Dispatches from the present
When watching any royal event, I always wonder whether I’d go if I got an invitation. In that circumstance, I’m either the husband of the French president or representing my home country of New Zealand in some sort of ambassadorial role (like former national rugby team All Blacks’ captain Richie McCaw). Or maybe I’d be famous like Katy Perry, who doesn’t hold any titles—she was there as an ambassador of the British Asian Trust (don’t ask), and performed at Windsor Castle celebrations the night after. I say this because I’ve long wrestled with whether I’d ever accept any honors from New Zealand (if I do anything even worth being recognized for). We got rid of knighthoods for a while, and then they were brought back, “by a moneyed politician desirous of a knighthood of his own,” as fellow Kiwi Eleanor Catton writes in her new novel, Birnam Wood. As both monarchists and republicans had various reasons for opposing the decision, they find, as Catton writes, that “all the knighted intellectuals were sell-outs, and all the knighted businessmen were bribes.” The question can easily be extrapolated to the coronation: Can we actually care? Do we?
An oft-cited survey by the National Centre for Social Research places public support of the monarchy at 55 percent, but this only includes data up until 2021. YouGov, a private surveying company, which has been polling regularly since May 2022 (just before Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee), says there’s 62 percent monarchical support currently, though agrees this has been on a steady downward slide for the last decade, and that the younger generations lean away from being royalist (only 36 percent of those between eighteen and 24 years old prefer a head of state who inherits the role). In short, all the goodwill gained by the queen’s death has all evaporated.
That’s the trouble of Charles III’s reign: it will remain under the shadow of his mother’s. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned at 25; her opinions were probably barely formed, let alone publicly known; her coronation wasn’t just the first one televised, but also happened when TV ownership wasn’t common. Charles has decades of gaffes documented on camera—including a dismissive tantrum when his staff didn’t remove his pen fast enough at an event shortly after his mother’s death. While his office always takes the opportunity to opine that he was talking about the environment back in the Seventies—before it was cool to do so, dontcha know—he’s also got plenty of bad ideas, from architecture to homeopathy to, well, the belief that he should be king by birthright.
The point of the coronation is not to make a sovereign but to make everyone publicly swear fealty—Charles ascended the throne as soon as his mom died, after all. The theatrics of the ceremony itself began with a fourteen-year-old boy welcoming the king as the representative of the “children of the kingdom of God,” to which Charles replied, “I come not to be served, but to serve.” Then followed all the faith leaders pledging their allegiance—in one of the few breaks with tradition in a ceremony that hasn’t changed much since 1066, faiths outside Christianity were invited and formally involved. At least the heads of the Commonwealth weren’t asked to kiss the ring; just to send representatives of their own armed forces to march down the Mall and stand guard along the parade route, five paces from each other.
The anti-monarchy organizations in the U.K. tried to protest along the parade. These were meager, as the leaders of various groups were arrested and carted off before the procession began. The leading one, Republic, told the police about their activities ahead of time in an effort to be cooperative but were arrested as soon as they arrived at Trafalgar Square and started setting up. They were detained for eighteen hours, as reported by journalist Mic Wright, who broke the story from the police station where they and other protesters (from Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and others) were held without charge. The night before, the police took into custody members of Night Stars, a safety group associated with the Westminster City Council and the Metropolitan Police. Apparently the police thought something would happen the next day with rape whistles, which Night Stars was obviously distributing; the police said the whistles may scare the horses, even though they’d all been trained to be used to the sounds of drums, brass bands and crowds. Carrying signs and standing in peaceful protest, the few who had managed to stay within the cordoned parade route were shouted down by those around them. Not that that mattered much to the police, who arrested an Australian royalist and held her for thirteen hours. At this coronation, the measured restraint that characterized Queen Elizabeth’s style of authority was nowhere to be found.
Technically, Charles is my king now too. New Zealand is not just part of the Commonwealth, but one of the “large realms” of the former empire, alongside Australia and Canada. His face will eventually be on the currency, though it will take years for him to appear on the coins, and longer still before he replaces his mother on the twenty-dollar note. There isn’t a strong republican sentiment there, though there isn’t much of a royalist strain either. The country is still a constitutional monarchy: a governor-general who represents the monarch signs a bill into law and, like in the U.K., can also veto it—though this doesn’t happen anymore. The major newspaper in Wellington, the capital city, recently changed its name to The Post from The Dominion Post; the story about it in its online version said that the country lost its dominion status back in 1945, but that’s not correct—an indication of how well the editors have been educated about parliamentary systems and how much they care about being connected to royalty.
Still, like the annual Christmas message, I felt compelled to watch—at least a bit of the livestream. Charles’s reign thus far has been bumpy, to say the least—defined by the fallout from the Epstein scandal and Prince Harry’s exposé of the family—and he’s known for his penchant to insert himself into politics, ruffling the feathers of those in power. Though he is unlikely to go the way of his namesake, Charles I, who was overthrown by the government, there was something about the coronation that felt less like the beginning of a new era and more like an ending. His was the first coronation of a monarch, my monarch, in my lifetime; maybe it’ll be the only one.