Many years ago, I toured the Tower of London with my parents and my siblings. Included in our tour was a viewing of the Crown Jewels. I remember entering a room that seemed (to me, anyways) something like a vault. I think we might even have been underground. The room was cold and quite dark, but that was so the jewels would shine. And shine they did, lit in such a way that they dazzled and shimmered. Each piece was on its own small platform covered in purple cloth, all at various heights, and all contained in one large display case. It was quite a thing to see.
I bought myself a souvenir booklet —The Crown Jewels and Coronation Ritual — which I still have. It’s worn and dog-eared because I studied that book from cover to cover.
Thanks to my viewing of the Crown Jewels all those years ago, and my souvenir booklet, I had a pretty good idea of the regalia that would be used in today’s coronation service. What I didn’t know, and what I was most curious about, was how the service would flow. It was the mix of civic and religious rites that was a mystery to me, as much as the beliefs involved are my own. The only thing I have to compare it to is a church wedding, of which I’ve been to many. But a coronation? I have no point of reference.
What I saw on my tiny TV early this morning (no, I didn’t watch it live — I recorded it on my PVR and started watching it when I woke up) was nothing like I have ever seen before. I had heard that King Charles wanted a more modern coronation, but everything I saw seem steeped in centuries of tradition.
So when the historical commentator on the CBC’s broadcast summed up what he had seen as “weird, wonderful, and wild,” I nodded in agreement. It was weird. Weird in that the ceremony seems spectacularly out of touch with our modern world. But it is also spectacularly wonderful in that a thousands-year-old tradition is still being practised. And wild in that so many of us can still find meaning in it, even as we declare ourselves citizens of a modern world.
Did you know the Dutch don’t crown their sovereigns? Apparently this is because when they regained their independence in 1815 (in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), the Kingdom of the Netherlands included what is modern-day Belgium. The Dutch were Protestant and the Belgians were Catholic, so rather than fight over which religious leader would crown the king, they just skipped that part. In fact, most of the European monarchies don’t bother with coronations.
There may well come a day when the United Kingdom does away with theirs, especially as the idea of a state church becomes more and more antiquated in a world where freedom of religion is considered a human right. But I suspect the ritual will stick around for another British king or two.
The photo at the top of this post is of the towers of Westminster Abbey peeking out from behind Victoria Tower, which is part of the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament reside. I chose this photo because, well, first of all, I don’t have one of the Crown Jewels, but secondly, because it shows both church and state, the meeting of which was what today’s coronation was all about.
And thirdly, it shows continuity. The English kings and queens have been crowned at Westminster Abbey since 1066. Victoria Tower used to be known as the King’s Tower, but was renamed in 1897 to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — just as the Clock Tower (where Big Ben resides) was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to honour Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
That’s a whole lot of heritage in one photo.