King Charles

In Focus: The Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla

The historic crowning of King Charles III and Queen Camilla combined ancient medieval tradition and contemporary firsts in a moving display of ceremony, family and celebration.
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There was a moment at the heart of his Coronation service when King Charles III almost teared up. His eldest son, Prince William, had just knelt in front of the newly-crowned sovereign and pledged his allegiance as “your liege man of life and limb” – which literally means William is promising to be there for his father no matter what, obligated before God to honour and serve.

Then, after Charles gently whispered “Thank you, William”, the heir to the throne lent forward and kissed his 74-year-old King on the cheek. After everything that has led up to this day – the grief of losing both parents within 17 months of each other, the painfully public battles with his “dear boy”, Prince Harry, at the most important time in his royal career, Charles filled up with emotion.

“It was incredibly touching,” said royal biographer Robert Hardman.

“It was a reminder of that moment in the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 [after] all the solemnity, suddenly the serenity cracks momentarily when Prince Philip gives her a kiss on the cheek. It’s a moment when the family breaks through all this tradition, a very reassuring moment, that to him was clearly a very poignant scene.”

For the King it likely also brought back vivid memories of the last time a crown was lowered onto his head at his investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. Then it was the late Queen Elizabeth who officiated. “I put my hands between Mummy’s and swore to be her liege man of life and limb and to live and die against all manner of folks – such magnificent medieval, appropriate words,” Charles said afterwards. Elizabeth beamed and kissed her nervous 20-year-old son’s cheek.

“I get easily moved by these sorts of occasions,” the King said in the new BBC TV documentary, Charles R: The Making of a Monarch.

Such elemental responses tell us a great deal about the man beneath the Crown and we saw many more stitched into the make-up of a Coronation that will be remembered in the history books as much for its innovation and modernity as its ancient pageantry.

In his tribute to his father a day later on the stage at the Coronation Concert at Windsor Castle, Prince William told the crowd of 20,000 and millions watching around the world: “As my grandmother said when she was crowned, Coronations are a declaration of our hopes for the future. And I know she’s up there, fondly keeping an eye on us. She would be a proud mother.”

Also watching on in Westminster Abbey was Prince Harry, and one can only wonder what the late Queen would have made of her grandson’s behaviour since her death eight months ago, with his barrage of criticisms aimed at the family and especially Camilla, made in his memoir, Spare, the ensuing publicity tour and his and Meghan’s fly on the wall Netflix TV documentary.

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Harry came alone to his father’s Coronation, his wife choosing to stay at home in California with their two children. He was sitting behind his aunt, the Princess Royal, and next to Princess Alexandra – the late Queen’s much-loved 86-year-old cousin – and Princess Eugenie’s husband, Jack Brooksbank. Though many have supposed what he may have been thinking, I imagine it was a powerfully moving moment for Harry, too.

Had he still been a working member of the royal family, Charles’ second son would undoubtedly have played a notable role in this historic occasion. But spending barely 29 hours in the UK – he urgently jumped on a plane back to the US to wish son Archie a happy fourth birthday, without even personally congratulating his father – Harry’s appearance was fleeting.

Indeed, the divide between King Charles’ two sons never looked starker, Prince William and his family right at the centre of the ceremony, the monarchy’s future burnished and ready to serve, and Prince Harry a seemingly isolated figure who had no contact with his brother or his niece and nephews during the service.

Perhaps it was best that Harry’s face was obscured from cameras for most of the service by the resplendent red feather atop Princess Anne’s bicorn hat, part of the smart Blues and Royals military uniform she wore for the Coronation. It was impossible to tell if the fifth-in-line to the throne joined in the homage to “pay true allegiance” to the King or the many declarations of “God Save the King” in the Abbey.

For her part, Princess Anne was delighted when her brother asked her to be in the Coronation Procession that followed the ceremony, carrying out her regimental role of Gold Stick on horseback behind the King and Queen’s Gold State Coach. “Gold Stick was the original close protection officer. So, that is a role I was asked if I’d like to do for this Coronation, so I said ‘yes!’. Not least of all, it solves my dress problem,” she joked in a TV interview before the big day.

Queen Camilla also called on her younger sister to play a powerful supporting role as she was crowned. Annabel Elliot is one of two Queen’s companions in the new royal household, Camilla’s more up-to-date version of the time-honoured tradition of royal ladies-in-waiting. The other is close friend Lady Lansdowne, and both were by the Queen’s side in the Abbey. Camilla looked a little anxious when she entered the Abbey but once her own anointing and crowning had taken place the familiar twinkle in her eye and soft smile returned.

