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Isn't Charles already King?

King Charles III Coronation: A new chapter in British history
Dr George Gross

Visiting Research Fellow in Theology

03 May 2023

There has been a lot of coverage about King Charles III’s Coronation, what will happen on the day, who will attend and how people will celebrate, but isn’t Charles already king? Dr George Gross explains what the Coronation really means and why it is necessary as Charles takes the throne.

When the sovereign dies, the heir inherits the throne immediately, hence the famous dictum, ‘The king is dead, long live the king!’ The transfer of power is seamless. Yet monarchs of England, and later Britain, that have not been crowned do not seem fully king or queen, for we view uncrowned (and of course ‘un-sworn’ – not having taken the Coronation Oath) sovereigns – as being in part not fully sovereign.

The often-forgotten Edward V (one of the Princes in the Tower) reigned for just 77 days, and was murdered shortly after his deposition. Lady Jane Grey (the 9-day queen) has always been seen as a usurper, yet had she taken the Coronation Oath and been crowned, what then would Mary Tudor have done? As it happened, she led the only successful coup d’état of the sixteenth century. In a modern context, Edward VIII (of the abdication crisis and Wallis Simpson fame) did swear the Scottish Oath immediately upon accession (as Charles III has already done), but the royal family was relieved that Edward VIII did not abdicate post Coronation. The late Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) stated that it was fortunate ‘he was never crowned, and that was one of the good things he did. If he was going to make up his mind to go away, to do it before’.

King Charles III
King Charles III

Thus a Coronation has taken on a constitutional significance, for a monarch who has not undergone a Coronation does not seem to be fully sovereign, notwithstanding their legal status and the concept of ‘le roi est mort, vive le roi!’ This constitutional significance is further reinforced by the analogy of engagement and marriage. When the king or queen inherits the throne they can be seen to be engaged to the state; when they are crowned this is the formalisation or marriage of the sovereign to the country. This marital comparison is matched within the Coronation service, with vows in the Coronation Oath and a special Coronation ring. This ring came to symbolise the indivisibility of the Crown from the sovereign, but also the king’s marriage to the kingdom. The Coronation-marriage tradition originating in medieval times, survived through the Tudors to the late Queen’s Coronation in 1953. Mary I referred to her Coronation as a marriage and Elizabeth I maintained a similar position, declaring that ‘I am sworn when I was married to the realm not to alter the laws of it’. This symbolism was of such transparent importance that it registered with eyewitnesses: Celia Fiennes noted in 1702 for Queen Anne’s Coronation, that ‘the ring is put on her finger to witness she is married to the kingdom’. Such a bond being anchored in the popular mind, when a sovereign failed to meet expectations, as in the cases of Edward II, Richard II, Charles I and James II, then it was to the vows – the Coronation Oath – to which people returned. 

Throughout the UK’s history transitions of power between sovereigns and even more so between dynasties have been complex to say the least. A Coronation fully legitimises an uncrowned head of state and provides a very public framework in which a monarch and a regime signal the new priorities of the reign about to unfold. The Coronation Oath has bound the monarch to the Constitution in vows and helped secure the liberties of the subject and underlined the central importance of justice. Given the dangers of arbitrary rule in the world today, this is something that remains a cornerstone of how the UK projects itself, as a country steeped and governed in and by the rule of law.   

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George Gross

George Gross

Visiting Research Fellow

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