On the occasion of the Queen’s Coronation
The British Church Newspaper is pleased to present some notes by a
correspondent on the Coronation ceremony and the Coronation Oath, to mark the
occasion next Monday (2nd June) when the nation will celebrate the
50th Anniversary – or the Jubilee – of the Queens magnificent Coronation in Westminster Abbey on 2nd June 1953.
Most readers above the age of 55 will be able to
recall that magnificent occasion on 2nd June 1953 when Queen
Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
Eight years after Britain had celebrated an historic victory over an
undemocratic and fascist alliance in Europe, and the day
after Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had scaled Everest for the first
time, the British nation was in joyous and celebratory mood. Today, just ten
days after the Houses of parliament have been surrounded by ugly concrete
blocks to guard against the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists,
and with a government in power dedicated to abolishing Britain as an independent nation, the mood is profoundly different.
As Christian Voice prepares to use 2nd June
as a ‘day of fasting and prayer’ for the state of the nation, we take a brief
look here at the origin and development of the British Coronation ceremony.
It was of course the Old Testament anointing of Saul
and the other Kings of Israel and Judah which inspired the first known
Coronation ceremony in Britain – the designation in 787 AD of Ecgfirth as the
future King of Mercia by his father, the better-known King Offa, who
constructed the famous dyke to mark the border between the Anglo-Saxons and the
Britons, now the long-distance footpath, Offa’s dyke. It was not King Offa’s
only claim to fame. Earlier he had decided that the Anglo-Saxon pound, a pound
weight of silver, should be divided for convenience into 240 ‘sterlings’ – thin
slivers of silver, which later mutated into the British penny. The ‘sterling’
was named after Stirling in Scotland, because the silver for the royal mint was mined in the Ochil hills
northeast of the Scottish town. Ecgfirth was anointed with oil after the
manner of Samuel anointing Saul.
In the very same year, the Ecclesiastical Synod of
Chelsea emphasised the honour and dignity of Kings as ‘the anointed of the
Lord’ and stipulated that they were to “conduct their government with great prudence
and in obedience to the divine law … and to honour the church
of God, which is the spouse of Christ”.
As E C Ratcliffe noted in The Coronation Service of
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: “Inevitably, the Biblical practice of
anointing brought with it the Biblical conception of the ‘ideal King’, who
stood in special relation to God as his Servant, and whose duty it was to
defend true religion, to support its ministers, and to maintain justice and
righteousness among his people”.
In the following century, Alfred the Great established
the English nation, as the famous statute of him in Winchester High Street records with a plaque. He did so by laying a
Christian foundation for the emerging nation, codifying the civil and criminal
law on Christian principles, based on his extensive reading of the Scriptures.
He even translated some of the Bible into English.
The first officially-designated ‘King of All England’
was King Edgar, and it was Dunstan who devised his Coronation ceremony – one
which remains substantially unaltered to this day. Edgar was crowned in a
ceremony in Bath Abbey in AD 973 – 1,030 years ago. The basic structure of
that service, which did not make him King but was an act of consecration, were:
(1) the formal election of the King and his promises to people (2) the
consecration and anointing of the King, and (3) the vesting, coronation and
enthronement of the King – all followed by a communion service. The Oath was
then worded as follows: “First, that the church of God and the whole Christian
people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; Second, that I will
forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; Third, that
I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments.”
The service moved to Westminster Abbey with the
coronation of William the Conqueror in AD 1066. He claimed to be the successor
of Edward the Confessor, and insisted on being crowned near his tomb in the
In the twelfth century, the Coronation ceremony was
revised to include a response by the clergy and the people declaring their
allegiance to the monarch.
The test of the Service was altered for the Coronation
of Charles II in 1661, but it was the strongly Roman Catholic James II who made
substantial changes, omitting the communion service altogether and
significantly abridging the ceremony. The further revision, which was
undertaken by Henry Compton, bishop of London,
of the Coronation of Protestant William III, has remained substantially
unchanged to this day.
In 1937, the wording of the Coronation Oath was
changed, ‘illegally’ according to D. A. Scales in his pamphlet for the Harrison
Trust, A Crowning Mercy. Changes in the wording, he said, should have
been made by Parliament, but were instead rushed through by the Cabinet. The
previous wording: ‘Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of
the Kingdom of England and the dominions thereto belonging according to the
Statutes in Parliament agreed on the law and Customs of the same?’ was altered
by deleting the words: ‘according to the Statues in Parliament agreed on’.
There was further discussion of this allegedly illegal
new Oath before the Coronation ceremony in 1953. A Times leader at the
time pronounced: ‘Only Parliament can give lawful authority to a new Oath’.
The Protestant part of the Oath, detested by the Roman
Catholic hierarchy, has also been changed over time. Prior to 1910, it read:
‘To maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law’. George III
was subjected to a strong attack on the ‘Protestant Oath’. He rebutted it with
these famous words: “Where is the power on earth to absolve me from the
observance of every sentence of that Oath, particularly the one requiring me to
maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion? Was not my family seated on the
Throne for that express purpose, and shall I be the first to suffer it to be
undermined, perhaps overturned? No, No, I had rather beg my bread from door to
door throughout Europe, than consent to any such measure. I can
give up my crown and retire from power. I can quit my palace and live in a
cottage. I can lay my head on a block and lose my life, but I cannot break my
Oath. If I violate that Oath, I am no longer legal Sovereign in this country”.
King Edward VII died on Friday, 6th May 1910. The following Monday, the Times
published part of a letter from Irish Nationalist MP W.H.E. Redmond, to the
Prime Minister, demanding that he take such steps as may be necessary to
relieve the new King from the obligation, if such really exists, of using the
language at the commencement of his reign which must deeply wound the feelings
and outrage the faith of so many people everywhere”. In the unprecedentedly
short period one week, a new Bill was rushed through Parliament which modified
the previous words to read: ‘I am a faithful Protestant’.
Scales concluded his pamphlet by warning of the
attempt that would be made to further amend and weaken the Coronation Oath when
Queen Elizabeth II died. Lamenting the failure of the Oath to prevent the
national decline over the past half-century, he concluded: “The remedy for this
failure is not to jettison the Oath and the Protestant declaration, but to
repent and seek Gods grace to fulfil them in our national life”.
A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye
shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the
grapes in it if thy vine undressed. For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy
unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. In the year of
this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession, Leviticus 25 vv.