Religious Meaning of the Coronation of King Edward VII

The article below was originally published in May 1902 before the coronation of King Edward VII the following June. It was written by Mrs. A. Murray Smith and originally published in the monthly Pall Mall Magazine. I have typed it out as published in a compendium of the articles of that Magazine from an original book published in 1902.

The Coronation Service

The Religious Meaning of the Ceremony
By Mrs. A. Murray Smith
Originally published 1902, Pall Mall Magazine

The Coronation is not in the least like any other Royal or State function, and the most thoughtless man or woman who may be right of birth or office be present cannot fail to be impressed by the religious as well as the historical aspect of the ancient ceremony.

The original name of the service, the Sacring or Hallowing of Kings, conveys a far better idea than the present one of its real significance. The actual putting on of the crown is not the central and most important portion of the whole, as is implied by the word ‘coronation’. The kernel, as it were, is the Unction, while the apex is the Inthronisation, when the Sovereign, wearing all the insignia of royalty, leaves St. Edward’s Chair and takes his place on the throne, where he receives the fealty and homage of the spiritual and temporal peers.

The Holy Oil

The resemblance between the form of service used at the hallowing of a king and a consecration of a bishop has been pointed out by learned antiquaries, and is patent even to the uninstructed lay mind. The essential difference appears to be the omission of the laying on of hands in the case of a king; but the even this may have been present in the original Celtic ceremony of the seventh century. The holy oil has been used since Hebrew times – Saul, David and Solomon were all anointed with oil – and the person of a king was looked upon as sanctified by the unction, after which ceremony he became a persona mixta, partly ecclesiastic, partly layman. All priests were anointed, but the privilege of unction was given only to a few Christian kings, including the King of England, before the end of the Middle Ages. The resemblance between the two consecrations was further intensified by the introduction of the chrism into the English Coronations. This was a mixture of oil and balm, the most sacred of the three holy oils blessed by the bishops on Maundy Thursday; and the ecclesiastic or royal person anointed with it received the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Ghost. To this we refer again later on.

Before the Reformation the oil and chrism – for both were used for the unction from the early fourteenth till the seventeenth century.- were thus already consecrated, but after that epoch they were blessed by the Archbishop on the morning of the ceremony. The chrism used in England was supposed to have a miraculous origin. Thomas a Becket, when an exile in France, received the golden eagle, which contained it, direct from the Virgin Mary herself, who accompanied her gift with the prophecy that the fifth King of England “from him now reigning” (Henry II) would be a great champion of the Church, and recover the Holy Land from the heathen. The sacred oil was deposited in a monastery at Poitiers, and afterwards was brought over to England and presented to Edward II; but, after taking the Pop’s advice, the king decided he could not be anointed twice over. Another version says that it was found at Poitiers much later by the Blac Price; but in any case the golden eagle was not heard of again till the end of the century, when it was discovered in the Tower, too late also for the coronation of Richard II. This chrism was therefore first used at the unction of Richard’s cousin and supplanter Henry IV who manipulated the ancient prophecy in order to fir it to himself and thus add a spiritual sanction of consolidate his doubtful claims to the Crown. The original ointment, which, it may be pointed out, was only used for the crown of the head, was perhaps exhausted after James I’s unction, in which case Charles I had fresh balm made, and James II certainly had a new supply.

The gold Ampulla to hold the consecrated oil with which a Sovereign is anointed during the coronation ceremony
Francis Sandford (1630 – 94), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Anointing of the Sovereign

 The Stuarts were anointed only with the chrism, no simple oil being used, but since then pure olive oil has sufficed for our sovereigns; the eagle was broken when the regalia was destroyed under the Commonwealth. In former days a linen hand, called a coif, was laid upon the King’s head immediately after the unction, and linen gloves placed upon his hands. This coif was not supposed to be taken off for eight days, when a bishop was ordered to remove it while a mass was celebrated, and, after washing the King’s hair with hot water, to comb it with St. Edward’s comb. George III and George IV both had this coif but its use had already become practically obsolete. We have purposefully treated of the chrism at some length.

