The many details of Coronation Day show the king Charles wants to be

LONDON — When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, the new big thing was the TV camera. For the first time, the coronation was televised, live, in grainy black and white. It set the stage for the global interest in this royal family and its many dramas today.

Beyond that, the 25-year-old Elizabeth mostly kept to the script set by her father and grandfather earlier in the century. Hers was the last imperial coronation, as the British Empire was crumbling.

The coronation of King Charles III will be different. The service will still be deeply religious and very Christian. It will invoke ancient traditions — and some more recently invented ones. But organizers are billing it as greener, more inclusive, and smaller in scale.

The 74-year-old monarch has his hands all over this production, as he is performing as both leading man and director. The choices Charles has made — and he is a details man — say much about the coming Carolean era. It previews how the king may try — and struggle — to be embraced by younger generations, which are growing apathetic about the whole constitutional monarch thing.

More than 70 years after the last coronation, this will be the first for diminished post-Brexit Britain, involving many fewer realms than his mother once oversaw.

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As an environmentalist, Charles has ordered up a more “sustainable” coronation. He went for an invitation printed on recycled card stock, with a design featuring “the Green Man” — a pagan symbol of rebirth — surrounded by foliage.

At what is traditionally the most sacred moment of the coronation ceremony, Charles will be anointed with holy oil consecrated at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His blend will be cruelty-free. It will not contain excretions from the glands of small cute mammals or ambergris from the intestines of whales; both were used in the past.

But there’s also a plan for 60 British military jets to roar past Buckingham Palace in a crowd-pleasing, carbon-spewing display.

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Some greenwashing detectors lit up when palace officials claimed that reusing an existing crown for Queen Camilla, reupholstering historic chairs and wearing a tunic, belt and glove used in past coronations was about “sustainability and efficiency.” Umm, not really.

Officials acknowledged it was customary for a lot of coronation paraphernalia to be reused. That is the whole point. A 12th-century silver-gilt spoon or an oaken chair from the 1300s helps lend legitimacy to the modern monarchy.

Charles was just four years old when his mother became queen of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth realms. It’s now time for a coronation of his own. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

There have been similarly mixed reviews of efforts to make the coronation more diverse.

As someone who understands the changing demographics of 21st-century Britain and has long emphasized spirituality over religious dogma, Charles has pushed for a more inclusive event.

For the first time, members of other faiths will play an active role in what has been, over the past four centuries, an almost exclusively Protestant service.

Charles will take the traditional oath, which can be significantly modified only through an act of Parliament. But while the king must pledge to be “Defender of the Faith” — as in the Protestant Church of England — the archbishop of Canterbury, at Charles’s urging, will emphasize that this means fostering “an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.”

Another first at the ceremony will be that the ancient Kyrie eleison prayer will be sung in Welsh. Charles was for decades the Prince of Wales and learned to speak the language — with enthusiasm if without fluency.

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This also will be the first time a gospel group will perform for a coronation. The Ascension Choir includes members who sang at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018. The couple got props at the time for bringing gospel to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, but the choir’s conductor corrected the record for the Daily Telegraph by explaining that it was Charles’s idea — “he’s the one who loves gospel.”

In past coronations, there was a segment when dukes and other nobles would to swear fealty to the new monarch. That bit has been dropped. Instead, there will be an “Homage of the People.” The archbishop will “call upon all persons of goodwill” from across the realm “to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King, defender of all.”

The addition has proved controversial, with some people expressing discomfort at being asked to cry out as one from their couches and pub stools. “The pledge of allegiance to the king is nonsense — and seems designed to incense everyone,” wrote Zoe Williams in the Guardian newspaper.

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Some have questioned, too, the archbishop’s selection of a passage about “the Lordship of Christ” for the reading by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a practicing Hindu. Church officials said Sunak would be reading in his role as prime minister, during an Anglican service, so there should be no issue over his personal faith.

Along with promoting sustainability and inclusivity, coronation organizers have tried to sell this as a scaled-down event in comparison with the 1953 coronation. There will be 2,200 guests in the abbey, rather than the 8,000 who saw Elizabeth crowned. The service will last two hours, rather than three. The procession route is a short 1.3 miles. The trip should take just 30 minutes. His mother’s route was far longer, almost five miles.

But who alive today will notice the edits?

Charles is a savvy chief executive, well aware that the country is facing soaring inflation — and that one of the key objections to the monarchy in Britain is not just the expense but the excess. How many royal residences can a king have? It is understandable that he would be keen to emphasize coronation cost-cutting.

This show, though, still involves an enormous security operation that is expected to cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds. The exact bill is not revealed until weeks after the event.

He wants a glimpse of frugality. Behold! A “slimmed down” royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace (a palace 15 times the size of the White House, and in the middle of a 10-year, $450 million renovation).

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This will be the great challenge of Charles’s reign. To modernize, to make things bend to his professed beliefs and appeal to a country that is increasingly blasé about the monarchy, while working within an institution based on inherited privilege, that derives its legitimacy from references to the past.

Along the parade route, some people have been camping out to secure spots for Saturday. These superfans decked out in Union Jack costumes are not uncommon, but they do not represent the country as a whole. Many Britons are just happy to get a three-day weekend — and they might or might not catch a bit of the ceremonies on their mobiles or the telly.

“The coronation is the closest that unelected monarchies come to an election,” said Robert Lacey, a royal biographer. “If people turn out to cheer, then they won the election. If nobody turns out, they’ve lost the election.”

Campers on the Mall interviewed by The Washington Post tended to speak politely of Charles but without the same misty-eyed devotion people had toward his mother.

“I wouldn’t say Charles is good, or bad. I’d say he’s reasonable. He has a sense of humor and good taste,” said Tony Ches, 67, a retiree from Birmingham who brought a folding chair to sleep in and a golden crown.

About two miles away, Rebecca Hooton, 51, a hospice worker, was power walking through King’s Cross Station. She said the crown should have leapfrogged to Prince William, who was “more in touch with people and knows what’s going on.”

Her Saturday plans included “having a glass of fizz and not watching the coronation.” Then she paused and reconsidered. “Being British, it’s all part of our culture. Okay, I’ll probably watch in the end, but I’m not a massive fan of Charles or Camilla.”

She then glanced over at a large picture of the king and queen in the station. “They are everywhere, aren’t they?” she said, rolling her eyes.

George Gross, a research fellow at King’s College London and a leader of the British Coronations Project, said he is curious about the response Saturday. “What will we all make of it? I think there is a lot of intrigue because we haven’t had a coronation in a very long time.”

In 1953, when Elizabeth was crowned, many could remember when her father became king in 1937. But Elizabeth reigned for 70 years. Most Britons do not remember any other monarch. This is new.

“It will be interesting to see how the public — and how the world — reacts to all this,” Gross said. “It is an unknown.”

2023-05-05 18:04:00