After a shaky start to his reign, the king intended his coronation to bolster his personal image and agenda ahead of the 1626 Parliament. However, things didn’t go according to plan, as Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains…
Little went right for Charles I in the opening months of his reign. Following his accession in March 1625, a major outbreak of the plague in London forced him to delay his coronation. His war against Spain, which had initially boosted his popularity, was fast becoming a liability, prohibitively expensive to maintain, and with no prospect of a decisive victory. His marriage to the Catholic princess Henrietta Maria was intended to seal a military alliance with France, but almost from the start this union was prone to tensions and misunderstandings, at both the personal and diplomatic levels. The marriage was also unpopular with Charles’s Protestant subjects, while anxiety about the king’s commitment to reformed religion only deepened when he publicly endorsed anti-Calvinist clerics such as William Laud, bishop of St Davids. Charles’s first Parliament, in the summer of 1625, failed to grant enough taxes to fund the war effort adequately, and ended in an acrimonious attack on the king’s overmighty favourite, the duke of Buckingham. A disastrous English assault on the Spanish port of Cadiz that autumn piled further pressure on the government.
By mid-December, it was clear that a further Parliament was needed to raise fresh funds for the war. It was summoned to meet on 6 February 1626, and Charles decided that his coronation would also take place four days beforehand. The timing was surely deliberate. For a king who took very seriously the idea that he derived his power directly from God, there was great symbolism to be drawn from a coronation on 2 February, the feast of Candlemas, which commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. Indeed, the order of service as revised by Laud included a long-disused medieval prayer which presented the king as a mediator between God and the people of England.
If one of the coronation’s intended themes was the divine right of kings, the other was the power and splendour of the monarchy. The initial planning documents envisaged the full ceremonial trappings decreed by tradition: a grand procession (or ‘entry’) through the city of London; the crowning of both Charles and Henrietta Maria before the assembled peers and bishops of the realm; and a lavish concluding banquet. The king was also determined that his most favoured servants would receive prominent roles in proceedings. Buckingham was appointed high constable of England for the day, meaning that he would serve as one of Charles’s principal escorts, and also supervise the homage of the peers. Similarly, Laud was made acting dean of Westminster Abbey, with oversight of the whole coronation ceremony. The actual dean, John Williams, bishop of Lincoln, who had recently incurred the king’s displeasure and been dismissed as lord keeper of the great seal, was abruptly instructed to stand aside, and banned from attending the coronation at all. In effect, Charles was seizing the opportunity to affirm his commitment to his inner circle of advisors, in the knowledge that they were likely to face fresh attacks in the new Parliament.
This assertive strategy unravelled with remarkable speed. Quite apart from the lingering presence of the plague in London, which made large gatherings inadvisable, it quickly became apparent that the king simply couldn’t afford a spectacle on this scale. With the royal finances so overstretched by the war that the crown jewels were being offered as collateral in loan negotiations, on 17 January the grand ‘entry’ was formally postponed for five months. The coronation banquet was scrapped entirely a day or two later. These economy measures reportedly saved Charles £60,000, but in the words of one contemporary commentator the coronation was now ‘private without any show or feast’ [Letters of John Chamberlain ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 627]. Next, a key element of the coronation service itself was axed, after Henrietta Maria insisted that only a Catholic bishop could crown her, a condition unacceptable to the Anglican establishment. A rapid burst of cross-Channel diplomacy failed to generate a compromise solution, and by 27 January it was clear that the queen would not even be present in Westminster Abbey to witness her husband’s crowning. However, she was by no means the only absentee. Letters of summons for the nobility were not issued until 19 January, barely a fortnight before the coronation. With the winter roads in poor condition, these messages took a week or more to reach the peers in farther-flung counties, leaving them too little time to make the journey to London. While a handful stayed away because they were Catholic or currently in disgrace, a substantial number more were prevented from attending simply by these logistical difficulties. In total some 47 noblemen, nearly half of the English and Welsh peerage, missed the ceremony.
When the coronation day finally dawned, Charles went by boat from Whitehall Palace to Westminster, accompanied by Buckingham and a handful of other favoured courtiers. The earl marshal, the earl of Arundel, had arranged for the royal party to disembark at a private water-gate near the House of Commons, belonging to Sir Robert Cotton. However, both Arundel and Cotton were viewed at court as Buckingham’s enemies, and, in what was seen as a deliberate snub to them, the royal barge sailed straight past the assembled welcoming party and on to Parliament Stairs, the landing stage closest to the House of Lords. Unfortunately, as it approached land, the barge became stuck in the Thames mud some distance short of the jetty, and the king was obliged to clamber across several other small boats in order to come ashore.
After robing up in the Lords, and proceeding with rather more decorum to Westminster Hall, Charles was formally presented with the regalia. He then continued on foot in a somewhat smaller-than-planned procession to the abbey. Here further mishaps ensued. In the first set-piece of the coronation itself, the king was introduced to the assembled throng by the archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot. Following a short speech by the primate, the congregation was supposed to acclaim Charles as its rightful monarch. However, ‘whether some expected he should have spoken more, [or] others hearing not well what he said hindered those by questioning which might have heard, … or that those which were nearest doubted what to do, … not one word followed, till my lord of Arundel told them they should cry out “God save King Charles”’ [Original Letters illustrative of English History ed. H. Ellis, series 1, iii. 217]. The sermon, a further affirmation that the king derived his authority direct from God, was inaudible to most of those present; the preacher, Richard Senhouse, bishop of Carlisle, was terminally ill, and reportedly looked like his days were numbered. During the communion service, the choir missed the musical cue for the Gloria, which was consequently said rather than sung. Fortunately the rest of the ceremony went broadly according to plan, a complacent Laud noting in his diary that ‘amidst an incredible concourse of people, nothing was lost, or broke, or disordered’ [Works of William Laud ed. J. Bliss, iii. 181].
Four days later Parliament met again, and within weeks it was clear that the coronation had failed completely to improve the political climate. No new taxes were granted, several of Laud’s fellow anti-Calvinists once again came under attack, and Charles eventually dissolved the session to save Buckingham from impeachment. Relations between the king and queen continued to deteriorate, and by the end of the year England and France were on the brink of war. Charles even contrived to offend the city of London, on whose financiers he depended heavily, by cancelling the postponed ‘entry’ in May 1626 after significant sums had already been spent by the citizens on preparations. Nevertheless, the coronation’s shortcomings pale into insignificance against the dramas of the next 23 years, and no one who witnessed it can have known that the medieval regalia were being used for the last time – prior to their destruction in 1649 after the king’s execution.
Roy Strong, Coronation: a History of Kingship and the British Monarchy (2005)
The Manner of the Coronation of King Charles the First ed. C. Wordsworth (1892)
Biographies of Charles I as prince of Wales, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, Thomas Howard, 21st earl of Arundel, William Laud, bishop of St Davids (later archbishop of Canterbury), John Williams, bishop of Lincoln (later archbishop of York), and Richard Senhouse, bishop of Carlisle feature in our volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).