The Coronation was a Modern Charade of Historical ContinuityRoundup
tags: British history, British royal family, monarchy, King Charles III, Coronations
Is the third time the charm? Charles’s first coronation was at Gordonstoun school in November 1965, when he played Macbeth. There is a photograph in the Royal Collections of him in a get-up nearly as strange as those he is wearing at Westminster Abbey almost sixty years later, sporting a bad fake beard and what seems like a horse harness around his neck and chest as a breastplate. The recently updated online catalog describes the “people involved” in the image as “Charles III, King of the United Kingdom (b. 1948)” and “Macbeth, King of Scotland (c. 1005-1057),” as if this seventeen-year-old boy is floating somewhere between the eleventh and twenty-first centuries and between real and theatrical performances of kingship.
There is in fact a tenuous connection between the two kings. Charles is being crowned while sitting on the coronation chair, which was built around the Stone of Scone, a roughly engraved chunk of sandstone formerly used for the inauguration of Scottish kings. After Macbeth murders Duncan in Shakespeare’s play, Macduff says that he is “gone to Scone/To be invested.” The name returns as the last word in the play, when Malcolm, after Macduff kills Macbeth, invites his allies “to see us crowned at Scone.” As an augury of a happy reign, it does not seem especially propitious.
Nor, indeed, was Charles’s playing of the king in 1965. Eric Anderson, the teacher who directed the production, recalled Charles playing Macbeth as “a sensitive soul who is behaving in a way that is really uncharacteristic of him because of other forces.” This seems a rather accurate foreshadowing of the melancholy Prince of Wales in his long years of waiting, when he was lampooned by the satiric magazine Private Eye as the Heir of Sorrows. And indeed his excitement that “mummy and papa” came to see him play the sensitively murderous Scottish king was greatly diminished by his father’s reaction to his performance. Charles later recalled that as he “lay there and thrashed about” on stage in Macbeth’s death scene, “all I could hear was my father and ‘Ha, ha, ha.’” Afterward, he asked his papa, “Why did you laugh?” Prince Philip replied that “it sounds like the Goons,” the stars of a zany BBC radio comedy show.
There was also something goonish about Charles’s second coronation, when he was invested as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969, in a faux-ancient ceremony concocted by his uncle by marriage, the photographer Lord Snowdon. The coronet with which his mother crowned Charles that day was, as the toff bible Town and Country revealed in 2019, topped by an orb that was in fact a ping-pong ball electroplated with a skin of gold. The ritual, as Snowdon later admitted to the BBC, was “all as bogus as hell.” Snowdon described his own costume for that ceremony as making him look like a “cinema usherette from the 1950s or the panto character Buttons.”
As I settle down to watch Charles’s third coronation on television, I wonder whether it will at last banish the weird aura of gloom that has always seemed to hover over him. He has managed, through a life of extraordinary privilege, to seem very sorry for himself, as though his vast private riches and the constant fawning of lackeys and servants were sacrifices his sensitive soul must dutifully endure. He was a martyr to his mother’s longevity—he became heir apparent in 1952. After more than seventy years of unquiet anticipation, will his coronation seem worth waiting for? Can any show so long expected avoid the feeling of anticlimax?
The odd thing about these British royal ceremonials is that they have become more important as the power and majesty they are supposed to project has diminished. The idea that the English have a natural flair for these things is a recent invention. In the nineteenth century, when Britain ruled so much of the world, its coronations were relatively desultory affairs. That of William IV in 1831 was so cheaply staged that it was nicknamed the “half-crownation.” The monarch himself was so unenthusiastic about the whole prospect that, on a visit to Parliament, he grabbed the Imperial State Crown while in the robing room of the House of Lords, put it on his head, and quipped to the prime minister, Lord Grey, that “The Coronation is over.” At the crowning of his successor, Queen Victoria, according to the House of Commons library, “the coronation ring was forced onto the wrong finger, an elderly peer fell down the steps while making homage and a bishop wrongly told Victoria the ceremony was over, which meant she had to return to her seat to finish the service.” Even at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 the infirm Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, seemed to drop the crown and then placed it on the king’s head back to front.