Westminster Abbey has witnessed 38 coronations: the first documented coronation here was that of William the Conqueror in 1066, the most recent was that of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953.
Before 1066 there was no fixed location for the coronation ceremony. Bath, Canterbury, Kingston-Upon-Thames and Winchester were all at various times places of crowning and Edward the Confessor does not seem to have deliberately planned the Abbey as a coronation church. However, his immediate successor, Harold Godwineson, is known to have been at Westminster when the king died and it is likely that his crowning the following day was in the Abbey, though there is no surviving contemporary evidence to confirm it.
William I (‘the Conqueror’), who as Duke of Normandy defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, marched to London with his army after the battle and, perhaps to reinforce his claim to be King Edward’s legitimate successor, chose the Abbey for his crowning on Christmas Day. His is the first certain crowning of a king at Westminster and all subsequent coronations have taken place here. Only two monarchs - Edward V (a boy king, one of the Princes in the Tower) and Edward VIII (who abdicated) - have not been crowned at all.
The Abbey’s role as a coronation church influenced Henry III’s rebuilding of the church in the mid-thirteenth century. The worshipping requirements of the monastic community had to be reconciled with the need for a large space or ‘theatre’ in which an assembly of people could witness the anointing and crowning of the monarch. The plan of the Abbey copies the French coronation church, Reims Cathedral, in placing the quire to the west of the crossing and transepts. This created a large space between the quire and the sanctuary suitable for the coronation ceremony. At other times wooden screens across the transepts provided the enclosed quire required for monastic worship.
The first king to be crowned in the Gothic abbey church was Edward I in 1274, though only the eastern portion of the new building was complete by that stage. Later, around 1298, Edward ordered the construction of the Coronation Chair which is said to have been used at every subsequent coronation.
From at least the thirteenth century the monarch made a formal progress from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster on the eve of the coronation. On coronation day the ceremonies began in Westminster Hall whence a grand procession made its way to the Abbey for the coronation service itself, returning to the Hall afterwards for a lavish banquet. These ceremonies no longer take place. James II declined the procession from the City, and the preliminary ceremonies and banquet in Westminster Hall were abandoned after George IV’s coronation in 1821. Instead, for the coronation of William IV in 1831, a temporary building was erected at the west end of the Abbey to provide space for the processions to form. An ‘annexe’ of this kind has been constructed ever since.
The coronation service, though always following a common pattern, has also proved remarkably adaptable. The Latin order of service of the middle ages gave way, at the crowning of Elizabeth I in 1558, to a mixture of Latin and English and then, at the coronation of James I (James VI of Scotland) in 1603, to an entirely English liturgy. In 1689 the service was adapted again so that William III and Mary II might be crowned as joint monarchs. A second Coronation Chair (now in the Abbey’s Museum) was made to emphasise the shared nature of their sovereignty.
At eighteenth and early nineteenth century coronations public spectacle sometimes overshadowed religious significance. At George III’s coronation in 1761 some of the congregation began to eat a meal during the sermon! George IV’s coronation was a great theatrical spectacle and the king spent vast sums of money on it. In contrast his successor, William IV, had to be persuaded to have a coronation at all and spent so little money that it became known as ‘the penny coronation’. With Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, however, came a renewed appreciation of the true significance of the coronation ceremony.
Twentieth century coronations combined the solemnity of the religious service with magnificent pageantry and, because of Britain’s history as an imperial power, became truly international occasions. Dignitaries from all over the world and from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds attended, some to witness the coronation of their own Head of State, others as diplomatic representatives of foreign countries. The decision to televise the coronation of the present Queen in 1953 made it possible for the general public to witness the ceremony in its entirety for the first time. It is possible that few watching realized just how far back into history the roots of that magnificent ceremony stretched, and how little fundamental change had occurred over the centuries.