From William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II: A History of British Coronations | History Hit

From William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II: A History of British Coronations

Celeste Neill

03 May 2023
Queen Victoria's coronation by Sir George Hayter.
Image Credit: Shutterstock (edited)

The history of coronations in the United Kingdom dates back to 1066 when William the Conqueror was crowned as the King of England in Westminster Abbey. Since then, the coronation ceremony has been an important tradition in the UK, symbolising the continuity of the monarchy and the authority of the reigning sovereign. Over the years, there have been many notable incidents and historical facts associated with coronations, including riots, deaths, and other incidents that have left a lasting impact on British history.

From the pomp and ceremony of Westminster Abbey to the unusual events and happenings, here is a brief history of coronations in the UK.

William the Conqueror (1066)

On Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned as the King of England in Westminster Abbey after his victory at the Battle of Hastings. This was the first coronation ceremony held in England, and it set the precedent for all future coronations. The coronation was an important event for William, as it marked his claim to the English throne and helped to establish his legitimacy as king.

The ceremony was conducted by the Archbishop of York, as the Archbishop of Canterbury was in exile at the time, and it included a solemn procession, the anointing of the king with holy oil, and the presentation of a crown.

The coronation took place during a tense time, as the ruling classes had been ousted by the Normans. However, during the acclamation and recognition ceremony outside Westminster Abbey, Norman soldiers who were not familiar with the ceremony became alarmed by the cheering and shouting coming from inside.

This misunderstanding led to pandemonium, as the soldiers thought foul play was at hand. They began attacking people and setting fire to some buildings, causing a riot. Almost everybody except the monks and churchmen left the abbey in a panic and started putting out the fires due to this epic misunderstanding.

King Richard I (1189)

Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was crowned as the King of England in Westminster Abbey on 3 September 1189, just days after he had ordered the massacre of thousands of Jewish people in England.

Many people, including church officials, were outraged by Richard’s actions and felt that he was not fit to be king. Nevertheless, the coronation proceeded as planned, and Richard went on to become one of England’s most legendary monarchs.

When a group of Jewish people arrived at Westminster Hall to present Richard with gifts, they were stopped by a crowd of Christians, an incident that sparked antisemitic riots which spread from the city of London into the eastern counties of England. Jewish communities were attacked, and their homes and businesses were destroyed. Many Jewish people were forced to seek refuge in castles and churches for protection.

Portrait of King Henry VIII, half-length, wearing a richly embroidered red velvet surcoat, holding a staff, 1542

Image Credit: Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

King Henry VIII (1509)

The coronation of King Henry VIII on 24 June 1509 was notable for its grandeur and extravagance, with the king and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, wearing lavish robes and jewels. Henry VIII was just 18 years old at the time and had recently ascended to the throne following the death of his father, Henry VII.

The coronation was a lavish affair, with Henry riding on a horse decked in gold through the streets of London, and a coronation banquet famously described at the time as being “greater than any Caesar had known”.

One of the most notable aspects of Henry VIII’s coronation was his decision to break with tradition by wearing a crown of gold rather than the traditional crown of St. Edward. He also had a new sceptre made for the occasion, known as the ‘sceptre with the dove’. These changes were seen as a symbol of Henry’s desire to break away from the past and establish himself as a powerful and independent monarch.

Queen Elizabeth I (1559)

Queen Elizabeth I was the first Protestant queen to be crowned in England, and her coronation was a triumph for the Protestant Reformation in England. The ceremony was held in Westminster Abbey on 15 January 1559, and it included many of the traditional elements of a coronation ceremony. However, there were some notable differences, such as the absence of a bishop to anoint the queen with holy oil, which was seen as a break with tradition.

The  coronation was a lavish event, with a procession through the streets of London, feasting, and various ceremonial events that lasted for several days. Elizabeth arrived at Westminster Abbey in a procession that included nobles, bishops, and the Knights of the Garter.

Elizabeth wore a white gown with a crimson robe, and her hair was crowned with a circlet of gold. She was presented with the orb and sceptre, symbols of her power and authority as queen. The orb represented the globe, while the sceptre represented the queen’s authority to rule.

On January 14th 1559 one of the most extraordinary royal parades made its way through London.
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King James I (1603)

The coronation of King James I was a significant event in British history. James I was crowned as the King of England in Westminster Abbey on 25 July 1603, but the ceremony was marred by an incident in which a group of Catholic rebels attempted to assassinate the king and overthrow the government.

Despite the assassination plot, the coronation was a grand and elaborate affair, with processions, feasting, and ceremonial events that lasted for several days. The coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall and featured an elaborate menu that included peacock, swan, and other exotic delicacies.

The coronation was notable for several reasons beyond the assassination plot. James I was the first monarch to rule both Scotland and England, and his coronation was seen as a symbol of unity between the two countries.

The ceremony was also unique in that it included elements from both Scottish and English traditions. James wore a crown that combined the Scottish and English crowns, and he was presented with the Sceptre of Scotland and the Sceptre of England.

Queen Victoria (1838)

At the age of just 18, Queen Victoria’s coronation marked the beginning of a new era of British power and prosperity. The ceremony was attended by thousands of people, and it was estimated that over 400,000 spectators lined the streets of London to catch a glimpse of the new queen.

Despite her youth and inexperience, Queen Victoria’s coronation was a resounding success. The ceremony was conducted with great pomp and pageantry, and it included many traditional elements, such as the anointing of the queen with holy oil and the presentation of the symbols of office.

However, there were also some notable departures from tradition, such as the fact that the queen refused to wear the imperial crown. Instead, she chose to wear a smaller, lighter crown that was more suited to her delicate frame. This decision was seen as a sign of her humility and her determination to rule in a more modern and accessible way.

Queen Elizabeth II (1953)

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 2 1953 marked the beginning of a new era for the country as it emerged from the devastation of World War Two. The ceremony itself was steeped in tradition, with many of the same elements that had been part of previous coronations with Elizabeth wearing a robe made of gold cloth and a crown that had been made for the coronation of her father, King George VI.

Queen Elizabeth II wearing her Coronation robes and regalia, June 1953

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the first British coronation to be televised, with an estimated audience of over 27 million people in the UK alone. The broadcast was also viewed by millions of people across the Commonwealth and the world, making it one of the most-watched television events in history.

Tags: King Henry III Queen Elizabeth I Queen Victoria

Celeste Neill