This week: Coronations

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 2 June 1953. Image: Wikimedia/Commons

It seems likely that Harold Godwinson was the first king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, though there is no documentary evidence from the time to confirm this. As a result, that honour is accorded officially to Harold’s successor, William the Conqueror, whose coronation we know with certainty to have been held in the church on 25 December 1066.

Over the almost-thousand years since then, every English (and later British) monarch has been formally invested with regal power within the Abbey’s Gothic confines except two: the boy king Edward V, who is presumed to have been murdered in the Tower before he could be crowned in 1483; and Edward VIII, who succeeded his father in 1936 but abdicated before the date set for his coronation.

In all that time, the coronation service and the pageantry that surrounds it have varied widely in grandeur: in 1831, William IV’s was so parsimonious that it became known as ‘the penny coronation’. That contrasts with the extravagant festivities laid on in 1661 for Charles II, which prompted the watching Samuel Pepys to write in his diary that ‘so glorious was the show with gold and silver that we were not able to look at it’.

The coronation has changed over time in other ways, too: in 1559, for instance, Elizabeth I’s was the last to be conducted under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church; while in 1953, her namesake Elizabeth II became the first to allow most parts of the ceremony to be broadcast on television.

For centuries, however, one thing has remained constant: the ornate, high-backed Coronation Chair on which the monarch sits as he or she is crowned. Carved from oak, it was commissioned to house the famous Stone of Scone – also known as the Stone of Destiny – taken by Edward I during the First Scottish War of Independence in 1296, but said by legend to have been the one on which Jacob rested his head at Bethel, and used for centuries in the coronation of the monarchs of Scotland.

As readers of The Past may know, the 125kg stone itself was returned after 700 years to Edinburgh Castle by then prime minister John Major in 1996 – but it will be making the journey south again to the Abbey in time to take its place for the crowning of Charles III.

In the latest edition of Current Archaeology magazine, Kathryn Krakowka reports on the extensive new analysis undergone by this ancient symbol of the Scottish monarchy in preparation for this month’s coronation ceremony.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives for more about coronations: we looked in more detail at the ancient chair which has witnessed the crowning of so many British monarchs; we visited Westminster Abbey’s Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries to understand the church’s royal links; and we even assessed the heritage of the second Elizabethan age to understand more about the archaeology of the present day.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around coronations. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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