The coronation of King Charles III was steeped in the tradition of magic and ritual that has characterised English, and later British, coronations. The very idea of a coronation leverages belief in divinity; however, the coronation of Charles III occurred in a very different social environment than those of monarchs a millennium ago. Today, belief in the divine right of Kings is dramatically reduced. In this context, magic can also be thought of as a stage performance that relies on a tacit understanding between audience and actor, where disbelief is suspended in order to achieve the effect. This paper will examine the use of ritual and magic in the coronation ceremony. It will discuss how the British royal family has positioned its image in relation to the concept of magic and how social changes have brought the very idea of monarchy into question.
One way to think about magic, according to Leddington (253), is that it has “long had an uneasy relationship with two thoroughly disreputable worlds: the world of the supposedly supernatural – the world of psychics, mediums and other charlatans – and the world of the con – the world of cheats, hustlers and swindlers”. While it may be that a magician aims to fool the audience, the act also requires audiences to willingly suspend disbelief. Once the audience suspends disbelief in the theatrical event, they enter the realm of fantasy. The “willingness of the audience to play along and indulge in the fantasy” means magic is not just about performances of fiction, but it is about illusion (Leddington 256).
Magic is also grounded in its social practices: the occult, sorcery, and witchcraft, particularly when linked to the Medieval Euro-American witch-hunts of the fifteenth to seventeenth century (Ginzburg). Religion scorned magic as a threat to the idea that only God had “sovereignty over the unseen” (Benussi). By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, intellectuals like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber argued that “increases in literacy, better living conditions, and growing acquaintance with modern science, would make people gradually forget their consolatory but false beliefs in spirits, gods, witches, and magical forces” (Casanova). Recent booms in Wicca and neopaganism show that modernity has not dismissed supernatural inquiry. Today, ‘occulture’ – “an eclectic milieu mixing esotericism, pop culture, and urban mysticism” – is treated as a “valuable resource to address existential predicaments, foster resilience in the face of the negative, expand their cognitive resources, work on their spiritual selves, explore fantasy and creativity, and generally improve their relationship with the world” (Benussi). Indeed, Durkheim’s judgement of magic as a quintessentially personal spiritual endeavour has some resonance. It also helps to explain why societies are still able to suspend belief and accept the ‘illusion’ that King Charles III is appointed by God. And this is what happened on 6 May 2023 when
millions of people looked on, and as with all magic mirrors, saw what they wanted to see. Some saw a … victory for the visibility of older women, as if we did not recently bury a 96-year-old queen, and happiness at last. Others saw a victory for diversity, as people of colour and non-Christian faiths, and women, were allowed to perform homage — and near the front, too, close to the god. (Gold 2023)
‘We must not let in daylight upon magic’
In 1867, English essayist Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) wrote “above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it, you cannot reverence it … . Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic” (cited in Ratcliffe). Perhaps, one may argue sardonically, somebody forgot to tell Prince Harry. In the 2022 six-part Netflix special Harry and Meghan, it was reported that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have “shone not just daylight but a blinding floodlight on the private affairs of the royal family” (Holden). Queen Elizabeth II had already learnt the lesson of not letting the light in. In June 1969, BBC1 and ITV in Britain aired a documentary titled Royal Family, which was watched by 38 million viewers in the UK and an estimated 350 million globally. The documentary was developed by William Heseltine, the Queen’s press secretary, and John Brabourne, who was the son-in-law of Lord Mountbatten, to show the daily life of the royal family. The recent show The Crown also shows the role of Prince Phillip in its development. The 110-minute documentary covered one year of the royal’s private lives. Queen Elizabeth was shown the documentary before it aired. The following dialogue amongst the royals in The Crown (episode 3, season 4 ‘Bubbikins’) posits one reason for its production.
It’s a documentary film … . It means, um ... no acting. No artifice. Just the real thing. Like one of those wildlife films. Yes, except this time, we are the endangered species. Yes, exactly. It will follow all of us in our daily lives to prove to everyone out there what we in here already know. What’s that? Well, how hard we all work. And what good value we represent. How much we deserve the taxpayer’s money. So, we’ll all have to get used to cameras being here all the time? Not all the time. They will follow us on and off over the next few months. So, all of you are on your best behaviour.
