SPHERE Curates: A Guide to the King's Coronation

Words by
Lucinda Gosling

26th April 2023

Using incredible archive imagery from Illustrated London News, dive into a step-by-step guide to The King's Coronation ceremony brought to you by Lucinda Gosling, who goes below the surface to the customs and history surrounding the occasion, from early iterations to the modern day.

Coronations, like many aspects of public life, have to move with the times. King Charles III and Camilla, The Queen Consort, will, like 39 monarchs before them, be crowned in the 13th-century Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury. We know that in comparison to the Coronation of The King’s mother, 70 years ago, this will be a shorter ceremony with a smaller congregation and, probably, fewer participants than the almost 30,000 individuals who took part in the 1953 Coronation procession. 

Unnecessary extravagance will be closely scrutinised at the King's Coronation, as the country navigates a cost-of-living crisis. Nevertheless, this will be balanced with a sense of occasion, the pageantry and the flourish that the country is renowned for — if we are good at anything in the UK, it is putting on a show. The King's Coronation is an opportunity for Britain to show the world that its monarchy and history are a source of national pride. 

Jack Merriott's illustration
Jack Merriott's illustration of the culminating moment of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation ceremony, as she is crowned in Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which he drew specially for The Sphere within the Abbey,

Through the centuries, coronations have been adapted and modified as occasion demanded. The modern-day coronation roughly follows a set of directions dating back to the 14th century and recorded in two lavishly illuminated texts — the Litlyngton Missal and the Liber Regalis — with provision over time for changes due to religious and political circumstances or personal preferences. At James I’s Coronation, prayers and liturgy were spoken in English for the first time, rather than Latin, and at the Coronation of George VI, the redoubtable Queen Mary, determined to see her son crowned, insisted on overturning the tradition that dowager Queens did not attend.

King Charles III will be inaugurated with Christian rites, but he is mindful of the multi-faith character of today’s United Kingdom and has previously stated that as well as Defender of the Faith he can also be protector of all faiths. There is speculation that this sentiment will be incorporated into the Coronation Oath in some form.

Prince George paying homage to King Edward VII
An illustration in The Sphere, 16 August 1902, shows Prince George paying homage to King Edward VII

It is clear that, while the Coronation on 6 May will reflect the spirit of today, it is also a deeply religious and symbolic ceremony, with rites that have changed little over the past thousand years. A coronation consists of the monarch (and his consort) being crowned, but there are several separate stages, all with a special significance, likely to remain at the core of the 2023 Coronation.

King's Coronation: The Recognition 

Artist's impression of the first stage of King George IV's Coronation ceremonial procession
Artist's impression of the first stage of King George IV's Coronation ceremonial procession on 12 May 1937 for The Sphere Coronation Record Number.

The Recognition is the first and most democratic stage of the Coronation. After progressing into the Abbey, traditionally to the strains of Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad”, during which the King’s Scholars of Westminster School will declaim “Vivat rex”, The King will stand beside the Coronation Chair positioned in the ‘theatre’ of the Abbey, between the choir and the altar. Turning north, south, east and west, the Archbishop of Canterbury will ask the assembled congregation to accept the monarch as “undoubted King of this realm”, a formality dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period, when it was an ostensible opportunity for any dissenting voices to register their opposition. The acceptance of The King is registered by a resounding shout of “God save The King!” from the congregation, representing the assent of the people, after which a fanfare of trumpets will sound. 

The Coronation Oath 

Cosmo Lang, then Archbishop of Canterbury administers the Coronation Oath to King George VI.

The King will then take the Coronation Oath, in which he promises to uphold the nation’s laws and maintain the Church of England. Moving to the altar with the Sword of State carried before him, he will declare, “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me God.” After kissing the Bible, he will then sign the Oath. 

King's Coronation: The Anointing 

The most ancient and holy part of the ceremony has its roots in early European Christianity, when the anointing with consecrated oil was to confirm the sacred position of the king. The oil, known as chrism, features a blend of essential oils including sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber and orange blossom, and is poured from the ampulla into the anointing spoon by the Dean of Westminster. He will pass it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who dips two fingers and anoints The King on the head, arms, hands and breast.

