs were established and political figures demanded investigations into the extensive Civil List. Prime Minister William Gladstone raised concerns about the crown’s future, noting ‘the Queen is invisible and the Prince of Wales is not respected’.

Faced with the challenge of a growing working class, the need to advertise the monarchy grew. As real power waned, the institution embraced ceremony and grandeur. In his excellent critique of the royal myth, David Cannadine wrote that during this period of social flux, when the electorate grew and class consciousness increased, royal ‘power was exchanged for popularity’. The monarch rose ‘above politics’ to present a unifying symbol. An obsequious media, anachronistic costumes and gold carriages became essential props, but like all theatre, they required a suitable stage.

In 1901, the Queen Victoria Memorial Committee was established and began to design London’s ceremonial set: a new façade was built for Buckingham Palace, complete with a balcony for waving; the Mall was created as a processional route with Admiralty Arch at one end and the Palace at the other; and of course the Queen Victoria Monument was sculptured with icons of empire, to take pride of place in front of the Palace.

By the time of George V and Queen Mary’s coronation in 1911, the links between crown and empire had been firmly embedded in both stone and ritual. Flags of empire were carried in the procession to the Abbey, Queen Mary’s dress was embroidered with the lotus of India and Star of Africa with oceans connecting imperial lands swirling around the hem.

Paying for their privilege

But this display of modern monarchy came at a price. With the exception of George IV’s lavish affair, the average cost of a British coronation in the eighteenth century was £1.4m in today’s money, in the nineteenth this rose to £5m. But by the twentieth century, the cost of the show began to rival that of a Hollywood movie. In 1902 Edward VII spent £19m, George V (1922) £17m, George VI (1937) £23.5, and Queen Elizabeth (1953) £35.5m. Keir Hardie attacked the coronation of George V as ‘an orgy for the display of wealth and senseless spending’, on Saturday he will be turning in his grave.

The claim the 2023 coronation will be a pared-down affair, in keeping with the bleak economic times, is a lie, just like the claim the coronation is being democratised by a People’s Homage. Swearing allegiance to a hereditary monarch is no more democratic than denying the public or parliament an official estimate of the coronation bill. Media speculation suggests this royal indulgence will cost close to £250m, perhaps officials thought presenting us with a fait accompli the only way to proceed.

So while country suffers the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, and degrees of poverty and inequality have reached Dickensian levels, Charles’ coronation is set to be the most expensive royal extravaganza ever.

The government has promoted Saturday’s ceremony as a ‘unique moment to show the best of Britain’ when exactly the opposite is true. What is on display is an obscene political charade, where pageantry becomes propaganda, symbolic of a society based on class and inherited wealth, designed to prop up capital, eulogise imperialism and glorify a decaying system.

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