As filming begins, Queen Elizabeth says of the camera lights, “it’s jolly powerful that light, isn’t it?” In 1977 Queen Elizabeth banned the documentary from being shown in Britain. The full-length version is currently available on YouTube. Released at a time of social change in Britain, the film focusses on tradition, duty, and family life, revealing a very conservative royal family largely out of step with modern Britain. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth II realised too much ‘light’ had been let in.
Historian David Cannadine argues that, during most of the nineteenth century, the British monarchy was struggling to maintain its image and status, and
as the population was becoming better educated, royal ritual would soon be exposed as nothing more than primitive magic, a hollow sham ... the pageantry centred on the monarchy was conspicuous for its ineptitude rather than for its grandeur. (Cannadine, "Context" 102)
By the 1980s, Cannadine goes on to posit, despite the increased level of education there remained a “liking for the secular magic of monarchy” (Cannadine, "Context" 102). This could be found in the way the monarchy had ‘reinvented’ their rituals – coronations, weddings, openings of parliament, and so on – in the late Victorian era and through to the Second World War. By the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, aided by television, “the British persuaded themselves that they were good at ceremonial because they always had been” (Cannadine, "Context" 108). However, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was very much an example of the curating of illusion precisely because it was televised. Initially, there was opposition to the televising of the coronation from both within the royal family and within the parliament, with television considered the “same as the gutter press” and only likely to show the “coronation blunders” experienced by her father (Hardman 123).
Queen Elizabeth II appointed her husband Prince Phillip as Chair of the Coronation Committee. The Queen was opposed to the coronation being televised; the Prince was in favour of it, wanting to open the “most significant royal ceremony to the common man using the new technology of the day” (Morton 134). The Prince argued that opening the coronation to the people via television was the “simplest and surest way of maintaining the monarchy” and that the “light should be let in on the magic” (Morton 135). Queen Elizabeth II considered the coronation a “profound and sacred moment in history, when an ordinary mortal is transformed into a potent symbol in accordance with centuries-old tradition” (Morton 125). For the Queen, the cameras would be too revealing and remind audiences that she was in fact mortal. The press celebrated the idea to televise the coronation, arguing the people should not be “denied the climax of a wonderful and magnificent occasion in British history” (Morton 135). The only compromise was that the cameras could film the ceremony “but would avert their gaze during the Anointing and Holy Communion” (Hardman 123). Today, royal events are extensively planned, from the clothing of the monarch (Hackett and Coghlan) to managing the death of the monarch (Knight). Royal tours are also extensively planned, with elaborate visits designed to show off “royal symbols, vividly and vitally” (Cannadine 115). As such, their public appearances became more akin to “theatrical shows” (Reed 4).
History of the ‘Magicalisation’ of Coronations
British coronations originated as a “Christian compromise with earlier pagan rites of royal investiture” and in time it would become a “Protestant compromise with Britain’s Catholic past, while also referencing Britain’s growing role as an imperial power” (Young). The first English coronation was at Bath Abbey where the Archbishop of Canterbury crowned King Edgar in 973. When Edward the Confessor came to the throne in 1043, he commissioned the construction of Westminster Abbey on the site of a Benedictine monk church. The first documented coronation to take place at Westminster Abbey was for William the Conqueror in 1066 (Brain).
Coronations were considered “essential to convince England’s kings that they held their authority from God” (Young). Following William the Conqueror’s coronation cementing Westminster Abbey’s status as the site for all subsequent coronation ceremonies, Henry III (1207-1272) realised the need for the Abbey to be a religious site that reflects the ceremonial status of that which authorises the monarch’s authority from God. It was under the influence of Henry III that it was rebuilt in a Gothic style, creating the high altar and imposing design that we see today (Brain). As such, this “newly designed setting was now not only a place of religious devotion and worship but also a theatre in which to display the power of kingship in the heart of Westminster, a place where governance, religion and power were all so closely intertwined” (Brain).
