Monarchy and Religion
Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee will inevitably focus attention on many aspects of the history of the monarchy. Often neglected but lying at the heart of the institution as it has evolved over the centuries is its spiritual and religious dimension.
It is appropriate that the central focus of the holiday weekend marking the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession is the service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday June 5th. It is in appearances at church, whether they be coronations, royal weddings, funerals or national services of remembrance and thanksgiving, that the monarchy is at its most visible and exercising its most obviously representative role. Such occasions bring moments of national consecration and perhaps come close to embodying a latent folk religion that still has the power to stir and move even in our supposedly secular age.
This was certainly how the coronation of 1953 was interpreted by both participants and commentators. In the weeks leading up to it Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected in a series of sermons on the spiritual significance of the institution of monarchy. He argued that reduced temporal power enhanced rather than diminished its importance, bringing about ‘the possibility of a spiritual power far more exalted and far more searching in its demands: the power to lead, to inspire, to unite, by the sovereign’s personal character, personal convictions and personal example’. On the day itself Fisher solemnly announced that England had been brought closer to the kingdom of heaven.
A seminal article on the coronation in the Sociological Review in 1953 by two left-leaning academic sociologists, Edward Shils and Michael Young, described it as nothing less than ‘a great act of national communion’. They were struck by how many ‘ordinary’ people spoke of it as an ‘inspiration’ and a ‘re-dedication of the nation’. The ceremony had ‘touched the sense of the sacred’, heightening a feeling of solidarity in both families and communities. Numerous examples were cited of reconciliation between long-feuding neighbours and family members brought about by the shared experience of watching the event. For Shils and Young, Elizabeth II’s coronation had enabled people to affirm common moral values:
The monarchy is the one pervasive institution, standing above all others, which plays a part in a vital way comparable to the function of the medieval church … the function of integrating diverse elements into a whole by protecting and defining their autonomy.
Coronations, more than any other events, underline the essentially spiritual and sacred nature of British monarchy. Packed with religious symbolism and imagery, they exude mystery and magic, binding together church and state through the person of the monarch and clearly proclaiming the derivation of all power and authority from God and the Christian basis on which government is exercised, justice administered and the state defended. Here, if anywhere, we find the divinity which, as Shakespeare observed, hedges around the English throne.
Subtly adapted over the centuries, the United Kingdom coronation service has retained the same basic format used in England for over a thousand years. Its key elements are to be found in the order drawn up by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, for the crowning of Edgar in 973, which drew on Carolingian and Frankish rites as well as indigenous Celtic and Anglo-Saxon practices. It is closely modelled on the inauguration ceremonies for the kings of Israel as described in the Old Testament. The most solemn moment, the anointing of the new monarch with holy oil, is accompanied by the singing of the verses from the first chapter of the first book of Kings:
Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king; and all the people rejoiced and said: God save the king, Long live the king, May the king live for ever. Amen. Hallelujah.
Since 1727 these words have been sung to George Frideric Handel’s thrilling setting written for the coronation of George II. Coronation sermons have frequently contained references to Solomon and also to David and Josiah. The sermon preached at Charles II’s Scottish coronation at Scone in 1651 also mentioned Saul, Joash, Ahaziah, Asa, Hezekiah and even the wicked queen Athaliah, to whom Charles’ mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, was compared.
The strong Old Testament influence is also evident in the centrality of the covenant theme in British coronations. Through the solemn oaths sworn near the beginning of the service and the act of homage towards the end, God, monarch and people are bound together in a three-way covenant. Another Old Testament concept that has played a central part in the spiritual history of the British monarchy is that of the Lord’s anointed, a title specifically used of King David and taken up with alacrity by Divine Right theorists in the 17th century and by the Vicar of Bray during ‘Good King Charles’ golden days’:
To teach my flock I never missed, Kings were by God appointed, And lost are those who dare resist Or touch the Lord’s anointed.
Biblical principles and practices found in the Old and New Testaments have not been the only influence on the British understanding of the spiritual character of monarchy. Older pre-Christian ideas of sacral kingship, which go back to primal shamanism and came into the British Isles through the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, were grafted into the new faith of Christianity as it became established from the sixth century. Their legacy remained strong throughout the Middle Ages and continues to inform royal pageantry and rituals.
Central to primal notions of the sacred character of kingship was the understanding of me king as the one who took on the forces of chaos, often represented by dragons and monsters, and embodied the principle of order in both the cosmic and everyday world. In mythology the king was located at the centre of the world, a place often associated with a sacred tree, from which he ruled both the natural and social order. He was seen as the steward of the gods, with whom he stood in a special relationship, maintaining a sacred harmonic balance. These aspects of sacred monarchy were clearly apparent in Celtic societies, where the king was seen as possessing special powers of healing and divination and as upholding the moral and spiritual order of his people.
