There is a brief moment of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation service etched into the memories of many Britons, having viewed the clip, where the congregation all shout “God Save the Queen!” at the exact moment she is crowned. This can also be viewed on the video of her father, George VI’s coronation. On the video of Elizabeth’s coronation, there is also a brief clip of the nobility – the ‘Peers of the Realm’ – placing their coronets back on their heads, as she is crowned.
The coronation is, above all else, a mystical religious ceremony drenched in symbolism that has evolved over more than 1000 years. The current monarchy has a direct lineage back to William the Conqueror, and an indirect lineage much further back than this, as I outlined in ‘King Charles III, who do you think you are?’ last year. The majority of Charles’ ancestors who succeeded to the throne went through a ceremony of this nature.
Amongst the pageantry, all stages of the coronation process have a meaningful and frequently, highly utilitarian origin. Prior to the crowning, all the clergy, and ‘peers’, in order of rank, were required to approach the monarch one by one, and swear an oath of fealty, which is structured as follows:
“I, name [Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron or Lord] of [location] do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth will I bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”
Charles makes his oath
Charles III was too young to take his oath of fealty in 1953, so he did it when he was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969, at the age of twenty-one. It is obvious from the film that both mother and son found this a very emotional moment, one he now presumably remembers with affection.
And I would suggest that it is this memory that has led him to unwittingly start a furore with his request that all subjects at home and abroad swear ‘allegiance’ to him, whilst dropping the oath of fealty from the coronation service. It is likely he is trying to signal that he is going to be a ‘King for the people’ rather than a ‘King for the nobility’.
So, it is very possible that he means well, but the whole concept is incredibly problematic, on several different levels.
The problem with the ‘oath of allegiance’
Firstly, and most obviously, the ‘oath of allegiance’ reminded me of the Brownie promise I remember having to learn around around the time of Charles’ investiture. It sounds trite, compared to the oath that it is intended to replace.
“I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”
It also appears to assume that all Britons (and others whose nations have the British monarch as head of state) believe in a deity, or worship one unitary deity. In doing this, it constructs the monarchy from the monarch’s point of view, rather than from the diverse views of the people.
Secondly, in a nation in which a large proportion of the population, particularly the younger demographic, are having doubts about their support for the monarchy, the request for people to engage with this process stirs up a hornet’s nest, quite unnecessarily.
Thirdly, and I would argue, most surprisingly, it shows a remarkable misunderstanding of what the original oath was actually about, and its roots in the despotic regimes of the past.
Lessons from history
Until very recently, in historical terms, monarchs were never secure upon their thrones. The old proverb ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ derives from far more tumultuous times than our own. The mutterings of the media and Prince Harry’s protestations in ‘Spare’ pale into insignificance in comparison to the treacherous plotting of minor royalty and nobility in previous centuries.
The time at which the monarch was most fragile was, in general, at the time of succession. So how better to secure oneself than to require all the potential plotters to attend a religious coronation ceremony together (in times when a vow before God was seen as the most binding contract of all) and compel them to publicly swear allegiance to you, both individually and collectively?
Medieval kings did not expect the loyalty of those who lived far less privileged lives than their own. They expected obedience to the people posted to different parts of the country to keep the population under iron control. These people – the monarch’s ‘peers’ – were invited to Westminster Abbey to personally swear loyalty, and shout ‘God Save the King’ together as he was crowned.
Once we understand this, the symbolism of the nobility putting their coronets back on the heads after the monarch is crowned becomes quite obvious; the monarch and his henchmen.
To translate this to a generalised ‘oath of allegiance’ is a complete nonsense – because the whole population are not the King’s peers, in rank, privilege, or in riches.
Saying ‘abracadabra’ in the right place
The coronation has become, in the modern world, an extravaganza built around an ancient incantation. Its contemporary power lies in its razzmatazz, pageantry and performance. But the problem with incantations is that even modern audiences – who are willing to suspend disbelief to watch – know that it is a show, and start booing when the magician doesn’t say ‘abracadabra’ in the right place.
And of course, some of them just don’t like magic shows at all. But this can be ignored – as long as they are in a substantial minority.
The concept of a general ‘oath of allegiance’ is a clear example of muddled thinking from the King, and moreover, from his advisors. While he probably does not deserve all the brickbats he is getting, the whole debacle doesn’t bode well for the future.
This King is not finished yet. But he is making a bad start. He must learn that just listening to his subjects is not enough. He must make more effort to understand their lives better, so he can more effectively hear what they are saying.