westminster abbey coronations

A Tradition of Centuries | Westminster Abbey Coronations

The Westminster Abbey Coronations are well-known events. Every Coronation of British Monarchs has been held at Westminster Abbey since 1066. The main purpose of the ceremony is to see the monarch swear an oath, affirm in the Church, and rule with honor, wisdom, and mercy. The Coronation Chair is also an important part of this ceremony and has been in use since 1308. 

Read on to find out how British Monarchs get anointed to become one of the most powerful and influential people in the world.

What Are British Coronations?

westminster abbey coronations

British Coronations at Westminster Abbey

There are several elements involved during the coronations of every British Monarch, each with its own significance. 

westminster abbey coronations

Location

Ceremonies and traditions hold a lot of importance for the British Sovereign. One such tradition is conducting British coronation ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. The last Anglo-Saxon Monarch, Harold II, was coronated in the year 1066 at Westminster Abbey. Ever since, this location has been preserved for conducting all coronations. The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben stand directly across the street from Westminster Abbey. Symbolically, this shows how the Sovereign and the Parliament work together in the political affairs of the country.

westminster abbey coronations

Coronation Chair

The Coronation Chair of WestminsterAbbey,  which was built for King Edward I between 1297 and 1300, is one of the most remarkable and valuable artifacts to have survived the Middle Ages. It included a sandstone block that the king seized after defeating the Scots at Scone in 1296. For centuries, Scottish kings had been crowned on the symbolic 'Stone of Scone', which has been associated with a wealth of mythology. Since the fourteenth century, most English monarchs have been crowned there, the most recent being Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The stone was returned to Scotland in 1996. Although the Coronation Chair is still in use for its purpose, the stone now sits apart from it in the Edinburgh Castle. 

westminster abbey coronations

Liber Regalis

The Liber Regalis, or Royal Book, is made or written to perform coronations at Westminster Abbey. This manuscript was written in 1382. The Liber Regalis explains that while the details of the coronation have changed over time, the basic running order of this Christian ceremony has remained consistent. 

Some sections remain unchanged in every coronation service. Before being crowned, the monarch is recognized by the people (the Recognition), makes promises to their subjects and God (the Oath), is anointed with holy oil (the Anointing), and receives royal regalia such as a sword and an orb (the Investing), after which, the monarch takes the throne (the Enthronement).

westminster abbey coronations

Participants

Traditional coronations are officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has priority over all other clergy and laypeople, except members of the royal family; in his absence, another bishop appointed by the monarch may take the archbishop's position. 

The Westminster Abbey Coronation Ceremony is expected to be attended by the Great Officers of State. At the coronation, many landowners and others get various important duties to perform. The Prime Minister and all members of the Cabinet, all Governors-General and Prime Ministers of Commonwealth realms, all Governors of the British Crown, and the Heads of State of dependent nations attend the coronation ceremonies, along with nobility. Dignitaries and representatives from other countries are also traditionally invited.

westminster abbey coronations

Clothing

The sovereign wears a variety of robes and other garments throughout the Coronation Ceremony. Before the procession, the sovereign dons a crimson surcoat. Then, a simple cloth is worn at the time of anointing. It is plain white with no embellishments and fastens at the back. The supertunica is the second robe in which the sovereign is clothed. It is a long gold silk coat with wide-flowing sleeves that reaches the ankles. It is lined in rose silk, trimmed in gold lace, and fastened with a sword belt woven with national symbols. A purple surcoat is worn during the final part of the ceremony. This is when the Imperial State Crown is bestowed upon the Monarch.

Coronation Service Procedure at Westminster Abbey

The coronation service is divided into five sections. These include oath, anointing, investiture, crowning and enthronement.

westminster abbey coronations

Recognition and Oath

The sovereign enters Westminster Abbey dressed in a crimson surcoat and the crimson velvet Robe of State and takes a seat on a Chair of Estate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Chancellor, Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord High Constable, and Earl Marshal move around the coronation theater from the east, south, west, and north. The archbishops on both sides call for the recognition of the sovereign. 

Following the acclamation of the sovereign by the people on each side, the archbishop administers an oath to the sovereign. If the monarch has not already done so, he or she may take the Accession Declaration in addition to the oath. The Bible used in this ceremony is the entire King James Bible, including the Apocrypha.

westminster abbey coronations

Anointing

After the first part of the ceremony is done, a holy song is sung to begin the anointing ceremony. After this, the Archbishop says a prayer in preparation for the anointing. After this prayer, the choir sings the Westminster Abbey’s coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest. In the meantime, the sovereign removes their crimson robe and proceeds to the Coronation Chair for the anointing. After the monarch sits on the chair, a golden cover is put on top of the head for the anointing celebration. 