The anointing ceremony
The anointing ceremony during the Coronation of King George VI.

In 1953, a gold canopy was held over The Queen while this most private of rites was carried out. However, reports that the Royal School of Needlework is engaged in making a transparent canopy suggest this moment may be witnessed by the public during The King’s Coronation. The King will sit in the Coronation Chair while the anointing, or sacring, is carried out and the choir sings “Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet”, composed by Handel for the Coronation of George II in 1727.

The Investiture and Crowning 

An illustration of coronation regalia from The Sphere
An illustration of coronation regalia from The Sphere, 8 May 1937.

The King will next be dressed in the coronation vestments, which comprise the colobium sindonis, a linen garment echoing that of a priest’s alb, followed by the supertunica, a sleeved long tunic of gold floral brocade. These garments are based on those of Edward the Confessor, the originals of which were once kept as relics at the Abbey. The Investiture begins as The King, remaining seated in King Edward’s Chair, is presented with each piece of regalia and the Stole and Imperial Mantle are placed over the supertunica. Finally, the Archbishop will take St Edward’s Crown from the high altar, hold it high and say a prayer before placing it on The King’s head, after which gunfire, pealing bells and shouts of “God save The King” mark this supreme moment.

Enthronement and Homage of Clergy and Nobles 

The King will move from King Edward’s Chair, also known as the Coronation Chair, to a throne positioned on a raised dais, elevating the newly consecrated monarch symbolically, as well as physically, above his subjects. Traditionally the Archbishop, princes of the blood and senior peers would then pay homage to The King by kneeling and placing their hands within his. At Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was the first, following the Archbishop, to pay homage to his wife. It is expected that The Prince of Wales will follow Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at King Charles’s Coronation, though the number of individuals taking part in this stage is likely to be limited. 

The four changes of King George VI's Coronation robes and vestments.
The four changes of King George VI's Coronation robes and vestments.

The Queen Consort will then also be anointed and crowned in a simpler ceremony. She will take her place on a throne beside The King. In the past, the ceremony has concluded with the king and queen retiring behind the high altar, where the monarch would change into a mantle and train of purple velvet (the Imperial Robe of Royal Purple), wearing the Imperial State Crown. In medieval times, in order to protect the holy chrism, the king would wear his second crown over a white linen coif wrapped around the head, which was not removed for eight days.

The ceremony will end as The King, The Queen and their retinue make their way up the nave and out of the Abbey. They will then travel in the State Coach along a prescribed route back to Buckingham Palace.

Sacredness and Splendour - Objects of the Coronation


The front cover of The Sphere Coronation Number for King George VI
The front cover of The Sphere Coronation Number for King George VI, whose Coronation took place on 12 May 1937.

The temporary downfall of the monarchy, following the execution of Charles I in 1649, also led to the loss of the coronation regalia, which was broken up and melted down during the Interregnum on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. Among the few survivors was the gold ampulla in the shape of an eagle, believed to be Stuart in origin, and the 12th-century anointing spoon, which was purchased by the Yeoman of the King’s Wardrobe for the sum of 16 shillings and returned for the Coronation of Charles II. Otherwise, the Restoration required a new set of regalia and The King commissioned the Royal Goldsmith, Sir Robert Vyner, to create the new crown jewels. These and other key objects all play their part in the ceremony.

The Coronation Chair, or King Edward's Chair 

An illustration of the Coronation Chair
An illustration of the Coronation Chair for The Sphere, 8 May 1937.

The Coronation Chair was made on the orders of Edward I to hold the Stone of Scone after it was seized from the Scots in 1296, and is believed to have first been used for the Coronation of Edward II. It is carved of oak (the gilded lion feet are a later addition) and shows the wear and tear of age, having suffered graffiti by Westminster schoolboys and attempted vandalism at the hands of suffragettes. The Stone of Scone, used for centuries at the coronations of Scottish kings, is a powerful symbol of Scotland’s nationalism and was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1996, with the agreement it would return to Westminster Abbey for future coronations.

