The Throne by Ian Lloyd review: when coronations go wrong

St Edward's Crown, which the King will wear at his Coronation in May - Getty Images
St Edward's Crown, which the King will wear at his Coronation in May - Getty Images

The 19-year-old Queen Victoria’s account of her coronation on a sunny June day in 1838 has something of the narrative tone of Alice in Wonderland. Quite a bit went wrong. The ring, to be placed on her finger by the Archbishop of Canterbury, had erroneously been made to fit her little finger. The Primate of All England succeeded in jamming it on her ring finger. “I had the greatest difficulty to take it off again,” she told her journal.

Later, as the peers paid her homage, “Poor old Lord Rolle, who is aged 82 and dreadfully infirm, in attempting to ascend the steps, fell and rolled quite down, but was not the least hurt; when he attempted to re-ascend them, I got up and advanced to the end of the steps, in order to prevent another fall.” This won cheers from the congregation.

After five hours in the Abbey and a slow journey in the four-ton Gold State Coach (which her uncle William IV, the Sailor King, said was like a “ship tossing in a rough sea”), the young Queen, buoyed by her people’s adulation, had enough energy left to run up the stairs to give her King Charles spaniel Dash his bath.

In his entertaining jog through 38 coronations at the Abbey – from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II – Ian Lloyd’s style is conversational. Henry VII’s claim to the throne is labelled “dodgy” and Victoria’s error-strewn coronation a “dodgy ritual”. Parliament is said to have “released” a statement in favour of Henry VII’s claim, upon which he “must have breathed a huge sigh of relief”.

The thrust is implicitly Whiggish, assuming progress from century to century. That was not always apparent with the ceremonial itself. At Edward VII’s coronation, crammed with 8,000 spectators in timber stands erected in the Abbey (a risk too great for our own timid age), it was the Archbishop of Canterbury who had to be helped by the monarch. Frederick Temple (not, as Lloyd says, William Temple, his son), 81 with only months to live, had to have his lines written in huge letters on prompt-cards or scrolls. He put the crown on the King’s head back to front, which Edward put right. After kneeling to pay homage, the Archbishop could not stand again and was heaved up by the King and the nearest bishops.

Elizabeth II at her coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, June 1953 - Getty Images
Elizabeth II at her coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, June 1953 - Getty Images

Samuel Pepys regretted that he could hear little of the music at the coronation of Charles II in 1661, or see much either. Having arrived at four in the morning for an 11am ceremony, he was at length driven from the Abbey by a desire to pee. Perhaps he went behind a buttress, since he followed the railings of the outdoor enclosure surrounded by crowds to next-door Westminster Hall. There he was given dishes of roast meat – four rabbits and a pullet – by his boss, the 1st Earl of Sandwich, so he made his dinner casually amid the splendour.

In the Hall, Pepys was impressed by Sir Edward Dymoke, the hereditary King’s Champion, “all in armour on horseback, with his spear and target carried before him. And a Herald proclaims ‘That if any dare deny Charles Stewart to be lawful King of England, here was a Champion that would fight with him.’” Francis Dymoke will be the Champion at the Coronation in May. A pity he won’t ride into dinner.

Even among the shambles of her coronation, Queen Victoria quietly received the Sacrament of Holy Communion – “human greatness bowing before greatness above” as her half-sister Feodora remarked. A picture six feet wide of the sacred moment was painted by Charles Robert Leslie and exhibited. Victoria liked it so much that she bought it (as the artist might have hoped). Reception of the Sacrament was cut out of the official film of the 1953 coronation (like the intimate anointing of the Queen’s hands, head and breast). The essentials – anointing, investiture, crowning, enthroning and homage – take place within the Communion service, after the Creed. This is sometimes a difficulty. James II, a Catholic, received Communion at Mass the day before, while James I’s Queen refused to take the Sacrament, having already gone to the trouble of becoming a Presbyterian as Queen of Scotland.

The ancient ceremonies of the coronation, at which Zadok the Priest has been sung since 973AD, seem to mean all the more for their obscurity. As with the funeral rites of Queen Elizabeth II, which left a people united in the feeling that they had expressed in more than words what their monarch of 70 years meant to them, I am confident the coronation – with its 12th-century anointing spoon, its enthronement on the ageless Stone of Scone, its ring by which the King is “married” to the nation and its crowning with the Crown of St Edward the Confessor, who reigned 1,000 years ago – will do more for the new King’s standing than could any verbal argument.

The Throne: 1,000 Years of British Coronations is published by The History Press at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books