Coronation – customs and history

The Queen marks the 60th anniversary of her Coronation this month. Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Manager has taken a look at coronations using our varied collections.

Cecil Beaton's official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation
Cecil Beaton’s official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation

On 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth ll was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The coronation is the greatest of royal ceremonies and to mark the 60th anniversary of  this great occasion I will take a look at some of the customs and history behind the crowning of the monarch through the ages.

The origins of the coronation can be found in the pagan custom of installing their leader, usually warrior kings,  by seating them upon a stone and investing them with  symbols of their office  for example a spear. With the arrival of Christianity this ceremony then acquired a religious element and kings were anointed and consecrated. In the ceremony the King binds himself on oath to serve the people and in return the people pledge their allegiance to the King.

The ceremony last seen in 1952 is very similar to coronation  of King Edgar  in 973. For which there is a written record. Early coronations were held at Kingston upon Thames and you can still see the stone on which the Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned.

Coronation Stone, Kingston upon Thames
Coronation Stone, Kingston upon Thames

Coronations were not always held at Westminster Abbey and have also taken place  at Bath Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Oxford, Winchester Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral. It was only in the middle ages Westminster Abbey was granted the sole right to hold the ceremony and to date there have been 38 coronations there.

The ceremony in 1952 took 16 months preparation and looked spectacular on a cold, rainy June day even in black and white on the small  televisions then in use. Yet our books on coronations and their customs give us an insight into even bigger events in the past.

In the thirteenth century it became the custom for the monarch to spend time before the coronation at the Tower of London and then formally process through the City to Westminster Hall.  On the day itself a there was procession from the Hall to the Abbey and following the service the monarch returned to Westminster Hall for a lavish banquet. The procession was abandoned in 1685 and the banquet in 1821 as a cost saving measure, the pageant alone had cost a mere £243,000.

The Coronation Procession of King George IV from Westminster Hall to the Abbey
The Coronation Procession of King George IV from Westminster Hall to the Abbey

One custom which sadly no longer takes place is the arrival of the King’s Champion during the coronation banquet. Dressed in full armour with lance and shield  and  mounted on a horse – the champion threw down his gauntlet asking if anyone denied the rightful title of the King or Queen.  As a reward for performing the service the champion got to keep the horse, trappings, armour and was given a gold cup filled with at least 36 ounces of gold.

Sir Edward Dymoke throwing down the gage at King Edward VI's Coronation
Sir Edward Dymoke throwing down the gage at King Edward VI’s Coronation

We can see from this picture of the procession that there were  minor  roles including strewing fragrant  herbs before the King on his way to the Abbey. This probably originated as an antidote to the plague. This picture show the last named herb woman, Miss Fellowes leading her ladies in 1821.

Miss Fellowes and her ladies strewing fragrant herbs
Miss Fellowes and her ladies strewing fragrant herbs

A few chosen facts about coronations

William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day 1066 but during the ceremony the noise of from inside the Abbey  alarmed the Norman guards outside who fearing a  revolt began to massacre the local Saxon populace  in the local area.

William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066
William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066

Henry lll was the first child to be crowned King at the age of 9 at Gloucester Cathedral in 1216. The ceremony could not take place at Westminster Abbey because London was occupied by the French who had invaded England. The regalia was still in London so Henry was crowned with his mother’s gold head circlet. He was crowned again  in 1220 in a full ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

Henry Vl was even younger becoming King at the age of  8 months  in 1422 but was not crowned until the age of eight in 1429. He remains the only King to also be crowned King of France, at Notre Dame Paris in 1431.

The Coronation of King Henry VI, 1429
The Coronation of King Henry VI, 1429

William lll and Mary ll had the first ever joint coronation in 1689. A duplicate coronation chair and regalia were made for Mary and William using the originals.

Two kings were never crowned, Edward Vlll who abdicated in 1936,and Edward  V who went into the Tower prior to his  coronation  in 1483  and  with his brother Richard, Duke of York  was never seen again.

In 1821 George IV’s estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick arrived expecting to be crowned Queen but was refused admittance to the ceremony – she was turned away from every door.

Central to the crowning of the  monarch is the regalia which has its own very colourful history. The most significant being the destruction of the original  regalia following the execution of  Charles l in 1649 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. The gold and silver were melted down and the jewels were sold. At the restoration new regalia had to be made and this is what we are familiar with today which is on display at the Tower of London.

Karen Ullesperger, Triborough Reference Manager
Karen Ullesperger

Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Manager

Further information

  • You can find more information the lives of all our King and Queens in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is available online on the library website (you’ll need a Kensington and Chelsea library membership to access this database) or you can borrow a book from the special biography collection at Kensington Central Library.
  • Books on the history and customs of the coronation through the ages  be found in the Folklore and Customs collection in Kensington Central Reference Library
  • More information on coronations can be found on the Westminster Abbey website.

Books that were used for this piece – all are available in the Folklore and Customs collection:

  • Shramm, Percy Ernst, A History of the English Coronation, Oxford, (Clarendon Press) 1937
  • Passingham, W. J, A History of the Coronation, London, (Samson Low Marston Ltd ) 1937
  • Brooke-Little,John, Royal Ceremonies of State, London, (Country life, Hamlyn press) 1980
  • Roe, F Gordon, Coronation Cavalcade,  (P. R . Gawthorne) 1937

 

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