The coronation bling: what does it all mean?

Now that those of us who live in Britain can once again turn on the news without fear of getting mugged by coronation news, let’s sneak into the space that’s opened up and review a bit of the bling that’s been put back in storage.

But before we do, I have to remind you–I believe it’s a legal requirement–that every bit of that bling signifies something. The king’s scepter? It signifies his temporal power (such as it is). The orb? That symbolizes that his power’s derived from god. If you doubt that, feel free to ask either the king or god, whichever one you figure is more likely to give you an answer.

Sadly, explaining what things signify goes against all my writerly instincts, which insist that if symbols work at all, they’ll explain their own damn selves. So my explanations will be, at best, sporadic.

Yes, the headline was just a touch misleading. I should be ashamed.

The Photo of Irrelevance


The stone

The Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, making it sound like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie, isn’t what you’d call bling. It’s roughly carved sandstone and the size of three pillows piled on top of each other. It weighs 152 kilos. That’s 335 pounds, or 23 stones.

A stone? As an out-of-fashion way to measure weight. One stone equals 14 pounds, and it does seem sensible to measure the weight of a stone in stones, even if it makes for confusing sentences.

The Stone of Scone was seized from Scotland in 1296, back when England and Scotland were two separate countries with two separate monarchs and an enduring habit of going to war with each other. It was a symbol of the Scottish monarchy, which is one reason the English wanted it. The other reasons were: 

2) That legend connected it back to the biblical Jacob of Jacob’s ladder, who was supposed to have used it for an extremely uncomfortable pillow. People took that stuff seriously back then. 

3) That taking it really pissed off the Scots and gave the English bragging rights.

The earliest written record connecting a Scottish king to the stone comes from 1249, when Alexander III was kinged at Scone Palace, which was not a cafe serving tea and baked goods but a palace with, um, you know, a stone. An important stone. Legend and poetry trace it back further but we’ll move on, reminding ourselves as we go that the English hauled this 23-stone stone south at a time before railroads had been invented and possibly before the wheel had been.That’s how badly they wanted it.

The English then proceeded to crown their own kings on it. Edward I (1239 – 1307) was so pleased with the thing that he had a coronation chair built to hold it, and 26 monarchs have put their kingly butts on it while being crowned. Everyone took it seriously enough that during World War II it was buried for safekeeping. Because if the Nazis took over the country, at least they wouldn’t get their hands on the stone, right? Just imagine if they had. All those 1950s World War II movies would’ve had the Nazis talking with Scottish accents instead of German ones.

In the 1950s, four Scottish students stole it, breaking it in the process. Or else, they discovered that the Suffragettes had already broken it when they bombed the chair in 1914. Either way, the students ran off with both pieces. Or not exactly ran. Even in two pieces, it was still a hefty hunk of rock. They hid them in odd places–a garage; a factory, a hole in the ground (it’s a stone; who’d notice it?)–before finally getting it to Scotland, where it stayed briefly before (the point having been made) it was returned to England. The students were never prosecuted.

In 1996, England gave it back to Scotland, which means it had to be hauled south again for Charles’s coronation.  

So that’s 335 pounds of sandstone being schlepped north and south so it can sit under a chair for a few days, looking like the lump it is, while people run all around it wearing fancy costumes.

Maybe you have to be British for that to make sense to you.


The swords

You need five swords to be kinged, apparently. The sword of offering, the sword of temporal justice, the sword of spiritual justice, the sword of mercy, and the sword of state, which was originally one of two swords but somewhere along the line the other one was covered with a cloak of invisibility and no one’s seen it since.

One sword gets blessed by a bishop and given to the newly minted king, who lays it on an altar then buys it back for 50 shillings, which no one uses anymore so they’ve substituted newly minted 50-pence coins. I don’t know if the king has to cough those up himself or if someone hands him the money the way a parent slips a kid some money in a candy store so they can think they’re paying for their own candy. 

Each of those moves symbolizes something, but you have to keep a straight face to explain it all, so I won’t try.


The bracelets

The bracelets of sincerity and wisdom have been around so long that no one knows quite what they’re supposed to do–other than make you sincere and wise, of course. Didn’t Wonder Woman’s deflect bullets? I can’t help wondering if anyone’s tried using them that way. 

Anyhow, since no one’s sure what their powers are, they’re given to the king, who “acknowledges” them, then they’re put back on the altar. He doesn’t wear them.

Back in the dark ages, when I was in my teens, women were expected to wear lipstick and– 

This is relevant, so stay with me. 

–women were expected to wear lipstick and I spent some time trying to figure out what to do with the stuff and ended up doing more or less the same thing as the king does with the bracelets: I acknowledged the Lipstick of Adulthood by smearing some on my lips, then looking in the mirror, deciding it was ridiculous, and rubbing it off. Since we didn’t have an altar, I put it back in the medicine cabinet and went out into the world a quick smear closer to adulthood and with no one any the wiser. 


