The world is about to see the first British coronation in 70 years. Operation Golden Orb, the coronation ceremony that will formalize King Charles III’s transformation from history’s longest-reigning Prince of Wales into king of the United Kingdom, has at last come to fruition.
Charles legally ascended to the throne as soon as his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, died last September. The coronation serves as a religious ceremony much like a wedding, formalizing Charles’s new status as king. It’s also a moment of national celebration (and royalist propaganda), welcoming the new king to his station as the country moves away from mourning his long-reigning mother.
The coronation is supposed to tell the world what kind of king Charles plans to be. It’s intended to be shorter and less ponderous than previous coronations, but still enough of a spectacle to dazzle the public. There’s going to be a lot of heavily symbolic ritual going down over the course of the ceremony, some of it stretching back before the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and some of it brand new for the occasion. This article is your guide to what the coronation is going to look like, what it means, and why the whole thing matters.
When will the coronation take place, and how can I watch it?
Charles will be crowned in Westminster Abbey, the same place every British monarch has been crowned for over 900 years.
The coronation will take place on May 6, 2023, at 11 am London time. In the US, that’s 6 am Eastern time and 3 am Pacific time. All major networks in the US and the UK will be broadcasting the events.
What happens at the coronation?
The festivities will begin shortly before the service with the King’s Procession. On the morning of May 6, Charles and his wife Camilla will travel from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach. As Charles and Camilla process, music will play in the abbey. Charles is a noted music lover (he helped design the well-received musical program for Harry and Meghan’s wedding). For this occasion he’s commissioned 12 new pieces of music by composers throughout the British Commonwealth, including a new Coronation Anthem by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and a piece written for a gospel choir by Debbie Wiseman. Six of the new songs are purely orchestral, and they’ll play before the service begins.
Charles and Camilla will arrive at Westminster Abbey at 11 am local time to begin the ceremony, which will be led by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. While the palace has not yet released a detailed program for the ceremony, a coronation typically has six parts.
First is the recognition. The archbishop presents the monarch to the assembly gathered in the abbey. They shout, “God save the king!” and trumpets sound. Second, the archbishop administers the oath, in which the monarch swears to uphold the law and the Church of England. Third comes the anointing, with the archbishop painting the monarch with holy oil, symbolizing the king’s consecration as monarch by God. The anointing is traditionally considered too sacred to be shown to the public, so Charles will most likely be veiled from the cameras with a canopy of gold cloth during this portion of the proceedings.
Fourth is the investiture, in which the king sits on the Coronation Chair to be presented with the Royal Orb, the two Sovereign’s Sceptres, and the crown. Fifth comes the enthronement and homage, when the king leaves the Coronation Chair and moves to the throne.
Somewhere in here, we’ll see the performances of the six remaining new pieces of music Charles has commissioned. We’ll also see Camilla crowned queen, although so far details on that portion of the ceremony remain scarce. (More on Camilla’s somewhat controversial title and what it means below.) The last royal consort to be crowned queen, Charles’s grandmother Elizabeth, took the throne in 1937 in a short and simple ceremony that followed the homage to her husband King George VI.
The sixth and final step in the ceremony is the closing procession, which will see Charles and Camilla leave Westminster Abbey and go back to Buckingham Palace. This time, they’ll travel in the 18th-century Gold State Coach, accompanied by armed forces from throughout the British commonwealth. Once at Buckingham Palace, they will receive a royal salute and three cheers from the military.
The rest of the weekend will be spent in extended festivities, including a concert at Windsor Castle on Sunday, with Katy Perry set to perform. Monday will be a bank holiday in the UK, and citizens are encouraged to spend it on community service.
What does all this symbolize?
A coronation exists in order to enshrine the mythology of a nation. That means every single detail of the festivities has to have some long-held symbolic meaning. Here’s your cheat sheet for the big ones.
Charles and Camilla are processing to Westminster Abbey in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach. Grandly gilded and built from wood salvaged from buildings significant in British history to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year as reigning monarch in 2012, the coach has only ever been used to carry the late queen, her late husband Prince Philip, and the occasional visiting head of state. It’s a potent link to the exclusively held power of Charles’s popular mother. Crucially, it’s also benefited from modern suspension technology and is said to be much more comfortable than some of the crown’s other formal carriages.
The pair will process out of Westminster Abbey in the Gold State Coach, built in 1760 for King George III. It’s been used for the coronation of every British monarch since William VI in 1830, and its presence invokes the stability of the last 200 years of the crown. Sadly for Charles and Camilla, it’s apparently very uncomfortable to ride in.
The Coronation Chair
The Coronation Chair was built for Edward I in 1300 to house the Stone of Scone, a sandstone block traditionally used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs. Edward stole it from the Scottish in 1296 and enclosed it within the oaken chair, where it’s served as a centerpiece of coronation ceremonies ever since. (It’s also been a magnet for political protests — suffragettes bombed it in 1914, and Scottish nationalists took the Stone in 1950.) In 1996, the British government returned the stone to Scotland, with the addendum that it would be returning to England for use in coronations.
When Charles sits in the chair (stone included), he’ll be adding himself to a line of English and Scottish monarchs that stretches back centuries. The chair, shabby and worn, with its ancient gilding eroded, is a wordless reminder of just how old the British monarchy really is — and how much of its power has come from countries it’s colonized.
The coronation regalia
There is a lot of old and precious jewelry appearing at the coronation, but in a vain stab at brevity I’m going to keep our overview to the main pieces.
The Royal Orb is the big golden ball Charles will receive during the investiture. It was made in the 17th century, and it symbolizes the sovereign’s power over the Christian world. It’s topped with a cross and divided into three sections with bands of jewels, symbolizing the three continents known at the time of its manufacture.
During the investiture, Charles will also receive two scepters: the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross and the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Dove (also known as the Rod of Equity and Mercy). The one with the cross represents temporal power and good governance, and it was created for King Charles II in the 17th century. The one with the dove represents the sovereign’s spiritual role as head of the Church of England, with the dove representing the holy spirit, and it is also from the 17th century.
Charles will be crowned with St. Edward’s Crown, as his mother was before him. It’s named after the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, St. Edward the Confessor, but the crown itself was actually made as a replacement for Edward’s medieval crown for Charles II in 1661. It has a solid gold frame set with jewels, a velvet cap with ermine trim, and an orb and cross on top to symbolize the Christian world.
At the end of the service, Charles will take off St. Edward’s Crown and put on the Imperial State Crown, made for the coronation of Charles’s grandfather, King George VI, in 1937. The Imperial State Crown is more or less businesswear for modern English monarchs: it’s what they wear to open Parliament and at other ceremonious state occasions. We might think of this costume change as showing that Charles has officially gone from the process of coronation to the business of kinghood itself.
Camilla will get her own crown as well. For the last two centuries of coronations, the monarch’s consort has traditionally commissioned a new crown for the occasion. This time, however, in what the palace says is a nod to sustainability, Camilla will go secondhand. She’s wearing Queen Mary’s Crown, which was made for Queen Mary in 1911 for the coronation of her husband, George V. Camilla is adding a few of Elizabeth II’s favorite diamonds to the piece as well, emphasizing the continuity between the two generations of monarchs. The crown was reset in advance of the ceremony, swapping out the controversial Kohinoor diamond, an infamous jewel looted from India in 1849.
What is unique about this coronation?
The three most recent coronations (George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II) were all designed to echo one another closely. They were long, lasting about three to four hours, with 8,000 invited guests present. They were determinedly Anglican, making much of the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England. They were ostentatiously lavish demonstrations of the monarchy’s wealth and power.
Charles’s coronation is intended to be different: shorter, more multicultural, and, in a nod to Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, slightly less given to gratuitous displays of wealth.
The ceremony is set to last for just over an hour, with only 2,000 invited guests (more on them below). Some traditional rituals will be cut, including the presentation of gold ingots to the monarch. Instead of bringing in custom-made velvet chairs for the occasion, as Elizabeth did, Charles is going to use Westminster’s standard seating. For the last coronation, the peers wore coronation robes of crimson velvet and ermine, but for this one they’re being asked to wear either their simpler parliamentary robes or just business suits.
One of the more controversial changes comes with the sovereign’s traditional oath to be “Defender of the Faith upholding the rights of the Church of England.” It’s long been a pain point for Charles, who said in 1994 that he would rather be a “defender of faith,” meaning that he wanted to defend all religions in general rather than the Church of England in particular. In a speech after his mother’s funeral in September, he pledged to “protect the space for faith itself” in multicultural Britain, and in April, he quietly dropped “Defender of the Faith” from his Canadian title. At his coronation, it’s expected that Charles will make the customary oath to be Defender of the Faith, but that some new language will be added about defending freedom of religion in the UK for all.
Who will attend the coronation?
With Charles’s pared-down guest list, there have been more than a few snubs. Plenty of lords and parliamentarians who would have made a version of the coronation with 8,000 guests will find themselves out in the cold with this one.
The senior members of the royal family, however, will be present, including William and Kate. Their kids will all be all in attendance as well, and 9-year-old Prince George will be page of honor for his grandfather, making him the youngest heir to the throne ever to participate in his predecessor’s coronation. Harry and Meghan were both invited despite the explosive reception of Harry’s recent memoir, but Harry will be attending the event alone. (Meghan says she’s staying home because it’s their son Archie’s fourth birthday.) We don’t know whether Harry will join the rest of his family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the ceremony.
Charles’s siblings and their spouses will all be in attendance as well. That includes Charles’s brother Prince Andrew, who stepped back from his public duties after his well-publicized friendship with sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, which culminated in Andrew being accused of sexually assaulting a minor. It’s not yet known whether Andrew will wear his ceremonial robes during the service or participate in the ceremony.
Also attending: monarchs from around the world. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murthy. Camilla’s children and their families. 850 members of the public chosen because of their charity work.
Joe Biden will be notably absent, on the grounds that US presidents never attend the coronations of British monarchs. Instead, first lady Jill Biden will represent the US for the festivities.
How much does the coronation cost?
The British government always pays for coronations, which means the whole thing is a taxpayer expense. During a cost-of-living crisis, the optics of that situation aren’t great, which is why Charles reportedly wants his coronation to be less expensive than his mother’s was. However, he may not get his wish.
Elizabeth’s coronation cost 1.5 million pounds in 1953, which works out to around 50 million pounds in today’s money. The Sun estimates that because of the increased cost of security for modern royals, Charles’s coronation will cost double that: 100 million pounds, or roughly $125 million US. Ideally, the coronation will be such a tourist draw that the UK will make the money back and then some, but these effects are difficult to study precisely.
What’s the deal with Camilla?
“The important thing to remember about Camilla is that she said she never wanted to marry Prince Charles. And now she’s his wife,” writes Tina Brown in her 2022 royal exposé The Palace Papers. “And she said (or Clarence House did) that after Charles’s coronation as king, she will be known as Princess Consort. But that cautious plan, too, has been discarded, and a Queen Camilla is in Britain’s future.” Camilla has historically been very good at saying she doesn’t want much while ending up with the whole pot.
Camilla will be an untraditional queen in a few ways. Because of the monarch’s position as the head of the Church of England, it’s generally considered a bad look for English monarchs to marry someone who’s gotten divorced, let alone get divorced themselves and marry their former mistress. Famously, Charles’s great-uncle King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry his divorced girlfriend, Wallis Simpson.
