There I was, doing what I do best in gift shops connected to major tourist sites, in this case the Tower of London. It was 2013, and I was looking through the books for sale.
One caught my eye: Crown, Orb & Sceptre: The True Stories of English Coronations by David Hilliam. And the reason it caught my eye was that I’d begun to think about the third novel in my Dancing Priest series, my alternative history of the British royal family. And this would be the novel in which Michael Kent-Hughes would be crowned.
But I didn’t know much about the specifics of the ceremony, other than it took place in Westminster Abbey and every monarch since Edward I had been crowned there. I bought the book at the gift shop, and it accompanied me home to the States. It was another six months before I read it. It had become part of the research for Dancing King.
It’s full of facts about coronations as well as gossipy tidbits. Charles I, the one who lost his head, was all of four feet, seven inches tall. His coronation was marred by several mishaps, seen later as omens. The worst might have neem an earthquake occurring just as the ceremony ended.
Richard III was crowned barefoot. Oliver Cromwell melted down most of the crown jewels. When George I was crowned in 1714, he couldn’t speak a lick of English (he was German with a British royal connection). Two kings were never crowned; can you name them? (Answer below.) Elizabeth II was advised over and over again not to televise the coronation ceremony; she didn’t listen. Instead, she followed the advice of her husband, who urged her to televise.
For centuries, the coronation procession began at the Tower of London and ended at Westminster Abbey (with a couple of exceptions for plague years). That was eventually discontinued in the 17th century. I fastened on that fact, and I had Michael Kent-Hughes decide to bring that procession back, linking his own reign to that of the originals – and to allow more people to see the procession (it’s a longer route than the Buckingham Palace to the Abbey stretch) and to give a nod to the business community (the route goes through the City of London) and the theater community (it passes near the West End).
But it was the coronation itself that was the most important information the book provided. When you see the old clips of Elizabeth II’s coronation, you’re struck by the pageantry, the spectacle, and all the visual details. This may have been why her advisors (including Winston Churchill) argued against television – a televised program can easily miss the point. Above all else, the coronation of the British monarch is a religious ceremony, filled with symbols throughout the rite.
That’s where Crown, Orb & Sceptre really helped my research. It included the step-by-step ceremony for Elizabeth II’s coronation and explained what each part of the program and each of the symbols meant. The religious and specifically Christian elements fit perfectly with the faith of Michael Kent-Hughes in my story, and I followed the general outline laid out by the book.
Some years back, the prince of Wales who will be crowned Charles III this weekend said in an interview that he would like to be known as the “defender of the faiths,” as opposed to the traditional title of the monarch as “defender of the faith.” He was making a bow in the direction of the diversity of religions in Britain, but he was also unintentionally appointing himself as head of all of the faiths in the country, including Islam. More than a few people pointed that out, and the idea was forgotten.
Except in the case of Michael Kent-Hughes. In Dancing King, and before his coronation, he meets with a group of protestors, who (among other things) demand he demand that he recognize himself as “defender of the faiths.” He succinctly explains exactly what that would mean, much to the shock of the protestors.
If you happen to watch the coronation ceremony this Saturday, remember that each step, and each symbol, is filled with religious importance. Above all else, a British coronation is a religious ceremony.
And the answer to what two kings were never crowned? The boy king likely murdered with his younger brother in the Tower of London on orders of Richard III, and Edward VIII, who gave up his throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Top photograph: Westminster Abbey, where every British monarch since Edward I has been crowned.