Inside Westminster Abbey with oatcakes, a riotous collision and a moment when everything went still
There was, of course, a massive pillar in the way to obscure the view of the King but it was impossible not to be sucked into the very core of the Coronation Service given the power of the moment, the mood and – above all – the music that left Westminster Abbey trembling on Saturday afternoon.
Sitting in the North Transept, I was diagonally behind the Queen’s throne chair on the edge of the Coronation Theatre, the scene of crownings for 1,000 years. Here lies the beautiful Cosmati Pavement, a startlingly complex mosaic floor created by craftsmen from workshops in Rome on the orders of Henry III in the early 1200s. The Stone of Destiny, on which Scottish kings were crowned for hundreds of years, was nearby under the Coronation Chair.
Stepping into the abbey and you know you are walking into deep timelines. Attending the coronation of King Charles III was like joining the past as it collided at great force with the present. As ceremony, pageantry, privilege, the public, riches and religion coalesced, a great force built within the abbey walls. The sound was unbelievable, the loudest I’ve ever heard, as voice, orchestra and organ built and built vibration that ultimately filled this almighty gothic vaulted space, raising the roof, messing with emotion and building an unparalleled atmosphere.
Coronation day was an early start. Up at 5am and on Lambeth Bridge just over an hour later, the city centre was heaving. The first signs that something was afoot were the hats. Then a glimpse of some mounted military men in a ceremonial form. Then the Union Flag t-shirts and fold-up stools and picnic bags. My reporter’s survival kit of a packet of oatcakes was stashed in dear hope they got through security.
For three hours, the congregation of the abbey grew as the holy, the honoured and the highly-regarded sat down. The famous –Lionel Richie, Katie Perry, Ant and Dec, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley - sat among people recognised by the state for their service to their communities, their streets, their country. Faith leaders representing all strands of belief hung together in what I’ll remember as one of the most powerful scenes of the day.
Meanwhile, I was grateful that my new pal in the press area had a Hello magazine level of knowledge of who’s who in the aristocracy, those who move in the shadows and outwith the realms of ordinary existence.
In film of the 1953 Coronation, it felt like the only permitted mood was grave as the BBC commentator’s public school English raked like gravel over proceedings. On Saturday, there was something of the positive, the jolly wedding, as the countdown to the King’s arrival ticked on. Neck’s craned at new arrivals. Michelle O’Neill, vice president of Sinn Fein defied her critics and walked in - her mission to advance reconciliation and move forward – as did a wholly indifferent Humza Yousaf, who said it was unlikely he would have watched the coronation on the telly, had he not been invited.
Politics to one side, this was a deeply religious service, the core of which has remained unchanged for 10 centuries. Privilege to one side, King Charles is a man of deep faith, with the core of the service the anointment. As he disappeared behind a screen, robes removed and in a loose white shirt for his private moment with God, he looked as if he was away to fall.
I’ll never forget that look on his very pale face or that second in the trembling abbey when, amongst this mighty crash of of past and present, everything seemed to stand still.
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