The Gospel according to King Charles
- May 5, 2023
- Alastair Benn
- Themes: Culture, History
How King Charles chose the ancient St Augustine Gospels for his Coronation.
Many of the changes in the ceremony since the last Coronation of a monarch to take place in Britain in 1953 have been a natural consequence of the passage of time and have not been consciously chosen either by the Palace or by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1953, the environs of Westminster Abbey were filled with 8,000 guests on precarious, painstakingly constructed scaffolding. The Abbey’s natural capacity, around 2,000, is roughly how many will be present at Charles III’s Coronation.
Whereas in 1953 the Coronation was filmed by static cameras in long shaky shots in rather dimly lit conditions, in 2023 technology has moved on. Cameras will wheel above the congregation, capturing the event from every conceivable angle, reflected in stark LED lights rigged onto the Gothic structures of the Abbey.
But Charles has himself chosen one aspect of the ceremony – it is a gesture whose deep and mysterious symbolism illustrates not just Charles’ approach to the ceremonial core of Kingship but the entire spirit and conduct that will guide his future rule as King.
In 2001, as Prince of Wales, Charles visited the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The jewel of the College’s extraordinary manuscript collection is the sixth-century St Augustine Gospels, donated to the College in the sixteenth century by the Archbishop of Canterbury (and sometime Master of Corpus) Matthew Parker. Charles later requested that the Augustine Gospels be used in his Coronation as part of the Gospel Procession which will take its place at the sacred heart of the Christian coronation rite.
It is, as the current Master of Corpus Christi, Professor Christopher Kelly, tells me, ‘the oldest non-archaeological artefact in England.’ He says we know ‘where it has been and how it was being used’ throughout its entire, 1,400 year history.
In 601, Pope Gregory the Great donated the Gospels to St Augustine, following his arrival in Kent five years earlier on a mission to convert the English to Christianity. Under Augustine’s supervision, King Ethelbert became the first in the line of English monarchs to be converted to Christianity. Augustine, in turn, became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. It is, Kelly says, a ‘symbol of the connection between England and Europe and the powerful impact of those connections’ as well as ‘a significant fragment of English history’.
But the precise significance of the manuscript’s presence at the Coronation is really all down to Charles. This is the first time the Augustine Gospels have been deployed as Gospels since the Reformation. Since then, the Gospels have left Cambridge on nine occasions: to be present at all seven enthronements of the Archbishop of Canterbury since 1945 and for the Papal visits of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the only two Papal visits to England in the modern era. But the Gospels have been present merely to be venerated, not to be used in a service. Kelly reflects on the peculiar significance of their presence at the Coronation: ‘After 1,400 years Augustine of Canterbury would recognise precisely this part of the liturgy.’
One of the few innovations in the ceremony has been little remarked upon in the run-up to the event. And yet, it is perhaps the most remarkable element of the entire ceremony, a union of the King’s all-too-human, personal will and Britain’s deep history. In this sense, the Coronation can be said to bridge two ages, our own present and a distant, half-forgotten, semi-mythical past.
Charles has often paid homage to the preciousness of Britain’s older worlds. In May 2022, Charles unveiled 70 ancient woodlands and 70 trees dedicated to the Queen on her Platinum Jubilee. He said: ‘It is absolutely vital that we do our utmost to nurture our historic inheritance.’ Very ancient woodlands have been preserved more faithfully in Britain than in neighbouring parts of Europe. In the remnants of the royal hunting forests of the medieval period, protected from subsequent development, such as Hainault, you can find black poplars, the rarest tree in the UK, alongside a stunning native variety of tree types: such a contrast with much of the continent’s vast, often recently planted, monocultural woodlands.
In 2000, Charles, then Prince of Wales, said: ‘There is no doubt that we live in an age of unprecedented, and sometimes terrifying technological advance where the speed of advance so often outstrips the necessary ethical considerations.’
Unlike in ancient England, we live in a world in which total war and the mass mobilisation of peoples against each other are realities of our time. The little battles of old Britain – Alfred and the Danes, Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror – seem so very distant.
And yet in dropping in this artefact of ancient times into the waking world, Charles III is with these Gospels subtly but pointedly making his own feelings heard. We must go back, Charles tells us, far past our fathers’ time. We must go back and then perhaps, we shall at last, as TS Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, ‘arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time’.