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The Last Coronation NOT in Westminster

Kings at Gloucester

It's common knowledge that English coronations happen at Westminster Abbey. Less well-known are the two remarkable royal ceremonies depicted in Victorian windows at Gloucester Cathedral. Between them, these windows commemorate the launch of one medieval king's reign, and the end of another's. One shows the on-site burial of the murdered Edward II. The other, the last coronation of an English king outside Westminster: Edward's grandfather, the boy crowned in 1216.


Gloucester Cathedral's  stained glass Coronation Window, showing Henry III being crowned in 1216.
Detail from Gloucester Cathedral's Coronation Window. Credit: Aiden McRae Thomson

The Coronation of 1216

On October 28th, 1216, nine-year old Henry of Winchester was carried in a procession through the streets of Gloucester, into what was then the Abbey of St Peter. There, three bishops anointed and crowned him, and he was hailed by a select group of supporters as Henry III. Unlike later coronations, this will have been a hurried and slightly nervous affair, and not just because of the unusual venue.

A coronation is designed to convey authority and legitimacy on a king, by showing he has popular support and the blessing of God. However, young Henry III's hurried coronation had a small audience, and couldn't use either Westminster Abbey or the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury. He is said to have been crowned with an item of lady's jewellery, suggesting either an improvised ceremony or a child's head too small to hold a full crown – or both. Neither can have been terribly inspiring.


The Coronation of 2023

We see something rather different for Charles III's coronation in 2023, and indeed for most coronations after 1216 (including Henry's second, at Westminster Abbey, in 1220).


Coronations are carefully stage-managed, partly to demonstrate the smooth transfer of power between monarchs (although the actual transfer happens immediately on the old monarch's death, usually months earlier). In 2023, local celebrations of king and Commonwealth will take place over a Bank Holiday weekend. As is traditional, the main event will be a church ceremony in which the monarch is acclaimed, crowned, consecrated with holy oil, and swears the Coronation Oath. In a hangover from the seventeenth-century's drive to protect the Reformation(s), the monarch's oaths at coronation and accession specifically protect the UK's established Protestant churches.


The Traditional Westminster Coronation

Westminster Abbey has been the traditional site for English coronations since Edward the Confessor finished building it in 1065. In 1066, William the Conqueror held his coronation in the abbey, reinforcing the legitimacy of his claim by tying himself to the religious and political centre of Saxon government. Every English monarch crowned since has followed this tradition, including (eventually) Henry III.


A scene from the manuscript Liber Regalis, depicting two bishops corwning a seated king.
Detail from Liber Regalis (c.1382), credit: Westminster Abbey

The exact procedure and equipment may have varied, but by the late fourteenth-century a recognisably traditional religious ceremony, following the directions laid out in the manuscript Liber Regalis, had been largely formalised.




The Confessor's building has been replaced, perhaps partly to create a more impressive coronation venue. The Confessor himself is in a shrine at the eastern end, placed there by the king responsible for much of the newer building – Henry III. In fact, if you know much about the current Westminster Abbey, or about Henry III, you probably already know that this complete re-building was the great achievement of his long reign.


So why was he himself crowned somewhere else?


England in 1216

In 1216 England was in the grip of a barons' revolt and foreign invasion. Henry's father, King John, was very nearly at the end of his mission to make himself England's most unpopular king, and the nobility were flocking to the banner of the invading French prince, Louis.


King John signs the Magna Carta, watched by armed barons, in a much-sanitised scene engraved much later
King John signs the Magna Carta at Runnymede (the nice furniture and canopies might be later inventions). Credit: History.com

John had signed Magna Carta the previous year, which had briefly brought some harmony by addressing the barons' grievances. But within months, the king had rejected that deal and gone back on his word. He was on campaign when he died suddenly in Newark, in October 1216.


The two claimants to the throne were a child and a foreigner, neither of whom could count on the support of even a majority of the barons. One had the previous king's family name and loyal servants: his rival had an army and experience. Each needed to establish some legitimacy and authority, and quickly.


A New Dawn

Prince Henry had been living in Devizes, and was hurried to Gloucester, where loyal clerics were able to carry out a coronation on 28th October. The presence of a papal ambassador gave Henry's new reign some international and religious endorsement, which was a big improvement on his father, and strengthened his hand against Louis. Gloucester, though no Westminster, was significant as it had been a major Roman settlement and the site of displays of royal power since at least the Conquest. This coronation was followed by a reissuing of the terms of Magna Carta, in an effort to bolster Henry's domestic support.


Gloucester Cathedral's nave, from the west end. Romanesque stone columns and arches, with a white vaulted (dark-ribbed) ceiling.
Gloucester Cathedral's nave, from the west end.

With a new face at the top, consecrated by his Gloucester coronation, followed by military victory for the king's regent, William Marshall, in the summer of 1217, the Plantagenets regained the kingdom.


The Legacy of Henry III's Coronation

Black and white image of the abbey's crossing, with a chair on a raised, stepped platform at the centre. In front of the chair, at the head of the nave, Edward I's Coronation Chair.
Henry III's Westminster Abbey, ready for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Credit: National Archives

Despite the difficulties of his first coronation – a small crown and crowd, questions over the ceremony's validity and location, the Archbishop's absence, ongoing civil war – Henry's reign stuck, and lasted 56 years. That's not to say it was a peaceful reign; the on-and-off armed conflict that dogged John and his successors eventually prompted the emergence of the first recognisable English parliaments.



But Henry III's legacy goes further than parliaments and baronial rights. We'll see the fruits of his favourite project on full display during the coronation of Charles III in May 2023, because Henry III completely rebuilt Westminster Abbey. The church was turned into a shrine to Edward the Confessor, a family mausoleum for the Plantagenets, and a venue for the sacred ceremony at the heart of their kingship. Enjoy.


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Photo Credits

Image of Gloucester Cathedral Coronation Window: Aiden McRae Thomson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/ / https://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/15161650429/in/photostream/

Image of Westminster Abbey, 1953: The National Archives Catalogue ref: WORK 21/299: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a-ground-breaking-ceremony-the-coronation-of-elizabeth-ii/

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Further Reading

Re-enactment of Henry III's coronation, in Gloucester, in 2016: https://www.medieval.eu/800th-anniversary-coronation-king-henry-iii/


Coronations:

John Brooke-Little, Royal Ceremonies of State.


The 2023 Coronation of Charles III


Gloucester and the Plantagenets:

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