The real Succession: How Charles’s coronation outpowered Hollywood

It may have had all the markings of a fairytale Netflix drama, but this was more potent than almost any blockbuster

Sean O'Grady
Saturday 06 May 2023 14:07 BST
The key moments from King Charles’s coronation ceremony

It’s rare to see history unfurl before you. Yet today, millions of people watched swords, gloves, sceptres, orbs, long trains, swathes of ermine with plumed hats, pageantry, pomp, princes, and even (seemingly) irrelevant PMs like Liz Truss line the interior of Westminster Abbey.

It was quite hard to take it all in. The Commonwealth flags for bunting on The Mall. Ermine robes and gilt croziers. Blues and Royals. Beefeaters. Bicorn hats. A four-tonne gold coach built for William IV’s coronation in 1831. The great wooden chair carved for Edward I in 1300. The crown jewels recreated for Charles II in 1661, after Cromwell had most of the originals broken up, melted down and sold off. The royalist superfans in their Millets tents, union jack jackets and plastic bowler hats.

Music by Handel, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and, yes, Lloyd Webber. It was a sumptuous gold, damask, azure and scarlet affair; an audiovisual feast. It was quite the affirmation of national pride, if not confidence: a sort of amalgam of church service, FA Cup final and the Proms. A coronation, after a wait of 75 years, is a novelty, and there’s no argument that it was a rich and spectacular one. A moving sight, to see the King and Queen emerge from Buckingham Palace.

It may have had all the markings of a fairytale Netflix drama, but this was more potent than almost any Hollywood blockbuster, with special effects, musical cadences diving and rising, exiled princes returning, glittering tiaras on princesses, and the star of the show changing into golden robes and buckled shoes that would make even the Crown Prince of Ruritania feel slightly naked.

But this was a day on which cynicism was swept aside, and the rest of us dragged happily along into the ceremony. We watched a 74-year-old man take part in an ancient spiritual ritual, as he was anointed with oil and later crowned, turning him from mere mortal to King – a moment other nations would be grateful to witness.

We’ve had kings who have sat in the same place since 1066, a tradition unchanged since the rule of William the Conqueror. We’ve read historical accounts of others who have been through this process, too – and become rulers. Now, we have a very modern monarch indeed, and his coronation was as bedazzling in tradition as it was in ingenuity, involving a wonderful and incredible array of people of every religion and colour.

It was a sign of great welcome, and great inclusiveness. Dukes were halved in their number in this ceremony – the celebration was “trimmed down” – and there may have been squawks of dissent, but bring it on, for Britain must look forward. The crown landing on the head of a 74-year-old man might normally be expected in a scene from a Channel 4 romcom, but this was real. This was felt. This was history in the making.

Let us not forget that, amidst all this drama of inheritance, hereditary fanfare and fandango, is also a matter of great tragedy – and some fortune. We lived through the marriage of Charles and Diana in 1981; had the marriage, and Diana herself, survived, as everyone expected back then, the vista today would be quite different. After the death of Diana in 1997, it looked as though the institution itself might not survive – it was hugely more unpopular then than is evident in the mild complacency it excites among some now.

At that point, Camilla was famously, “the most hated woman in Britain”, and it was unthinkable that she could be seen in public, let alone ever be married to Charles – still less one day usurp the “Queen of Hearts”.

No more “the other woman”. Now, she takes her place in the long pantheon of Queens who were former consorts, like Elizabeth the Queen Mother to George VI, and Queen Mary to George V respectively. The story of Camilla is surely one of the great tales of redemption in public life – and of the change in public attitudes to personal morality.

It’s a curious thing to reflect on: that Camilla’s great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel, was the mistress of Charles’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward VII. At Edward’s coronation in 1902, the King made sure that Mrs Keppel was given a seat at Westminster Abbey so as to observe proceedings. Now, things are different, and Charles and Camilla have been crowned side by side. As someone remarked of the now Queen when she was finally permitted to marry Charles in 2005, she is in the winner’s enclosure now. Quite the day.

It’s almost like Godfather 4. It definitely has a touch of Succession. Perish the thought that Charles could have been in the car with Diana in Paris; perish the thought that they might also have lost their two children. Things could have been very different. We could have been watching King Andrew and Queen Sarah on the thrones at Westminster Abbey.

But like most productions (Hollywood, take note!) we did need a happy ending. And we’ve got one: what we see today is a modern King with a renaissance interest in culture, the climate, life and learning; a King who quotes Kipling and Longfellow, and appreciates the language and foundation of Shakespeare. Charles is King. Long live the King.

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