The development of coronation services played a key role in the transition from primal sacred kingship to Christian monarchy. Crownings and enthronements were a central feature of pre-Christian kingship and they often involved rituals indicating the divinity of the new monarch. With the coming of Christianity, kings were no longer seen as gods. Through being anointed at their coronations, however, they were set apart and given quasi-priestly status. The Christian coronation emphasised the monarch’s crowning by God rather than by people. As such it easily accommodated and, indeed, facilitated the transition from popular election to hereditary succession, which occurred in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon monarchy. In Christian coronations the focus was not on choosing a king, or even crowning and enthroning him, but rather on invoking the divine blessing, setting him apart and reminding him of the derivation of his power from God and of his responsibilities to rule wisely, justly and mercifully.
It is not clear when the first Christian consecration or inauguration of a monarch took place. Gildas, a Welsh monk, wrote in the sixth century about the unction or anointing of British kings ruling after the withdrawal of the Romans. St Columba was said by his biographer Adamnan to have been commanded by an angel to ordain Aedán to the kingship of Dál Riata, the Irish colony in the west of Scotland. If his account is correct, the ceremony, which Columba performed on Iona in 574 when he laid his hand on Aedán’s head and blessed him, is the first clearly recorded Christian consecration of a king not just in the British Isles but anywhere in Europe.
Columba played a key role in the development of Christian monarchy in the British Isles. Both during his early years as a monk in Ireland and his time as abbot of Iona king-making was one of his major preoccupations. In an age when there was much political anarchy and violence, as well as much spiritual and cultural darkness, Columba looked to the new institution of monarchy as it was developing in Ireland to provide order, stability and community in place of the arbitrary rule of warlords and chieftains. He was happy to throw the support of the church behind kings who would exercise power under the law and in accordance with Christian principles of justice, humility and mercy. He also realised the benefits to the Church of having royal patronage and protection. Thanks to him sixth-century Dál Riata may well have been the first region in mainland Britain to experience Christian kingship.
Around the same time that Columba was supporting and establishing Christian kingship in Ireland and Scotland a British king called Arthur was possibly defending the Christian peoples of Wales and southwest England against the pagan Germanic Anglo-Saxon invaders. Details about his life are extremely sketchy and the earliest mention of his activities comes from a source written nearly 400 years after his death. Shadowy though the Arthur of history may have been, however, the Arthur of legend stands as the prototype of the noble Christian king, full of valour, chivalry and honour, a British David to Columba’s Celtic Samuel. The adventures of Arthur and his knights of the round table established connections between kingship, muscular Christianity, chivalry, fair play, selflessness, the pursuit of high ideals and wholesome, manly adventure. They stand as one of the dominant influences behind an important strand of English literature, which links kingship with Christian values in the context of heroic epic and romance.
Both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity emphasised the ties of loyalty and kinship and made a clear link between earthly and heavenly monarchy. One individual in particular came to epitomise the new ideal of Christian kingship, both through his own writings and activities and through the cult that grew up around him. The Saxon king Alfred lived from around 849 to 899. In many ways he followed the Old Testament model of the king as the leader of his people in worship and promoter of religious revival. He also echoed the Old Testament view that repentance and reform were as important to national security as a standing army and navy. He believed that England’s conquest by the Danes was both a consequence of and a judgement on its apostasy and abandonment of Christian learning. His mission, as outlined in the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, was to restore to ‘the English race’ the happy times when God-fearing kings maintained peace, morality, faith and wisdom. Kings who failed to obey their divine duty to promote learning, he wrote, could expect earthly punishments to befall their people. True to this principle he embarked on a personal crusade to renew religion in England through the revival of literacy and learning.
By the end of the first millennium the institution of Christian kingship was firmly established throughout the British Isles. Monarchs were the principal patrons and protectors of the church. Christian kingship brought new titles as well as new responsibilities for Britain’s rulers. Perhaps the first to be appropriated was that of ruling through the grace of God, or Deo Gratia, the idea that is still expressed on every coin of the realm through the abbreviation DG. The late eighth-century Anglo-Saxon king, Offa, described himself as ‘by the divine controlling grace king of the Mercians’. From the mid-tenth century several English kings also began styling themselves Christ’s Vicar, or deputy. A striking example of the survival and, indeed, revival of the shamanistic aspects of sacral kingship was the development of the practice of touching for the King’s Evil, which became widespread in medieval England and France. The belief in royal healing powers reflected both a belief in the king’s Christ-like character and a more primal sense of the religious aura and magical power of monarchy. The disease for which the royal touch was regarded as particularly efficacious, known popularly as scrofula and in medical terminology as tuberculous adenitis, was an inflammation of the lymph nodes that often had the effect of making the victim’s face putrid. The first English king who is clearly recorded as touching for scrofula was Henry II, although the chroniclers William of Malmesbury and Ailred of Rievaulx suggested that the practice had originated with Edward the Confessor.
