David Torrance: Constitutional mirrors: Coronations and the territorial constitution

Writing about the “work” of the Queen in 1958, the journalist and Herald Dermot Morrah claimed there had been “scarcely any allusion” in her coronation ceremony to the fact that Elizabeth II “was Queen of seven distinct and sovereign realms”. Indeed, added Morrah, “she was crowned not even as Queen of the United Kingdom, but of England alone”.

This was a peculiarly Anglo-centric take, particularly so coming from the pen of a Herald, usually such sticklers for detail. At first glance, the coronation of a British monarch is indeed a very English affair. It takes place at the Abbey Church of Westminster and the service is given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Yet a closer examination of coronations between 1714 and 1953 reveals them to be constitutional mirrors in which were reflected changes to the territorial constitution. And by highlighting these reflections, one can draw some preliminary observations as to the likely ceremonial at the coronation of King Charles III on 6 May 2023

The Coronation Oath

A quick glance at the Coronation Oath taken by the late Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 clearly contradicts Morrah’s assertion. The Archbishop of Canterbury asked:

Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs? 

In response, the Queen said: “I solemnly promise so to do.” Next the Archbishop asked if the sovereign would:

to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them? 

Again, the Queen promised to do so. The first part of the Oath had included an explicit reference to the many crowns of Elizabeth II and the second to the “Protestant Reformed Religion” established by law in the United Kingdom (or rather in England and Scotland). 

The Coronation Oath is statutory, indeed is the only legal requirement of the whole ceremony (unless the Accession Declaration Oath is also taken). Passed by the Parliament of England before the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, the Coronation Oath Act 1689 provided for a single uniform oath to be taken by King William III and Queen Mary II and by all future monarchs. The Oath was reiterated in section 2 of the (English) Act of Settlement 1701, which was later extended to Scotland (as part of the new “united Kingdom” of Great Britain) by virtue of Article II of the Treaty of Union.

Section III of the 1689 Act provided the form of the Oath and its Administration, while Section IV provided that it should be administered (read) to the monarch by the Archbishop of Canterbury or York (or another Bishop appointed for that purpose) “in the Presence of all Persons that shall be Attending Assisting or otherwise present at such their respective Coronations”. Initially, care was taken explicitly to amend the wording of the Oath. Section II of a 1706 Act of the English Parliament “for securing the Church of England as by Law established” added a paragraph, while “this Kingdom of England” was impliedly changed to “this Kingdom of Great Britain” when King George I took his Coronation Oath in 1714. 

Further implied amendments were made to the Coronation Oath taken by King George IV in 1821. Not only was “Great Britain” replaced with “the United Kingdom” (reflecting the 1801 Union between Great Britain and Ireland) but the third part of the Oath now included a promise to maintain the settlement of the “united church of England and Ireland” (the Fifth Article of the Union with Ireland Act 1800 having united the two churches). This part was added by an Order in Council rather than primary legislation, while section 69 of the Irish Church Act 1869 sanctioned its later removal in the Oath taken by King Edward VII in 1902 (the Irish church having been disestablished).

Less care was taken during the 20th century. When the Statute of Westminster 1931 necessitated further changes to the Coronation Oath, the Privy Council became the problematic means by which these were given effect (problematic because prerogative Orders should not trump statute). At the May 1937 coronation, the Archbishop now invited King George VI to:

solemnly promise and swear to govern the peoples of Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa, of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, and of your Empire of India, according to their respective Laws and Customs.

While the “Great Britain, Ireland” formulation (note the absence of “the United Kingdom”) was covered by a Proclamation issued under the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, the other realms were added via a Proclamation dated 13 February 1937. The die was then cast. In February 1953, Winston Churchill rejected the need for legislation further to amend the list of Realms and address Ireland’s 1949 departure from the Commonwealth:

To accept the view that changes in the terms of the Oath which are necessary to reconcile it with a changed constitutional position cannot be made except with the authority of an Act of Parliament would be to cast doubt upon the validity of the Oath administered to every Sovereign of this country since George I.

The law officers were content (as in 1937), as were the “other self-governing countries of the Commonwealth”, none of whom had “raised any objection”, and, besides, there was not enough time for legislation to be passed by the Realms in the time remaining before the 2 June 1953. 

Given that the list of “peoples” again needs updating (Barbados became a republic just last year), it will be interesting to see if the Government intends to follow the precedents of 1937 and 1953. The later sections of the Oath dealing with the Church of England seem less likely to be altered, despite speculation in the 1990s that a “supplementary declaration” affirming Charles’s belief in the divinity of other religions might be added.

Church and State

At the heart of the coronation ceremony is an Anglican service. In 1937, however, Cosmo Lang, the Scottish-born Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to involve other denominations for the first time: seven representatives of England’s Free Churches and three from the “national” Church of Scotland (the serving and two former Moderators) walked in the procession to the Abbey. This ecumenicalism was further advanced in 1953, when the Secretary of State for Scotland sought a role for the Moderator of General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the Abbey sanctuary. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury agreed, and on 2 June 1953 the then Moderator, the Very Reverend James Pitt-Watson, joined the Archbishop in presenting the Coronation Bible to Queen Elizabeth II. This, judged Roy Strong, “posed more problems than it solved, for he [the Moderator] had no reason to be part of a ceremony installing the Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. Nevertheless, it established another precedent likely to be jealously guarded by the Church of Scotland. Indeed, if the State Funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth was any guide, the next coronation could be even more ecumenical. As one source told The Times

It will be an Anglican service. But as the King says, Britain is a community of communities. He will be thinking very carefully about how to reflect those different faith communities within the abbey, if not within the service itself. It is about representation, about looking at that audience and feeling that Britain can see itself in the pews of the abbey.