Also around the King and Queen were other close family, notably their grandchildren as Pages of Honour. Nine-year-old Prince George didn’t put a foot wrong, holding on to the corner of his grandfather’s robe, while his siblings, eight-year-old Princess Charlotte and five-year-old Prince Louis, made hearts melt as they walked into the Abbey hand in hand to their seats in the front row.

Charlotte was wearing a couture dress for the very first time. It matched her mother’s and was designed by the House of Alexander McQueen, who also famously created Catherine’s wedding dress. Mother and daughter both topped off their looks with stunning headpieces of silver bullion three-dimensional leaves with crystals and silver thread work made by Jess Collett.

In her jewellery Catherine honoured the late Queen, wearing the George VI Festoon Necklace, commissioned in 1950 by George VI for his daughter; and Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing her mother-in-law’s pearl and diamond earrings.

Camilla’s Pages of Honour were grandchildren Gus and Louis Lopes and Freddy Parker Bowles along with Arthur Elliot, her great-nephew. Having these friendly faces around her joining in the majesty of the day was no doubt incredibly special for Queen Camilla.

WATCH: King Charles III is officially crowned. Article continues below video.

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As we expected, the historic pageantry on the day was extraordinary, with full formal dress for senior royals meaning the Abbey was awash with lush velvet, silk and ermine. “We rarely encounter the truly ancient in the modern world,” said historian David Olusoga, who noted that as we turned a page in history with the new Carolean era, that medieval importance of ritual was what made this ceremony so precious, the only one of its kind still being performed in the world.

Coronations have taken place in Westminster Abbey since 1066 and the weight of that history proved entrancing and poignant as we watched our monarch reach into the past and literally touch the hands of his forefathers with the parade of regalia presented.

Spurs and armills, both made in 1661 for King Charles II, symbols of knighthood and military leadership; the magnificent golden Orb surmounted by a bejewelled cross symbolising the sovereign’s power in the Christian world, the Sceptre with a dove on top representing mercy, were just a few of the artefacts that were part of this ceremony.

The arrival of the King and Queen in the Abbey was heralded by a soaring chorus originally composed for the Coronation of Edward VII, the words changed accordingly.

“Vivat Regina Camilla! Vivat! Vivat Rex Carolus! Vivat!”

And all at once Charles and Camilla were lifted onto a new plane – King and Queen, answerable to God and the people. After the Queen’s death King Charles said of his mother that she had stood for “a promise with destiny kept”; now it was his turn and the solemnity and sacredness of the occasion was etched on his face.

Within the detail of this piece of medieval theatre were a host of messages that set out a manifesto for King Charles’ reign.

For the first time in a Coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked the congregation, the public and anyone watching in the realms – including here in Australia – if they might like to pledge allegiance to the King in a new “homage to the people”.

This caused a great deal of media controversy in the build-up to the day, but in essence the intention was simply to bring everyday people into a part of the ceremony that had previously only involved peers of the realm. Never in our history has the general public been offered such an opportunity, noted the Archbishop.

Other firsts included King Charles praying aloud and the incorporation of female bishops and leaders of other faiths. This is the cornerstone of King Charles’ wish to bring diversity into his reign, to serve all his people and to ensure his monarchy reflects contemporary Britain.

“There have only been women bishops since 2016 so it’s the first time it’s been possible and obviously it’s been a real joy to be among the first three female bishops to take part in a Coronation,” said Bishop of London, the Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally, after the service.

For the Jamaican-born Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, this was a pinch-me moment. “How does one coming from Montego Bay get right to the heart of it … it was such an honour and a privilege and it’s going to stay with me forever,” she said.

Both bishops declared that for them the most emotional and spiritual part of the service was the bit we didn’t see – the King’s anointing. “It felt like the most intimate part of the service; very private between the King and God,” said Bishop Mullally afterwards.

As King Charles prepared to be anointed upon the Coronation Chair, he removed his Robes of State and was surrounded by a beautiful triptych of screens. The design was chosen by the King, inspired by the stained-glass Sanctuary Window in the Chapel Royal and created by the Royal School of Needlework with help from other expert craftspeople. An embroidered tree represented the 56 member countries of the Commonwealth, their names on leaves, with the King’s cypher at the base of the tree alongside the words: “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” a quote from the Middle Ages.

Behind the screens the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed the King on his hands, breast and head with holy oil made from olives from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. “Then there was that spine-chilling moment when [Handel’s famous composition] Zadok the Priest reaches its crescendo and you have a sense that something really special is happening, even though it’s the least visible part of the service,” said Bishop Mullally.