Marc Bloch, author of the classic study The Royal Touch (1924), has written that ‘the conception of sacred royalty imbued with the miraculous runs all through the Middle Ages’. It did not die out with the Reformation. The Tudor monarchs, apart from Mary, were not enthusiastic about the practice but the Stuarts revived it with a vengeance. Charles II touched 23,000 people in the four years following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and James II 4,422 between March and December 1685. The last reigning British monarch to perform the ritual was Anne in April 1714. Between 1633 and 1715 the Book of Common Prayer included a service for the healing of the sick by the monarch. The Jacobite pretenders kept the practice going and Prince Charles Edward Stuart held a healing ceremony in Edinburgh in 1745. There are still lingering echoes of the association of royalty with miraculous healing powers. In his book Crown and People (1978) Philip Ziegler noted that as Elizabeth II walked through crowds during the celebrations of her silver jubilee celebrations in 1977, ‘their hands stretched out to her as if she were a medieval monarch whose touch would cure’. More recently, Diana, Princess of Wales, exhibited an approach to the sick and the suffering that in many ways recalled the medieval royal healing touch.
The Reformation brought a reorientation of the monarch’s spiritual role. The title Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, which appears abbreviated as FID. DEF. on the £2 coin and simply as F.D. on other coins of the realm, was granted to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of the king’s defence of the seven traditional sacraments of the Catholic Church in a theological pamphlet which appeared under his name but had effectively been ghost-written for him by his chancellor, Thomas More. Fourteen years later More went to the scaffold for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as head of the English church. It is highly ironic that this title given by a pope to the king who later made the breach with Rome should have continued to be used by all monarchs until the present day and to have become associated very specifically with the defence of Protestantism.
The monarch’s governorship over the Church of England was a key part of the Reformation settlement, first established in an act of Parliament in 1534. The first English Prayer Book of 1549 started a tradition that continues to this day by including a prayer for the sovereign to be said in parish churches every Sunday.
Stuart monarchs took a particularly high view of the divine aspect and religious responsibilities of monarchy. James I had set out in his writings the theory of the divine right of monarchy with which the Stuart dynasty that he inaugurated was to be especially associated. In his treatise The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) he noted that ‘kings are called Gods by the prophetical David because they sit upon God his throne in the earth and have the count of their administration to give unto him’. Charles I was frequently compared to Christ following his execution in 1649. For royalists like those in the crowd outside the Banqueting Hall, who pressed forward to soak their handkerchiefs in royal blood, he died a martyr to the Christian faith and to the Church of England in particular. The widespread cult that grew up around him in death was given a powerful stimulus by the publication on the day of his burial of the Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings, a manual of prayers, supposedly written by the king. Its frontispiece depicted Charles kneeling and grasping a crown of thorns, his eyes fixed on a heavenly crown and his earthly crown lying discarded at his feet.
The doctrine of divine right disappeared with the Glorious Revolution of 1689, but the monarchy retained an important spiritual role. The strong Christian convictions of the Hanoverians and Queen Victoria established a new paradigm of the pious, church-going royal family that continued through the 20th century. It was championed by the constitutional historian Walter Bagehot, who famously wrote:
Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon the magic.
Much of the strength and popularity of the British monarchy in the early part of the 20th century derived from the fact that not too much daylight was let in on the magic. The churches played a key role in maintaining an element of mystery and encouraging a reverential attitude towards those occupying the throne through providing highly colourful and elaborate rituals for coronations, royal weddings and funerals. David Cannadine has pointed to the decisive change that took place in the image of the British monarchy in the period between the late 1870s and 1914. Its ritual and ceremonial aspects, which had hitherto been largely low-key, private, often ineptly organised and of little popular appeal, became splendid, public and popular. Among the reasons for this change was a new enthusiasm on the part of the clergy in the Church of England for ritual and stage management. Victoria’s longevity encouraged the national church to organise large-scale services to celebrate her golden and diamond jubilees and bask in her reflected glory. For the service in 1887 to mark the 50th anniversary of her accession Westminster Abbey was transformed by the rebuilding of the organ, the remodelling of the choir stalls and the introduction of electric lighting. The officiating clergy were dressed for the first time in copes and coloured stoles, hailed by a journalist present as ‘a novel and picturesque innovation’, although they raised the queen’s anti-ritualistic hackles. In the jubilee celebrations the church and the monarchy were indissolubly linked and jointly promoted. The cheering crowds that greeted the queen as she drove through the East End of London in May 1887 were taken by Edward Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as an indicator that the church as well as the monarchy was loved and valued. ‘They are not a church-going race’, he noted in his diary of the English, ‘but there is a solemn quiet sense of religion in their sayings and doings.’