Before passing on to the other details of the service, it may be pointed out that the Sovereign is now anointed in three places – the head, the breast and the hands – signifying glory, knowledge, and strength, the same number as Richard I whose coronation is the first of which there are any contemporary details extant;; the earlier records merely refer to the order of service. Later on five places were anointed: the shoulders, between the shoulders, and the ‘boughs of the arms’ (i.e.: inside of the elbows), were added to the original three. Queen Victoria was anointed only on the head and hands. One of the functions of the Abbot of Westminster, whose place is now filled by the Dean in every particularly, is to wipe the parts anointed (omitting the head, because this was formerly covered by the coif) with cotton wool, which is afterwards burnt. The Sovereign received the unction seated on the historic stone of Scone, in the chair called St. Edward’s, made in the reign of Edward I, on purpose to enclose the Scotch coronation stone. In earlier times the King used often to kneel at his faldstool for this part of the ceremony, and during the litany beforehand he was usually ‘grovelling’ on his face before the high altar.

The Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey, 1859
Anonymous engraver., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Robes and Ornaments

The evening previous to the day of this coronation is traditionally spent by the Sovereign in preparing himself spiritually for his ‘sacring’ with the assistance and companionship of the Dean, who, by ancient usage, is the King’s instructor and ghostly comforter on this occasion The royal robes and the ornaments of the regalia are brought to the Abbey overnight and given into the Dean’s custody; it is the duty of the sacrist to place the regalia in readiness upon the altar the next morning. The present ornaments of the regalia, the instruments used, and the copes of the chapter are all modern, the most ancient only dating from the Restoration; for the spoon, though ancient, was not that used for the anointing of a king before 1661. The King’s vestments from 1661 have always been new for the occasion, ad this was often the case in old days, for our Sovereigns were wont to be buried in the coronation robes. All the ancient object used at coronations were destroyed or sold in 1649, by Order of Parliament, and it is somewhat disillusioning to read that Queen Editha’s crown, supposed to be of ‘massy gold’ turned out to be of silver gilt, and an ‘olde comb of horne worth nothing’ in the eyes of the Republicans must have been the sacred comb of St. Edward, to which we have referred before.

On the morning of his coronation the King wears a white silk shirt, and over it a close-fitting coat of ‘red sarcenet’, both made with openings at the breast, shoulders and elbows, when five places were anointed, now with only one – at the breast; these slits were closed by ribbons and loops and it was part of the Dean’s duty to unfasted and fasten them before and after the unction. The feet were originally bare; afterwards silk breeches and stockings became de rigeur and buskins of cloth of gold and sandals of dark leather with red heels and red straps, were put on during the investiture. Over all the King wears the crimson Parliament robe, trimmed with ermine, and on his head is the velvet cap, called the cap of estate or of maintenance; the Queen wears a purple robe and a small gold coronet.

The Three Swords

The procession on foot from Westminster Hall has been abandoned since 1831, but it was practically, with the exception of the canopy borne over the royal head by the Barons of the cinque Ports, the same and equally ecclesiastic in character as the one which now passes up the nave from the great west door. No attempt will be made to describe the details of this procession, but only the objects which form a part of the religious service will be dwelt on here. Before the King, who is ‘supported’ on either side by two bishops, usually those of Durham, and Bath and Wells, formerly the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Treasurer when those officials were also prelates, bear the chalice and paten called St Edward’s, and used at the sacrament. The swords are a great feature in the procession, and one is mentioned om the earliest recension extant. Since the coronation, borne in front of Richard I three have been borne in front of the Sovereign, and all have a spiritual significant.

Left to right: The Sword of Offering, the Sword of State, and the Sword of Mercy
Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Curtana, the principal one, has a blunted end and is known as the sword of mercy; the other two are pointed – they are the swords of justice – to the Spiritualty, and to the Temporalty. The fourth sword, also carried in the procession, and laid upon the altar till the Investiture, is the sword of state, to which reference is made in its proper place. St. Edward’s staff, which is held by a great noble, is a rod with a pike on the end, and was originally intended for the King to lean on; it may be likened to a bishop’s crozier and serve the same purpose. The ‘sword of the Spirit’, a Bible, is said to have been called for by Edward IV, but it does not form a definite part of the procedure till the time of William and Mary, since in the procession, and presented to the Sovereign before the Benediction, by the archbishops and bishops.