The Crowns 

The King will be crowned with St Edward’s Crown, made in 1661 for the Coronation of Charles II. Traditionally carried before the sovereign in the coronation procession by the Lord High Steward, the crown of solid gold, weighing five pounds, was made by Sir Robert Vyner and intended to replicate, as closely as possible, the crown of Edward the Confessor. The circlet is edged all around with diamonds and gemstones, and the arches, signifying the wearer is the ruler, are edged with pearls. 

The royal crowns and sceptre
The royal crowns and sceptre depicted for the Illustrated London News Silver Jubilee Record Number 1910-1935.

The Imperial State Crown, worn by the monarch at the conclusion of the coronation ceremony and for the procession, was made in 1838 for Queen Victoria. It features a dazzling and storied variety of precious stones including the Black Prince’s Ruby and the Star of Africa, the second largest stone from the famous Cullinan diamond; it also features the Stuart sapphire and Edward the Confessor’s sapphire as well as 2,700 individual diamonds.  

The Queen Consort will wear Queen Mary’s coronation crown, which was commissioned from Garrard in 1911 with the hope that future Queens Consort would wear it too. The elegant crown will be adjusted so that four of the eight half arches are removed and it will include the Cullinan III, IV and V diamonds in tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth, who regularly wore them as brooches. 

The latter, made for Mary of Modena when she was crowned alongside her husband, James II in 1685, has caused some controversy due it being made from ivory. The former Prince of Wales has been a vocal critic of the ivory trade and Prince William has expressed a desire to ban all ivory from Buckingham Palace, but this was an occasion where tradition took precedence over 21st century views.

The Sceptres, Orb and Sword of State 

In total, five sceptres are used during the coronation, the most important of which is the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, set with the immense Cullinan 1 diamond and symbolic of temporal power and justice. The Sceptre with Dove, held in The King’s left hand and surmounted by a gold and white enamel dove, represents the Holy Ghost, while the 4-foot 71/2-inch St Edward’s Staff is intended to symbolically guide The King’s steps through life. Two more sceptres, The Queen’s Sceptre and the The Queen’s Sceptre with Dove, complete the set.

The royal regalia
The royal regalia historically used during the ceremony includes the Sovereign's Ring, the Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross and St Edward's Crown.

The Sovereign’s Orb, made of two hollow gold hemispheres and covered in more than 600 precious stones, is held temporarily before the presentation of the sceptres and signifies God’s power on earth. The Sword of State, made for the Coronation of George IV at a cost of £6,000, will be girded to The King before being handed back to the Archbishop of Canterbury, indicating that the state’s power is placed in the service of God.    

Armills, Spurs and The Coronation Ring 

King George V in the Armill bracelets and royal robes
The Dean of Westminster dresses King George V in the Armill bracelets and royal robes.

The King will also be dressed in gold armills on each wrist, representing sincerity and wisdom, and the Coronation Ring, a sapphire and ruby cross of St George that symbolises he is wedded to his people. The Golden Spurs, with gold-embroidered crimson velvet straps, are a symbol of knighthood and chivalry. The modern custom is to hold them to a king’s ankles, or present them to a queen regnant, before returning them to the altar.

The State Coach 

The spectacular State Coach will be one of the stars of the Coronation on 6 May. Originally commissioned by the 1st Marquess of Hastings for George III, it was designed by William Chambers and built by Samuel Butler at a cost of £3,562, the equivalent of £3.5 million today. Only the sovereign can ride in the coach and it has been used for the State Opening of Parliament and coronations by every monarch since its completion in 1762, with the exception of Queen Victoria, who found the coach’s “distressing oscillation” intolerable. 

The State Coach
The State Coach weighing four tonnes, has been used for coronations since that of King George IV in 1820.

A fairytale confection of gilded Baroque, the coach features panels painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, and is topped with cherubs on its roof representing England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as a quartet of muscular tridents at each wheel. The four-tonne coach is usually pulled by eight Windsor Grey horses from the Royal Mews and was last used for the Platinum Jubilee pageant, featuring a hologram of the young Queen.

The King's Coronation ceremony will commence at 11am on Saturday 6th May 2023 at Westminster Abbey, London.