The reverential attitude on the part of both church and country towards the monarch is well captured in the official hymn for Victoria’s diamond jubilee in June 1897, written by William Walsham How, the Bishop of Wakefield, with an appropriately hearty tune by Arthur Sullivan. It focused almost as much on the matriarchal majesty of Victoria as on the glory of God:
Oh Royal heart, with wide embrace For all her children yearning! Oh happy realm, such mother-grace With loyal love returning! Where England’s flag flies wide unfurl’d, All tyrant wrongs repelling, God make the world a better world For mans brief earthly dwelling.
The pattern of Christian monarchy established by Victoria and predicated on the values of duty, discretion and dignity held through much of the 20th century. As practised by the Windsors it has had four main prongs: civic duty expressed principally through philanthropic and charitable activity; spiritual leadership demonstrated through attendance at religious services and public exhortation; the development of ceremonial and ritual to emphasise the mystical aspects of monarchy; and personal example through private lives, which are supposed to accord to high moral principles and family values.
Services held in the two major Anglican churches in London to celebrate significant royal jubilees have fostered the religious and spiritual aspects of what critics have termed ‘monarcholatry’. Twentieth-century sovereigns generally entered into the spirit of these occasions with more enthusiasm than their 19th-century predecessors. Partly because of her age, Victoria felt unable to leave her carriage and enter St Paul’s Cathedral for the service to commemorate her diamond jubilee. George V, by contrast, was an enthusiastic and active participant in the service at St Paul’s which marked the high point of his silver jubilee celebrations in 1935 and was marred only, according to some observers, by a superfluity of clergy. In an address relayed through loudspeakers to the cheering multitude outside, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that the national spirit of unity had found its centre in the throne and that George was ‘the Father of his People’. After attending a reception for Dominion prime ministers, the Labour politician Ramsay Macdonald noted: ‘We all went away feeling that we had taken part in something very much like a Holy Communion.’
Several commentators noted similar if less clearly defined spiritual stirrings in the popular reaction to the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April last year. It remains to be seen whether historians writing in years to come about the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations will detect a religious and even sacred element comparable to that widely noted at the time of her coronation.
A monarch’s divine ability to cure scrofula was an established ritual when James I came to the English throne in 1603. Initially sceptical of the Catholic characteristics of the ceremony, the king found ways to ‘Protestantise’ it and to reflect his own hands-on approach to kingship, writes Stephen Brogan. www.historytoday.com/archive
Roy Strong, Coronation: A History of Kingship and the British Monarchy (Harper Collins, 2005).
Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France (Routledge, 1973).
Ian Bradley, God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Heart of Monarchy, third edition (Continuum, 2012).
David Cannadine. The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the Invention of Tradition, c.1820-1977′ in Eric Hobsbawm and Thomas Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
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Samuel anoints David. Second century, Dura-Europos synagogue, Damascus, Syria.
Elizabeth II at her coronation, Westminster Abbey, June 2nd, 1953. She is seated, unadorned, beneath a canopy so the public cannot see the most sacred part of the ceremony, the anointing.
The Chief of the O’Neills is inaugurated by the Primate of Armagh at Tulach Og in a detail from an Ulster map, c.1595.
King Edgar seated between St Dunstan and St Ethelwold, from the Regularis Concordia, c. 1050.
The coronation of an English queen from the 14th-century Liber Regal is.
Opposite: Mary Tudor curing the King’s Evil, in a contemporary English illustration.
Opposite below: A silver medal with a bust of Henry VIII and, on its obverse, a Tudor rose and, in Latin, the inscription Defender of the Faith, 1524.
Right: Frontispiece to Eikon Basilike, 1648-49, featuring an illustration of its supposed author, Charles I, as Christian martyr.
Reception of King George V and Queen Mary at St Paul’s Cathedral, Jubilee Day, May 6th 1935, a painting by Frank O. Salisbury shows the royal couple being greeted by officiating clergy.
By Ian Bradley
Ian Bradley is Reader in Church History at the University of St Andrews.