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From Edgar all the way to Elizabeth

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

Coronation Roy Strong

HarperCollins, pp.556, 25

Once upon a time, the young Roy Strong spent many hours, with the encouragement of Sir Anthony Wagner, researching the records of the College of Arms in connection with his interest in Elizabethan and Stuart portraits and pageantry. This resulted in what many regard as his best work, Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals. Now, 50 years and 24 books later, he has trawled the heralds’ records again, this time for a history of the English coronation service from its Saxon origins to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The result is a well organised, sympathetic and fascinating account of the central ritual of the English people. This is a serious book with a full scholarly apparatus of notes, bibliography, charts, chronologies and index.

As Sir Roy states, it is remarkable that the English coronation remains such a neglected field of study, for it is by far the most important national ceremonial liturgy to survive. If it were a historic building or ancient monument in the care of the National Trust or English Heritage, it would be the subject of solemn monographs, illustrated guidebooks and television programmes. But there is no easily accessible current book. The standard work, long out of print, is Percy Schramm’s History of the English Coronation (Oxford 1937); that is a magisterial achievement which sets the English ceremony in its historic European context. So this new book fulfils a need.

Strong draws heavily on Schramm but adds completely new material and a spectacular array of nearly 500 illustrations. With justifiable pride, he calls these ‘the largest visual archive of the topic’. Their quality and interest transform this book into a model of the illustrated history genre. They range from glorious illuminations in mediaeval manuscripts to Handel’s score for George II’s coronation music, to Queen Victoria’s own sketch of Lord Melbourne bearing the sword of state in 1839, to photos of the BBC commentators with binoculars and microphones in 1953. These have not been garnered by a research-slave. All are the author’s own discerning choice, and are brilliantly integrated into the text. With the current level of reproduction fees, one trembles to think how much these must have cost.

The design and layout are exceptionally clear and elegant. Complicated rituals are explained in simple form, separated from the general text by red lines. Sir Roy has been admirably served by his publishers; his designer, Vera Brice, and his editor, Arabella Pike, have made a very good job of organising what could have been an inchoate mass of material.

Some, perhaps unworthy, peripheral reservations do arise. The large photograph on the dust jacket of silver quiffed and ruffed author profiled against a blaze of Stephen Dykes-Bower’s Westminster polychromy, could deter some readers. The autobiographical prologue and epilogue may also provoke queasiness. They do, however, raise intriguing minor historical questions. The author’s childhood home in Neasden is described as ‘terraced’. One had always imagined that all beyond the North Circular was semi-detached? He describes the grey flannel trousers he was wearing in June 1953 as being ‘cheap’. Again, one had thought that school uniforms were horribly expensive in the post-war era and that that was a deterrent for some families sending their sons to grammar schools. Here are serious subjects for a future historian to pursue.


The book proper begins with the set-piece of King Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973, the first English ceremony to be fully recorded and very similar to a priestly ordination, the anointing with chrism and investiture taking place in the middle of Mass between the gospel and the offertory. Strong then traces the origins of that service back to the christianisation of the Roman empire: Constantine’s enthronement, the crowning of the Byzantine emperors, and the Church’s civilising of the convert tribal chieftains of northern Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries, culminating in the ceremonies of the Frankish emperors and their derivations in places like England and Visigothic Spain.

Subsequent chapters trace the development of the English service through four successive ordos in the early Middle Ages as more emphasis was placed on kingship and less on priestly ordination, holy oil replacing chrism for the anointing and the six coronation rites taking place before Mass rather than being integrated into it. All this culminated in the Liber Regalis of Richard II’s coronation in 1377, the classic codification of the service. Studied and copied by the Tudor and Stuart heralds, it has remained the blueprint for the essentials of the English coronation ever since.

As he moves further from the origins and away from Schrammn’s safety net, Strong becomes less sure-footed and more idiosyncratic in his approach, though not less interesting, and his deep knowledge of the 16th- and 17th-century iconography shines through. A serious weakness, however, is that he almost completely ignores the role of the Earl Marshal, who actually organises the coronation. A whole chapter devoted to the origins, Carolingian antecedents, development, descent and duties of this great office of state is essential to any study of English coronation ceremonial. (A reflection of this lacuna is the appalling solecism in the acknowledgments where he thanks the Lord Chamberlain for access to the College of Arms records.)

Over the centuries, all kinds of secondary elaborations and extras have come and gone, reflecting religious change, contemporary culture and the realities of political power: from feudal homage of the Norman barons, coronation of consorts, translation of the service into English, or the global dimension made necessary by the British empire. Roy Strong perhaps overemphasises these subsidiary elements. The core ritual has not changed since the Middle Ages. That is its secret. By being timeless and transcendent, it has the perpetual validity of a great work of art.

The most interesting aspect of the English coronation is how it survived the Reformation. Apart from a hasty Cranmerisation of the Liber Regalis for Edward VI’s coronation in 1553, it was only in 1603 that the liturgy was permanently translated into a Protestant form for James I. Elizabeth I’s crowning, like her sister Mary’s, was, of course, the full mediaeval service with a blaze of candles and incense and the Mass chanted in Latin, with the Queen pretending not to notice the Consecration of the Host.

By 1603, survival was assisted by the Stuart belief in the divine right of kings, and the Laudian development of Anglicanism with its stress on continuity and ceremonial. So the anointing with holy oil and other ancient rites survived, with the addition of a long sermon and anti-papist oath. The Civil War and Commonwealth proved to be temporary blips, and Charles II’s coronation entrenched the mediaeval-Laudian tradition. The service was thereafter perpetuated by the sceptical 18th century’s cynicism and aestheticism, the Romantic movement in the 19th century, and the success of the British monarchy in the 20th century and, indeed, up to the 1950s by the vitality of Anglicanism as a serious part of the Western church.

I am not sure that I share Strong’s worry that so few people nowadays understand liturgy (as if they ever did). One might as well fret about soccer because so few people know how to kick the ball themselves or have the faintest idea of that popular game’s rules. The only people in England who have ever understood liturgy are Roman Catholics and public schoolboys and there are still enough of these around to keep the show on the road, one hopes.

Anyone who at the time of the Queen’s golden jubilee watched again the film of the 1953 coronation must have marvelled that anything so beautiful, ancient, arcane and spiritual could have survived into the modern world. It is a miracle that the coronation wi
thstood the ravages of the Reformation, puritan republicanism, the Enlightenment and Utilitarianism, let alone the horrors of the 20th century. The merit of this book is that it explains why, and also the importance of not spoiling things in the future.

John Martin Robinson has recently published The Regency Country House: From the Archives of Country Life (Aurum, £40).


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