This part of the ceremony is sacred and is not revealed to the public eye. The Dean of Westminster then pours consecrated oil onto a spoon, which the Archbishop then uses to anoint the Sovereign by drawing a cross on the hands, the head and the heart, all while reciting the sacred consecratory formula. After this, the sovereign kneels for the final prayer for anointing, and then rises and sits once again on the Coronation Chair. 

westminster abbey coronations

Investing

The sovereign then adorns the colobium sindonis, a sleeveless white robe that symbolizes leaving behind all worldly vanity and standing bare before God. The Archbishop of Canterbury presents the sovereign with the Sword of State, which he places on the altar with the help of other bishops in the abbey. 

The Monarch is then robed once again with the Robe Royal. The Archbishop then bestows several Crown Jewels, the first being the Orb, a hollow gold sphere encrusted with precious stones. After this, the Orb is crowned with a cross, symbolizing Jesus' rule over the world. Once received, the Orb and the cross are immediately returned to the altar. The sovereign is then presented with a ring to represent their ‘marriage’ to the country.

westminster abbey coronations

Crowning

The Archbishop of Canterbury prays while raising and lowering St Edward's Crown from the high altar. The Dean of Westminster then picks up the crown, after which, the archbishop and several other high-ranking bishops accompany the dean to the Coronation Chair. The crown is then handed back to the archbishop, who reverently places it on the monarch’s head. The king or queen is crowned at this time, and the abbey guests chant "God Save the King/Queen" three times in unison.

The Archbishop of Canterbury then recites another prayer that is a translation of a Latin prayer, Coronet te Deus, at the end of which, all the guests bow their heads and say “Amen”. The choir then sings an antiphon along with a benediction.

westminster abbey coronations

Enthronement and Homage

After the benediction, the sovereign rises from the Coronation Chair and is brought to the throne. Once the monarch is seated on the throne, the statement "Stand firm, and hold fast from now on..." is recited, which is a translation of the Latin formula Sta et retine....

Following the formal enthronement, archbishops and bishops perform the act of homage, in which they swear absolute loyalty to their Sovereign Lord, King or Queen of the Realm, and Defender of the Faith, as well as to their heirs and successors, in accordance with the law. After this, all the members of the royal family pay homage to the sovereign individually. If there is a queen consort, she is anointed, invested and then crowned in a rather simple ceremony after the homage. 

westminster abbey coronations

Closing Procession

After the Enthronement ceremony, the bearers of the Sword of State, the Sword of Temporal Justice, the Sword of Spiritual Justice, and the Sword of Mercy head towards St Edward’s Chapel within Westminster Abbey itself. The sovereign then exits the coronation theater and enters the chapel as well. While the monarch is in the chapel, the choir sings a hymn of thanksgiving. 

St Edward's Crown and other regalia are laid on the chapel's High Altar. Before being enrobed in the purple velvet Imperial Robe, the sovereign removes the Robe Royal and replaces the crimson surcoat with a purple surcoat. They then wear the Imperial State Crown, take the Scepter with the Cross and the Orb, and head out of the chapel as the national anthem is sung.

Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey

queen elizabeth II

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2, 1953, at Westminster Abbey in London. She ascended to the throne at the age of 25 after her father, George VI, died on February 6, 1952.

With the exception of the actual anointing and communion, the proceedings were televised to a UK audience of around 20 million people on June 2, 1953. Around 11 million people tuned in to their radios to hear the event. Around 8,000 people were present at Westminster Abbey for the ceremony. The coronation ceremony lasted about three hours, with guests arriving at their designated locations several hours ahead of time. 

On September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria to become the longest-ruling British Monarch.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Westminster Abbey Coronations

Q. Where do all the British Coronations take place?

A. Since 1066, all British Coronations have taken place in Westminster Abbey.

Q. How many coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey

A. Since William the Conqueror, apart from Edward V and Edward VIII, every monarch that has been crowned has had a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. There have been 39 coronations in Westminster Abbey since 1066.

Q. Who was the first to be coronated at Westminster Abbey?

A. William the Conqueror was the first monarch to get coronated at Westminster Abbey in the year 1066.

Q. When was HM Queen Elizabeth coronated at Westminster Abbey?

A. On June 2, 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was coronated at Westminster Abbey.

Q. Can I attend a Westminster Abbey Coronation service?

A. Most dignitaries world-wide are invited to British coronations apart from the Royal Family and other important British dignitaries. While it may be difficult for a civilian to enter Westminster Abbey and attend the coronation live, you may still be able to see the procession that happens afterward from outside the abbey.