17 Apr 2023

A quirky guide to the coronation

In 1902, as the country got ready to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII after Queen Victoria’s long reign, Debrett’s published a Dictionary of the Coronation.

As we once again prepare for a coronation after an unprecedentedly long reign, we have been browsing through this treasury of arcane protocol, little-known facts, royal peculiarities and medieval pomp. We have also been discovering how much participants in the Coronation gained for their services and how eagerly these roles were pursued and secured. Well over a century later, we are promised a much more modern, streamlined event, which will be a reflection of 21st-century Britain and the many changes society has undergone. So, here’s a short compilation of just some of the roles that have been lost and rituals that have been retained:

Lost Roles

The history of coronations provides a rich insight into a bygone era of pageantry and feudalism, patronage and service. Many roles are now merely obsolete relics of a distant history, as these few examples testify:

• The Champion of England

An office which is the most perfect relic of feudalism. Established in England by William the Conqueror immediately after the Battle of Hastings, it was first conferred upon Robert de Marmion, Lord of Fontenoy in Normandy.

The Champion was entitled to claim, on the coronation day, one of the King’s great coursers [a swift and strong horse], with a saddle, harness and trappings of cloth of gold, and one of the best suits of armour (all of which he claimed as fees, along with the gold cup from which the King drank to him). Thus mounted and furnished and accompanied by the High Constable and Marshal of England and the Royal Herald, he rode into the hall to the place where the King sat at dinner and there, after three proclamations of the trumpet, said words to the effect that anyone who denied that the King was lawfully entitled to the throne ‘lies like a false traitor’ and threw down his gauntlet. This part of the coronation ceremony was dispensed with at Queen Victoria’s coronation ceremony.

• The Chief Butler

A very ancient dignity. Of the many reasons for this post was the liability of the Sovereign to be poisoned; it was the Chief Butler’s responsibility to make sure this did not happen. In the reign of William the Conqueror, the post was held by William D’Albini and it is now a hereditary right of the Duke of Norfolk, as Earl of Arundel (the Arundels being descended from a sister of the last male Albini). The fees are now commuted to a gold basin and ewer. They used to include all the vessels and wine below the bar on the day of the coronation, but this practice was stopped in 1399 and was disallowed at the coronation of Henry IV. The role of Chief Butler has not been part of the ceremony since the coronation of Queen Victoria.

• The Herb Strewer

The Coronation office depends on the pleasure of the Sovereign and no petition for the privilege was made to the Court of Claims for this position from the time of George IV, when Miss Anne Fellows took on the role, until the Coronation of Queen Victoria, when Miss Beatrice Fellows, as the senior unmarried female of her family, petitioned the court. The claim was declined on that occasion and has not been revived since. To this day, the Fellows claim this role for the senior unmarried female in the family. The primary function of the Herb Strewer was to scatter herbs and sweet-smelling flowers to mask less pleasant odours. The dress of the Herb Strewer at the coronation of George IV is described as of white satin, with a scarlet robe, and a wreath of flowers on the head. Her six assistants also wore white and had wreaths on their heads as well as garlands of flowers across their bodies, passing from their left shoulder and under their right arm.

An Ancient Privilege

The claim of the Cinque Ports, a historic group of coastal towns in southeast England to send representatives to the Coronation, and for sixteen of their Barons, clad in scarlet satin doublets, to hold a canopy over the King, and sixteen more another one over the Queen, receiving the canopy, bells, and staves as their fees, is of ancient origin. The privilege is supposed to have been granted in recognition of services rendered by the Navy of the Ports to the early kings. The Debrett’s Dictionary of the Coronation explains that, at the coronation of Edward VII the Court of Claims ruled that if His Majesty decided that canopies were to be used the Barons of the Cinque Ports should carry them, and The King eventually invited eighteen representatives of these Ports to take part in the ceremony: the towns of Dover, Hastings, Sandwich, New Romney, Hythe, Rye, Winchelsea, Deal, Folkestone, Faversham, Lydd, Margate, Ramsgate, and Tenterden each sent a baron.

A petition sent by the barons of the cinque ports prior to the coronation of Charles I in 1626, demonstrates the long history of this privilege. They

Humbly beseecheth your majestie grace would be pleased to afford them your gracious assistance, and be a meanes that they maie enjoy att this his majesties coronacion, and be admitted to performe that service which of auncient tyme hath beene done by their predecessors, and that letteres or summons maie be sent accordingly.”

The Coronation Claims office has announced that the barons of the Cinque Ports will once again play important historic ceremonial roles in the Coronation of Their Majesties The King and The Queen Consort on 6 May 2023.

Anointing the King

The rite of anointing the Kings of England is of very ancient standing, the first recorded instance being that of Egforth of Mercia, in the year 785. The sacred oil, we are told by Dean Stanley [the Dean of Westminster from 1864–81], was “believed to convey to the Sovereign a spiritual jurisdiction and inalienable sanctity”.  The oil that was used to anoint the Stuart Kings was a  compound oil called chrisma, or “cream”. James II paid his apothecary £200 for the “cream” that was compounded for his coronation.

It has been announced that, in a special ceremony at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the oil that will be used to anoint King Charles III has been consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, and the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Olives, at the Monastery of Mary Magdalene and the Monastery of the Ascension. The oil has been perfumed with essential oils – sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin and amber – as well as orange blossom.

Musical Tributes

The office of composer to the Chapel Royal was founded by Queen Mary in 1699, when Dr Blow, organist to Westminster Abbey, was appointed to it, at a salary of £40 per annum… The organ had been claimed by the organist as his perquisite during the reign of the last two Georges; in 1838 an organ was especially built for the occasion, and to save it from being claimed by the organist it was placed in the nave. But the nave belonged to the Dean and chapter, and they pounced upon it. Finally, it was redeemed by the Lord Steward for £500. It was said, however, that Sir George Smart, the organist at the Chapel Royal, compensated himself in other ways –by placing a number of “dummies” in the band who paid £50 apiece to hold a violin, on which they could not play a note to save their lives. This was perhaps one reason why at the coronation of Queen Victoria the number of supposed performers in the orchestra was more than double that at the coronation of William IV.

Linguistic Difficulties

At the coronation of George I, the King could not to speak English, and his ministers, spiritual or temporal, could not speak German, so the ceremonies had to be explained to his Majesty in such Latin as those about him could command. This necessarily caused some interruptions in the service, and gave rise to the popular jest that much bad language had passed between the King and his ministers on the day of the coronation.

Image, top: Herb-strewing from the coronation procession of James II of England and Queen Mary of Modena, 23 April 1685 


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