The less substance there is to any political institution, the more it must play up its own mystique. The coronation of King Charles III is £100 million worth of retro-patterned wrapping paper surrounding a much diminished object.
It is striking that the main innovation in the ceremony is a doubling down on feudal fealty: all true Britons should swear their personal allegiance to Charles and his famously dysfunctional family. They are exhorted to stand (or kneel?) before their TV screens, in their sittingrooms and pubs, and declare that they will “pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”
There is nothing ancient about this charade. Its inspiration is surely Game of Thrones. The citizens of a modern democracy are invited to take their part as extras in a big-budget faux-medieval cosplay.
Why is this lavishly performative act of homage necessary now when it was not before? Because what lies behind it is less and less real.
There is an inverse relationship between the spectacle of the coronation and the reality of the power it purports to project.
The distinguished English historian of the monarchy Philip Ziegler noted the trajectory of this contrary correlation: “as the power of Britain waned ... pride grew in the royal family as something which was uniquely ours and which no country could match”.
The idea of the English as the masters of royal ceremony is, historically speaking, a very recent invention
It is indeed true that no other democracy would dream of staging a ritual like the coronation, in which the people are declared to be loyal to the head of state rather than the other way round – and in which they get to pay for a billionaire’s extravagant celebration of his own godly humility.
But the fact that nobody else would dream of doing it is turned, in the monarchist mindset, into a point of pride. It betokens the ultimate in exceptionalism: the idea of British uniqueness. It is not just that the British are the only people who would do something like this coronation – it is that they are the only ones who could do it so perfectly.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, whatever one might think of the British, they put on a damn good royal show. Charles’s coronation is widely touted as merely the latest iteration of an ancient spectacle that has been so perfected over a thousand years that it is now bred in the bone of Britishness.
But this is bogus. The idea of the English as the masters of royal ceremony is, historically speaking, a very recent invention.
In 1860, for example, Lord Robert Cecil, a leading member of the English aristocracy, wrote in exasperation that “Some nations have a gift for ceremonial” but that his own was assuredly not one of them.
“We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous ... Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.”
As the historian David Cannadine has shown, the British, even at the height of empire in the 19th century, often complained of the “ineptly performed ritual” of their royal occasions. It was not until the period after the end of the first World War that they persuaded themselves that they were uniquely good at it.
The British could afford to be inept at royal spectacles in the 19th century because the monarchy was still a real power within Britain, and Britain was still the leading power in the world. The theatre of sovereignty and supremacy is not so important when you have the stuff itself. As Cannadine puts it, “The certainty of power and the assured confidence of success meant that there was no need to show off.”
The notion that Britain should develop royal ceremonial as its unique selling point depended, paradoxically, on the collapse of monarchy as the norm of European governance. The British could claim it as “something which was uniquely ours” precisely because they now had a monopoly on imperial coronations in Europe.
The older firms that used to be the exemplars of royal ritual – the Romanovs of Russia, the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany – had gone out of business. (The Scandinavian monarchies of Denmark, Sweden and Norway had all scrapped elaborate ceremonial coronations as silly anachronisms by 1906.)
This implied, rather alarmingly, that God (supposedly the source of royal authority everywhere) had gone a bit iffy on the whole business of monarchy. He hadn’t done much for the British royal family’s deposed or murdered cousins.
But according to the inverse logic, the idea of a sacred ritual (all that anointing with oil blessed in Jerusalem) had to be played up even more because sacral kingship as a real thing was disappearing.
The very success of the 1953 coronation was its easing of the final passage of monarchical supremacy into the realm of myth
This is why the performance of British royal rituals became more crucial as the 20th century unfolded. When Queen Victoria, who really was an empress, had her coronation procession, it did not bother onlookers that her carriage was much less splendid than that of the French ambassador.
But for Charles III, it matters very much indeed that his coronation is understood as a unique (and uniquely British) marvel. The more hollow the crown, the more splendidly the jewels that encrust it must shine.