The Ancient Services

The ancient coronation services, dating from the ninth and twelfth centuries, technically called ‘recensions’ were blended into one early in the fourteenth century for the ‘hallowing’ of Edward II; but it was not till the time of Richard II that this recension was finally amplified and put together in a volume, called the Liber Regalis – the Book of the King. A copy of this precious book has been preserved at the Abbey ever since, and may be the very same which Richard himself used during the service. The Latin text was translated for the coronation for James I, the first coronation since the substitution of the English service for the mass; various modifications, chiefly alterations and curtailments of the prayers, and notably the omission of the sacrament were made for the benefit of the Roman Catholic, James II. The form introduced for William and Mary has been followed in the main at all coronations since. With the exception of one or two occasions, when the see was vacant or the Primate unable to act, the Archbishop of Canterbury has always officiated – he it is who actually hallows and crowns the King and Queen Consort. He received as his perquisite the purple velvet chair in which he sits during part of the service To the Dean belong the offices of the ancient abbots he assists the Archbishop and supports the King – i.e.: he brings the ornaments of the regalia garments after the Unction, and vests the Sovereign with his kingly vestments.

The Sovereign’s First Obligation

The Recognition is the first striking point in the coronation ceremony. The King, standing on a raised platform beneath the lantern, is presented by the Archbishop at the four sides – north, south, east and west – to his subjects, who acclaim (i.e.: cry “yea, yea”); and for many generations the Westminster boys, from the organ-loft or clerestory, have added their shrill voices to the shouts below. Originally the people were supposed freely to elect their king by acclamation, but gradually the original meaning of the custom was lost and the election was expected as a right by conquest or by hereditary claim. This is, strictly speaking, the only secular portion of the service, which from this period becomes more and more filled with a deep religious meaning. No attempt will be made here to give the exact order of the anthems and prayers, which is always liable to alteration, but it may be mentioned that the Litany and Communion services, the Gospel and the Epistle, the sermon, the benediction and Te Deum at the conclusion, have ever been essential parts of the service. Before he takes the oath, the Sovereign offers his first oblation – a pall or altar-cloth and an ingot of solid gold. These offerings, which originally belonged to the Church, have been claimed by the Lord Chamberlain since the time of George III and are therefore returned the next day to the Crown. The clergy vest themselves in their robes before the service proceeds and the Sovereign kneels at the faldstool during the Litany and ante-communion. The exact period when the oath is taken has been constantly changed – it is usually after the sermon – and the words have been caried from time to time; but ever since the Liber Regalis it has been put in the form of a series of questions asked by the Archbishop, to which the King replies.

The Oath

By this oath the Sovereign sewars to govern according to the laws and statues agreed upon in Parliament, to exercise law and justice tempered by mercy in his judgements, to maintain the lows and God and the established religion of the realm – the phrase used since James II has been the ‘Protestant reformed religion’ – and the rights and privileges of the clergy. After the Gospel has been kissed and the oath signed at the altar, the Sovereign returns to his chair, which is on the south side, and the choice bursts suddenly in to the wonderful ‘Veni, Creator’, which is best known to us in the English version ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’, illustrative of the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit about to be conferred on the royal recipient of the unction. The Archbishop then blesses the oil, while he says the consecration prayer – a prayer the wording of which has varied at almost every early coronation, but the present one closely resembles that used for William and Mary. The spiritual gifts are enumerated after the blessing of the oil. “Confirm and stablish Him with Thy free and princely spirit: the spirit of wisdom and government; the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill Him, O Lord, with the spirit of Thy holy fear, now and for ever”. IT is thus much like the form to be found in both the Anglican and Roman confirmation services.

