Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Coronation of Charles III, Ghostly Whispers in the Abbey

Official Coronation Portrait of King Charles III of the United Kingdom
with His Heirs, William, Prince of Wales, and Prince George of Wales
© Hugo Burnand

Like many Americans I watched the coronation of King Charles III of the United Kingdom on May 6th.  

Indeed, I watched it twice.  The first time was live in the early morning hours, while later in the day I hosted a Coronation Tea Party for a few friends during which we watched it again from start to balcony.  It was great fun and always impressive to see the precision with which the British carry out these state occasions.  But, for me at least, it had much deeper resonance.

For one thing, there is the new king's name.  For many years I had wondered if he would choose to be known by his first name or would choose (as his grandfather did) one of his other three baptismal names.  He could have chosen Philip to honor his father, becoming Philip I.  Or much less plausibly his third name of Arthur.  This was unlikely because that would make him King Arthur, which would sound presumptuous and quite bizarre.  My bet was that he also would revert to his final baptismal name of George, becoming George VII.  That would be a pretty safe bet and honor his grandfather and great-grandfather as well.  But he did none of these alternate things, choosing his own first name of Charles, becoming King Charles III.  As a royal name Charles has had a rather rocky time in British royal history. 

The first Charles was a lover of art and of ceremony. However, his inability to work with Parliament and his stubborn insistence on his power to tax without its consent,  plus his disastrous attempt to impose a High Anglican liturgy on the Calvinist Presbyterians of Scotland, precipitated the English Civil War of the 1640s.  This war, between supporters of the king (Royalists) and supporters of Parliament (Roundheads), eventually cost the king his throne and ultimately his life.  In one of the most bizarre events in seventeenth-century history he was tried for treason against the people by Parliament in January of 1649.  Not surprisingly, he was found guilty and beheaded on a scaffold built in front of the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace.  There was great irony in the location of the execution as the Banqueting House is a building constructed by Inigo Jones under orders from Charles'  father, King James I, and decorated with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens ordered by Charles himself.  The building still stands on Whitehall.  On May 6, the royal party drove past it, twice.

Anthony van Dyck, King Charles I of the United Kingdom
Flemish, 1636
Windsor Castle, Royal Collection Trust, Queen's Gallery

His son, Charles II, spent the years following his father's death in exile in Holland and France.  During those years England and Scotland were run as a Republic.  It wasn't a democratic republic in the true sense, however.  The country was run by a rump of the Parliament first elected in 1640, following several political purges.  This increasingly out-of-touch body refused to hold new elections.  Eventually, the rump itself was purged and the government became a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell.  Shortly after Cromwell died, leaving the country in the hands of his own son, Richard Cromwell, Prince Charles was invited to return to England as king.  He did so in 1661 with a total reset of the entire government.  In fact, many of the glorious objects of the royal regalia with which King Charles III was invested were ordered by Charles II for his coronation in 1661.  They needed to be created again in order to replace the original medieval ones that were destroyed by Parliament and Cromwell.  These had been broken up for the value of their metal and jewels and sold off to finance the government and line some pockets.  

John Michael Wright, King Charles II of the United Kingdom
English, c. 1671-1676
Edinburgh, Royal Collection Trust, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Throne Room
Here Charles II is shown in his parliamentary robes and with the remade regalia that he ordered for his 1661 coronation.  The scepter and orb used in the 2023 coronation are the same as those shown in this picture, although numerous jewels have been added to them. In particular the huge Cullinan I diamond was added to the head of the scepter for the coronation of King George V in 1911.  The crowns in the two pictures are different, however.  King Charles III is wearing the Imperial State Crown in the photo above while Charles II is wearing the recreated Crown of Saint Edward, which he ordered.  This crown is the one that was used to crown Charles III, although the silhouette of the arches was altered for the coronation of King George V in 1911.  (See King Charles III wearing it in the photo below.)