Court of Claims

The Scottish presence at coronation ceremonies has long extended well beyond the clergy. Following the 1707 Union, as Roy Strong has written, the coronation was now to be “built up as a British occasion and the Scots […] somehow brought in to be part of it”. The representative peers of Scotland (then 16 in number) were summoned to attend the coronation of George I in 1714, while the Court of Claims – an executive and judicial body constituted prior to a coronation – dealt with Scottish aristocrats “who had held hereditary roles at the Scottish Coronation which they now wanted transferred south of the border and incorporated into the English rite”.

This explains the heavy presence of Scottish Great Officers of State and Heralds at 18th century coronations (including the High Constable and Great Steward). Following the Union between Great Britain and Ireland of 1801, Ireland’s representative peers were also summonsed, while King George IV increased the Union dimension at his 1821 coronation by having the Standards of England, Ireland and Scotland borne during the procession into the Abbey (King George V added the Standard of Wales in 1911). The Irish standard was still there in 1953, four years after (most of) Ireland completed its independence from the Crown. Will it survive in May 2023?

The future of the Court of Claims – which brings together the judiciaries of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England & Wales – appears to be in doubt, but if it is abolished (as recommended by the Constitution Unit) then someone else will have to adjudicate the inevitable claims. In 1953 this was relatively straightforward as only 16 years had elapsed since the last coronation; the same will not be true in 2023.  

Ceremonial symbolism 

George IV was also conscious of the value of symbolism. He introduced English rose, Scottish thistle and Irish shamrock motifs into his diadem and coronation robes. The latter tradition continued up to 1953, by which point the motifs of Commonwealth Realms as well as the constituent parts of the United Kingdom were incorporated. 

Since 1937, the carriage procession to and from the Abbey has also been used to illustrate the divisibility of the Crown, with Commonwealth Realm premiers riding in open carriages. Whether that survives next year is moot, not least because several are making republican noises. This procession also established a precedent for devolved governments. In 1937, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (Viscount Craigavon) followed the premier of Southern Rhodesia and preceded the Amir of Transjordan and the Sultan of Zanzibar; in 1953, Viscount Brookeborough’s carriage preceded that of Southern Rhodesia. Can we expect Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland (if in post) to feature next May? 

Most symbolic is the Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, Scotland’s pre-Union coronation stone. This was transferred from the Abbey to Edinburgh Castle in 1996 but under a Royal Warrant, the Commissioners for the Keeping of the (Scottish) Regalia, one of whom is Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, are responsible for its temporary return to the Coronation Chair. A petition against this attracted more than 2,000 signatures.

There is also a Welsh dimension. “Homage” is paid to a newly crowned monarch at the coronation in order of seniority, so if there is a Prince of Wales (which there was not in 1937 or 1953), he goes first. At the coronation of George V in 1911, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) knelt before his father and recited the words:

 I Edward Prince of Wales do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die against all manner of folks. So help me God. 

The Prince of Wales then rose, touched the Crown upon the King’s head and kissed him on the left cheek. 

If the 1911 precedent is followed, then some sort of investiture for the new Prince of Wales (William) will follow his father’s coronation in a matter of weeks, perhaps featuring the Welsh regalia and a reiteration of the homage. There is an ongoing debate in Wales as to the suitability of such a ceremony, although briefing suggests it will not match the scale of that in 1969

After the coronation

It has been the custom for a monarch to visit Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following their coronation. After his ceremony in 1911, George V paid a short “state visit” to Ireland, all of which was then part of the United Kingdom. Six days later his son, the Prince of Wales, was invested at Caernarfon, after which the King visited Edinburgh. In 1937, George VI paid short state visits to Scotland (during which he invested the Queen with the Order of the Thistle) and Northern Ireland

In late June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II also embarked upon a series of domestic state visits. In Wales, she attended the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, and in Northern Ireland she gave a joint address to both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont. In Scotland, the Queen attended a National Service of thanksgiving and dedication at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, where the Honours of Scotland – the Crown, sceptre and sword – were ceremonially presented to the Sovereign before a congregation of 1,700. Whitehall was particularly keen that this should not in any way resemble a “second” coronation

King Charles III conducted such a tour in the week following his mother’s death, so may not feel it necessary to embark on another so soon. It also seems unlikely he will emulate Queen Elizabeth’s extensive post-coronation Commonwealth tour in 1953/54, although there is already speculation as to which Realm will receive the King’s first visit. 


Buckingham Palace has said next year’s coronation will “reflect the monarch’s role today and look towards the future, while being rooted in longstanding traditions and pageantry”. This goal is very much in keeping with the spirit of the last three coronations, all of which combined historical custom with domestic and Commonwealth constitutional change.

As an earlier blog observed, the Accession of King Charles III was strikingly multi-national in its execution, something that reflected significant reforms to the territorial constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland since the Accession of Queen Elizabeth II in February 1952. It seems likely the King’s coronation will take care to reflect the same changes. 

Dr David Torrance is monarchy specialist at the House of Commons Library.

(Suggested citation: D. Torrance, ‘Constitutional mirrors: Coronations and the territorial constitution’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (27th October 2022) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))