The Coronation of King Charles III was not a modest affair by any measure. This was a splendidly unapologetic display of monarchical wealth and power. Gold-leafed coaches, A-list Hollywood stars, marching bands and priceless jewels all served to provide a dazzlingly theatrical display. The Coronation was a sumptuous feast for the senses. Exquisite costumes, sublime music, screaming jets and ancient rituals. It was what the composer Richard Wagner might have considered to be Gesamtkuntswerk or ‘total art’. Personally, I enjoyed the novelty of watching an event that last occurred seventy years ago. Fascinated and delighted, I pushed any negative thoughts to the back of my mind, choosing instead to luxuriate in the moment. I tried to be kind about one or two of the rather bland anthems commissioned specially for the service. I tried not to notice the piles of horse mess on the Mall or Harry’s sudden disappearance from the Abbey. I chose not to notice the bedraggled bearskin caps or the antimonarchists in Trafalgar Square. Most importantly, I chose not to be offended by the £100 million price tag.
This was quite the feat for there is a part of my character that is horrified by gratuitous and opulent displays of wealth. I have no interest in fancy cars or expensive clothes. I choose to live a reasonably quiet life. Extravagance embarrasses my bourgeois sensibilities though my inner Essex man is slightly less concerned by such things!
Of course, self-conscious modesty is a strikingly middle-class virtue and I was brought up in a household where hard work and humility were prized above all else. Growing up, I imagined that a true aristocrat would think nothing of drinking gin and riding around London in a horse and carriage all day long. Angst about social mobility, the legacy of colonialism, and hereditary forms of patronage were not problems that I thought would exercise the minds of those who appeared to benefit most from their position in society.
This was a little unfair for it is clear that King Charles III is determined to be relevant and relatable. We are told that he favours a ‘slimmed down’ more European-style monarchy. In recent months he has majored on the theme of service. At the beginning of the Coronation he stated that ‘I come not to be served but to serve’. These are fine sounding words but do the public want a monarch who drinks in Wetherspoons and works in the local chippy? ‘Ah look, there goes King Barry on his way to pick up his washing from the launderette…..lovely guy, lives with his missus in the cottage at the end of the lane. Last time I saw him, he was having a pint in The George and Dragon.’
Surely, the power of the monarchy is lost if it loses its mysticism. The constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor classified Britain as a ‘magic monarchy’. Walter Bagehot writes of a ‘mystical and theatrical institution’ that thrives due its lofty detachment from the murky world of politics. I would argue that we need a little bit of ritualistic tradition in our lives. We need to be transported to a frivolous world of princesses, castles and palaces. The true purpose of monarchy is to provide a form of escape from the mundane humdrum nature of life.
Of course, the monarchy does serve other purposes. It is a unifying force which helps engender a sense of nationhood. In times of national distress, it is often the monarch who provides comfort. After the Grenfell Tower fire, Queen Elizabeth II connected with the local community much better than Theresa May could ever have managed. Similarly, whereas Boris Johnson’s Covid statements baffled most of us, Queen Elizabeth II’s provided reassurance during those dark days of the first lockdown. Her words were the words that mattered and the words that we will remember. It was impossible not to be moved by her gentle stoicism. The contrast between her conduct and the shenanigans of partgate is very obvious.
I would hope that King Charles III will not sacrifice much loved monarchical traditions on the altar of modernity or in the interests of providing a ‘cost-effective service’. He is not a low-cost airline but a King. If the monarchy loses its grandeur and its panache then it loses much of its raison d’etre. If it is going to exist then it must do so unapologetically.
The Coronation Concert captured the spectacular magic of monarchy and was fabulous fun. It was a delightful antidote to all that is miserable or cynical. Modesty might be a virtue in most instances but it is equally important to embrace opportunities to celebrate momentous occasions in our own lives and the life of our nation. We should do so without any sense of embarrassment and without agonising over the expenditure. In case you are worried by such thoughts then Visit England reassures us that the overall boost to the UK economy will be about £1.2 billion so that makes the coronation a very sensible investment of public money.
Whatever your views on monarchy, the King’s focus on service is to be welcomed. A commitment to serving others is at the heart of Rossall’s ethos.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was so long that some of those present snuck sandwiches and beverages into their coronets. Britain was still recovering from World War II and food rationing was not to end until 1954. Bomb damage, crippling levels of national debt and the Great Smog of 1952 (which killed 4,000 people) all cast a gloomy shadow over the hopes of the nation. The great war leader Winston Churchill was Prime Minister but was well past his prime. Perhaps because of this miserable backdrop, the dawning of the Second Elizabethan Age was a moment of great optimism. Despite the hardship, there was a cockney cheerfulness about the Coronation celebrations that made for a right royal knees up. The Coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth heralded the beginning of a new era.
To our modern eyes, such cheerful celebrations of patriotism can seem slightly anachronistic.
The cost of the coronation at £100 million is an affront to the sensibilities of some royalists. For republicans it constitutes an unforgivable extravagance. There are other factors which serve to dampen the nation’s enthusiasm for such an event. In the media age, the royal family have lost some of their mystery. Their family squabbles have played out in front of the world and the shadow of Megxit has yet to lift. Fifteen countries, in addition to the United Kingdom, recognise the King as Head of State but it is likely that this number will decrease over the course of the next few years. Charles’ reign is likely to be one of contraction. The royal family’s links with colonialism and the slave trade do not sit easily with modern sentiment. To King Charles’ credit, he has expressed his personal sorrow at the suffering caused by the slave trade. Furthermore, Buckingham Palace has said that it is cooperating with an independent study exploring the relationship between the British monarchy and the slave trade.
Then there is the small matter of King Charles’ age – he will be seventy five in November. At a time when many British people are desperate for a sense of renewal or change, Charles is not in the first flush of youth. Still, he is younger than Trump, Biden and Pope Francis. His wish for a slimmed down monarchy and a more relatable approach is laudable. Similarly, Charles’ desire to be ‘defender of all faiths’ is a thoughtful response to the pluralistic composition of modern British society. However, I would imagine that many of us secretly enjoy the pomp and ceremony of marching bands, gilded carriages and extravagant castles with thousands of unused rooms. Do we really want a cut-price slightly apologetic monarch? My sense is that we do not really want our monarch to be too relatable. I am pretty sure the Queen would never have appeared in an episode of Eastenders or carried on living in Clarence House because it was more cosy.
Headmaster of Rossall School