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Coronation confusion: a people's Homage and the dilution of a constitutional principle

Historian Professor Keith McLay explains why he believes the people's Homage to King Charles III undermines the centuries-old principle on which our mixed constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system is based.

By Professor Keith McLay - 5 May 2023

In the days following the publication of the itinerary for King Charles III’s Coronation this Saturday, a bruhaha blew up over the changes to the ceremony last used for the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

There is much outrage to go around. Coachmen and carriage aficionados drew breath at the replacement of the Gold State Coach by the Diamond Jubilee version for the outward journey to Westminster Abbey. With air conditioning and suspension, the latter is considered more comfortable for the King and Queen Consort given the long ceremony that awaits; the Gold State Coach meanwhile will still receive an outing on the return from the Abbey when the occupants’ discomfort will be less problematic on arrival at Buckingham Palace.

Similarly, fashionistas have railed at the suggestion that King Charles is to ditch the breeches and stockings in favour of a military uniform. While one might appreciate their point that the Royal limbs will be less well turned out, the military uniform to be worn by the King will hardly be quotidian and, like the decision on the coaches, is rightly founded on comfort. An important point, though, about both these examples is that neither is grounded in, nor reflects, the foundations of the constitutional history expressed through the Coronation.

Pledging allegiance

The same cannot be written about a third change highlighted in recent days. As one would expect, the Coronation Ceremony follows a choreographed ritual, proceeding from the Recognition to the Oath and Anointing and then to the Investiture and Enthronement. Once enthroned, the other Royals present and the Peers of the Realm would kneel, pay homage and pledge their allegiance to the monarch.

On Saturday, however, purportedly at the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s, suggestion, only one Royal, Prince William of Wales, shall kneel and pay homage to Charles III. The assembled Peers and the rest of the Abbey’s congregation and indeed everyone across the United Kingdom and Commonwealth (approximately 150 million people) will be invited by the Archbishop to stand, offer homage and pledge their allegiance to King Charles by invoking the words: "I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God." Then, after a fanfare, the addendum "God save King Charles. Long live King Charles. May the King live for ever". For the first time, Royals, Peers and the King’s Subjects are rolled into one collective undifferentiated Homage.

Positive change?

Some commentators were quick to welcome the change. The biographer Sally Bedell Smith considered it both ‘exciting’ and ‘inclusive’ while the celebrated political scientist, Sir Vernon Bogdanor, deemed the change ‘sensible’, and one which appropriately modernised the Ceremony for the 21st century. At one level, neither Smith’s nor Bogdanor’s perspectives can be gainsaid: the Homage will now be a more modern, inclusive offer to all to participate; but perhaps a more relevant question is whether the change dilutes fidelity to the constitutional history of the Coronation.

Substantively the current Coronation Oath and the attendant ceremony are governed by the Coronation Oath Act of 1688/89. A year of seminal significance in the constitutional history of the British Isles, it hosted the Revolution of 1688 whereby William of Orange and his wife Mary replaced James VII and II on the thrones of the British Isles. James’ monarchical high-handedness and his pro-Catholic sympathies and policies had, since his accession in 1685, caused him to fall out with political establishment which led to a chain of events, including an invitation from the Political Estate to William to come across from the Netherlands and James’ flight and de facto abdication on 25 December of that year. The Parliament which convened in January 1689 then duly offered the Crown to William and Mary and decided that a new Coronation was required to replace the pre-existing one that was ‘framed in doubtful Words and Expressions’.

The legislation enshrined the new constitutional reality that the Parliament had governed the succession and thus it promulgated the constitutional doctrine of the ‘King/Queen in Parliament’: the quintessential expression of Britain’s mixed constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system which obtains today and lies behind the Coronation Oath Act’s stipulation that the monarch must rule according to laws agreed ‘in Parliament’.

In Saturday’s Coronation Ceremony, therefore, the Homage which follows the King’s oath committing his fidelity to, and service of, the constitutional norms is reciprocal. It is the opportunity for Parliament, represented by the Peers of the Realm, to bind Parliament through allegiance to the constitutionality of the ‘King/Queen in Parliament’. The King’s subjects – the 150 million world-wide audience of the Coronation - are not and never have been the historical embodiment of Parliament, that is the function of the Peers of the Realm. This Parliamentary personification is, of course, not democratic and privileges a small group, but both criticisms are beside the point in the context of the Coronation Ceremony: the representation of Parliament as an institutional participant within the constitutional doctrine is the purpose and intent.        

Reflecting on history

The change to the Coronation’s Homage is thus an ahistorical sleight of hand. The Archbishop of Canterbury might think that by encouraging all in the Abbey, those at home and those partying on the streets to pledge their allegiance to the King leavens, even democratises, the monarchy, bringing it closer to the people, but it promotes the contrary. It arguably dilutes and undermines a constitutional principle upon which Britain’s mixed constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system has been built in the years from 1688; we all would do well to reflect on this history when around noon on Saturday the Archbishop invites the pledge as an act of Homage from us all.

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About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

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