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21 February 2023

The myth of King Charles and the very modern monarchy

Anger at rumours of a “woke” coronation misses the whole point of royalty.

By Martha Gill

The idea that King Charles’s coronation is to be “modern” has been troubling people. It seems in particular to have been troubling members of the House of Lords, who are presently “in uproar”, according to the Telegraph, at the news many will not in fact be granted prime seats for the event in Westminster Abbey.

“It’ll involve sustainability charities, and making sure people aren’t upset and the usual woke stuff,” one disgruntled peer was quoted as saying. “A lot of peers will be upset. They’ll say: ‘What’s that person doing there when I’m not there?’”

Yes, flying in the face of hallowed tradition, into this sacred space will come a confection of new-fangled types: namely NHS workers, the community minded and “unsung heroes”. The coronation will also be smaller. In 1953 they fitted 8,000 people into the Abbey because they built grandstands inside it, but this time there will be 2,200 at most. What woke nonsense is this?

Members of the ermine-clad class are not the only ones to voice the fear that the coronation will be unpalatably vogueish. The former Tory minister Sir Edward Leigh had this to say: “Will [Charles] convince us that the Church of England will use their influence to ensure that it remains as such, particularly the anointing, and it doesn’t just degenerate into a kind of dumbed down woke-fest celebration of so-called modern Britain?”

No such reassurance looks to be coming from Charles. Buckingham Palace wants to keep up with the times. The heralded event, palace insiders have been quoted as saying, will “reflect the monarch’s role today and look towards the future”, and recognise the “spirit of our times”. It is to be very modern indeed, apparently.

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[See also: King Charles is popular – but for how long?]

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So if the King refuses to do so, let me provide the traditionalists with reassurance instead. The coronation will not be modern. Despite Charles’s efforts, handing out alms to favoured peasants rather than rewarding the gentry will not in fact bring the monarchy up to date. Royal patronage is not a recent “woke” idea. A king celebrating philanthropic works at a royal event is not new. Indeed, nothing could be more traditional than the twinning of charity and royalty. They have been linked together for centuries.

Charity first grew to become a major focus of the monarchy near the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria, as royals began to exchange real political power for mere “influence”. The Reform Bill of 1832 put paid to political patronage, and the monarchy replaced it with charitable patronage, which could earn it social approval and shore up its position. Prince Albert wisely decided that the true role of the monarch was to be a “headship of philanthropy, a guidance and encouragement of the manifold efforts which our age is making towards a higher and purer life”.

Moreover, if modernity is your aim, you are unlikely to achieve it through the monarchy. It is difficult for any royal event to be truly modern, given the monarchy essentially represents feudalism, aristocracy, empire, male heredity and silly gold costumes. History is the point. Modernising the monarchy in general, as Charles has voiced ambitions to do, is basically impossible – it would be like modernising a celebrated piece of ancient architecture. Bring it up to date, and watch it collapse under the weight of contradictions. The only way to truly modernise the monarchy would be to get rid of it all together, as its various brushes with modernity – bringing television to the royal breakfast table in the 1960s, participating in It’s a Royal Knockout in the 1990s, and Harry and Meghan’s Oprah and Netflix adventures – have threatened to do.

Charles will fail in his attempts to be a modern monarch by embracing charity and diversity. He will succeed only, perhaps, in being a nice one. The plans for the coronation are a credit to his character: he will be the sort of king who likes rewarding favoured peasants, and helping to support causes that strike him, personally, as worthy. That is much better than the alternative. If we are to do something as ridiculous as have a king, we should be grateful he is neither mad nor bad, but instead a reasonable person who wants to do some good. But we should not try to convince ourselves that this sort of behaviour is “modern”. There is nothing to stop Charles’s descendants from behaving quite differently, given half the chance. What will King George’s coronation look like? One thing is for sure: it won’t be modern.

Read more:

How will Scotland respond to King Charles?

Why King Charles must speak at Cop27

The lessons of King Charles’s first Christmas speech

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