On the coronation of Charles III

Always remember that the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. People like a show.

Sir Terry Pratchett (R.I.P.)

It is arguably a brave decision on the part of the Heir Apparent to take his given name, Charles, as his regnal name. Well, one of his given names: he still had the choice of Philip, Arthur, or George, and there’s something to be said for all of those. We’ve had six Georges, so who could object to a seventh? Philip would be a first (not in France, but that’s been a non-issue for well over a century); Arthur might have been a tad ambitious, although it’s been tried before.

When you look at English history, there are certainly some regnal names that nobody seems keen to repeat, regardless of how popular they are amongst the general public. I am looking at you, King John, but also at you, King Stephen. We can argue about how well-deserved or otherwise the reputations of these kings may be, but it is striking that those names have never been repeated.

In the case of Charles let’s look at the precedents. Charles I famously did undergo a beheading. His son Charles II died in his bed; however, the secret to his success was that he side-stepped the issue his father always had of being dependent on tax revenues approved by Parliament by accepting subsidies from Louis XIV of France. Once I learned about this, I was surprised by how good a press he seems to get.

Still, I wish the new monarch well. I think he has a long row to hoe, but he seems to be coming at the job from the right direction. He seems to me to have a firm grasp of a number of issues which slip like water through the fingers of our current political elites (and I exempt no parties from this charge). For one thing, he gets at a visceral level that farming is important. He also realises that for farming to prosper, there are many other supporting skill-sets that need to be preserved and developed.

It seems to be received wisdom that his reign will be short, but even if that is the case it doesn’t mean it will be without impact. After all, we still speak of the Edwardian era even though Edward VII was on the throne for less than a decade. Henry III reigned for over half a century, but nobody really remembers him.

I don’t know to what extent Charles III will be able to shift the current discourse about the material needs of our civilisation. As monarch, in some ways he will be even more constrained than he was as Prince of Wales. But I can’t help hoping he will be able to help, even if only a little, because at this point anything is better than nothing.

Having watched the coronation ceremony, it does seem as if he’s making the effort. I was particularly struck by two things: the emphasis on service, and the insistence on the centrality of the sacred. Now both of these things are baked into the existing cake to some extent, but I can’t help feeling that the tweaks made at his instance brought both elements to the fore.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon was especially striking in both regards. It might almost have been a continuation of the King’s Christmas broadcast. I very much doubt whether it was well-received in government circles, but I should think it struck a chord with a very large fraction of the viewing public. We would all like to see a king who followed through on some of those ideals, and I suspect there is a widespread feeling of disappointment that although Charles may be willing he is not really, constitutionally speaking, able.

I noticed that many faiths other than Anglican Christianity were acknowledged. Not only did all the main Christian denominations get a (small) speaking part, the King also went out of his way to include quite a selection of the non-Christian leaders as well. He had previously declared his wish to be seen as the Defender of Faith, not of the Faith; and both, indeed, are equally valid translations of the title Defensor Fidei which can be found (in abbreviated form) on the coinage and which was originally bestowed, hilariously, on Henry VIII back before he and the Pope had their falling-out.

Not the least pleasing thing about the whole event was its unrepentant daftness. There were lots of people stood about in extraordinary costumes for no apparent reason. There were lots of plainly magical artifacts in play, with no sign of that fact being recognised, let alone apologised for. It might have been calculated to bring froth to the lips of Enlightenment rationalists, whereas of course almost all of it was inherited from previous ceremonies. Tradition was allowed free play, and on its own terms. If the Lord Lieutenant of the Cinque Ports has had the right to present the monarch with the Cuff-links of Righteousness since the fourteenth century, he can jolly well do it now, and there’s nothing anyone can say about it. (That’s a made-up example, but it might as well not have been.)

It would be lovely to think that this new reign could see at least the beginnings of a shift in our culture and attitudes. Whatever else he is, Charles is not a fool, and he has already put his money where his mouth is with regard to a number of important issues. But I do realise that I’m clutching at straws here. With my sensible head on, I can’t really see any future for Charles III’s reign other than a descent further into the abyss. All the same, a new reign does offer new possibilities, however fugitive. I would really like to see some sort of light in the darkness. Maybe – just maybe – Charles can offer us a glimpse. I hope so.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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