How were past coronations celebrated?


With the imminent Coronation of King Charles and the range of events to be held to celebrate the occasion, Ruth Gooding, UWTSD’s Special Collections Librarian, delves into the University’s archives to highlight how some past coronations were celebrated:

Picture of various crowns used in Coronations

The United Kingdom is the only European monarchy still to hold a coronation, rather than an inauguration or enthronement ceremony. This coronation service has kept the same basic form for over a millennium.  Many of the main elements can be found in the rite drawn up by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and used in 973 at the coronation of Edgar. Already text from 1 Kings 1, describing Zadok’s anointing of King Solomon, was in use.

Whenever possible, coronations are held in Westminster Abbey; the earliest documented crowning there was that of William the Conqueror on 25 December 1066. In the Middle Ages, coronations were held soon after the death of the previous monarch, particularly if there were rival candidates for the throne. More recently, there has been a considerable delay to allow time for the organization of the event as well as for mourning. Since the late 14th century, every coronation has followed more or less the same order of service. The monarch is presented, usually by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He or she then takes a series of oaths, is anointed with holy oil, crowned, receives the royal regalia and accepts homage. Packed with religious symbolism, the ceremony is closely modelled on the inauguration ceremonies of Old Testament kings of Israel.

Picture of Pall of cloth of gold, buskins and sandalls

Despite its stability, the coronation rite has evolved over time, with many alterations in the wording of the oath in particular. The ceremonies for medieval and Tudor monarchs were held in Latin; the first coronation to use the English language was that of James I held on 25th July 1603. Most of the ancient regalia were melted down or sold off following the execution of Charles I, with only the spoon and ampulla (vessel used to contain oil for the anointing) surviving. After the Restoration, Charles’ son, Charles II, spent £32 000 on remaking the crown jewels, using detailed descriptions kept in the Tower of London. Charles’ coronation was loaded with even more than the usual symbolic significance. Held on St George’s day 1661, the splendid pageantry demonstrated the glory of monarchy. Charles’ procession through London the previous day became a triumphal entry, presenting him as an ‘epic hero’ returning to foster ‘unity, peace and prosperity.’ Then the coronation ceremony demonstrated the sacred origins, powers and obligations of kingship. Sir Edward Walker, Garter king of arms, wrote a detailed account of the event in fifty-two manuscript folios, dated 25 May 1661. This was published in 1820 as A circumstantial account of the preparations for the coronation of His Majesty King Charles the Second … Walker described the occasion as ‘so great as no age has seen the like.’ The nine plates depict the garments and paraphernalia used, including an illustration of the newly made St Edward’s Crown. UWTSD holds a copy of this, donated by Thomas Phillips in 1842.

Picture of the title page of James 11 Coronation

James II

Charles II’s younger brother James became king in 1685; James’ coronation too was held on St George’s Day. The liturgy for the two coronations was similar. However, James’ coronation did not include the eucharist; as a Roman Catholic, he could not take communion in the Church of England. A pair of heralds, Francis Sandford and Gregory King, spent two years writing a record of the coronation, printed ‘by His Majesties especial command’. Their magnificent volume, The history of the coronation of the most high, most mighty, and most excellent monarch, James II … , included twenty-seven lavish engravings of the feasts, processions and fireworks. These illustrations advertised the monarchy and the social and political hierarchy headed by the king. Historian Kevin Sharpe has commented ‘Sandford’s volume provided a massive testament to the historicity and sanctity of monarchy at a time when some were beginning to question it.’ This was a costly volume; the intended audience was the nobility, including those present at the ceremony. Unfortunately, for the two authors, however, the book was not published until just before the Glorious Revolution and James’ forced abdication. Although James gave them a gift of £300, they barely cleared their expenses. UWTSD’s copy of their book was given by Bishop Thomas Burgess in 1828.

Picture of the Coronation of James 11 and Queen Mary

After James II’s ill-fated reign, the oaths taken by his successors, William III and Mary II, required them to observe ‘the statutes in parliament agreed on’ and to maintain ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law.’ After this, there were relatively few changes in the rite until the reign of Queen Victoria.

George II

Picture of procession for coronation

George II insisted that his coronation, on 11 October 1727, be a lavish affair.  A raised walkway was built between Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey, so the crowds would get a better view of the procession. Westminster Abbey sold tickets for the area between the west door and the choir. The music for the ceremony was composed by George Frederick Handel. Handel’s four coronation anthems included Zadok the priest, sung before the anointing of the sovereign at every subsequent coronation. However, not all went well; at one point, the choir appeared to be singing two different anthems. UWTSD holds A complete account of the ceremonies observed in the coronations of the kings and queens of England, written just before George’s coronation. The volume is said to be full of fascinating information relating to the etiquette and procedure of royal ceremonies.  It contains a large, copper-engraved frontispiece, depicting the ‘Procession of kings and queens with over 150 robed figures.’ A second folded engraving pictures ‘The manner of the champions, performing the ceremony of ye challenge.’ During the banquet after the ceremony, the champion rode fully armed into the hall. Throwing down his gauntlet, he proclaimed,

‘If any person, of what degree soever, high or low, shall deny our sovereign, Lord King George II … ; here is his champion, who saith that he lyeth, and is a false traytor, being ready in person to combat with him; and in this quarrel will adventure his life against him, on what day soever he shall be appointed.’

