CNA—King Charles III will be crowned on Saturday in Westminster Abbey in the first royal coronation since that of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years ago. The coronation will be a Christian service, centered on the celebration of holy communion in an Anglican (Church of England) liturgy.
Originally centered on the Catholic Eucharist
But the roots of the coronation, stretching back nearly 1,000 years, are fundamentally Catholic. The coronation was originally centered on the Catholic Eucharist and includes the act of anointing, which has deep biblical roots.
“[The liturgy] is now carried out by Anglicans, but it is all Catholic in origin, meaning, style, and purpose,” Joanna Bogle, a Catholic journalist and author living in London. “It is centered around the Eucharist, in a pattern wholly familiar to every Catholic. It cannot be understood except by an understanding of Catholic beliefs and practices.”
As supreme governor of the Church of England, which broke away from the Catholic Church in 1534 under King Henry VIII, King Charles III will take a legal oath as part of the ceremony to uphold the Protestant faith.
First time since 1534, Reformation: Catholic prelate to offer blessing
A Catholic prelate, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, will participate in the coronation for the first time since the Reformation, offering a blessing after the crowning.
Father Mark Vickers, a priest of the Diocese of Westminster and a historian and author, said that despite the Protestant nature of the proceedings — including the king’s oath — Catholics can and should pray for the king and rejoice in the fact the ceremony is so explicitly Christian.
“The imagery and the symbolism and much of the language is that of the Catholic, medieval coronation service,” he said. “I think we should be very happy [about this] very explicit Christian prayer for our new head of state, and this is going to be televised to millions and millions of people across the world.”
Guide to Christian symbols during coronation, many with Catholic origins
Within the coronation liturgy, numerous symbols soaked with Christian meaning will be present, including pieces of “regalia” that may seem odd to the untrained eye but speak to the religious nature of the monarch’s role.
Here’s a guide to some of the Christian symbols you will observe during the coronation, many of which have Catholic origins.
Relic of the true cross in the Cross of Wales
Pope Francis made headlines last month when he made a gift to the king — in a notable ecumenical gesture — of two pieces of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified, which were inlaid into the newly made Cross of Wales. The cross will lead Charles’ procession into Westminster Abbey to start the coronation.
The Cross of Wales is made of Welsh slate, wood, and silver. (Wales is part of the United Kingdom, and the heir to the throne is the Prince of Wales.) On it are inscribed the Welsh words of St. David, the Catholic patron saint of Wales: “Be joyful. Keep the faith. Do the little things.” At the center, arranged into a tiny cross are the precious shards of the wood on which Christ died.
After it is used in the coronation ceremony, the cross will be made available for veneration to both the Anglican and Catholic churches in Wales.
Most of the other symbolic items that will be used in the coronation — known as “regalia” — will be presented to the king during the ceremony by peers from the House of Lords as well as senior bishops in the Anglican Church. Many of these items have great Christian significance and speak to the monarch’s role as a spiritual leader, according to a commentary sheet provided by the Church of England that explains all aspects of the liturgy.
“The regalia are deeply Christian, both in their imagery and the prayers that are used,” Vickers said.
The orb is a golden ball, with a cross on the top, similar to the smaller one that is on the top of the Crown of St. Edward. The current orb was made in 1661. Vickers described this object as “perhaps the most Christian symbol of all” because it represents the world, the “temporal sphere, surmounted by the cross,” a reminder that Christ is the ruler of everything.
The three sections of the orb symbolize the three continents known to exist when it was created. The orb was most recently seen atop Queen Elizabeth’s casket, alongside other crown jewels.
The Sovereign’s Ring is composed of a sapphire with a ruby cross set in diamonds. Vickers said the prayers during the conferral of the ring includes covenantal language that Catholics will recognize as being reminiscent of holy matrimony. The king pledges himself to the people who pledge themselves to him in a “deeply Christian understanding of a covenantal relationship,” he said.
The armills are gold bracelets thought to relate to ancient symbols of knighthood and military leadership. They serve in the coronation as “tokens of God’s protection,” Father Vickers noted.
The ampulla is a small golden eagle that contains chrism oil for the king’s anointing (more on that in a moment.). According to the monarchy website, the current Ampulla was supplied for the coronation of King Charles II in 1661 and is based on an earlier, smaller vessel, which in turn was based on a 14th-century legend in which the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Thomas Becket and presented him with a golden eagle and a vial of oil for anointing future kings of England. The oil will be poured into a silver-gilt coronation spoon, which is the oldest object in use at coronations, having been first recorded in 1349.
Two scepters, which symbolize the king’s temporal power, will be used during the coronation, and both contain explicitly Christian symbols. One of the scepters is topped with a cross and is associated with good governance. The other represents the king’s spiritual role and has an enameled dove on the top, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
As part of the coronation, the king’s head, hands, and breast will be anointed with chrism oil, which in the Catholic Church is most commonly associated with baptism and confirmation.
This part of the ceremony will be done behind a screen, affording the new king his “only moment of privacy during the service, as he contemplates how he is called by God.”
The canopy screen symbolizes “the embrace, enveloping power, and presence of God during this moment,” the Church of England says. This part of the ceremony is described by the Anglican church as “the most solemn part of the coronation service, for by anointing the monarch is set apart or consecrated for the duties of a Sovereign.”
Examples of anointing abound in the Bible, especially as a means of consecrating, or setting aside for a holy purpose, priests and kings. The Gospel reading for the liturgy is from Luke 4:16-21, which speaks about Jesus’ anointing “to preach good news to the poor.”
The oil to be used for the coronation anointing was made from olives from the Mount of Olives and was consecrated in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional site of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was co-consecrated by the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, and the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum.
The music that will be heard during the anointing is “Zadok the Priest.” Zadok was the priest who anointed King Solomon in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings. The words of the hymn have been sung at every coronation since King Edgar’s in 973, and since the coronation of George II in 1727 the setting by George Frideric Handel has always been used.
Vickers commented that the fact that anointing remained a part of the coronation ceremony — even throughout the Reformation — is remarkable, as many forms of anointing were rejected in the Church of England during that time. In Catholicism, anointing with oil is done as part of several of the sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and anointing of the sick.
Many of the items of clothing that Charles will wear hold symbolic significance; here are a few examples.
A sleeveless linen tunic symbolizing purity and simplicity. The king will wear it after the anointing.
An embroidered gold coat that is a form of priestly robe, “which reminds all who see it that the king has been consecrated before God and in service of God.”
The king will pledge: “I Charles do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.”
Vickers reiterated that it is important to take the coronation as an occasion to pray for the new monarch and that the overarching themes of the Christian service, which see the monarch putting himself in the mercy and protection of God, are praiseworthy.
“We need to be clear: It’s not a Catholic Mass, and he is taking an oath to maintain the Protestant, reformed religion. But I think we can, and in fact must, rejoice that it is in fact a Christian service,” he said.
Edward died childless, having made a vow of chastity. Though the abbey was taken over and is today a Protestant place of worship, its Catholic roots can still be seen in St. Edward the Confessor’s continued influence.
“When Henry VIII destroyed the abbeys and monasteries of England in the 16th century, he did not dare to touch St. Edward’s shrine at Westminster, so it is still there,” Bogle noted.
“People throng there to pray and light candles, and it is possible to have Mass there too on special occasions. St. Edward is regarded as a special patron for the monarchy of England.”
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