King Charles in Charge: Key Coronation Takeaways That Will Set the Tone of His Reign, Plus New Official Portraits
Behind the scene at the Coronation: King Charles III and Queen Camilla wave from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, May 6, 2023. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty via AP/Canadian Press
The imperial crowns and the orb and sceptre have been returned to the Tower of London, the gilded coaches have gone back to their stables, the Coronation Chair is on display at Westminster Abbey and the Stone of Destiny is on its return to Edinburgh Castle.
The crowning of Charles III went off without a hitch — despite a 5-minute delay at the start of the service when the Prince and Princess of Wales and their children were late for the service. In the days following, Buckingham Palace continues to release new official coronation portraits.
So how did Coronation weekend set the tone for King Charles’ reign and his new slimmed down monarchy? From what we saw, the Palace wanted to reinforce a trio of values-based ideas: inclusion, sustainability and service. Let’s have a closer look at how these concepts are being implemented.
Charles follows his mother, who reigned for 70 years with great effectiveness, so there’s no doubt he is aware of how powerful women can be. What emerged in the pageantry of Saturday’s ceremony was that Charles has a deep lineup of women behind the throne, shoring up the monarchy.
First is Queen Camilla is clearly his primary support system, and she has mastered the art of not outshining the King. Anne, the Princess Royal, was given the honour of riding on horseback ahead of the King’s carriage as Gold Stick in Waiting, a role of symbolic protector of the sovereign. Catherine, Princess of Wales, always a star, has stepped into a new period of gravitas, while Sophie, recently promoted to Duchess, is also proving her worth.
As a new generation of senior royals, Catherine and Sophie are taking on patronages and championing causes, doing the day-in-day-out footwork of Charles’s messaging. Their new elevated status was clear in that they were, with their husbands, clad in Garter Mantle robes and white dresses as did Camilla and her attendants. In 1953, when Queen Elizabeth was crowned, she wore an embroidered white gown — her attendants, women in the royal family and the broader aristocracy also wore white, symbolizing simplicity, renewal and a fresh start.
Princess Charlotte, 8, in matching Alexander McQueen alongside her mother, Kate (who has selected the British designer as her brand of record for milestone events since her wedding in 2011) is emerging as a star in her own right as her appearances at the coronation followed her high visibility at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and then her funeral last year.
Charlotte can be seen advising both her brothers on etiquette at these events and took particular care of Prince Louis, 5, at the coronation by holding his hand while walking down the aisle and talking patiently to him in the pew. Meanwhile, Prince George, 9, the third in line for the throne, took on pageboy honours with aplomb. The Coronation was Charlotte’s star turn, though, her poise as a nine-year old, remarkable.
And lastly we saw Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, in a prominent role during the service carrying the Sword of State. Not only was this an athletic feat — it weighs eight pounds and had to be kept at a very specific angle — but her embellished teal dress has the Guardian calling her the Pippa Middleton of the Coronation, whose back view famously stole the show at her sister’s wedding to Prince William.
New Harmony Between the Palaces
Previous eras were marked by disputes between royal houses (Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace team versus Charles’s Clarence House reps; Charles versus Diana; Harry and William’s Kensington Palace power base parrying with their elders; and in the end, Harry’s breakaway team versus everybody). What we saw Saturday, though, was a new unity and collaboration between Charles and the Waleses. Messaging has been unified, the social media content has been consistent across the Palaces. But the key moment was on the balcony, when the Waleses and the Edinburghs were off to the right side. The focus, the picture frame, was of the King and Queen alone (with their pages). This appeared planned, to keep the spotlight where it was supposed to be on Saturday, on the new monarch and his consort.
The touching moment between William and Charles during the coronation ceremony as the former declared his loyalty was the most emotional of the day. Then on Sunday, when William went onstage at the Coronation Concert, he was Charles’ hype man, thanking him for his 50 years of service to the country, his commitment to saving the natural world and the work he has done for the Prince’s Trust for a million young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Pa, we are all so proud of you,” he concluded, and we can gather from this that relations between father and son, and between monarch and Prince of Wales, are currently strong indeed.
