Opinion

Does Charles' coronation need all this expense in the cost of living crisis? History tells us otherwise

Charles' coronation could cost over £100 million, but this level of expense hasn't always been the norm, writes Melanie Clegg.

Union Jacks decorate Regent Street ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, which takes place on May 6th. Image: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

The viewing platforms are being erected, the robes are being dry cleaned and television presenters from all around the globe are frantically revising their knowledge of British royal history and tradition for the moment when Operation Golden Orb (yes, seriously) swings into action for the coronation of Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla.

For most of us, this will be the first coronation we’ve seen, the last being 70 years ago when the late queen was crowned. However, as King Charles is already in his mid-seventies, it seems likely (without committing the formerly treasonable and punishable by death crime of foretelling the monarch’s demise) that the majority of us will probably still be around to witness the next one.

The usual once-in-a-lifetime rarity of coronations has often been used to justify the tremendous levels of pomp which come with it, none of which comes cheaply. In this instance, it has been estimated that King Charles’ coronation will cost around £100 million, a frankly astonishing amount of money at a time when the country is struggling with the economic repercussions of the pandemic and Brexit along with a grossly inflated cost of living.

When we are constantly being told what we can’t afford, is it really any wonder that many of us feel rather annoyed that something that seems so vainglorious, so superfluous, so brain-meltingly expensive is apparently affordable at a time like this? It feels especially strange and obsolete when one considers that, elsewhere in Europe, grand coronations have been replaced by fuss-free egalitarian ceremonies that are more akin to presidential inaugurations in the US. Most recently in Spain, King Felipe had a low-key enthronement ceremony in the Spanish Parliament the morning after his father’s abdication in June 2014.

A cursory look around social media reveals that there are plenty of people willing to defend this decision on the grounds that it is tradition – but just how traditional is it really? No one is disputing that the transfer of power from one ruler to another is a significant event and the inauguration of new monarchs has always involved elements of ritual and celebration. But, at some point, the desire for spectacle and pageantry overtook the actual spiritual meaning of the ceremony itself.

Consider the lengths that Joan of Arc went to in order to achieve the coronation of Charles VI, when he was the dispossessed claimant to the French throne, the magnificent processions and celebrations that marked the coronation of Charles II when he returned to England after the Interregnum. These opulent events were considered absolutely necessary as a means to establish the authority of a returning monarch.

In more peaceful periods, such lavishness was not considered worthwhile and until relatively recently, the coronation of a new monarch would take place without too much fuss, very quickly, often within a matter of days, after the death of the previous one and was regarded as a perfunctory transfer of authority rather than an excuse for a party.

Nowadays, of course, coronations take place at least several months after the death of the previous monarch in order to remove them from the shadow of mourning and underline the fact that they are a celebratory occasion.

In the United Kingdom, this turning point occurred with the extraordinarily lavish coronation of George IV in July 1821, which cost £230,000 (almost £22 million in today’s currency) and involved an expensive refurbishment of the crown jewels and a banquet that cost over £2 million.

The whole event was intended to not only outshine that of Napoléon in 1805, where the Pope himself presided, but also reflect George’s great relief at finally becoming King in his own right after decades of acting as Prince Regent for his frequently incapacitated father, George III.

Unfortunately for George IV, nowadays the details of his carefully stage-managed and extravagant ceremony are overshadowed by the drama caused by his decision to exclude his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick, who was cheered by the crowd as she hammered on the pre-emptively locked doors of Westminster Abbey.

When George’s rather more salt-of-the-earth younger brother William succeeded him in 1830 he initially refused to have any coronation at all. This was partially because, as a bluff naval officer, he had been appalled and mortified by the tawdry excess of his rather more flamboyant elder brother’s ceremony, but mostly because the country was in a period of economic downturn and he did not feel it appropriate to squander more money.

The fact that he was, at that point, the oldest incoming monarch at the age of sixty-four probably had some bearing on his reluctance to spend money on the ceremony as well as it was certainly reasonable to assume that there would be another coronation in the not-too-distant future. And indeed there was: that of his niece Queen Victoria, just seven years later.

In the end, the unwilling William IV was prevailed upon to have a coronation but he insisted upon cutting out several old traditions and put his foot down about wearing his beloved admiral’s uniform underneath his robes.

In the end, William IV’s ‘cut price’ coronation cost just £30,000  – almost £3 million in today’s money. It seems like a veritable bargain all things considered.

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