The ‘magicalisation’ of the coronation rite intensified in the reign of Edward I (Young), with the inclusion of the Stone of Destiny, which is an ancient symbol of Scotland’s monarchy, used for centuries in the inauguration of Scottish kings. In 1296, King Edward I of England seized the stone from the Scots and had it built into a new throne at Westminster. From then on, it was used in the coronation ceremonies of British monarchs. On Christmas Day 1950, four Scottish students removed the stone from Westminster Abbey in London. It turned up three months later, 500 miles away at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. In 1996, the stone was officially returned to Scotland. The stone will only leave Scotland again for a coronation in Westminster Abbey (Edinburgh Castle). The Stone is believed to be of pre-Christian origin and there is evidence to suggest that it was used in the investitures of pagan kings; thus, modern coronations are largely a muddle of the pre-Christian, the sacred, and the secular in a single ceremony (Young). But the “sheer colour, grandeur, and pageantry of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was such a contrast with the drabness of post-war Britain that it indelibly marked the memories of those who watched it on television—Britain’s equivalent of the moon landings” (Young). It remains to be seen whether King Charles III’s coronation will have the same impact on Britain given its post-Brexit period of economic recession, political instability, and social division.
The coronation channels “the fascination, the magic, the continuity, the stability that comes from a monarchy with a dynasty that has been playing this role for centuries, [and] a lot of people find comfort in that” (Gullien quoted in Stockman). However, the world of King Charles III's coronation is much different from that of his mother’s, where there was arguably a more willing audience. The world that Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in was much more sympathetic to the notion of monarchy. Britain, and much of the Commonwealth, was still reeling from the Second World War and willing to accept the fantasy of the 1953 coronation of the 25-year-old newly married princess. By comparison today, support for the monarchy is relatively low. The shift away from the monarchy has been evident since at least 1992, the annus horribilis (Pimlott 7), with much of its basis in the perceived antics of the monarch’s children, and with the ambivalence towards the fire at Windsor Castle that year demonstrating the mood of the public. Pimlott argues “it was no longer fashionable to be in favour of the Monarchy, or indeed to have much good to say about it”, and with this “a last taboo had been shed” (Pimlott 7).
The net favourability score of the royal family in the UK sat at +41 just after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Six months later, this had fallen to +30 (Humphrys). In their polling of adults in the UK, YouGov found that 46% of Britons were likely “to watch King Charles’ coronation and/or take part in celebrations surrounding it”, with younger demographics less likely to participate (YouGov, "How Likely"). The reported £100m cost of the coronation during a cost of living crisis drew controversy, with 51% of the population believing the government should not pay for it, and again the younger generations being more likely to believe that it should not be funded (YouGov, "Do You Think").
Denis Altman (17) reminds us that, traditionally, monarchs claimed their authority directly from God as the “divine right of kings”, which gave monarchs the power to stave off challenges. This somewhat magical legitimacy, however, sits uneasily with modern ideas of democracy. Nevertheless, modern monarchs still call upon this magical legitimacy when their role and relevance are questioned, as the late 1990s proved it to be for the Windsors. With the royal family now subject to a level of public scrutiny that they had not been subjected to in over a century, the coronation of King Charles III would occur in a very different socio-political climate than that of his mother. The use of ritual and magic, and a willing audience, would be needed if King Charles III’s reign was to be accepted as legitimate, never mind popular. As the American conservative commentator Helen Andrews wrote, “all legitimacy is essentially magic” (cited in Cusack). Recognising the need to continue to ensure its legitimacy and relevance, the British royal family have always recognised that mass public consumption of royal births and weddings, and even deaths and funerals are central to them retaining their “mystique” (Altman 30). The fact that 750 million people watched the fairytale wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, that two billion people watched Diana’s funeral on television in 1997, and a similar number watched the wedding of William and Catherine, suggests that in life and death the royals are at least celebrities, and for some watchers have taken on a larger socio-cultural meaning. Being seen, as Queen Elizabeth II said, in order to be believed, opens the door to how the royals are viewed and understood in modern life.
