When King Charles, 74, was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969, he could barely have imagined waiting half a century to be crowned. But he might have been hoping for much of the same acclaim and jubilation that his mother’s coronation had prompted in 1953. Instead, for all the pomp and circumstance of his ceremony, he is the oldest monarch ever to be crowned in Britain and a discernible feeling of ennui and apathy hung over the dawn of the new Carolean era.
While the ‘new Elizabethan age’ was heralded with news of Mount Everest’s successful ascent, her son’s reign began with one newspaper leading on the aftermath of the Conservatives’ humiliating local election defeat; another considered the new king’s ‘battle to secure the future of the monarchy’. The tone had been set by a YouGov opinion poll that found 64% of Britons had little or no interest in the coronation.
Elected head of state
In contrast to a nation of street parties and neighbours gathering around TV sets to watch grainy images of the first televised coronation in 1953, only 18% of people attended any celebration this time. More young people (40%) now prefer an elected head of state to a monarchy (36%); just 10 years ago, 72% wanted a sovereign. More people watched the late Queen’s funeral than her son’s coronation and, despite the British population growing by 38% over the intervening decades and few people having televisions then, her coronation had more viewers. He is only the fifth most popular member of the royal family (behind his late mother, sister, elder son and daughter-in-law).
British coronations have always been about ‘invented tradition’, emphasising continuity, however much change is afoot. Thus many of the more regressive rituals persist: the king was anointed with holy oil while screened from the view of ordinary people at the culmination of a long Anglican service in a largely secular and irreligious or non-Christian country. The feudal flummery that so enraptures foreign observers was trimmed, such as a homage from just his heir apparent, William, rather than the entire peerage. The most notable ceremonial innovation – a ‘homage of the people’, when the public was asked to swear allegiance – became a cause of controversy. The idea was criticised as ‘tone-deaf’, while an historian warned that it undermined parliament’s role. Even the new king apparently distanced himself.
The British monarchy and the modern Commonwealth
From the archives – Coronation and Commonwealth, III: Retrospect and Prospect
Operation Golden Orb, as the coronation was codenamed, was tentatively estimated to have cost £100m by a member of the organising committee, but it may have been as much as £250m. With millions of families struggling to pay bills, as inflation soars above wages, this ultimate display of conspicuous wealth irked many, with 51% saying it should not have been paid from state funds (only 32% thought it should). It came as an investigation estimated the new king’s private fortune at £1.815bn, with perhaps half coming from his mother free of inheritance tax. One UK columnist suggested the new king was too accustomed to his luxurious life to move very far towards the ‘no-frills monarchy his ecological and spiritual leanings once seemed to promise’, calling the coronation ‘not the start of a new era’ but a ‘coda to the old one’.
Many observers saw the coronation as an unalloyed triumph, of course. The black commentator Trevor Phillips hailed the ‘modernising, inclusive monarchy’ and declared the coronation ritual to be ‘such a popular success’ because of the diversity it showcased, such as a song in Welsh and a South African soprano. Many fans of the royals had been lining the procession route for days, including one pensioner who had slept in a chair for four nights to secure a good spot.
‘Backsliding in our democracy’
Those prepared to voice their opposition along the procession route – largely protesters in yellow #NotMyKing T-shirts from the Republic pressure group – found themselves targeted by police and the Home Office, which sent ‘intimidatory’ letters warning activists of controversial new powers to prevent protest rushed through under the 2023 Public Order Act (the police did later express regret over some arrests, admitting that only four of those detained face charges). One of those held for 17 hours before being released without charge called it ‘a massive example of backsliding in our democracy’, adding: ‘Monarchists can have their view but we can have our views as republicans as well.’ Scotland’s new first minister, Humza Yousaf, promised in March to look at installing an elected head of state in Scotland within five years of gaining independence from the UK.
While the Queen kept her inner life largely hidden, we know much about what Charles believes; he retains none of the mystery that Walter Bagehot believed was crucial for the British monarchy. During his long apprenticeship, Charles became known for pushing his delicate constitutional role to the limit, such as with the political lobbying of his ‘black spider memos’. And the irascible new king cannot rely on the huge public affection that his mother enjoyed. Tom Bower’s recent biography, Rebel Prince, portrayed him as ‘profligate and short-tempered, autocratic and selfish … cruel and contemptuous towards his former wife, Diana … emotionally cold to his siblings and sons, quick to take offence and slow to notice when he is causing it.’ While some in Britain look on them unfavourably, the treatment of Harry and Meghan diminished the royal family in the eyes of many abroad.
A 21st Century coronation
‘Sey yuh sorry!’: Edgy reception for royal tour of Caribbean Commonwealth states
Across the Commonwealth, there were calls for Charles to face up to Britain’s colonial past. Days before the coronation, republican and reparations groups in 12 Commonwealth countries signed a letter asking Charles for ‘a formal apology and for a process of reparatory justice to commence’.
The letter, entitled ‘Apology, reparation, and repatriation of artefacts and remains’, was signed by activists from Antigua and Barbuda, New Zealand, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. ‘This may be a tough conversation for the royal family, but change begins with listening,’ said Nova Peris, an Aboriginal athlete, former Australian Labor party senator and Olympian.
The Australian Republic Movement urged him to support their country’s ‘full independence’ and called for reparations for the treatment of Indigenous people. ‘We expect a formal apology for the systemic racism, oppression and crown-sponsored attempted genocide of the First Nations peoples of Australia, a call that we see being replicated across many Commonwealth nations,’ its letter said. At a televised discussion on ‘the role and relevance of the monarchy for Australia and the broader Commonwealth’, an Aboriginal presenter, Stan Grant, said the ‘crown put a weight on us and we are still dealing with that.’ The monarchy, he said, ‘is scars, it is broken bones and it is too many damaged souls.’
‘Torture during colonialism’
In South Africa there were calls for Britain to return the Star of Africa, the world’s largest diamond, which is set in the sceptre used in the coronation. Kenyans, said a University of Nairobi academic, were not interested in the coronation because of the history of ‘torture during colonialism … because of the oppression, because of detentions, because of killings, because of the alienation of our land’. For those reasons, said Prof Herman Manyora, Kenyans would be ‘busy looking for what to put in their stomach’.
For Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, a British monarch as head of state was ‘an absurdity’ that he would like to end. Gonsalves also said he would welcome an apology from the British state and monarchy on past injustices relating to slavery. Terrance Drew, prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis, said his country was ‘not totally free’ as long as Charles remained head of state. He promised a public consultation on whether the Caribbean nation should become a republic during his leadership and also sought an apology for the monarchy’s historic links to the slave trade.
In Jamaica, Marlene Malahoo Forte, minister for legal and constitutional affairs, suggested the coronation had accelerated plans to hold a referendum on ditching the king as head of state. ‘Jamaica in Jamaican hands. We have to get it done, especially with the transition in the monarchy,’ she said. ‘My government is saying we have to do it now. Time to say goodbye!’
Whatever the future holds for Charles as the British monarch, it seems unlikely he will end his reign as head of state in as many as 15 Commonwealth countries.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board