This post was contributed by Dr Eloise Ellis, Senior Lecturer in Law.
On 6th May 2023, for most of us alive today, we had the opportunity to witness our first coronation, that of King Charles III, in Westminster Abbey – the setting for every coronation since that of William the Conqueror in 1066 – and with King Charles as the fortieth Sovereign to be crowned there. The previous coronation was that of Queen Elizabeth II 70 years ago, on 2nd June 1953. This momentous state occasion has highlighted the nature of our archaic ceremonial procedures and processes and provides an appropriate opportunity to consider the King’s role in our constitutional monarchy and how the coronation is part of this.
King Charles has been heir apparent (next in line to the throne) for an unprecedented period of time and the longest-serving Prince of Wales, hence the description of his lengthy apprenticeship or training for the role. He finally succeeded to the throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8th September 2022.
The coronation ceremony itself is now not required by law because a sovereign succeeds immediately upon the death of another thus ensuring the continuity of the monarchy, as recognised in the familiar proclamation ‘the Queen is dead, long live the King’. It is, however, a long-standing and important constitutional tradition. The only element of the coronation ceremony which the law requires is the oath, as set out in The Coronation Oath Act 1688 in which the Sovereign swears to ‘govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, your other Realms and the Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs’. The Bill of Rights Act 1688 also requires The King to swear the Accession Declaration Oath Act 1910, either at his first State Opening of Parliament or at his coronation, whichever occurs first. For King Charles this was the coronation as although he was present at the last State Opening of Parliament on 10th May 2022, this was in his capacity as a Counsellor of State for Queen Elizabeth II and not as the Sovereign.
One notable recent amendment to the Coronation Oath acknowledges the changes to the number of ‘Realms and Territories’ in referring to them collectively rather than individually as has happened at past coronations. This is an area in which we can expect to see further changes in the relatively near future, with a number of Commonwealth realms, including most recently, New Zealand, having indicated they will consider holding referendums on whether or not to become Republics.
For further detail on the ceremony and history of coronations you might like to read House of Commons Research Briefing ‘The coronation: History and ceremonial’.