On May 6, England will be thrown back into royal-mania as the coronation of King Charles III takes place at Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop of Canterbury will conduct the ceremony in front of 2,000 guests.
Half a year has passed since the world watched the unforgettable pictures coming out of England as the country mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth. Who can forget the sight of the Queen’s coffin as it slowly proceeded from Scotland to London and on to its final resting place at St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle?
There are so many memorable images from that surreal time when the entire country was plunged into mourning; even the hardest of anti-monarchy hearts must have been a little softened. Whether it was the sight of her newly orphaned corgis and her favorite horses or the lonely image of a solitary bagpipe player piping forlornly for Her Majesty for the last time, there was a tear-jerking moment for everyone.
The sheer magnitude of the outpouring of love and gratitude was extraordinary and unexpected. The patient good nature of thousands and thousands of people—including families with young children—as they waited in line in the cold for up to 24 hours to pay their respects to her coffin for just a few minutes seemed unfathomable to most of the world. But the “queue,” as it became known, will be remembered by many as a symbol of respect and appreciation for a monarch who served her country with the same sense of patience and duty for more than 70 years.
I doubt we shall see anything near such powerful and moving scenes coming out of the coronation of King Charles, but what can we expect? I sat down with my friend the royal biographer and broadcaster Hugo Vickers to find out.
Ivana Lowell: Hugo, you have been an avid royalist and chronicler of the royal family for most of your life. You have written many books on the subject and given countless lectures; you serve as a steward at St. George’s Chapel and have been instrumental in creating Commonwealth walkways worldwide.
I know you were deeply affected by the death of Queen Elizabeth, and you recently published a book on her own coronation, which took place in 1953. When did your fascination with the royal family begin?
Hugo Vickers: I was what’s called a “Hyde Park Baby.” I had a nanny and went out in my pram to Hyde Park. Once, when I must have been about six, we were driving home to Wiltshire, where I live now, and I burst into tears. When I was asked why I was crying, I said it was because I wasn’t going to see the Life Guards until Monday. So, obviously, it started early. Then, when I was about seven, my mother took me to see the state visit of the Shah of Persia in the Mall, and I enjoyed it so much that I asked to be taken to see General de Gaulle’s state visit the following year.
So this interest goes back a very long time. I attached myself by a long, thin, invisible thread to the Queen’s coattails and flew along very happily behind her for all these years. And sometimes I was lucky enough to fly along beside her for a few moments.
I.L.: When was the last time you saw her?
H.V.: In June, when I was lucky enough to go and visit her in her rooms in Windsor Castle for 15 minutes.
I.L.: You covered her funeral for British TV, and I know you were deeply moved by the occasion. What made it so extraordinary?
H.V.: My theory is that most people watching it worldwide wouldn’t have known what to expect. Ninety percent of the thousands of people who went to see the lying in state wouldn’t have heard of a gentleman-at-arms or known about the change of vigil with the banging of the stick on the ground and things like that, which is all immensely impressive.
The fact that she died in Scotland at Balmoral [Castle] was very poignant. We all watched as the plane carrying her coffin took off, and we all thought, Oh my God, Scotland, a place she adored and was adored, will never see her again.
I.L.: I thought one of the most poignant and jarring moments was when they solemnly removed her crown and other objects from the coffin and then violently snapped that stick.
H.V.: Ah yes, the breaking of the wand. It was all rather daunting. After the bargemaster—so named because they used to transport the Crown Jewels by barge—removed all symbols of majesty. He then gives the crown, the orb, and the scepter to the Lord Chamberlain, who symbolically breaks the wand to show that his duties to the Queen are over and the wand is buried with her.
This is what the coronation is all about, all this symbolism will continue into the coronation, and will explain it all. I think people find it incredibly fascinating.
I.L.: The coronation is on May 6, but Charles has been King since the Queen died. Why the long wait?
H.V.: Well, he became King on the 8 of September, but the Queen wasn’t crowned for a year, either. It usually is almost a year later, partly because it is a year of mourning, and then there are extensive preparations. For the Queen’s coronation, in 1953, they built fabulous coronation arches and fantastic stands to accommodate 8,000 people, and the entire event was highly anticipated. Of course, they won’t be doing anything quite like that this time as it will be very much a slimmed-down affair.
However, they will build a platform in the center of Westminster Abbey for what is known as “the theater,” where the coronation takes place. But this time, there will only be 2,000 people in the Abbey, so there will be a lot of disappointed people. For example, they will only be inviting 25 peers and 25 members of Parliament.
