Explainer
Culture
4 min read

Making sense of the coronation’s oaths, oils and acclamations

The significance of the thousand-year-old coronation ceremony is unpacked by Ian Bradley to reveal the vulnerability at its heart.

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

A medieval illustration of King Edgar's coronation shows him between his predecessor and successor, while angels hover above him.
King Edgar enjoys his coronation, the first in English history.
Life of St Edward the Confessor, CC BY-NC 3.0, University of Cambridge.

Coronations point to the sacred nature of the United Kingdom monarchy. Packed with religious symbolism and imagery, they exude mystery, bind together church and state through the person of the monarch and clearly proclaim the derivation of all power and authority from God and the Christian basis on which government is exercised and justice administered. At their coronations kings and queens are not simply crowned and enthroned but consecrated, set apart and anointed, dedicated to God and invested with sacerdotal garb and symbolic regalia. Here, if anywhere, we find the divinity which, as Shakespeare observed more than four hundred years ago, hedges the British throne.  

The United Kingdom is the only country which still marks the accession of a new monarch with a coronation. Of the other European monarchies, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have never held coronations, Spain discontinued them in 1492 (they were not revived when the monarchy was restored there in 1975), Denmark in 1849 and Sweden in 1873. Norway abolished coronations in 1908 although since then its monarchs have undergone a ceremony of consecration or blessing in Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, with the royal regalia present in the church but not used in the ceremony. 

Anglo-Saxon innovation

Coronations are religious services rather than constitutional ceremonies. While details have been subtly adapted over the centuries, the basic format has essentially remained the same for over a thousand years. The crowning of the monarch is just one of several distinct elements in the service. Others include recognition by the assembled congregation representing the people of their new sovereign, administration of oaths, anointing with holy oil, investiture with the royal regalia and celebration of Holy Communion. All these elements are present in the earliest surviving order for the coronation of an English monarch, prepared by St Dunstan as Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar in 973. 

Edgar’s coronation, which took place in Bath Abbey, included many features found in all subsequent coronations. Held on Whit Sunday, the traditional day for ordinations to the priesthood, it laid considerable emphasis on the theme of consecration and the priestly aspects of kingship, exemplified by the wearing of priestly robes. Anointed and crowned by Dunstan, Edgar was entrusted with the protection and supervision of the church and graced with the titles rex dei gratia (king by the grace of God) and vicarus dei (Vicar of God). His wife, Aelfthryth, was anointed and crowned as queen. This practice, of a double crowning and anointing, was followed in the coronations of all subsequent married kings and queens as it will be with Charles and Camilla on 6 May. 

Oaths and oil 

Edgar was led into Bath Abbey by two bishops, as Charles will be as he enters Westminster Abbey which has been used for all English coronations since 1066. Before crowning, he was required to swear three oaths which form the basis of those still taken by every British monarch. As now framed, they include promises to adhere to the rule of law and the principles of justice and mercy, and to maintain the laws of God, the Protestant religion and the Church of England. Having taken the oaths, the monarch is anointed with holy oil, a further sign of being set apart and consecrated in the manner of a priest.  

Earning the right 

Edgar’s coronation included the celebration of Mass and it remains the case that the coronation is embedded in a celebration of Holy Communion. Dunstan’s order clearly established the church’s control over royal inauguration rites in England and specifically the key role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in presiding over the ceremony. In the sermon that he preached at a second coronation over which he presided, that of Ethelred the Unready at Kingston Upon Thames in 979, he preached on the duties of a consecrated king, describing him as the shepherd over his people and reminding him that while ruling justly would earn  him ‘worship in this world’ as well as God's mercy, any departure from his duties would  lead to punishment at Doomsday. 

A sense of sharing 

Rooted in tradition as they are, coronations still have the power to connect with the popular spiritual and religious instincts that remain strong, if often hidden, in our so-called post-Christian society. In a much-quoted article on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 two sociologists, Edward Shils and Michael Young, described it as:  

‘the ceremonial occasion for the affirmation of the moral values by which the society lives. It was an act of national communion and an intensive contact with the sacred.’  

They noted that it was frequently spoken of as an ‘inspiration’ and a ‘re-dedication of the nation’. The ceremony had ‘touched the sense of the sacred’ in the population, heightening a sense of solidarity in both families and communities. They pointed to examples of reconciliation between long-feuding neighbours and family members brought about by the shared experience of watching the ceremony together on television.  

We have recently witnessed something of this sense of national communion and intensive contact with the sacred in the public reaction to the death of Elizabeth II, as shown by the numbers who came out to witness the progress of the late queen’s coffin on its last journeys and to file past it in the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh and Westminster Hall.  

Ultimately, Christian monarchy points beyond itself to the majesty, mystery and vulnerability of God. It is a lonely, noble and sacrificial calling.  What our sovereign needs and deserves most is our loyal and heartfelt prayers. As we prepare for the king’s coronation, we could do well to reflect on and respond to the request that his mother made before hers:  

“You will be keeping it as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion maybe, to pray for me on that day, to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve them and you, all the days of my life.” 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen