By TOM HARTLEY
UK High Commissioner
THE Coronation of HM King Charles III was an historic moment by any measure. Never have so many people watched a Coronation, and its mystery – hard to describe or imagine or draw – meant over 450 world leaders travelled to London for this Coronation. The delegation from Tuvalu perhaps travelled furthest, and delegation of the His Royal Majesty the Asantehenie perhaps travelled in greatest numbers. President Macron was there, as was Katy Perry; China sent Vice President Han Zheng and President Xi’s congratulatory call to The King was the most reposted article for seven days in China; the Vatican were represented for the first time since 1554; even North Korea sent a delegation, and President Biden – who continued the 247-year tradition of no US President ever attending Coronations (just, because) – still sent First Lady Dr Biden in his place.
For the UK, we had the opportunity to project a modern country steeped in history: the service has its roots in 9th century medieval England and has remained largely unchanged for 40 consecutive Kings and Queens. The King was presented with sacred regalia such as the Sword of Mercy with its blunted tip symbolising the Sovereign’s mercy, spurs of King Richard the Lionheart, ancient bracelets of sincerity and wisdom, and historic thrones (did you spot the 18th Century graffiti on the Coronation chair?!); the imagery and the relics were worthy of Disney or Game of Thrones and, indeed, are the inspiration for both. And the flurry of rain ensured it was truly a British affair.
And yet, in great British tradition, the Coronation of King Charles III was also a moment of firsts: the first inclusion of non-Christian voices amidst the Anglican liturgy, old-testament anointing, and Orthodox hymns; the first ever public event in the 960-year old gardens of Windsor Castle; the first fly-past on the day of a Coronation; and the smaller and less-costly celebration. And, because of The King’s decades-long leadership, this Coronation was fully concerned with climate change and the needs of the most vulnerable states. And although costly, the image will boost Britain’s economy and exports for a decade to come.
I was privileged to be in London, serving at Westminster Abbey alongside other British diplomats to welcome international guests, and also to participate in the dress rehearsal alongside members of the Royal Household, foreign diplomats, and British civil servants. I will forever remember hearing the choirs fill the Abbey with song, the Archbishop of Canterbury debating how best to crown The King, and the time it took to seat the many, many international guests in the right order: royal families first, Governors General and Realm Prime Ministers next, then Governors of Territories, heads of state from Commonwealth countries, and finally the rest of the world at the back. Royal events such as these are perhaps the only world events where the representatives of America, Barbados, China, France, and Germany, sit a dozen rows behind leaders of Realms, who enjoy their special place because of their constitutional status: on the day President Macron and Chancellor Scholz took their seats and watched whilst Realm leaders – including the Prime Minister of The Bahamas and the British Prime Minister – entered Westminster Abbey just in front of The King.
One of the most memorable elements of the Coronation was, of course, The King himself. Unlike the Saxon Kings of old, The King made loud and clear that his spiritual and temporal strength would come from service, “I come not to be served but to serve” were his purposefully chosen opening words, said to a child, and in front of an audience of Kings, Queens, and Prime Ministers. Just like Her Late Majesty, we have a new head of state who is first because they put themself last.
In the UK, that is one of the many reasons why the Monarchy is so respected – the idea of ‘Kings and Queens’ may feel counter cultural to some, but the Royal Family’s commitment to serving communities – and the most vulnerable within them – is something we respect and revere and protect for future generations. Nevertheless, the Coronation prompted the question about the role of the monarchy in Britain’s modern life, and the answer swiftly followed from the vast crowds from across the country – and the world – who came to London to celebrate the service and leadership and stability the monarchy offers us all.
The same debate is observed in Australia, Belize, and – I’m pleased to see – The Bahamas: it is a sign of healthy democracy to be able to ask and debate all parts of one’s constitution. And HM The King – reflecting his commitment to serve and not “rule” those countries for which he is head of state – has also welcomed this conversation, “I want to say clearly, as I have said before, that each member’s Constitutional arrangement, as Republic or Monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide,” was his clear view, stated last year.
And it is not my role as Britain’s High Commissioner to offer any view on what is an important internal matter for the people of The Bahamas. Except perhaps on one point, and that is to offer clarity on what I observe is causing confusion: what is a “Realm” and what is “the Commonwealth.” In short, there is a difference between the Realms and the Commonwealth; they are not the same.
The 15 Realms are those nations who maintain The King as their constitutional head of state.
The Commonwealth, however, is a standalone and separate organisation of 56 countries of 2.6bn people, each willing members with an equal vote and veto: whilst The King is also the elected head of the Commonwealth – he was selected to that role in 2018 – it is a membership organisation made of 36 Republics (like India), 5 foreign monarchies (like Malaysia), and 15 Realms (like The Bahamas), and managed day-to-day by a Secretary General, currently Baroness Scotland. No country has ever chosen to leave the Commonwealth; countries such as Barbados remain a member of the Commonwealth even after becoming a republic.
The King’s Coronation was, of course, a celebration of both the 15 Realms and of the Commonwealth: the sacred anointing screen had the names of each 56 country hand-sewn into it, and members of the armed forces of 56 Commonwealth countries were invited to join the Coronation procession. I was proud to be there, proud to hear of celebrations back home in The Bahamas, from New Providence to Abaco to Eleuthera to Long Island to Inagua, and proud to see that this Coronation offered an opportunity to celebrate the special status of The Bahamas, our 50 years of partnership and friendship, and shared respect for the Commonwealth and His Majesty The King.
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