Visibility and performance, argues Laura Clancy (63), is important to the relevance and authority of royalty. Visibility comes from images reproduced on currency and tea towels, but it also comes from being visible in public life, ideally contributing to the betterment of social life for the nation. Here the issue of ‘the magic’ of being blessed by God becomes problematic. For modern monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth II, her power arguably rested on her public status as a symbol of national stability. This, however, requires her to be seen doing so, therefore being visible in the public sphere. However, if royals are given their authority from God as a mystical authority of the divine right of kings, then why do they seek public legitimacy? More so, if ordained by God, royals are not ‘ordinary’ and do not live an ordinary life, so being too visible or too ordinary means the monarchy risks losing its “mystic” and they are “unmasked” (Clancy 65). Therefore, modern royals, including King Charles III, must tightly “stage-manage” being visible and being invisible to protect the magic of the monarch (Clancy 65). For the alternative narrative is easy to be found. As one commentator for the Irish Times put it, “having a queen as head of state is like having a pirate or a mermaid or Ewok as head of state” (Freyne). In this depiction, a monarch is a work of fiction having no real basis. The anointing of the British monarch by necessity taps into the same narrative devices that can be found throughout fiction. The only difference is that this is real life and there is no guarantee of a happily ever after.
The act of magic evident in the anointing of the monarch is played out in ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, episode 5 of the first season of the television series The Crown. The episode opens with King George VI asking a young Princess Elizabeth to help him practice his anointing ceremony. Complete with a much improved, though still evident stutter, he says to the young Princess pretending to be the Archbishop:
You have to anoint me, otherwise, I can’t ... be King. Do you understand? When the holy oil touches me, I am tr... I am transformed. Brought into direct contact with the divine. For ... forever changed. Bound to God. It is the most important part of the entire ceremony.
The episode closes with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Watching the ceremony on television is the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, who was not invited to the coronation. To an audience of his friends and his wife Wallis Simpson, he orates:
Oils and oaths. Orbs and sceptres. Symbol upon symbol. An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy. Blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it
– It's crazy –
On the contrary. It's perfectly sane. Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have? A goddess.
By the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, television would demand to show the coronation, and after Elizabeth’s initial reluctance was allowed to televise most of the event. Again, the issue of visibility and invisibility emerges. If the future Queen was blessed by God, why did the public need to see the event? Prime Minister Winston Churchill argued that television should be banned from the coronation because the “religious and spiritual aspects should not be presented as if they were theatrical performance” (Clancy 67). Clancy goes on to argue that the need for television was misunderstood by Churchill: royal spectacle equated with royal power, and the “monarchy is performance and representation” (Clancy 67). But Churchill countered that the “risks” of television was to weaken the “magic of the monarch” (Clancy 67).
King Charles III’s Coronation: ‘An ageing debutante about to become a god’
Walter Bagehot also wrote, “when there is a select committee on the Queen … the charm of royalty will be gone”. When asking readers to think about who should pay for King Charles III’s coronation, The Guardian reminded readers that the
monarchy rests not on mantras and vapours, but on a solid financial foundation that has been deliberately shielded from parliamentary accountability … . No doubt King Charles III hopes that his coronation will have an enormous impact on the prestige of the monarchy – and secure his legitimacy. But it is the state that will foot the bill for its antique flummery. (The Guardian)
Legitimacy it has been said is “essentially magic” (Cusack). The flummery that delivers royal legitimacy – coronations – has been referred to as “a magic hat ceremony” as well as “medieval”, “anachronistic”, and “outdated” (Young).
