Members of the public gather near Parliament Square ahead of the Coronation of King Charles III, in London, Saturay, May 6, 2023. (Richard Heathcote, Pool via AP)
LONDON (AP) — King Charles III, a man who waited seven decades to become king, will be crowned Saturday at Westminster Abbey with all the pomp and pageantry Britain can muster.
And it can muster a lot.
There will be crowns and diamonds, soaring music, purple robes and magnificent hats — and a rousing cheer of “God Save the King” inside the abbey and in the streets outside.
Thousands of people from across the U.K. and around the world camped overnight along the 1.3-mile (2-kilometer) route to catch a glimpse of the monarch as he travels from Buckingham Palace to the medieval abbey where kings have been crowned for a millennium.
On the way back, the newly crowned king and Queen Camilla will travel in a 261-year-old gilded carriage accompanied by 4,000 troops, forming Britain’s biggest military parade in 70 years.
“Even in a world where people are sated with on-demand entertainment, people will stop and stare,” said Michael Cole, a former BBC royal correspondent, “because it will be a spectacular procession and a ritual, a ceremony, unlike anything that occurs anywhere in the world.”
Like the best dramas, it’s a show with a message.
To the royal family and government it’s a display of heritage, tradition and spectacle unmatched around the world. To republican protesters who plan to holler “ Not my king,” it’s celebration of an institution that stands for privilege and inequality.
For 1,000 years and more, British monarchs have been crowned in grandiose ceremonies that confirm their right to rule. Although the king no longer has executive or political power, he remains the U.K.’s head of state and a symbol of national identity.
At a time when double-digit inflation is making everyone in the U.K. poorer and reverence for the monarchy has been replaced, for many, by mild affection or apathy, Charles is keen to show that he can still be a unifying force in a multicultural nation, and to lead a smaller, less expensive royal machine for the 21st century.
So this will be a shorter affair than the three-hour coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
In 1953, Westminster Abbey was fitted with temporary stands to boost the seating capacity to more than 8,000, aristocrats wore crimson robes and coronets, and the coronation procession meandered 5 miles (8 kilometers) through central London so an estimated 3 million people could cheer for the glamorous 27-year-old queen.
Organizers this time have shortened the procession route, trimmed the coronation service to less than two hours and sent out 2,300 invitations to world royalty, heads of state, public servants, key workers and local heroes, plus a smattering of celebrities.
The guest list includes U.S. First Lady Jill Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Canadian leader Justin Trudeau and eight current and former British prime ministers.
The king’s family will be on hand, including his sparring sons Prince William and Prince Harry — though not Harry’s wife Meghan and their children, who remain at home in California.
Built around the theme “Called to Serve,” the coronation service will begin with one of the youngest members of the congregation — a boy chorister — greeting the king. Charles will respond by saying, “I come not to be served but to serve.”
The moment is meant to underscore the importance of young people — and is a new addition in a service laden with the rituals through which power has been passed down to new monarchs throughout the centuries.
The symbolic peak of the two-hour service will come halfway through when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby places the solid gold St. Edward’s Crown on the monarch’s head. Trumpets will sound and gun salutes will be fired across the U.K.
In another change, Charles has scrapped the traditional moment at the end of the service when nobles were asked to kneel and pledge their loyalty to the king.
Instead, Welby will invite everyone in the abbey to swear “true allegiance” to the monarch. He’ll invite people watching on television to pay homage, too — though that part of the ceremony has been toned down after some criticized it as a tone-deaf effort to demand public support for Charles. Welby will now suggest people at home take a “moment of quiet reflection” or say “God Save the King.”
The public’s response to Charles, though, during the service and along the parade route, is key, said George Gross, a visiting research fellow at King’s College, London and an expert on coronations.
“None of this matters if the public don’t show up,’’ Gross said. ‘’If they don’t care, then the whole thing doesn’t really work. It is all about this interaction.’’
And today’s public is very different from the audience that saw Elizabeth crowned.
Almost 20% of the population now come from ethnic minority groups, compared with less than 1% in the 1950s. More than 300 languages are spoken in British schools, and less than half of the population describe themselves as Christian.
Although organizers say the coronation remains a “sacred Anglican service,” the ceremony will for the first time include the active participation of other faiths, including representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh traditions.