The coronation of King Charles III is an opulent spectacle of an archaic 900-year-old ritual which the British taxpayer reeling under economic pressures can ill afford. Like the proverbial Emperor parading his new clothes, Ruhi Khan says it’s time the monarchy gets a reality check.
The streets were lined with great crowds. Everyone had heard about the emperor’s new clothes, made of magic fabric that only the wise could see. “How lovely the emperor’s new clothes are!” one man said. “And how well they fit him!” added a woman. None of them would admit that they could not see a thing.
The emperor marched through the street bursting with pride, showing off his brilliant new suit to everyone in the land. Much to his surprise, they all seemed to see what he could not—and so he was not going to be the one to tell them!
– Excerpt from the Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson
The Mall in London, that leads from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, was adorned with flags and lined by great crowds, many camping for days in the cold and perpetually raining British Spring, yet jubilant to be a tiny witness to a momentous occasion in history. With coronation banners and the King’s portraits splashed around in abundance, many dressed in British memorabilia, the royalists and tourists were ready to wait for countless hours for a mere glimpse of the royal family.
The day for the King to finally don his coronation robes is here, and everyone wants a glimpse of his ‘magical’ attire: Robes, especially commissioned by Kings of yore and weaved by artisans centuries ago and restored by master craftsmen of today; crown jewels in gold with some of the biggest and brightest diamonds and gems, often stolen from lands afar, never to be returned to their homeland. Treasures then passed to the newest monarch to supposedly reach a new zenith with a sacred anointing and the receiving of the royal regalia through rituals that date back to 1066.
The robes, the crown, the sword, the orb and the spectre, each one with its own history and symbolism associated with unprecedented power and supreme authority.
Take for example the coronation spoon, a 12th century relic used to anoint the monarch with holy oil. It symbolises infusing the monarch with God’s spirit and putting him above any kind of mortal questioning or attack as the monarch now occupies the position of the God on Earth. Next, take the crowns the King will wear during the coronation and after as he waves to the crowds from his Gold State Coach, are both closed crowns with arches that form a cross above the monarch’s head. This is believed to imply that no one has an authority over the monarch, positioning them in the league of the divine.
The orb represents the globe with a cross on top and is a Christian symbol of authority on the world since the Middle Ages. Every instrument used in the coronation ceremony has a significance that is not just outdated but, in some ways archaic, yet this continues without much reflection or discussion, instead often looked at with awe and splendour.
But all that glitters is not gold. The gold, the gems, rubies and sapphires and the priceless diamonds in each of these objects has a story to tell, if you know who to ask. Calls by India to return her 105-carat oval-shaped brilliant diamond Kohinoor, taken by her colonial rulers and now studded as a centrepiece in the Queen Mother’s crown, have yielded no response. The Cullinan diamond at 3,106 carats is the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered and comes from the mines of colonial South Africa.
King Edward placed the Cullinan I, also called the Star of Africa, in the Sovereign’s Royal Sceptre used in coronations. Both the Kohinoor and the Cullinan I are a part of the Crown Jewels. With Britain’s chequered history of imperialism and the growing awareness of the excess of its colonial powers, the glitter and glamour of these crown jewels only dig deeper into the wounds of its former colonies.
Besides, the exhibitionist behaviour of the coronation only makes the immense divide between the monarchy and the general public glaringly obvious. With escalating inflation and the overbearing cost of living crisis, when many households have to choose between heating or eating, where two jobs are no longer sufficient to pay bills and a vast population is striking demanding a fair pay, with scores more falling below the living wages and a million children slipping into poverty, the monarchy’s excessive display of wealth is not just inconsiderate but downright appalling to many.
Not to mention the pomp and pageantry cost the British taxpayer £100 million, at a time when the National Health Service is underfunded, where emergency services are feeling the repercussions of cuts of their personnel, where schools can no longer afford extracurriculars and underprivileged children are often going hungry without the Free School Meals scheme that the government says they can no longer afford to pay. Sure, the coronation spectacle is bringing some moolah into the British economy too, but so would the influx of such large capital into any underfunded institution.
Someone needs to tell the King that mere promises of cutting down costs with a ‘slimmed down coronation’ is not working to curb public angst and calls for abolishing the monarchy are getting louder. Perhaps, it is this very fear that has led to a new anti-protest law, hurriedly being passed through parliament, quickly being given the royal assent from the King and now being pushed into force. It gives the police the right to arrest any protestor that they believe could be a ‘threat’. Critics have called these new policing measures, a way to keep the anti-monarchy protestors at bay and maintain a positive image of the royal family during the coronation events.
A huge banner on The Admiralty Arch reads” ‘Happy & Glorious’, a phrase associated with a successful reign. Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her platinum jubilee just before her demise in September 2022, a reign that saw the Queen manoeuvre some of the biggest political challenges: from a post war country, Troubles in Ireland, newly independent colonies, the untimely death of the People’s Princess Diana to Brexit and even Megxit.
But Elizabeth was an unexpected monarch. Born to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1926, her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated only for her father King George VI to ascend the throne. In a few years, at just 25 years of age, Princess Elizabeth returned to London from her tour of Kenya after her father’s untimely demise as Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. The following year, her coronation was the first to be televised with an estimated 277 million people around the world witnessing the three-hour rituals that took place at Westminster Abbey from the comfort of their homes. Elizabeth II kept the monarchy alive; her death triggered the Crown’s disappearing future.
Charles has been a king-in-waiting for several decades. Heir-apparent at the age of three, he only ascended the throne at 73 giving him ample time and opportunities to gauge where the wind is blowing. He has weathered several storms of negative public opinion– from his rather tumultuous relationship with Princess Diana to his fraught relationship with his son Harry and his daughter-in-law, a mixed-race American actress Meghan Markle. Unlike his mother, Charles has been vocal about his views on a variety of issues – political, social and environmental, negating the idea of the ambiguous apolitical stand of the monarch. The royal family is neither free from scandal (ahem Prince Andrew) nor the drama that constantly unfolds between the brothers and their wives.
The first clear hint of a rejection to his monarchy came when the public were invited along with those in the Abbey to pledge allegiance to the King, a practice that has been almost a compulsion for centuries but has now seen an outright rebellion, even from those in exalted circles. And so, it begins…
‘Just then, a young child stepped out of the crowd and cried out, “He hasn’t got anything on!”. What the child had said was whispered from one to another. “But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was upset, for he knew that the people were right. However, he thought the procession must go on now! The lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold, and the Emperor walked on.’
Ruhi Khan is a journalist based in London and the author of Escaped: True Stories of Indian Fugitives in London. She tweets @khanruhi.
Also Read: The Monarchy is Dead, Long live the Queen