Spectacle and its Meaning at the coronation of Charles III

Guest post written by Aurélie Blanc, a contributor to the volume Medieval English Theatre.

As a Swiss person with a limited interest in the monarchy, the coronation of King Charles was not necessarily an event that I was dying to watch. I did not feel a particular connection with Charles and the royal family or an urge to find out what they would wear, say, or do during this long celebration. But relatives insisted that this was an unmissable ‘once in a lifetime’ event and, on May 6 2023, I turned on the TV, ready to watch this famous coronation. What I saw proved to be a fascinating mixture between the past and the present, between the secular and the religious. As a medievalist with an interest in drama, I was struck by the spectacle on display and by the seemingly historical nature of this spectacle: old—and often lavish—objects were used in ancient and precisely choreographed ceremonies.

My reflections as I was watching the coronation led to the writing of the article “’MORE MEDIEVAL MORALITY PLAY THAN 21ST CENTURY’ Spectacle and its Meaning at the Coronation of King Charles III” published in the Medieval English Theatre Journal (vol. 45). In that article, I am especially interested in exploring the meaning of the coronation and its evolution over its 1,000-year history. This meaning was expressed—at least in part—through spectacle.

The Palace’s discourse around this spectacle as well as the practical choices made for the organisation of the 2023 event showed their interest in maintaining traditional approaches to the coronation. General features of medieval coronations were often included and/or paralleled in Charles’ coronation. Although change has occurred as various kings and queens have been crowned over the centuries, there remain, at the core of King Charles III’s coronation, significant traces of the medieval. The Palace emphasised such connections with the past: their official articles stress the age of the items of regalia featured in the liturgical ceremony and repeatedly use words like “traditional”, “historic”, “historically”. The royal focus on these historical ties is understandable because the general meaning of the coronation, expressed by its spectacle, is still the same: the event asserts the legitimacy of the monarch, their special status and bond with God, their power, and it is also a celebration of the nation as represented by its king/queen.

Was the highly historical spectacle presented in May 2023 effective? Did it convey to its spectators the meaning(s) of the coronation? A second part of the article answers this question through the analysis of YouGov surveys and newspaper articles. The public response seems to have been mixed: while spectacle proved effective for some people, for others, it either did not transmit the meanings of the coronation or it failed to convince them of its necessity in modern-day Britain. The nation has changed since the previous coronation, in terms of religion, self-perception, and values, and the very idea of kingship seemed to many no longer relevant.

Likely anticipating this issue, the Palace tried to modify some of the coronation’s ancestral traditions. To the issue of faith, the Palace responded by including in the liturgy representatives of diverse religions. It counteracted comments around waste by making the coronation smaller, less expensive, and more sustainable than it had been in 1953. To be in tune with modern beliefs around hierarchy and meritocracy, the Palace presented a more ‘popular’, inclusive, history of Britain and modified the guest list. The most significant change was that relating to the function of the king. The coronation of Charles III communicated a very specific image of the king. Emphasis was put on his role of service. The partnerships with diverse charities further reinforced this image: the king’s ‘power’ was therefore no longer that of leading the nation in war and politics, but it was that of helping Britain, through his support of charities, through providing employment to those working for the coronation, and through raising his voice in favour of worthy causes – including the preservation of the country’s nature. None of these changes, however, altered the fundamental meanings of the event. They were not revolutionary, nor could they have been, or they would have run the risk of rendering the spectacle of the coronation meaningless.

Reflections on the 2023 coronation show the difficulty of tailoring a spectacle to its audience when this audience is divided on questions fundamental to the acceptance of what the spectacle communicates. The personal belief of spectators is thus essential in determining the efficacy of this spectacle. When the very fabric of the event is disputed, when the meanings that it wishes to communicate are divisive, it becomes extremely complicated to express such meanings in a convincing way. This coronation also demonstrates the significance of the connections between spectacle and meaning; changing one will undoubtedly alter the other.

Aurélie Blanc is a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland).

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