The coronation of King Charles III—the first since his mother’s in 1953—has caused a lot of ink to be spilled on both sides of the Atlantic. Much of the commentary has revolved around the question, can such an expensive ceremony, a relic of the feudal and imperial pasts, be meaningful in a diverse secular society?As acts of national communion, coronations have never been ossified, but rather evolving rituals. Their history shows that accommodations to political circumstances have always been necessary to make the transfer of power appear legitimate, seamless, and inevitable. And they have always been subject to snafus, being magnificent events enacted in real time by real people, that dynamic further complicated by their capture in illustrations and broadcasts for future consumption.
Important changes in ideas for the presentation of the coronation’s pageantry to little subjects are reflected in children’s books. The earliest picture I found in the collection was a wood cut 25 x 30 mm in a sixpenny school book, The New Universal Primer, an easy Book…authorised by His Majesty King George to be used throughout Great-Britain and Ireland (Derby: J. Drewry, not before 1769). Unsurprisingly it offers neither an accurate likeness of the monarch nor a description of the magnificent 1761 ceremony. The only important points the text makes are that subjects must kneel hatless in the sovereign’s presence and that his sons are princes and his daughters princesses. Prints would have provided more satisfyingly detailed representations of the event..
A more lavish, detailed book was published in 1820 by John Harris on the occasion of the accession of George IV, Sir Harry Herald’s Graphical Representation of the Dignitaries of England; shewing the Costume of the different Ranks, from the King to a commoner; with the Regalia used at the Coronation. (George, always ruinously extravagant, had vowed his crowning would “eclipse” Napoleon’s.) The frontispiece shows the King’s Champion, a hereditary office whose duties required the holder to ride in full armor into Westminster Hall during the traditional banquet ready to fight any challenger of the new monarch’s claim to the throne. This coronation was the last time it was performed.
The first edition, which had to be ready in advance of July 1820, was issued before the embarrassments of the ceremony’s delay because of George’s unsuccessful attempt to divorce his consort, from whom he had been estranged for years, and Caroline’s exclusion when she asked for admission to Westminster Abbey. The earliest Sir Harry Herald upheld the monarch’s dignity, which was yet to be tarnished, with its solemn procession of the ranks in their robes, beginning with the archbishop of Canterbury and ending with the livery, which the artist cleverly created across the double-page spreads.The traditional hierarchy of ranks are shown quite differently in the panoramas like the one Robins published in 1838 (Cotsen 14359) capturing the spectacle of Victoria’s progress from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. The young queen can be glimpsed through the state carriage’s windows and her power is manifested in the show that precedes her, a long orderly procession of bands of mounted musicians, Life Guards, equerries, Officers of her Majesty’s Household, splendid carriages of the royal family, foreign diplomats and dignitaries from around the world. Crowds line the scaffolds on the streets, wave flags on balconies and perch on rooftops, a reminder that the queen’s investiture rests on the assent of her subjects, as well as the support of the society’s ranks and orders. The organizers’ decision to make the coronation a day of popular celebration for working people was condemned by at least one powerful faction as degrading the majesty of the occasion.The coronation of Edward VII and Alexandra as king and queen of the United Kingdom and British Dominions, and emperor and empress of India in 1902 (thirty-one rulers of the Indian princely states attended for the first time) was to be well-rehearsed to insure its spiritual character and brevity. The Coronation Picture Book by Duncan Tovey and illustrated by John Hassall punctured the pageantry in a good-humored fashion by commemorating the British nation, to whom it was dedicated. Among the well-known types are the raffish artist drawing from his eyrie on a chimney in Parliament Street, the bobby restraining the gawking bystanders, and the old tar. Representatives of the aristocratic ranks are comical, like the peer hiding a snack in his coronet or the other falling asleep on his feet. The king and queen do not make an appearance, but the crowd of their loyal subjects throw their hats in the air and cheer lustily as they pass by beyond the page.The Bairn’s Coronation Book (London: J. M. Dent, 1902, Cotsen 4675) by Clare Bridgman and illustrated by Charles Robinson offered an introductory account for young readers of the same event designed to draw them into the religious ritual, teach them some interesting facts about the regalia—scepter, orb, golden spoon, swords of state, and throne—and thrill them with colorful, stately pictures of the people in the processions. In addition to pictures of pages and choristers, real-life children who had important parts to perform in the ceremonies, Robinson provided whimsical sketches and drawings of chubby toddlers playing at the responsibilities delegated to grown-ups. The last pictures in the book evoke the excitement of staying far past one’s bedtime to enjoy the magical effects of torchlight, bonfires, and fireworks in the darkness as one in the crowd of merrymakers.
As the spectacle of the coronation was opened up to ordinary people as an elevated kind of popular entertainment, the importance of parade of the ranks and orders continued to diminish as a feature of the ritual. Pomp was gradually trumping precedence.