Westminster Abbey has been centre-stage at coronations since at least the Norman Conquest.
William the Conqueror set the precedent for coronations at the abbey when he decided not to get crowned at Winchester Cathedral (where Edward the Confessor had been crowned) and instead chose to be crowned at the minster built by Edward the Confessor (there is some suggestion King Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King, was crowned at Westminster Abbey before the Conquest but no documentary evidence exists for this).
William the Conqueror’s coronation was held on Christmas Day, 1066, and since then some 39 coronations have been carried out (King Charles III’s will be the 40th).
Arrangements for the coronation ceremony are the responsibility of the Earl Marshal and the coronation committee but the abbey’s dean acts as a liaison with the sovereign and assists the Archbishop of Canterbury who is usually the bishop who crowns the monarch.
Since the late 14th century, the service has largely followed that laid down in the Liber Regalis (Royal Book), an illuminated manuscript created in around 1390.
Since 1308, the heart of the coronation service has taken place on the Cosmati Pavement, located just before the High Altar, in what is known as the “Coronation Theatre”.
Having processed into the abbey and been acclaimed or “recognised” as sovereign by those present, the monarch then makes promises to God and the people they rule in what is known as the Oath, before being presented with a Bible.
Then, seated in the Coronation Chair, the monarch is anointed with holy oil while a canopy is held over them to shield this most sacred part of the ceremony from the eyes of those gathered.
Still seated, the monarch is then invested with the coronation regalia, including the Sovereign’s Ring, the Sovereign’s Orb, the Sceptre with Cross and the Sceptre with Dove, before St Edward’s Crown is brought from the altar and placed on the monarch’s head (it’s only since that coronation of King James I in 1603 that both the anointing and the crowning are carried out while the monarch is seated on the Coronation Chair – before that, the chair was used for only one aspect of the ceremony).
The monarch then moves to a throne and receives the homage of the royal princes and senior peers. It’s at this point that the coronation of a Queen Consort typically takes place in a simpler form of the ceremony.
The monarch then retires into St Edward’s Chapel where they dress on a purple robe known as the Imperial State Robe or Robe of Estate as well as the Imperial State Crown before processing back out through the abbey.
Other elements of the coronation include music which since the Coronation of King George II has included the George Fredric Handel anthem, Zadok the Priest. The introit I was glad has been sung at every coronation since that of King Charles I in February, 1626.
The abbey is currently closed in preparation for the Coronation of King Charles III. It reopens on Monday, 8th May. The Coronation Theatre will remain in place for visitors to see until 13th May.
WHERE: Westminster Abbey, Westminster (nearest Tube station is Westminster or St James’s Park); WHEN: Open to tourists everyday except Sunday (times vary so check the website); COST: £27 an adult/£24 for seniors (65+)/£12 a child (6-17 years); WEBSITE: www.westminster-abbey.org.