The Vestments of Kingship

The famous anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’ (Handel’s’ setting has been used ever since the coronation of George II) which is found, like ‘Veni, Creator’ in the Liber Regalis, and is of still more ancient usage, follows while the Sovereign is disrobed of his Parliament robes and takes his place upon the historic coronation chair. The Unction itself was formerly a very long ceremony: a different form of words used to repeated as each place was anointed; but the Archbishop now only uses on formula, which begins: “Be thou anointed with holy oil, as kings, priests and prophets were anointed” and concludes with a comparison to the anointing of Solomon. The Dean has previously brought the ampulla – the golden eagle containing the oil – and th ancient spoon from the altar, pours the oil through the eagle’s beak in to the spook, and presents it to the Archbishop, who mark the sign of the cross upon each place anointed. From this solemn moment the individual technically becomes the Sovereign, and is therefore immediately after invested with the priestlike vestments of his Kingship.

The Imperial Mantle

The Colobium Sindonisi.e.: the albe or rochet – which resembles a sleeveless surplice made of fine white cambric trimmed with lace, is the first garment. The next is the Supertunica, called the Close Pall, a short coat or tunic with sleeves, or cloth of gold lines with crimson silk; over this is placed a girdle or sword-belt, and the buskins, hose and sandals, when used, are put on; the great golden spurs were formerly buckled on the heels at this point, but they are not only presented o the King, and placed again upon the altar. The ‘Kingly Sword’ in a purple velvet scabbard was then girdled on by the Lord Chamberlain. Queen Anne had it fastened to her belt, but Queen Victoria only took it in her hands. The King then offers it upon the altar, and it is redeemed for him by the chief peer for one hundred shillings, and carried naked before him for the rest of the ceremony. Meantime the Archbishop prays that with the sword the King may ‘do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the Holy Church of God, help and defend the widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order’.

The Armil, which is like a Bishop’s stole, is next in order of the vestments; it used to be attached to the elbows by ribbons, but now the ends hang down, and in the case of Queen Victoria had crosses of St. George embroidered on them.

Last and most important of all is the Imperial mantle, the Pallium, called also the Open Pall. This is made of cloth of the finest gold, and resembles a cope in shape it may formerly have been a square put over the head like a lozenge with the points hanging down before and behind but so inconvenient did this become that it was ultimately divided in front and buckled on. The four corners, still just traceable in the present mantle, signified the four quarters of the world ‘which are subject to the power of God’. National emblems and Imperial eagles have been traditionally embroidered upon the Pallium for many centuries; the eagles, which formerly signified the empty claims of early kings to be Emperors of Britain, are now appropriate to the head of that vast British Empire upon which the sun never sets.

The Ornaments of the Regalia

The ornaments of the Regalia follow after the “Garments of Righteousness” and all are placed upon the Sovreign’s person by the Archbishop himself; to the Dean the duty of robing the King belongs. The orb is practically the same as the sceptre with the cross, and the two do not appear together till the coronation of Charles II, although the sceptre was often shaped like an orb with a long cross on the top as in the portrait of Richard II illustrated on the cover of the May magazine. The Dean now fetches the orb from the altar, and the Primate places it in the royal right hand with the words: “When you see this orb set under the cross remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our Redeemer”.

The most significant of the ornaments is the historic ‘wedding ring’ of England. The ring in itself as an ensign of Kingly dignity originated in the famous legend of St Edward the Confessor and the ring which he drew from his finger and presented to a beggar sitting at his palace gates. The beggar proved to be St. John the Evangelist who afterwards returned the gift to the King by the hands of the two pilgrims to whom the saint appeared and revealed his identity in the Holy Land. The ring is mentioned with the sword in the recension of the tenth century generally called that of Ethelred; and that the custom of presenting one to the Sovereign at his coronation continued seems likely by the fact that Edward I’s offering of gold at his first oblation was moulded in the shape of a man, presumably a king – possibly merely an allusion to the story of the saintly beggar, stretching out his hand for the ring.

