The coronation of King Charles III was a stirring spectacle. I watched only a few of the more elaborate bits—some climactic moments in Westminster Abbey, some of the procession up the soldier-lined Mall in that nifty golden carriage, the King’s recognition of the troops assembled in the garden behind Buck House.
As an Anglophile, I appreciated the pageantry. No one does it better than the Brits. They manage to make ostentation tasteful and regal display humane and welcoming. It’s impressive without being forbidding. I am an American democrat of Madisonian inclination, but I harbor fond feelings about the British monarchy. I enjoy the ceremony and heartily approve of this affirmation of “the rich tapestry of our island story.”
Nevertheless, I came away with an impression of something bittersweet, not to say melancholy. As a performance, the coronation was thrilling. As a reality? I am not so sure. I fear there was something posthumous about the production.
To date, Charles has acted with greater dignity and discretion than I would have predicted. His Christmas address to the nation was pitch-perfect. And he seems to be soft-pedaling some of his woke enthusiasms about “climate change” and the like. All that augurs well for the future of his reign—if “reign” is the correct word for the ceremonial bureaucracy of a man who assumed the throne at the end of his 73rd year.
The Crown’s real estate is intact. So are the family jewels and haberdashery (the ermine fringed robes that he and Queen Camilla modeled were especially striking).
But that may be the extent of his domain. Perhaps one should resist the temptation to peek behind the curtain. The English essayist Walter Bagehot, writing in the 1870s, was right. “Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced,” Bagehot wrote, “and if you begin to poke about it, you cannot reverence it. . . . Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
But that is not the whole story. The coronation was big—well, not big news, exactly, but undeniably it was a big story. Why? Why did thousands of Brits throng the streets to behold their king? Why did millions across the world tune in to watch the spectacle? For the same reason they might tune in to watch a big sporting contest or a celebrity funeral?
That is part, but only part, of the answer. If the coronation of Charles III seemed quaintly anachronistic, it was also moving in an irreducibly pertinent way. All the antiquities involved in the event—the 12th-century wooden coronation chair, the silver coronation spoon from the same era—were more than stage props. They, like the ceremony as a whole, were so many cords of memory binding the nation together through time.
At the beginning of The Conservative Mind (1953), Russell Kirk listed “six canons of conservative thought.”
First was “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.” The British monarchy is a sort of objective correlative of that conviction, a quiet reminder of Kirk’s point that “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”
Many things about the British government today—like virtually all governments in the developed world—have more or less forsaken that supposition, but that says nothing against its continued relevance to human affairs.
I used the words “anachronistic” and “quaint” in evoking the coronation. They might be accurate, but they are not sufficient. Kirk was correct when he wrote that “a narrow rationality . . . cannot of itself satisfy human needs. . . . True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.” Someone might have uttered such sentiments at the coronation. I cannot imagine someone doing so in the House of Commons (or the floor of the House of Representatives).
All of Kirk’s “canons of conservatism” are relevant to appreciating the significance of the coronation of Charles III, but I will dilate on just two others: “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems” and the “conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’” That last is likely to rub Americans the wrong way. It seems to cut against that sentimental allegiance to what Harvey Mansfield called “the self-evident half-truth that all men are created equal.”
But I believe Kirk’s point is as relevant to Americans as it is to the British. “If natural distinctions are effaced among men,” he argues, “oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.”
There is much in the sham democracy of the United States today that corroborates Kirk’s observation. The painfully obvious reality of our political dispensation—an increasingly despotic managerial state sugar-coated with soothing rhetoric about Our Democracy™—drives home the point about oligarchs filling the vacuum.
One final nugget from Kirk. One cannot witness a ceremony like the coronation without being impressed by the display of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.”
From a narrow economic point of view, the coronation was clearly irrational. It cost upwards of £100 million (just over $126 million), and for what? What did it accomplish? What practical purpose did it achieve? How many mouths did it feed?
But those are the wrong questions. They assume that human wealth is denominated in only one sort of currency. Kirk employs a larger, more humane scale. Conservatives, he writes, are persuaded that “freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.” Britain has experimented with that Leviathan, and, as anyone who can unscramble the acronym “DEI” or parse the mantras about “equity” knows, we are doing so ourselves in the United States.
Spectacles like Charles’s coronation may be so many blasts from the past. They seem to me to bring more salubrious breezes and more vital and humanly affirmative weather than most of what is on offer in the rancid corridors of power inhabited by our masters.