The glove

Yes, singular. The king has one coronation glove. He puts it on, then he takes it off. That makes it a bit like the Lipstick of Adulthood, only more expensive. Much more expensive. It symbolizes that the king thought it might be cold in the church and then decided it wasn’t. 


The gold spurs

Once upon a time, they were buckled onto the king’s legs. I’d have though ankles, but what do I know? The article says legs. Anyway, these days they’re only tapped against his ankles. They symbolize that in a ceremony this long, it might be wise to make sure the main character stays awake.


The crown

English kings before the Norman conquest might (it’s unclear) have settled for a relatively simple ceremony and a blinged-up helmet instead of a crown, but as a usurper William the Conqueror had a point to make–I’m your legitimate king, not some nobody who arrived in a small boat–so he went all out with both his crown and his coronation ceremony. So much so that the ceremony included having the people in attendance call out in unison that they accepted him as their king, and they were noisy enough that they spooked the soldiers Will had left outside, who did what any group of sober, armed men would do in that situation and set fire to the place. William stuck around long enough to get the holy oil poured on his head, giving the church’s seal of approval to his hairstyle, as the church went up in flames around him.

Since he didn’t end up getting deep-fried, the business with the oil is still with us. It now has its own special spoon. 

It would take J.K. Rowling to make this stuff up. 

The front and back of the current crown look so much alike that one of the past kings–I’ve lost track of which–was never sure he had it on right. And if he’d gotten it wrong, all the other kids would’ve made fun of him.


Gold Stick in Waiting

The tradition of the Gold Stick in Waiting dates back to Henry VIII. There really is a gold stick involved, but as soon as we introduce capital letters we’re not talking about the stick itself but about the bodyguard who rides behind the royal coach after the coronation, carrying a gold-tipped stick with which to protect the monarch from, um, bling-phobic assassins and whatever else you can ward off with a gold-tipped stick. I’ll experiment with one someday. 

Anyone got a gold-tipped stick I can borrow? 

For the recent coronation, the role went to the king’s 72-year-old sister, who’s almost as fearsome (and almost as old) as I am.

The article I stole this from thought it had to mention that the role’s now symbolic, but honestly, I’d guessed that already.


Other stuff

Over the centuries, no coronation’s been complete unless someone added a new bit of ceremony. Let’s settle for talking about just one: Medieval kings prepared for their coronation by bathing. That must’ve been unusual enough to get a mention. So iIn 1399, when someone introduced the idea of turning a few marginally normal humans into knights on the eve of the coronation, it only made sense to call them Knights of the Bath.

Settle down in back. It’s not that funny.

Okay, it is that funny but put away the rubber ducks, please. 


Money and protest

How much did the coronation cost this time around? A thousand civil servants are still punching numbers into their computers and palace officials are looking embarrassed and saying some of the published estimates are “more fanciful than others,” but Lord Google informs me that it’s in the neighborhood of £100 million.

Or by another Lord Google estimate, between £50 million and £100 million. Or by the estimate a friend mentioned this afternoon, £150 million.

Whatever the figure is, it’s been paid out of taxes. 

Fifty-two anti-monarchist protestors were arrested along the coronation route under a newly passed law that criminalizes not just causing a public nuisance but being prepared to cause one. Or fixin’ to get ready to harbor the intent to be prepared to cause one. The police have since “expressed regret” about six of those arrests. One of the six, a leader of the anti-monarchy group Republic, said he’d spent months working out legal tactics with the police only to be arrested on the day. He’s not in the mood to  accept an apology, which is good because he hasn’t exactly gotten one.



If you’ve read all that and still a little something to remember the mayhem by, what’s available? The Guardian’s list of souvenirs includes a lifesize cutout of the king that sells for £36.99. You never know when you might need one, but you don’t have to settle for that if it doesn’t match your lifestyle. Heinz made some commemorative ketchup. The recipe’s the same-ol’, same-ol’, but the packaging’s different. Hug (they make pet food) came up with a special dog food. Our dog’s not a royalist, so we didn’t buy any. 

Celebrations (they make candy) made a bust of the king out of their very own chocolates. It weighs 23 kilos, or 3.6 inedible stones, and (sorry) you can’t buy it. They only made one. It’s pretty strange looking but better than the beauty-queen busts the Minnesota State Fair carves out of butter. 

I’m not sure what they’ll do with it now the coronation’s over. Would it be disrespectful to eat it? Is there a respectful way to throw it out?

You can also buy the more pedestrian mugs, tea towels, plates, paperweights, and teddy bears. Or flags or–well, whatever someone can find a way to slap a crown or a face on, it’s for sale. Remember kids, today’s cheesy souvenir is tomorrow’s treasured keepsake. Or next week’s landfill.