King Charles III was crowned Saturday at Westminster Abbey, receiving the bejeweled St. Edward’s Crown in a ceremony built on ancient tradition at a time when the monarchy is striving to remain relevant in a fractured modern Britain.
Trumpets sounded inside the medieval abbey and the congregation shouted “God save the king!” at a service attended by more than 2,000 guests, including world leaders, aristocrats and celebrities. Outside, thousands of troops, tens of thousands of spectators and a smattering of protesters converged.
The crowd of well-wishers swelled to hundreds of thousands by the time the newly crowned Charles and Queen Camilla emerged to wave from the Buckingham Palace balcony alongside younger generations of royals.
It was the culmination of a seven-decade journey for the king from heir to monarch.
To the royal family and government, the occasion — code-named Operation Golden Orb — was a display of heritage, tradition and spectacle unmatched around the world.
To the crowds gathered under rainy skies — thousands of whom had camped overnight — it was a chance to be part of a historic occasion.
But to millions more, the day was greeted with a shrug, the awe and reverence the ceremony was designed to evoke largely gone.
And to a few, it was reason to protest. Hundreds who want to see Britain become a republic gathered to holler “ Not my king.” They see the monarchy as an institution that stands for privilege and inequality, in a country of deepening poverty and fraying social ties. A handful were arrested.
As the day began, the abbey buzzed with excitement and was abloom with fragrant flowers and colorful hats as the congregation of international dignitaries, nobles and other notables arrived. Among them were U.S. First Lady Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, eight current and former British prime ministers, judges in wigs, soldiers with gleaming medals, and celebrities including Judi Dench, Emma Thompson and Lionel Richie.
During the traditional Anglican service slightly tweaked for modern times, Charles, clad in crimson and cream robes, swore on a Bible that he is a “true Protestant.”
But a preface was added to the coronation oath to say the Church of England “will seek to foster an environment where people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely,” and the epistle from the King James Bible was read by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first Hindu leader.
A gospel choir performed a newly composed “Alleluia,” and, for the first time, female clergy took part in the ceremony. It was also the first to include representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths.
In an ancient display of kingly power, Charles was anointed with oil from the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land — a part of the ceremony so sacred it was concealed behind screens — and presented with an orb, swords and scepters.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby then placed the solid gold crown, bedecked with more than 400 precious stones, on Charles’ head, while he sat in the 700-year-old oak Coronation Chair — once gilded, now worn and etched with graffiti. Underneath the seat was a sacred slab known as the Stone of Scone, on which ancient Scottish kings were crowned.
For 1,000 years and more, British monarchs have been crowned in such grandiose ceremonies that confirm their right to rule. Charles was the 40th sovereign to be enthroned in the abbey — and, at 74, the oldest.
These days, the king no longer has executive or political power, and the service is purely ceremonial since Charles automatically became king upon death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in September.
The king does remain the U.K.’s head of state and a symbol of national identity — and Charles will have to work to bring together a multicultural nation and shore up support for the monarchy at at time when it is waning, especially among younger people.
Today’s public is very different from the audience that saw Elizabeth crowned. Almost 20% of the population now comes from ethnic minority groups, compared with less than 1% in the 1950s, and less than half of the population describe themselves as Christian.
The anti-monarchy group Republic said six of its members, including its chief executive, were arrested as they arrived at a protest. Police, who had warned they would have a “low tolerance” for people seeking to disrupt the day, said four people were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.
The environmental group Just Stop Oil said more than a dozen of its members were also arrested.
The detentions sparked criticism that police were clamping down on free speech, and Human Rights Watch said the arrests were “something you would expect to see in Moscow, not London.”
The multimillion-pound cost of the all the pomp — the exact figure unknown — also rankled some amid a cost-of-living crisis that has meant many Britons are struggling to pay energy bills and buy food.
Still, Charles has sought to lead a smaller, less expensive royal machine for the 21st century. His was a shorter affair than Elizabeth’s three-hour coronation, with fewer guests and an abbreviated procession.
The notoriously feuding royal family put on its own show of unity. Heir to the throne Prince William, his wife, Kate, and their three children were all in attendance. Towards the end of the ceremony, William knelt before his father and pledged loyalty to the king — before kissing him on the cheek.
Then Welby invited everyone in the abbey to swear “true allegiance” to the monarch. He said people watching on television could pay homage, too — though that part of the ceremony was toned down after some criticized it as a tone-deaf effort to demand a public oath of allegiance for Charles.
William’s younger brother Prince Harry, who has publicly sparred with the family, arrived alone. His wife Meghan and their children remained at home in California, where the couple has lived since quitting as working royals in 2020.
As Charles and the key royals joined a magnificent military procession after the ceremony, Harry stood waiting outside the abbey until a car arrived to drive him away.
Large crowds cheered as Charles and Camilla rode in the Gold State Carriage from the Abbey to Buckingham Palace, accompanied by a procession of 4,000 troops and military bands playing jaunty tunes.
As the king and queen waved to a sea of people outside the palace, the Royal Air Force aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, sped overhead, trailing red, white and blue plumes.
“It’s just to be surrounded by love and to see our King Charles. He’s our mainstay,” said Jill Coughlin, a royal fan from Essex, east of London. “We loved our queen and this is just further generations. So it’s wonderful for us, absolutely wonderful.”
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