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'British Coronations Project' examines 10 centuries of coronation history

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The last and only time a coronation in Britain was televised was 70 years ago. Queen Elizabeth II appeared in black and white for anyone lucky enough to have a TV. Tomorrow, her son will be crowned King Charles III. To find out about coronation traditions, we called up George Gross of King's College, London. For what's called the British Coronation Project, he and his colleague David Crankshaw studied almost 10 centuries of coronation history.

GEORGE GROSS: We're often asked, why is this ceremony still a value to this day? And I pick out the coronation oath. And one of those promises is for their leader, the king or queen, to uphold law with justice and mercy. And this stands out to me because we have rulers throughout the world willing to break the rule of law. We have a war in Ukraine on European soil. So for our head of state in the U.K. to still swear to uphold something so significant and for a thousand years of history, I think is still, to me, the most moving element.

FADEL: You know, I've also heard it said several times in the past week that this is a religious ceremony, not just a state event. So in this case, no separation of church and state when it comes to the coronation.

GROSS: That's correct. We have still a state church in the U.K. This is really brought out with elements both of the oath and of anointing, particularly the anointing, that appear almost like a second baptism or a consecration of a priest. That said, King Charles has made a very real effort to adapt the service for the times to reflect the arguably more secular age in which we live and the fact that there are many of his subjects of different faiths, not least those leaders of different parts of the U.K., from the prime minister to the first minister of Scotland.

FADEL: The prime minister being Hindu, the first minister of Scotland being Muslim.

GROSS: Exactly.

FADEL: Is the anointing of Charles with holy oil - will that be televised?

GROSS: So this will not be televised. At least, we don't think it will. They've developed a canopy that will sort of - or curtain that will be held around the monarch during this. So it's going to follow the 1953 tradition and this sort of idea that you should not let in daylight upon the magic. So this is the magic, the holy of holies. At the same time, we have a completely new anointing oil. It has come from Jerusalem.

FADEL: Oh.

GROSS: It's a sort of classic British invention of tradition sounding traditional, Jerusalem, but it's not. So that's entirely new. That reflects the way the monarch, King Charles III, is wanting to draw attention to other faiths.

FADEL: So I know I've asked you to examine the last thousand years. So now let's talk about the last 70 years. What does the attendance for this coronation say about what's changed over 70 years?

GROSS: Lots of the key elements of the service remain the same, and we try and use the analogy of a marriage. So at accession, when the king dies or queen dies and the new monarch becomes king or queen, we would see that as the engagement to the state. And the coronation is the marriage to the state. So there are key things, like any marriage in any tradition, that pretty much have remained quite similar throughout history. The main central points, like anointing, crowning the oath - they will remain the same, but the personnel will look different.

FADEL: And the ceremony is supposed to be much shorter.

GROSS: We've heard that the homage, which originates in medieval, knightly - sort of knights in shining armor, a world where the monarch was the chief knight and likely to lead the army into battle - that was the world of the homage - that that's going to be massively reduced, almost certainly only done by the prince of Wales or a much smaller body. And then there's been a recent call to to sort of make the homage a public, almost iPhone event in which people around the country join in in paying allegiance to the king on their phones or on the internet in some way. So 1953, there was something special about the fact that many people bought a television for the first time. So you could have shown it for any number of hours. Here, it has to adapt to to 21st-century priorities.

FADEL: Especially if people were watching one-minute clips on TikTok.

GROSS: It's got to be digestible in that fashion. But it's still going to be long - the order of service - long.

FADEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And there is a lot of wonderful new commission music, so lots of those elements.

FADEL: And what about the physical trappings - jewels, crowns, thrones? What should we expect to see?

GROSS: If they hear reference to the anointing spoon, it's the oldest part of the regalia that will feature at the coronation. It survived the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell's melting down of all of the regalia to sort of 13th-century origin - incredibly old. So that's used during the anointing service. Some of these crown jewels, like Saint Edward's Crown, remade in 1661 for Charles II's coronation. So almost all the regalia that will be seen was principally remade in 1661. And this sort of invention of tradition, Saint Edward's chair that has the Stone of Destiny or Stone of Scone placed within it - very significant for people in Scotland, said to have biblical origins as the - Jacob's Pillow. But that's another special moment that will be on display.

FADEL: I think for some people they'll listen to this and think, oh, well, it's from medieval times, it shouldn't exist anymore. What do you say? I mean, I know that - as a historian, I hope that doesn't come off offensive.

GROSS: No, not at all.

FADEL: This is such a long-running tradition. Should it still exist today? And what does it mean for the U.K. that it does?

GROSS: Yeah. No, not at all. It's a very good question. And you can say the same of almost any tradition. Should there still be inaugurations of U.S. presidents? I mean, sticking something on somebody's head to make them seem important or significant is, you know, Egyptian origin. Tutankhamun had a crown. It's not particular to the U.K., but why do we still have it? Well, tradition takes a long time to make, and that tradition adds value to the symbolism of some of the things that are said. So I think it adds value to that oath, and particularly that central tenant of upholding law with justice and mercy. So I think that still has relevance in the 21st century.

FADEL: George Gross is a visiting research fellow at King's College London.

Thank you so much.

GROSS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM WALTON'S "CROWN IMPERIAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.