Though happier than the reign of his father, the reign of Charles II was not totally peaceful, as he walked a fine line between the still existing republican elements of English society, which during his reign formed into the Whig faction in Parliament, and the Royalist faction which was in the process of becoming what we know today as the Tories.  On a wider front he had to walk an equally fine and even more tense line between warring factions and warring religions in Europe as a whole, trying to balance English interests against those of the French and the Dutch.  He was particularly careful about the religious settlement in England.  This was made more difficult for him by his family situation and personal preferences.  Although he was expected to be a Protestant, his mother was a French Catholic princess, the sister of King Louis XIII and aunt of Louis XIV.  His wife, the  Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, was also Catholic.  His brother and heir, James, Duke of York, was an outspoken convert to Catholicism.  Charles was Anglican like his father, but with barely concealed Catholic tendencies.  

Officially, England was a fiercely Protestant country with a minority of Catholics holding out against an overwhelming tide of on and off persecution.   A particularly nasty persecution occurred during his reign.  Between 1678 and 1681 the United Kingdom was roiled by what is known as the Popish Plot.  This sorry episode was based on imagined evidence of a Catholic conspiracy presented by a man named Titus Oats and, although false, created such a furor that at least twenty-two prominent Catholics were put to death.  On his deathbed in 1685 Charles finally declared his true beliefs and converted to Catholicism. His overtly Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II was initially accepted, but within a few years was deposed by Parliament in the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1689.

Thus, the regal name of Charles has a lot of overtones that make it an interesting choice for the new king, especially as there were some alternatives.  This alone would have made the coronation interesting to me.  

I should add that another reason for my own interest is that the subject of my initial dissertation proposal, many, many years ago was an analysis of the art collection of the first Charles.  Charles I amassed one of the greatest art collections of all time, at one time buying the entire collection of the Dukes of Mantua.  The collection was particularly rich in the works of Venetian painters such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.  In addition, Charles commissioned works from such contemporary artists as Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Gianlorenzo Bernini, in addition to many others.  Like the crown jewels and royal regalia this collection was sold off by the Republic after the beheading of the king.  It is scattered now throughout the great museums of the world, although a handful have found their way back into the current Royal Collection.  

Anthony van Dyck, Triple Portrait of King Charles I
Flemish, c. 1635-1636
Windsor Castle, Royal Collection Trust, Queen's Drawing Room
This unusual triple portrait may have been commissioned as a guide for a portrait bust by Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Questions regarding patronage and collecting have always been of interest to me and I was particularly interested in how the paintings from that amazing collection were allocated among the royal palaces, especially those assigned to the palace of Somerset House, which was allocated to his queen, Henrietta Maria, for her own use.  This palace was one of the few places in London where the Catholic Mass was openly celebrated during the first half of the 17th century.  As a Catholic princess, Henrietta's marriage contract had guaranteed the right for her to have her own chapel where Mass could be celebrated.  Her chapel was open to people from outside, having a separate entrance from an alley leading off the Strand.  Catholics could attend the Mass there or in similar chapels within the walls of the embassies of Catholic countries.  It was furtive and sometimes dangerous, but still a blessing to those in London who remained faithful to the Old Religion.  I was curious to determine if there were subjects chosen as decorations in her own palace that were not chosen for the decoration of those palaces that were especially devoted to the use of the king and government, based on their respective religions affiliations.  I never completed the work as I became more intensely interested in the image of the Eucharist before and after the Reformation in a wider, European, context.

Anthony van Dyck, King Charles I of the United Kingdom, Queen Henrietta Maria
with Their Two Oldest Children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary
Flemish, 1632
Windsor Castle, Royal Collection Trust, Queen's Gallery

All these associations with the first two Charles' stood out in my mind as the 2023 coronation approached.  In addition, there was the interest felt by so many in a ceremony that had not occurred in seventy years and which most people on this planet had been unable to see then.  In 1953 there was television to be sure, but it was in black and white and rather fuzzy, and it was restricted to the United Kingdom.  Very few people had television sets.  And, on this side of the Atlantic pond, it wouldn't have mattered if you did have one.  Satellite communications between continents were still more than a decade away.  One could listen on radio, but not see the events live.  That had to wait for the newsreels to catch up in theatres days later.  I was a small child at the time and I remember there being interest, but have no recollection of seeing or hearing the event either live or in a theatre.  So, of course, I was going to watch!

