Monarchs enthroned: ceremonial iconography and coronations
King Charles III’s coronation continues an extremely long-standing ceremonial tradition. The scale of coronations does vary from reign to reign, yet core elements such as the monarch’s selection, anointment with holy oil, public acclamation and enthronement remain unchanged. Records for English coronations stretch back over a thousand years, but as David’s instructions to crown Solomon as king reveal, the Judaeo-Christian origins of the ceremony actually stretch back much further in time:
“And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him there King over Israel: and blow ye with the trumpet, and say, God save King Solomon. Then ye shall come up after him, that he may come and sit upon my throne; for he shall be king in my stead” (I Kings 1: 34-5).
The coronation on 6 May 2023 includes a rendition of ‘Zadok the Priest’ alluding to this biblical tradition. Charles III’s enthronement appears to take its lead from early medieval religious iconography. The Liber Vitae created around 1031CE centres upon King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a cross to the altar of New Minster at Winchester. Angels descend from heaven touching the Monarch’s crown. There is an image of Christ enthroned located immediately above the cross.
King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a cross to the altar of the New Minster, Winchester British Library, Stowe MS 944 f. 6r.
The earliest surviving English Royal Seal from Edward the Confessor’s reign 1042-1066 depicts the King crowned and enthroned, holding an orb and sceptre. Excluding the Commonwealth era between 1649 and 1660, every monarch has been depicted in this manner on their Great Seal.
Earliest surviving English Royal Seal from Edward the Confessor’s reign 1042-1066 - British Library, Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5.
This theme continues within the illuminated manuscript and other artistic traditions into modernity. The following detail from Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum Chronica Majora created around the 1250s illustrates Henry III seated upon his throne holding a sceptre and a model of Westminster Abbey.
Portrait of Henry III from Historia Anglorum Chronica Majora - British Library, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r (detail)
Centuries later, during the 1670s, Michael Wright’s portrait of Charles II displays the monarch similarly posed, wearing the St Edward’s crown and dressed in parliamentary robes.
Portrait of Charles II courtesy of The Royal Collections Trust, RCIN 404951.
Philately also embraces such iconographical references. This die proof made by the security-printing firm Perkins Bacon and Company Limited, London for the State of Victoria in Australia’s 1856 stamps carries an image of Queen Victoria enthroned on King Edward’s Chair. Created by Edward I, it is now known as the Coronation Chair having been used in most coronations since that time.
State of Victoria 1d postage stamp 1856 - British Library Philatelic Collections: Supplementary Collection, Victoria
Edmund Dulac’s design for the 1s 3d stamp for the UK Coronation Issue of 1953 likewise includes a modern iteration of Elizabeth II enthroned.
1s 3d stamp for the UK 1953 Coronation Issue - British Library Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Great Britain.
Cecil Beaton’s iconic 1953 photographic Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth II reveals fascinating insights regarding the planning of such symbolic imagery. It depicts her enthronement at Westminster Abbey, but actually it was taken inside Buckingham Palace. Beaton’s archives at the Victoria & Albert Museum include photographs illustrating preparations for the portrait which was adopted by Jersey on its 6 February 2002 £3 postage stamp commemorating of Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee.
Jersey £3 postage stamp commemorating Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee 6 February 2002 -British Library Philatelic Collections: The Holman Collection
Richard Scott Morel
Curator, Philatelic Collections
Roy Strong. Coronation: A History of Kingship and the British Monarchy. Harper Collins. 2005, p. 9.
Susanna Brown. Queen Elizabeth II: Portraits by Cecil Beaton. V & A, 2011.
The New Minster Liber Vitae