If King Charles III lacks the legitimacy of his subjects, then where is the magic? The highly coordinated, extravagant succession of King Charles III has been planned for over half a century. The reliance on a singular monarch has ensured that this has been a necessity. This also begs the question: why is it so necessary? A monarch whose place was assured surely is in no need of such trappings. Andrew Cusack’s royalist view of the proclamation of the new King reveals much about the reliance on ritual to create magic. His description of the Accession Council at St James’s Palace on 10 September 2022 reveals the rituals that accompany such rarefied events: reading the Accession Proclamation, the monarch swearing their oath and signing various decrees, and the declaration to the public from the balcony of the palace. For the first time, the general public was allowed behind the veil through the lens of television cameras and the more modern online streaming; essential, perhaps, as the proclamation from the balcony was read to an empty street, which had been closed off as a security measure. Yet, for those privileged members of the Privy Council who were able to attend,
standing there in a solemn crowd of many hundreds, responding to Garter’s reading of the proclamation with a hearty and united shout of “God save the King!” echoing down the streets of London, it was difficult not to feel the supernatural and preternatural magic of the monarchy. (Cusack)
Regardless, the footage of the event reveals a highly rehearsed affair, all against a backdrop of carefully curated colour, music, and costume. Costumes need to be “magnificent” because they “help to will the spell into being” (Gold). This was not the only proclamation ceremony. Variations were executed across the Commonwealth and other realms. In Australia, the Governor-General made a declaration flanked by troops.
“A coronation creates a god out of a man: it is magic” (Gold). But for King Charles III, his lack of confidence in the magic spell was obvious at breakfast time. As the congregation spooled into Westminster Abbey, with actors at the front – kings tend to like actors, as they have the same job – the head of the anti-monarchist pressure group Republic, Graham Smith, was arrested near Trafalgar Square with five other republican leaders (Gold).
The BBC cut away from the remaining Trafalgar Square protestors as the royal cavalcade passed them by, meaning “screen[s] were erected in front of the protest, as if our eyes — and the king’s — were too delicate to be allowed to see it” (Gold). The Duke of York was booed as he left Buckingham Palace, but that too was not reported on (Ward). This was followed by “the pomp: the fantastical costumes, the militarism, the uneasy horses” (Gold). Yet, the king looked both
scared and thrilled: an ageing debutante about to become a god [as he was] poked and prodded, dressed and undressed, and sacred objects were placed on and near him by a succession of holy men who looked like they would fight to the death for the opportunity. (Gold)
King Charles III’s first remarks at the beginning of coronation were “I come not to be served, but to serve” (New York Times), a narrative largely employed to dispel the next two hours of well-dressed courtiers and clergy attending to all manner of trinkets and singing all matter of hymns. After being anointed with holy oil and presented with some of the crown jewels, King Charles was officially crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury placing the St Edward’s Crown upon his head. The 360-year-old crown is the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels. It stands just over 30 centimetres tall and weighs over two kilograms (Howard). In the literal crowning moment, Charles was seated on the 700-year-old Coronation Chair, believed to be the
oldest piece of furniture in Europe still being used for its original purpose and holding two golden scepters as the glittering St. Edward’s Crown, made for King Charles II in 1661, was placed on his head. It is the only time he will ever wear it. (New York Times)
The Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant perhaps best sums up the coronation and its need to sanctify via magic the legitimacy of the monarchy. He argues that
taking the coronation seriously only risks becoming complicit in this antediluvian ritual. A 74-year-old man will finally inherit the crown of a faded empire. His own family is not united, let alone his country. Charles will still reign over 15 nations, among them St Lucia, Tuvalu, Grenada, Canada and, of course, steadfast Australia. The “republican” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be among those pledging his allegiance. To seal it all, the new King will be anointed with holy oil. This man is apparently a gift from God.
Magic is central to the construction of the coronation ceremony of British monarchs, a tradition that stretches back over a millennium. Magic relies upon an implicit understanding between the actors and the audience; the audience knows what they are seeing is a trick, but nonetheless want to be convinced otherwise. It is for the actors to present the trick seamlessly for the audience to enjoy. The coronation relies upon the elevation of a singular person above all other citizens and the established ritual is designed to make the seemingly impossible occur. For centuries, British coronations occurred behind closed doors, with the magic performed in front of a select crowd of peers and notables. The introduction of broadcasting technology, first film, then radio and television, transformed the coronation ceremony and threatened to expose the magic ritual for the trick it is. The stage management of the latest coronation reveals that these concerns were held by the producers, with camera footage carefully shot so as to exclude any counter-narrative from being broadcast. However, technology has evolved since the previous coronation in 1953, and these undesired images still made their way into various media, letting the daylight in and disrupting the magic. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, this will have on the long-term reign of Charles III.
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