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Monday, September 25, 2017
Date Posted:

Coronation of a Queen

The History Of The Coronation Oath

Dr Clive Gillis

On the occasion of the Queen’s Coronation Jubilee

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 Abbey.

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. 11-13.

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