On the day itself I was somewhat astonished to find in the event an even stronger resonance than the connection to my abandoned dissertation topic.  I have watched many of the British royal ceremonies of the last few decades.  Indeed, from as early as 1969, when my mother and I were up at dawn to witness then Prince Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales, up to the late Queen's funeral in September, I don't think I have missed more than one or two.  However, one thing that has always struck me about them is what is missing from then.  And that something is a very big something.  While I have much good will toward my Protestant brothers and sisters I can't help feeling sorry for them at such times.  The weddings and funerals and even many of the Sunday worship services have this huge hole in them.  Jesus is absent.  I don't mean to say that God isn't present. He is, but in a rather remote way.  He is out there somewhere, or he is in the heart of a person.  But he isn't present in the way he is in the Catholic Mass.  He is an abstract concept, not a personal presence right there with you.  So, all those services, all those royal weddings and funerals amount to nothing more than nice words addressed to an absent entity.

Almost immediately I recognized that the coronation was different.  From the archbishop's greeting and prayer we went to Bryn Terfel singing the Kyrie in Welsh.  OK, that's nice I thought.  But within a few minutes we were listening to the Gloria and that was followed by two readings, one from the Epistles and one from the Gospels.  I began to realize that we were witnessing a Mass.  And so it was, progressing from the sermon to the coronation ritual itself (situated after the Liturgy of the Word, just as is any administration of a sacrament, such as Confirmation or Ordination or Marriage,  within the Mass).  After the coronation we moved to the liturgy of Holy Communion, as the Anglicans call the Liturgy of the Eucharistic Prayer.  Only the bishops present and the king and queen were invited to receive Holy Communion, however.  This time around too, there was a nod to other Christian bodies at the blessing at the end of the service, as the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Orthodox Patriarch and representatives of several Protestant groups imparted blessings on the new king.  As he exited the Abbey he was also met by representatives of non-Christian religious groups.  Both these latter are distinct innovations.

King Charles III Enthroned During the Service of Coronation
Westminster Abbey, May 6, 2023
© Andrew Matthews/Pool/AP

This is a prime example. probably the prime example, of the persistence of the old Catholic England through all the centuries since the Reformation.  The little-used ceremony of the coronation has preserved elements of the pre-Reformation world that gave it birth.  This is the twentieth coronation since the last pre-Reformation one (of the still Catholic Henry VIII in 1509). not enough to totally destroy the form.

I cannot say whether Christ was truly present in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury that day.  The efficacy of the Eucharistic prayer by an Anglican cleric is a subject above my knowledge, but for once, the presence of Christ was not entirely missing from a royal event.  Complete with the anointing, the robing, enthroning and crowning, the Eucharistic whispers of the past crept into the building once built as an abbey church in a Catholic England.

© M. Duffy, 2023

1. Possibly some of this continuity may be due to a happy accident of the hereditary peerage system.  The planning of such events, although done by committee, is the ultimate responsibility of one person, the Duke of Norfolk.  Due to their wealth and tenacity the Howards, now the FitzAlan-Howards of Norfolk have retained their Catholic faith through history.  The Duke of Norfolk is also the hereditary Earl Marshal of England, a title that goes far back into history.  The Earl Marshal is responsible for all the royal state ceremonial, such as the Coronation, the Funeral of a Monarch and the annual opening of Parliament (but not such family events as weddings).  The current Duke Edward FitzAlan-Howard is the 18th Duke of Norfolk.  His lower half can be seen in the photo above,  He is the man in the gold bedecked red jacket behind the king's left shoulder.  Since he had to stand during the entire ceremony I suspect he was a very tired man at the end of that day. He is also a remote relation of the royal family, as the Howards descend from younger sons and daughters of both King John and King Edward I.

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