Strangely moving scenes in the village churchyard yesterday, were the people of this valley gathered in the twilight among the gravestones of their ancestors to watch fireworks marking the coronation. I don’t know how many of them are ardent royalists. I know at least a few are proud republicans. Some, who hold their farms on lease from the Duchy of Cornwall, had the former Prince Charles as their landlord for decades, and may have more reason to grumble about him than most. But they weren’t there to celebrate Charles’s enthronement. They were coming together as a community to mark a national moment, which is also of course a local moment, and a personal moment.
I tend to feel that having strong opinions either way on the subject of the monarchy is the sure sign of a crank. Royal fans and ardent republicans, like Brexit enthusiasts or people with #FBPE in their Twitter handle, are best edged away from at parties. I suppose if you’d asked me when I was twenty I would have said, ‘down with the Royals, they are a vestige of a defunct and debunked class system, etc’. But when I was twenty I was trying to fit in with the cool kids, who thought any fondness for the past and its ways decidedly déclassé. Also, being young, I couldn’t fully understand the strange comfort and melancholy of recognising in the new king’s face the features of his mother, who was crowned before my parents met, and whose father was king in my grandparents’ time*, and so on back - via various colourful acts of dynastic upheaval and skullduggery - into the mists of time. I can’t imagine how a mere president, caught up in party politics and changing every four or five years, could be anything like such a powerful living symbol of the country and its history.
Which is not to say that we must pretend it’s entirely a good or happy country, or a blameless history, or that the House of Windsor should be above criticism. I expect many of those who gathered in Widecombe churchyard last night thought that Charles III had looked rather peevish in his regalia, and awfully old. Some may have reflected on his unfortunate marital history. But all of us are peevish sometimes, and we all grow old: the human frailties and failings of the individual under the crown are a feature of the institution, not a bug. I was surprised to find the whole ceremony, with all its lovely, slightly absurd rites and rituals, confected and adapted over a thousand years, profoundly moving*. And afterwards, watching people online dismiss it all as ‘a rich bloke throwing a part to show how rich he is’ or complaining that the music was ‘boring’, I felt actual pity for them**. They are the sort of clever people whose world I wanted to be a part of when I was young. I don’t give two hoots for their opinion now. The divide between puritans and Romantic conservatives runs deep and wide through English culture, and they are on one side of it, and I am on the other, and we shall never really understand each other.
I suspect they’ll get their way, though. I don’t think we’ll see another coronation as rich in pageantry and ritual as this one. I doubt we’ll see many more coronations at all. But I think even the puritans will miss the monarchy when it’s gone. They’ll still have plenty to moan about, because once all the windy and divisive constitutional debates have run their course, the first elected president of the UK will inevitably (and hilariously) be some populist bogeyman of the Boris Johnson or Jeremy Clarkson type. But as they pin on their Not My President badges and paint their witty placards for the protest march, I think they’ll feel that something of the old magic is missing.
In the meantime, fairly un-ironically, and with certain caveats about the exact definition of ‘God’…
GOD SAVE THE KING.
*My father remembers the celebrations when George VI was crowned, too - this is his third coronation.
**My enjoyment of the coronation was much enhanced by having listened to the three very funny and informative episodes which The Rest is History podcast devoted to it.
***Some of the new bits were a bit ropey, to be fair - yes, I’m looking at you, Lloyd-Webber. But Zadok the Priest remains an absolute banger.