Woodcuts in the text depict various ceremonial objects, including throne, crown, and swords.

George IV

George IV’s coronation, on 19 July 1821, was the most lavish ever held in Britain; he was well aware of the potential of spectacle to stimulate the loyalty and excitement of his subjects. Moreover, he was determined his enthronement would surpass that of the deposed French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Although this was a time of widespread poverty, Parliament granted £243,000 to meet the cost. Lady Williams Wynn wrote of ‘more display than ever was yet known.’ George had a new crown containing over 12,500 diamonds specially made. For the procession to the abbey, he walked in front of a canopy of cloth of gold. He wore robes of enormous size and richness, with a train of crimson velvet so long that it took nine pages to support it. Picking up an allusion to Britain’s historic heritage, participants were dressed in Tudor and Stuart period costume. The service itself lasted for almost five hours. After this, came the coronation banquet for three hundred guests in Westminster Hall.

Picture of Henry Aston's Panorama

Despite all this, not everything went well. George’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, was refused entry to the ceremony, when she turned up unexpectedly. However, George had successfully turned the coronation into a tourist attraction. Soon, viewers could see a panorama of the coronation on display in Leicester Square. In 1793, Robert Barker, an itinerant portrait painter, had opened the world’s first purpose-built made building for the display of 360 degree panoramas there. Customers paid three shillings to stand on a central platform under a skylight, to see a painting displayed on a cylindrical surface. Viewers could turn in any direction and find a continuous, expansive vista. Most of the panoramas painted by Barker’s son, Henry Aston Barker, depicted subjects of current interest. His Description of the procession on the coronation of His Majesty George the Fourth, published in 1822, was his last panorama.  Such was his success that he was able to retire early in 1824, aged only forty-eight. UWTSD holds a copy of Description of the procession on the coronation of His Majesty, George the fourth, drawn from the panorama.

In complete contrast to George’s extravagant coronation, his successor, William IV, directed that ‘no ceremonies are to be celebrated at the Coronation, except the sacred rites attending the administration of the royal oath in Westminster abbey.’ This time, the coronation on 8 September 1831, cost only £37,000. The grand procession on foot to the abbey and the banquet following the coronation were omitted, never to be held again.


Victoria’s coronation, on 28 June 1838, was also relatively simple, costing £70,000, rather than the £200,000 allocated by Parliament. The bulk of the money was spent on a state procession for the benefit of the general public. The Gentleman’s magazine commented ‘It was conducted in most respects after the reformed model of that of her immediate predecessor … To meet in some degree the general wishes expressed for a coronation more stately than the last, the exterior cavalcade was increased in splendour and numbers, and a much more extended line of approach was adopted.’ This procession included the Lifeguards, the foreign residents, two bands of the Household Brigade, and one hundred Yeomen of the Guard, as well as members of the royal family and household. Thanks to the railways, around 400,000 visitors crowded into London for the coronation. London’s parks were said to resemble military encampments. Thousands of cheering people lined the young queen’s route. Victoria wrote in her diary, ‘I really cannot say how proud I feel to be the Queen of such a nation.’  However, the ceremony itself had not been rehearsed, and several errors marred the day. It was said, ‘there was continual difficulty and embarrassment, and the Queen never knew what she was to do next.’ An altar in St Edward’s chapel was stacked with sandwiches and bottles of wine. The Archbishop of Canterbury forced the ruby ring onto Victoria’s fourth finger, not realizing that it had been made for the fifth.  The eighty-two-year-old Lord Rolles, caught his foot in his robes and tumbled over on the steps to Victoria’s throne. However, Victoria believed she would always ‘remember this day as the proudest of my life.’

Picture of Queen Victoria's Coronation

Anecdotes, personal traits, and characteristic sketches of Victoria the First (1840) gives a long and detailed account of the Queen’s coronation. The anonymous author writes of the ‘gorgeous and imposing ceremonial.’ She also describes the celebrations surrounding the event, involving the huge crowds. The day began with the firing of the royal salute in St James’ Park. A fair was held in Hyde Park and a firework display in Green Park in the evening. The writer talks of ‘a colossal figure of Queen Victoria, painted on canvass, and placed under a triumphal pyrotechnic arch. It was so contrived as to be altogether invisible, until a brilliant display of rockets were made to fire the triumphal arch, when the figure and its accessaries became brilliantly prominent.’

In the industrial districts of northern England, however, the ‘national holiday’ of the coronation was not seen as an occasion for celebration. Indeed, there were protests throughout the north, with Oldham holding its own holiday with its own slogans. However, in other places, there were festivities. In Cambridge, 15,000 people gathered on Parker’s Piece for a feast. In the centre, an orchestra played from a bandstand covered in flags and flowers. Around this, sixty tables radiated, like spokes from a wheel. Later that day, everyone marched to Midsummer Common for rural sports and to see a pair of people go up in a balloon. The celebrations ended with a firework display. UWTSD holds an account of the Cambridge coronation festival, presented by A.J. Brothers, a former lecturer in classics. 

Further Information

For more information please contact Eleri Beynon