First published at UCL European Institute’s blog
It has been argued that kingship is the original form of political society, even more original than states in the sense of human-made political systems. We do not know when the practice of exalting certain individuals into kings started, but the existence of such figures across the globe, and throughout all recorded history as well as strong indications in archaeological records suggest that it is one of our oldest practices.
The original political form
This does not mean that these societies that harboured kings were very much like our archetypical and simplified notions of ancient or medieval kingdoms. And they were certainly not close to our own late-capitalist states. The argument that kingship was the original political form is based on the idea that there were no clear distinctions between a transcendent, supernatural or otherworldly order and the world in which humans lived. When kings came onto the scene, far back beyond the historical horizon, they did so in a world where human life was intertwined with higher and lower creatures with powers beyond mere humans. In order to find and create order in such a world one solution was to pledge allegiance to kings. The king was here not primarily (and sometimes not at all) a political leader. In those societies that did not have actual physical kings present, they were still subjects under gods who ruled as kings. Kingship in essence was a ritual form of life that brought cosmic order. Kings emulated gods in order to control the power of those transcendent beings.
It is only quite recently that the idea of a secularised world, not endowed with spirits, ancestors, demons, angels and gods, has become widespread, and perhaps even possible at all to consider. It is during that much deeper and in that sense more normal paradigm that we got kings. This makes it obvious why kingship today is a curious exception to expectations in our era, rather than the obvious a priori system of government.
Many states still have kings and even the supposed secular centre of the world, Europe, retains a number of royal houses. This includes my own two countries of origin, Norway and Sweden. Neither of these holds coronations for their monarchs anymore. The United Kingdom is set apart as upholding this tradition, a feature of its unique constitutional structure that serves as an inexhaustible source of interesting discussions. European kings and queens were often coronated up until the early 20th century, but as their political power was restricted, the grand ritual of the affirmation of their status disappeared. The British sovereign is ‘the only European monarch to retain a coronation in mediæval form’. Even in the Vatican, the unquestionable champion of tradition in the West, no pope has been coronated since 1963.
How can we then understand this ancient ritual in its high-definition televised grandeur and mystique — or pompous buffoonery for those sceptical and satirical souls who affirm the importance of the ceremony by mocking it? It is of course material for continuous commentary by an array of experts that in a confident, serious and joyful register point out endless details, while the sheer visual coverage is designed to be overwhelming. A ceremony loaded, or rather overloaded, with symbolism. As if intentionally impossible to grasp fully.
Is it a political ceremony? While the monarch in constitutional monarchy no longer should be a political actor, the important constitutional roles retained, especially the case in the United Kingdom, can not really be called non-political. As we saw in the of proroguing of parliament the whole political system of the UK cannot be disentangled from its constitutional monarch, however much the non-use of constitutional powers is essential to protecting a contemporary monarchy in a Western democracy.
Rather we could perhaps understand it as extra-political, in the sense of not politically or legally necessary. The coronation oath, promising to govern each of his countries according to their respective laws and customs, to administer law and justice with mercy, and to uphold Protestantism in the United Kingdom and protect the Church of England, does not change his responsibilities, privileges or rights. It is in this sense a ceremony quite different from a marriage or the signing of an international convention. Without the ritual, he would still be King of the United Kingdom and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
The intertwinement of religious and political power
Is it a religious ritual? Yes, very much so. It is a liturgical service, arranged by the Archbishop of Canterbury and contains a multitude of religious symbols and actions. Compared to rituals like civil marriages, it is a church service, and as such it does not have any secular and legal effects on those present and participating. But this does not remove the politico-religious aspect of it. Without delving into the deep intricacies of Anglican canon law, and Christian theology in general, we could return to the role of kings as emulators of gods, in this case, the one God of the Christian faith. Charles III, in this variation of the ancient practice of kingship, is a servant of God. He is not only bound by and protector of secular laws but is anointed with holy oil, setting him aside in a spiritual role of extra significance. He is no god, but his coronation and the anointing make him a ‘perfect and true king’, and his status as a link between the transcendent God and his subjects is as a personification of the ideal Christian. The role of the king is here still the same that Graeber and Sahlins argue it has always been.
Finally, as a scholar of public law, I must also say something about the merging of religious and political power. While it is, once again, more or less distinguished in practice in everyday political life it is never fully severed. In the coronation ceremony, it perhaps reaches its apex of intertwinement. The symbols of power are present, from the soldiers with automatic weapons outside, the ceremonial rods carried into the church to the royal regalia presented to the monarch by the archbishop and other potentates surrounded by religious symbols. But the most important aspect of power is perhaps the glorious ceremony itself. While the coronation was historically only to be seen by the court and a few invited guests, it is now broadcast across both the realms of the king and abroad.
Acclamation, glory and democracy
The first part of the coronation is the Recognition, where all present acclaims “God save King Charles”, as well repeated in “God save the King” after the regalia are presented to him. Acclamation has been essential to both religious and political practice since antiquity. Is this then another case of anachronistic tradition, as foreign to us as the mystical event of the hidden anointing? No, it is not. It has been argued, and in my opinion correctly, that this essential component of power — the acclamation — is today even more important as an ever-present phenomenon in our societies:
What was confined to the spheres of liturgy and ceremonials has become concentrated in the media and, at the same time, through them it spreads and penetrates at each moment into every area of society, both public and private. Contemporary democracy is a democracy that is entirely founded upon glory, that is, on the efficacy of acclamation, multiplied and disseminated by the media beyond all imagination.
Perhaps the most important lesson of the coronation is therefore not the endlessly fascinating and curious ritual details. The ancient ceremony is not the only one thing that depends on glorification through pomp and grandeur. All political societies, not least our modern democracies, are dependent on acclamations, today not rare ceremonies but continuous processes of opinion polling and media coverage. In the televised version of the once again reinvented thousand-year-old ceremony, these worlds of entertainment, power, religion, and glory meet. Everything that was there brought together will stay with us in new forms, no matter if this was the last coronation ceremony or not.