A new King: A historian’s commentary on the Coronation

4 May 2023 | By: Dr Martin Farr | 3 min read
Bunting printed with the Union Jack flag hangs from buildings

With a new king imminently being crowned, we asked Dr Martin Farr, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary British History, to talk to us about the impact of King Charles III’s reign following on from the UK’s previous monarchs.

A recent history of coronations

To help us put this momentous occasion into context, it is useful for us to first look back almost 90 years to another day of anointing.

On Wednesday 12 May 1937, two coronations were scheduled. Edward VIII, who would by then have been King for just over a year, abdicated in December 1936, and so his coronation was cancelled. But with the necessary extemporisation, which can be seen as helping define the institution that is the British monarchy, the date was saved and Edward’s brother, George VI, was crowned on that day instead.

Much more than general elections, coronations offer a vantage point for their time, hence the almost unconscious appending of 'era'. For one thing, they are generally much less common, but in the 1930s there were almost as many coronations as there were elections.

When the next general election, in 1945, brought a Labour landslide, George VI was only too happy to invite Clement Attlee to form an administration. While strongly socialist, the Labour government of the time, nor subsequently, has presented any threat to the monarchy and, in fact, the 2022 Labour Party conference opened with the singing of God Save the King.

Edward VIII – an unexpected turn of events

Edward VIII was the exception who proved more than the rule; his sorry reign helps explain why the institution, which seemed imperilled in 1936, is thriving, certainly as much as it could have hoped, eighty-seven years later.

Edward put himself above his station. Neither George VI, nor his daughter Elizabeth II, can be said to have even thought, much less behaved, in such a way.

At the very least, Edward VIII was not prepared to compromise personal convenience as his brother and niece were. War benefitted George VI, just as continuity in a time of transformative technological change helped Elizabeth II. Throughout both reigns was the sense – unprovable though it is – of their subjects wanting to believe.

A change in public support

That is perhaps the greatest circumstantial contrast with the mid-twentieth century, the last time there was such change.

Public support for the monarchy has declined and is sharply generationally defined. The public is much more variegated than it was, its distractions infinitely greater. The task of the institution – any institution – in ensuring its continuance is at the very least about discouraging enmity, much less support for an alternative. There were no protestors against the monarchy in 1953; there are in 2023.

A monarchy for the modern world

The institution has rested its modern case on service, on being seen; being dutiful.

The King's grandfather, George VI, had no expectation of his accession; his mother knew for thirteen years, but her father’s death was early, sudden and she was young. There was, there could have been, no planning.

Charles III has known for seven decades that one day he would be King. It is a unique prologue, and hard to conceive of a means better suited to qualify someone for a role that they were bound to: witnessing at close proximity a reign that may as well serve to define the modern constitutional monarchy. That Elizabeth II could maintain such poise for so long, in a time of increasingly unmediated scrutiny and decreasingly reliable deference, was a feature of her reign that monarchists may cherish, and republicans rue.

Kings and politics

For all his dutiful service, George VI (and even more his father, George V), interposed himself more closely in party politics than was seemly: not greatly, but more than a constitutional monarch ought to do.

Charles's protracted princeship was replete with risk, both for its duration but also for his restless proclivities: impatience not for waiting to become Sovereign, but for having limited scope to do anything constructive before then. There were risks to this, most infamously – not that it is very widely-known, even now, despite the best efforts of republicans – his attempted involvement/interference in ministerial business. After all, who can forget the infamous 'Black spider' letters (alluding to the prince's script).

The future for Charles III

Charles has overcome public antagonism, not least with both of his marriages. The first sweet, then souring, and with it public opinion. The second; a testament to patience and reputational rehabilitation.

Of greater historical and international significance, is the King realising that the monarchy must be seen to be dealing squarely with the increasingly pointed debates around decolonisation, in those British institutions in general, and also the monarchy as having benefitted from imperialism, its exploitations, and extractions. The King’s public uttering of ‘reparations’ in that context is significant, and an indication of the change in emphasis of the new reign, one certainly likely to end with fewer realms than it began with.

The last years of the second Elizabethan era provided much of what sense of continuity there was in the unusual tumult of politics and public life in Britain. In the very year of her death, there were four chancellors of the exchequer and three prime ministers. The 1930s had, in the space of two years, a jubilee (silver; the first), the death of a king, the abdication of another, and the coronation of a third. And now, for us, in the space of one year there has been a jubilee (platinum; the first), the death of a queen, and the coronation of a king. A period of quietude to begin the Carolean era may widely be welcomed.

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