I.L.: Oh really, only 25 peers? Gosh, that will put a lot of aristocratic noses out of joint.
Although there are quite a few members of the royal family who some people would gladly see the backs of. Which of them can we expect to see in the procession?
H.V.: I can tell you exactly. It will be this new group of the royal family, consisting of the working royals. So it will be the King and the Queen Consort—or, rather, the Queen, as she will be formally known. The Prince and Princess of Wales and their three children will be present, and they will be in the procession coming out. Followed by Edward and Sophie, now Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh. Princess Anne, Princess Royal, and Tim Laurence, her husband. Then the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra. And that’s it!
That means there will be no Prince Andrew, no Andrew’s daughters. No Harry and Meghan and none of their children taking part in the proceedings. That’s not to say they won’t be there—there are ways of bringing them in. If Prince Harry does attend, he will be given a seat, but he will not be included in the proceedings.
I.L.: Hasn’t there been some controversy surrounding the crown for Camilla’s coronation? Which crown is she going to get?
H.V.: The Queen Mother had a very special crown made for her. It was made from the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. There is a dispute about whether that diamond should go back to India, Afghanistan, or Iran. It has traveled a bit, this diamond.
On breakfast television the other day, there was an activist yelling and screaming that it should be returned, and there was a scholar saying, Well, steady on, it doesn’t really have to. Nobody minded when the Queen Mother wore the crown, but the media has stirred up such a fuss, and everyone is so terrified of the media that it looks like she will be given Queen Mary’s crown, which has a diamond no one has objected to as yet.
I.L.: Talking of all these magnificent jewels and golden carriages in a time when most of the U.K. is going through a time of austerity and tremendous financial hardship, doesn’t it seem rather tone-deaf for taxpayers’ money to be spent on such a lavish display of wealth and grandeur?
H.V.: There is an argument, isn’t there? Robert Lacey went on BBC One saying it was inappropriate to be spending all this money, and I went on ITV saying I think it was the best boost for the economy you could possibly get. People are flying in from all over the world. All the hotels are booked up and charging three times as much as usual. I am told the global television rights for the recorded service to be shown all around the world have more than already paid for the whole business of the coronation.
I.L.: To be honest, I am surprised there is so much excitement about seeing a couple of 70-year-olds—who both have rather checkered pasts—have some crowns placed on their graying heads.
I can understand the fascination when Queen Elizabeth was crowned. She was this young, beautiful, and innocent princess who was suddenly thrust into an extraordinary role and a life of sacrifice and duty. And to her enormous credit throughout her extremely long reign, she hardly ever faltered or wavered from that sense of duty, did she?
H.V.: No. Well, there can never be the same interest; hers was such an incredibly romantic story. Charles does have a past, but it was very interesting to see the incredible warmth shown to him the days after the Queen died, and he is very energized. He is an old man in a hurry with so much to achieve in a short time, but he is very busy, and he has thrown himself into it, and he has an opportunity to do things differently. But, no, people aren’t ever going to be as enthusiastic about him as they were about the Queen.
I.L.: And we still don’t know whether Harry and Meghan are attending, do we?
H.V.: No. I hope they don’t, because it becomes all about them, and the press will be obsessed with covering every petulant frown and perceived slight. They really are tiresome, those two, aren’t they?
I.L.: The new King and Queen live at Clarence House when they are in London. Doesn’t anyone live at Buckingham Palace anymore?
H.V.: Buckingham Palace is being rewired and restored, although the state rooms are open. But I don’t think they will ever live there. He much prefers Clarence House, which was the Queen Mother’s house. The Queen much preferred Windsor Castle because she had her own tower where she lived and had a bit of privacy. Nobody lives at Buckingham Palace anymore.
I.L.: I know the upcoming coronation will be bittersweet for you and for everyone in England who still misses Queen Elizabeth. For the last 70 years, she was always there, as reliable and comforting as a good cup of tea. Now those who care will have to try to muster up enthusiasm for this next chapter.
H.V.: Yes, indeed. It has been hard for me, as for a great many others, to come to terms with the loss of the Queen. This was particularly acute at the Easter service at St. George’s Chapel over the weekend. Literally since 1967, year after year, I have seen her sitting in the Sovereign’s Stall.
This time the new King was sitting there in her place—as is his right, of course. But it really brought it home to me.
Ivana Lowell is a writer whose memoir, Why Not Say What Happened?, is being adapted as a television series