Richard II bequeathed a ruby ring for the use of his successors at their coronations; but the ring used seems to have been made anrew for each king. Mary Tudor is said to have never put off hers as long as she lived. The stone has been a ‘table ruby’ ever since the time of Richard II in a plain gold circlet latterly a cross of St George was engraved or set in jewels – sapphires usually – upon it; but since William IV, a sapphire with a ruby cross was substituted, like an episcopal ring. By an old traditional the closer this ring fits the longer will the Sovereign reign and the more dearly will he be beloved – a prophecy fulfilled in the case of our late Queen, whose ring was much too small for her fourth finger, but was forced on nevertheless, by the Archbishop, who was mindful of the legend, causing her much pain at the time. The bracelets which followed the ring, were also emblematical of kingly dignity but no longer form an essential part of the ornaments and are often omitted. Before the ring, which was formerly blessed at the altar by the Archbishop, is put on, the linen gloves, worn since the unction, are sipped off and afterwards a rich pair of red embroidered gloves are presented to te King by the Lord of the Manor of Worksop who also has the privilege of supporting his Sovereign’s elbow while he holds the sceptre. The sceptre with the cross, the ensign of kingly power and justice, is substituted for the orb at this point, and in the Sovereigns other hand is placed St Edward’s rod with the dove (not to be confounded with St. Edward’s staff, referred to before) which signifies Equity and Mercy.

A beautiful old prayer follows, in which the King is exhorted to “Abase the Proud, and lift up the Lowly, punish the Wicked, protect and cherish the Just, and lead your People in the Way wherein they should go”.

The Crown

The Crown, the most important part of the Regalia, is left like a bishop’s mitre to the last; and now the Archbishop himself takes it from the altar and solemnly says the consecration prayer, while the Sovereign bows his head (according to the marginal direction in ancient service) ‘in lowly devotion’ before the Divine Majesty. Formerly the crown called St. Edward’s crown was used for the actual coronation, and the Imperial Crown was left on the altar in the Confessor’s Chapel, and was the one worn by the Sovereign on leaving the church; but at Queen Victoria’s Coronation the ancient order was reversed, and she was crowned with the Imperial Crown. At this moment, which marks the veritable Coronation, a shout of ‘God save the King!’ arises, the silver trumpets sound, the great suns in the Park and at the Tower resound, while simultaneously the Bishops put on their caps, the Peers their coronets, the Garter Kings at Arms their crown.

Imperial State Crown
Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Inthronisation

The Inthronisation is the last stage, the culminating point of the whole ceremony, when the Sovereign leaves St. Edward’s chair and is metaphorically lifted on to his throne, beneath the lantern, by the Spiritual and Temporal Peers, who afterwards stand round him on the steps of the throne. Before the Homage the Archbishop addresses the newly-made Monarch with the following time-honoured exhortation: ‘Stand firm and hold fast henceforth the seat and state of Royal and Imperial dignity, which is this day delivered unto you in the name and by the authority of us the Bishops and Servants of God’. The Fealty and Homage – i.e.: the oath of the Spiritual Peers to be faithful and true unto the Sovereign, and of the Temporal Peers to be his Liege Men ‘of Like and Limb, and of earthly Worship’ – is a lengthy business, which will be considerably shortened at the approaching Coronation, and completes the series of ceremonies by which the King is wedded to his People.

While the Peers touch the crown, and kiss hands, a General Pardon used to be read, now an unnecessary formality, once a very vital part, which affected the lives and liberties of many persons; and medals were distributed amongst the congregation. The Investiture and Unction of the Queen follow; and on this occasion Queen Alexandra will be crowned and anointed by the Archbishop of York for the first time for near a thousand years.

The drums will burst our, the people shout, and when the tumult is over the anointed King and Queen offer a personal dedication to their heavenly Sovereign, and kneeling at the altar receive the Sacrament in both kinds from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Dean, who hold the Paten and Chalice of St. Edward. A second oblation, first of the Bread and Wine, then of a purse of gold, are offered by the Sovereign, during the singing of the offertory sentences, before the Sacrament is received.

Generation after generation have our Sovereigns been hallowed to the service of God and of their people within the ancient Abbey of St. Peter’s, Westminster, a church consecrated in honour of a saint and dedicated to the memory of a king; and once again, on June 26th, 1902, after an interval of over four hundred years another Edward will receive the Unction here, enthroned upon the ‘Seat of her Majesty. . . and in that chair where Kings and Queens are crowned.’

Featured image: Queen Victoria wearing a copy of the Imperial Mantle, now in the Museum of London. Charles Robert Leslie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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