The run-up to the coronation of Charles III has not been without its moments of levity. Charles will have to be anointed with holy oil behind a specially made screen, which will prevent any mere human from witnessing the transcendental connection between our Monarch and God.
This should logically also rule out the Archbishop of Canterbury, who will carry out the ritual and should presumably therefore have to wear a mask to avoid him being a witness, too. “Am I anywhere near, Your Majesty?” “Up a bit to your left…”
How do you pronounce Scone?
Then there is the controversial involvement of the Stone of Scone, used in the crowning of kings of Scotland, which was seized by Edward I in 1296. Some Scots resent the use of this symbol of Scottish independence for the coronation of a man they see as their feudal overlord.
The arguments over its ritual use in the ceremony still rage. Does the jam go on first? Or the cream?
Despite the above, I am not a republican, not least because I fear what sort of elected head of state might replace our unelected Monarch. The words “President Johnson, the former Prime Minister” have a chillingly believable ring.
There has been a lot of misreporting over the latest controversy surrounding the Coronation, whether we could, should or must swear an Oath of Allegiance to the King. Some reports have suggested we are being “asked” to do so. Others use the more truthful term “invited” to do so. See this particularly confused story, which uses both.
The press release from the Archbishop of Canterbury makes it clear the word is “invite”. “Invite” implies rather less pressure than “ask”. I suspect much of the confusion is because the latter fits more easily into a newspaper headline.
The Barons’ oath
The notion that subjects, or at least some of them, must pledge undying allegiance to the king on his coronation – most monarchs were of course male – in a ceremony witnessed by God dates back to feudal and medieval times. It is a form of an “Oath of Fealty”, a procedure used to knit together a web of loyalties across fragmented societies.
Normally sworn by nobles to the king, it had a practical use. The king, on taking power, needed to know he had the absolute loyalty of those he had to rely on to rule the kingdom. Once accepting he was their king, the nobles pledged not to rebel.
It also had implications for the defence of the realm. In a time when there was no national standing army, most of the armed forces were part of the retinue of those nobles. Should the kingdom be invaded, or should the king go to war, he had to be able to rely on those feudal troops taking the field.
All this has precious little to do with the defence of the realm today. But it meant that the breaking of your oath to the king, or to any other feudal lord, could make you at best a social pariah.
The Oath of Allegiance, therefore, became a carte blanche for the future leader to act as he wished, because the oath-takers were bound not to oppose him. This may have made sense then. But what citizens of today are being invited to do, it would seem, by reciting the necessary catechism at the appropriate time during the Coronation, is to swear an oath that they will not oppose King Charles III, no matter what he may subsequently do.
No more blank cheque
In any sensible, liberal democracy in the first half of the 21st century, governed by the necessary checks and balances on power, it is hard to see how any individual in a position of authority can expect such a blank cheque. This may be why most people seem disinclined to do so.
Estimates vary on how much the Coronation will cost – £100 million seems to be the going rate, though some go higher. Had Charles approached the event on the basis of, we’re all feeling the pinch, let’s keep it low key… Had he said, well, I’ll pay for at least some of it… Had he not suggested an outdated, feudal show of grovelling supplication in an event the polls suggest most people seem largely indifferent to …
Had he approached it all that way, I suspect he might have earned a degree of grudging admiration even on the part of those not especially well inclined to the monarchy. But that is not his way.
PS: Some of the arguments here, written from a slightly different perspective, were set out quite independently by Pam Jarvis of Yorkshire Bylines.