As William recounted in that Coronation concert speech, “For all that celebrations are magnificent, at the heart of the pageantry is a simple message. Service. My father’s first words on entering the Abbey yesterday were a pledge of service.”
Indeed, the King’s words were, “I come not to be served but to serve.”
This is a message the royal family has always been keen to emphasize. The speech Queen Elizabeth gave when she was 21-years-old still echoes: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service …” The late monarch’s last message was signed, “Your Servant.”
The third day of coronation fell on a bank holiday called the Big Help Out, an effort to encourage volunteering. We duly saw the Prince and Princess of Wales with all three of their children volunteering at a Scouting event.
The jaw-dropping gems, archaic rituals and horse choreography are part of the entertainment package, a unifying show of nationalism for Britons and a draw for tourists. But it is the vast array of hospital visits and school and retirement and community centre visits and ribbon cuttings that make up the real work of the monarchy. Raising awareness and showing empathy is meant to convey that the royals are in it with the people of their country – King Charles is clearly trying to show his intention to keep that service a focus of his reign.
Values-based Direction From the Top
For nearly 50 years, Charles has advocated for the environment; indeed he was ridiculed for his climate crisis warnings, his organic agriculture interests (not to mention talking to plants) and his urban planning beliefs, up until the tide turned. He is now seen as being ahead of his time.
At the coronation, nature motifs were everywhere – referencing the ancient cultural concept of the Green Man, often used as a symbol of seasonal renewal and ecological awareness – from the invites to the wildflower embroidery on the upper part of Camilla’s dress, to the spectacular leaf headpieces on Kate and Charlotte, and the white floral fascinator worn by Sophie, even to the gold wheat sheaf pattern on Penny Mordaunt’s outfit. Nature was woven into the imagery wherever possible.
We also saw Charles’s efforts at inclusivity. Many of the participants in the service were people (and women) of colour. The Commonwealth was well represented. The people from all walks of life who earned their seats through public service reflected more of the country than would have been the case had the Abbey been filled with peers of the realm. And the faith leaders from across the spectrum of religions that Charles specifically asked to be a part of the ceremony were highlighted when the new King stopped to speak with him as he made his way out of the Abbey. These ideas — inclusion and sustainability — were represented in both imagery and the, the same way as service was called out again and again. Charles is declaring that these will be at the forefront during his reign.
The Coronation Concert, in particular, took on a global flavour. Now, the British tabloid press made a lot out of the lack of top British talent (Adele, Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran) onstage, as opposed to the more recent concert during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and previous parties at the palace. Instead, the show featured a broad range of international talent, from Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Chinese pianist Lang Lang (admittedly both more up Charles’ alley than a Take That reunion), headlined by Americans Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, with cameo appearances from Tom Cruise in Top Gun mode and Muppet faves Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.
It was when Camilla and Charles did a cameo appearance on a live American Idol broadcast after the concert with Richie and Perry (where both are judges) that the Hollywood crossover became apparent. Call it the Harry and Meghan effect? But it seems clear that given that American popular culture sets the global buzz-meter, that this reign will take all the Hollywood stardust it can. Broader popularity is good for the health of the monarchy, and its role as chief tourism draw.
Speaking of Harry, he really seems to have pulled off a difficult move. Showing up was important, and he did it with class and good humour – looking resplendent in his bespoke Christian Dior morning suit – without distracting from his father’s big day. He left straight away afterward, missing the toast at the family luncheon his father is reported to have made to grandson Archie on his birthday.
The social media accounts of the royal family and the Prince and Princess of Wales also owe a debt to the Sussexes’ embrace of sleek technology in messaging. The royal accounts now feature slick, tightly edited videos and the weekend has been a very active one on social media.
Polls show a gap in support from younger Britons for the monarchy, but this kind of outreach shows they are aware of the need to find new ways to reach the younger generation.
There’s little doubt, however, that the King’s reign began on a high note, with tens of thousands across London braving the rain to cheer on the monarch. For their part, Charles and Camilla expressed their “sincere and heartfelt” thanks, saying they were ““deeply touched by the events of yesterday” and “profoundly grateful both to all those who helped to make it such a glorious occasion and to the very many who turned out to show their support.”