What we did see when the screens were removed was the King, a humble figure facing the High Altar, kneeling before God in his plain white shirt. “He emerges from the screen – undressed almost and you think ‘Wow!’ It was amazing,” sighed Bishop Hudson-Wilkin.

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The music was also powerful, including 12 new compositions, one sung by a gospel choir for the first time at a Coronation.

Perhaps most notable, though, was the inclusion of leaders of other faiths. “My father has always understood that people of all faiths, all backgrounds, and all communities deserve to be celebrated and supported,” noted Prince William in his tribute the following day.

Australia was represented at the service by the Prime Minister, Governor-General and State Governors and also by 14 specially chosen Australians, including singer-songwriter Nick Cave, nurse Emily Regan, who worked in London during the pandemic, Wiradjuri-British artist Jasmine Coe, curator at the only Aboriginal-owned gallery in London, and soccer star Sam Kerr, who carried the Australian flag into the Abbey.

Also watching on were the Hon Julie Bishop, chair of Prince’s Trust Australia, and a maritime course graduate from the charity, proud Wiradjuri and Yuin woman, 18-year-old Tayla Green-Aldridge on her first-ever trip outside Australia.

“I was so proud of Sam Kerr – she looked amazing. Sam was the Number One ticket holder for the West Coast Eagles after I held that role, but I refrained from a ‘Go Eagles’ shout-out as she walked by!” Julie Bishop told me afterwards.

“It was a magnificent Coronation service with extraordinary pageantry, beauty and historical and religious significance.

I felt deeply privileged to witness such a momentous event – a never-to-be forgotten experience,” she added, explaining that she was also lucky enough to score a prime seat in the second row next to someone very special. “We were seated in the Abbey about two and a half hours before the service commenced, so I had a wonderful opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with the legendary Lionel Richie who was next to me! He is a Global Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, so we had a common interest.

“It was all so spectacular it is hard to nominate one highlight – but a lasting memory will be the King and Queen wearing crowns and coronation robes leaving the Abbey followed by the Prince and Princess of Wales and their gorgeous children – as heirs to the throne. It spoke of the continuity of the monarchy over the ages.”

In the procession back to Buckingham Palace the King and Queen rode in the same historic Gold State Coach that had carried Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation day and were escorted by an eye-watering display of military ceremony; troops marching in perfect unison from all arms of the British Defence Force and 40 from the Australian Defence Forces.

Tens of thousands lined the streets and despite heavy rain they weren’t disappointed. Back at Buckingham Palace the military from the procession lined up on the garden lawns and raised their hats to salute the newly-crowned King and Queen, crying “God Save the King”.

Their Royal Highnesses then waved from the Palace balcony surrounded by senior royals and the Pages of Honour and watched the Red Arrows flypast. Notably, this was a moment for working royals only, so absent were Prince Andrew and his daughters Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Zara and Mike Tindall with their children and of course Prince Harry.

In a statement from Buckingham Palace the following day the King and Queen said they “were deeply touched” and “profoundly grateful both to all those who helped to make it such a glorious occasion – and to the very many who turned out to show their support in such numbers in London and further afield.”

WATCH: Queen Camilla is crowned with Queen Mary’s crown. Article continues below.

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Meanwhile, celebrations continued in the UK with 50,000 taking part in thousands of Big Lunch street parties in communities all over the country.

A further 20,000 made their way to Windsor Castle for the Coronation Concert. This was a time to kick back with a host of performances mixing classical with rock, pop, opera, poetry, theatre and music. Headliners Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, Andrea Bocelli and Sir Bryn Terfel sung their hearts out and there were fun video messages from James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, Top Gun star Tom Cruise in his Warbird plane and Welsh singer Tom Jones. Drone lightshows underpinned King Charles’ passion for the natural world, but the star of the show was probably Miss Piggy and Kermit in a comic skit with the night’s MC, actor Hugh Bonneville.

Watching on and having a boogie were royals including Prince George and Princess Charlotte, Zara and Mike Tindall and the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh. In his heartfelt speech that struck the perfect tone, King Charles’ heir Prince William paid tribute. “For all that celebrations are magnificent, at the heart of the pageantry is a simple message. Service. My father’s first words on entering Westminster Abbey yesterday were a pledge of service.

It was a pledge to continue to serve. Because for over 50 years, in every corner of the UK, across the Commonwealth and around the world, he has dedicated himself to serve others, both current and future generations, and those whose memory must not be neglected.

“Take the natural world. He warned us of the risks to our planet’s health long before it was an everyday issue. Or the Prince’s Trust. It has supported over a million young people, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to realise their ambitions.

“Pa, we are all so proud of you!”

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