‘What does it mean?’, as the ingenue asked in the art gallery. Presuming to ‘review’ a coronation might seem odd – but then again, if ever there were a time to exercise critical faculties, this is surely it. The coronation of King Charles III today was about power and the way that power is supposed to look: dressed in fine raiments and accompanied by politicians and religious figures. But it also conveyed more subtle truths.
There was nothing subtle about the King’s arrival at Westminster Abbey. Preceded by the Sovereign’s Escort of the Household Cavalry, the King and Queen made their way from the palace in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach – the most modern of the coaches, this even has the benefit of suspension. The crowds were stirred by the great blaze of gold around the coach and the six Windsor greys with their royal blue manes – excitement at shiny baubles, perhaps, but the day did bring moments of surprising power.
This was an event that moved with the gracious solemnity of another time. Slow TV is having a moment, and sometimes this felt like the slowest TV of all. But that was part of the point. Nothing would be rushed. Each moment had to be given the gravitas it deserved; if there were moments where ennui crept in, so much the better. How else should one observe the mental discipline of the king’s servitude to his country?
When the procession was complete, the service gave us one of the most impressive moments in the day and it came from the voice of a child. Samuel Strachan, a chorister of His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, stood in front of the King and in a clear voice said, ‘Your Majesty, as children of the kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of kings.’ The innocent pitch of his voice, a child addressing the most powerful man in the land, created a frisson that felt Shakespearean. In that moment, the tradition of coronations was evoked. The feeling of a country that has gone through division, strife and civil war to find peace in the figure of a uniting monarch was tangible.
The other great theatrical moment in the service was the anointment. Quietly, servicemen brought in three screens. They hedged in the throne and, with a uniform military step, the soldiers moved the individual screens together to create a perfect enclosure around the throne of Edward the Confessor, the saint King, upon which Charles, stripped of his finery, would be anointed. All this was done to the strains of Zadok the Priest, every pulse of the introduction elevating the tension until that glorious burst of music convinces the listener that they are in the presence of glory.
For anyone looking for easy interpretations of this service – the establishment exerting itself, say – it should be remembered that the spirit of Saturnalia hovers at its edge. This is a service in which King kneels to Archbishop, sword is instrument of peace and judgement, worldly orb is sign of the Kingdom of God and a glove is a reminder of the restraint upon authority. The coronation service will be hailed as a musical triumph – somehow this feels like the thing everyone is allowed to say. But it might also be a lesson in how to read the world around us. For all the glitz on show, the coronation reached out to a past that reminds us that not all that glisters is gold.