The paradox is that this invention of the coronation as a great show of sacred kingship is possible only because of the democratisation of access to it. It is the growth of media technologies – first cheap newspapers illustrated with photographs and then radio, newsreels and television – that allowed “ancient tradition” to become a product for mass consumption.
In its exploitation of this paradox, the royal firm has been extremely astute. It learned (in part from the brilliant combinations of new media with “ancient” rituals created by the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany) that pomp and populism could go hand-in-hand. The immemorial could be marketed to the masses.
The high point of this melding of democratic novelties with royal ceremonial was the last British coronation, that of Charles’s mother in 1953. It was, for all its carefully crafted religiosity, staged for television. (It is telling that many of the carriages used for Elizabeth II’s royal procession were borrowed from a film company.)
In her speech on the day, Elizabeth said: “I am sure that this, my coronation, is not a symbol of a power and a splendour that are gone.” But no one has to insist on such a certainty unless it does not in fact exist.
The power and splendour, if not yet gone, were in the departure lounge. India had recently become independent. The empire was obviously on its way out. Britain had bankrupted itself fighting the second World War. The US had definitively taken its place as the primary western power.
In a sense, the very success of the 1953 coronation was its easing of the final passage of monarchical supremacy into the realm of myth. It was an enthralling bedtime story for the closing of the long imperial day.
But can Charles’s coronation now provide a similarly potent enactment of continuity and reassurance to cloak the truth of decline? Surely not.
For a start, “unique” is a difficult claim when the audience now has lots of other coronations in its head – not so much that of Charles’ mother, but those of Amelia in The Princess Diaries, Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, and Elsa in Frozen.
It may be objected that these are fictional coronations whereas Charles’ is real. But what does “real” mean in the context of 21st century mass media spectacles? It’s all just movies. Rehearsals for today’s coronation were conducted on a film-style set of “Westminster Abbey” constructed inside Buckingham Palace’s ballroom.
As the Sunday Times reported last weekend, “A scale model of the abbey stage has been installed to ensure everyone with a part to play – including the king – has ample chance to practise before rehearsals start in the abbey this week.”
Is this show any more “authentic” than Simba ascending Pride Rock in The Lion King? Would fans be more or less impressed if the voice of Mufasa were to boom out from the skies over Westminster Abbey at the moment of Charles’ anointing: “Remember”?
The problem with the coronation, though, is less that it is a show than that it is only a show, a giant signifier with very little left to signify. The gap between the performance and the reality it is meant to enact is far greater now than it was when Charles’ mother was crowned.
In 1953, rituals of majesty and might were not entirely implausible. Britain, after all, still did have an empire. It was a recent victor in a huge existential war. It was also building great internal institutions such as the National Health Service. Ideas of British unity, even of greatness, were not absurd.
That sense of unity has long been shattered: not only is the UK deeply divided but Charles can’t even guarantee unity among his own sons – the very heirs to whom the British people are to pledge allegiance.
Charles will swear in his coronation oath “that I am a faithful Protestant” and will pledge to “uphold and maintain” the “Protestant succession to the throne”
British greatness has become a mere bubble of bombast, one that burst along with Boris Johnson’s ill-fated reign as “world king”. There has been too much empty bloviation about British exceptionalism in recent years for it to be taken seriously now.
Even the core of religious meaning at the heart of the coronation ceremony now serves to highlight the falsity of the spectacle. The UK is no longer a majority Christian (let alone Protestant) country. Yet Charles will swear in his coronation oath “that I am a faithful Protestant” and will pledge to “uphold and maintain” the “Protestant succession to the throne”.
The contradictions of this sectarian monarchy ruling over a non-Christian country will be most glaring when the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, gives a reading from the Bible evoking the blessing of a monotheistic “God the Father” in whom, as everyone knows, he does not believe.
It will be painfully obvious that this too is a charade. The gap between the spectacle and the society it is supposed to embody is too great for any ceremony to fill.
Which makes it all the more important for the ceremony to be perfectly choreographed and impeccably straight-faced in its solemnity. Its sole remaining point is to be exceptional in its own exquisite pointlessness.