Charles notoriously cheated on his first wife, Diana, with Camilla, who was then married to Andrew Parker Bowles. Yet Charles and Camilla’s relationship continued for so long — past their respective weddings to other people, past Camilla and Parker Bowles’s 1995 divorce, past Charles and Diana’s 1996 divorce, past the 1997 death of Diana — that they wore away the convention more or less by sheer persistence. When the pair eventually announced their engagement in 2004, one of the queen’s friends summarized her view in The Palace Papers as, “Since Camilla isn’t going to go away, she may as well be welcomed.”
The initial plan was that when Charles took the throne, Camilla would not be so bold as to claim the title of queen for herself. Instead, she would be known as princess consort, a lesser title that doesn’t carry the prestige of queen, or the association with the beloved Queen Elizabeth II. For a woman who had played the other woman to saintly Diana in the national narrative for so long, it was safer to appear to aim low.
At her Platinum Jubilee in 2022, however, Elizabeth released a statement declaring it her “sincere wish” that after Charles ascended to the throne, “Camilla will be known as Queen Consort as she continues her own loyal service.”
“It acknowledged something new and even seismic,” writes Brown in The Palace Papers: “that duty and loyalty to the crown … are more defining of royalty than bloodlines.”
There was still one more step for Camilla to take: from queen consort to simply queen. That step became public when Buckingham Palace revealed the invitations to the coronation, on which Camilla is styled officially as Queen Camilla.
“There’s a view in the Palace that Queen Consort is cumbersome and it might be simpler for Camilla to be known just as the Queen when the time is right,” one source told the Daily Mail in February, pointing out of Elizabeth’s late husband, “Prince Philip was Prince Consort officially, but he wasn’t known as Prince Consort.”
To be clear, Camilla’s rank is still that of queen consort rather than queen regnant, which is what Elizabeth was. A queen regnant is the head of state, whereas a queen consort is the wife of a head of state: She supports his role, but she’s not in charge. She is also not in the line of succession. When Charles dies, William will become king and Kate will become queen. Camilla will most likely retain her title, but she will still play a supporting role to the new king and queen. (When Elizabeth II took the throne, her mother, also Elizabeth, became known as the queen mother to avoid the confusion of two Queen Elizabeths.)
All previous queen consorts have been colloquially known as Queen [first name], so there’s plenty of precedent for Camilla’s new title. Even if the official story is that she never wanted it to begin with.
Why does any of this matter?
Charles coming to the throne is a major change for the UK. Elizabeth officially became queen in 1953 at age 25. She ruled for 70 years, longer than any monarch in British history. Her reign defined a generation, and she became a figure of permanence and stability over the course of multiple tumultuous decades. In a century when other European monarchies toppled, the British monarchy endured, and it did so in part because Elizabeth was so very good at her job: to be blank, to be discreet to a fault, to become someone onto whom everyone watching could project their own emotions and opinions.
As Britain fought about what it should look like over the past decade — through Brexit, the rise of populist nativism, and a renewed Scottish independence movement — the queen was something British people had in common. Without her, asks Brown in The Palace Papers, “how will anyone know how to be British anymore?”
Unlike his mother, 74-year-old Charles is not coming to the throne as a blank slate. He is ascending as a known quantity, a man whose personal foibles, admirable environmental activism, and boorish adultery British citizens have been reading about with their morning tea every day for more than half a century. He is coming into a nation that doesn’t quite know what its sense of self should look like, with his own personality already too well-established for him to play the role of the blank slate that Elizabeth took on so well.
If Operation Golden Orb is designed to show us what kind of king Charles plans to be, here’s what we know about what he’s aiming for: someone who is willing to dispense with anachronisms in the name of efficiency and good optics, someone who will sacrifice his own credibility to give the woman he loves the highest possible rank, someone who aims to be able to put on a show for the people. We won’t know if he can pull it off until the show itself.
Correction, May 4, 5:30 pm ET: This story, originally published on May 3, has been updated to reflect that the crown Camilla will wear at the ceremony will not contain the Kohinoor diamond.