Charles I, the Stuart king of England executed by the Parliamentary forces in 1649, was 4 feet seven inches tall. (You’d never know it by looking at all those paintings of him.) His coronation was filled with mishaps, perhaps omens of what was to come. His wife, Maria Henrietta, refused to participate; she was a devout Catholic and wanted no part of a Protestant ceremony. No red or purple velvet could be found for the king’s robes, so he was dressed all in white. Charles slipped and almost fell as he entered Westminster Abbey. A jewel fell out of the coronation ring. And just as the coronation service was coming to an end, an earthquake shook London.
Thus author David Hilliam tells the story of Charles, and all the other kings and queens of England, in Crown, Orb & Sceptre: The True Story of English Coronations. It’s a popular history, meticulously researched, written in a highly readable and engaging style, and instantly appealing to certain American tourists who happen to be browsing the books at the Tower of London gift shop (who had also written two novels that included certain scenes related to the British monarchy; see book links at right).
An author can’t write a history of English coronations with including some history of the kings and queens themselves, and so the book includes a fair amount of general information for context. And interesting facts.
A small monastery had been built in Saxon times in the area west of the city of London, and it eventually destroyed by Danish invaders. Still, the area was known was the “Western Monastery,” or “Minister of the West,” or “Westminster.” It became the site (rather swampy, and something of an island of the Thames) for Westminster Abbey. The abbey was consecrated the year its builder, King Edward (the Confessor), died – in 1066. A few other things happened that year as well, but every monarch after Edward was crowned there. Today, Westminster is the location of the church, the state (represented by Parliament), and the monarch (Buckingham Palace.
Isabella, the wife of King John (he of Magna Charta fame), was 13 or 14 when she was crowned queen in 1200.
Henry V’s wife Catherine of Valois was crowned queen in 1421; the menu at the coronation banquet included roast porpoise and fried minnows – no meat could be served because the coronation occurred during Lent.
Most of the original crown jewels were destroyed (or melted down) by Oliver Cromwell.
For centuries, the coronation included a procession from the Tower of London to the Abbey, although a few times it had to be rather curtailed because of bubonic plague afflicting the city. The procession was eventually discontinued.
George I (crowned in 1714) couldn’t speak a lick of English.
Only two kings were never crowned – the boy king likely murdered with his brother in the Tower of London by his uncle, Richard III, and Edward VIII, who gave up the throne rather than give up twice-divorced America Wallis Simpson in 1936.
Elizabeth II listened patiently to all the advice of her advisors, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and overruled them, insisting her coronation would be broadcast on television.
Crown, Orb & Sceptre succinctly summarizes each coronation, covering more than a thousand years of English history. It’s full of facts and stories, well known and not, of this institution of the British monarchy that continues to fascinate us today.
Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.