Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, won’t step down to give either her 70-year-old son or 39-year-old grandson the throne, the author of a new biography says, because of “binding promises in God’s presence” undertaken during her June 1953 coronation in Westminster Abbey.
As far back as 1982, there have been periodic calls for Elizabeth to abdicate in favor of Charles, the Prince of Wales, or more recently for William, the Duke of Cambridge. In an interview, historian and author Matthew Dennison said such speculation ignores the spiritual formation the young Princess Elizabeth had from her parents and tutors, as well as the deep impression the 1953 anointing ritual during the coronation made.
Mr. Dennison, a biographer of Queen Victoria as well as the ancient Roman empress Livia, has just published “The Queen” in the U.S. with Apollo, an imprint of British firm Head of Zeus. The book includes a detailed look at the monarch’s upbringing and her life on the throne.
“The British coronation service, alone among coronation services in world monarchies, retains the anointing, and it’s the last of the Christian coronation services to retain that kind of link with the divine,” the author said in a Friday telephone interview with The Washington Times.
“She won’t abdicate because a lifelong promise to God is a lifelong promise to God,” he added.
The queen “is a person of deep Christian faith,” Mr. Dennison continued, “but I think the business of monarchy, the business of being an anointed sovereign, probably confirmed that. I think for her that [ceremony] remains a strengthening thing because a coronation is the most important day in her royal life.”
Mr. Dennison noted that a portion of her subjects believed there was providence involved in her reign.
“It’s interesting that when this queen became queen, in 1952, a poll was taken and 30% of people believed that she had become queen through God’s will. I don’t imagine that would be a similar response nowadays, because we live in a much more cynical age,” Mr. Dennison said.
At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth was given the additional titles of “defender of the faith and supreme governor of the Church of England,” each harkening back to the reign of King Henry VIII, who first held the title “defender of the faith,” given to him by Pope Leo X in 1521, as the royal family’s website notes. Thirteen years later, when Henry VIII broke with Rome, he took the title of “supreme head on earth” of what was then the Church of England.
During the “Act of Consecration,” which the BBC reported was the only element of the coronation not televised or recorded for later broadcast, the new monarch, wearing “a dress of purest white” but not her crimson cloak or the royal jewelry, sat under a golden canopy and was anointed on her head and her chest with oil of orange, roses, cinnamon, musk and ambergris by the Rt. Rev. Geoffrey Fisher, at the time archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishop Fisher said to the new ruler, “Be thy head anointed with holy oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed.” The prayer also made reference to the coronation of the ancient Hebrew king Solomon, imploring that Elizabeth should be “anointed, blessed, and consecrated queen.”
In researching that part of the ceremony, Mr. Dennison “found firsthand accounts of people saying that they were almost embarrassed to be watching at that point in the service because it seems so intense,” he recalled.
He said that reaction was “partly because of what was happening, but [also] because of the extraordinary seriousness which they felt they detected in the queen.”
Mr. Dennison said, “There are other people who are present in the service who said at that point in the service she just radiated, fulfilled with what had been said.”
Archbishop Fisher, who officiated at Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh who died in June of 2021, had prepared the monarch for the ceremony, explaining “to the queen that after that moment, she would never be the same again,” Mr. Dennison added.
How that would translate in the reign of a future King Charles or King William — should those royals keep their current names at their accession — is uncertain. The Prince of Wales, in a 1994 BBC interview with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, famously declared he wished to be a “defender of faith,” rather than the full, formal title, which refers specifically to the defender of “the” faith — the Church of England.
That utterance caused a flurry at the time, but Mr. Dennison points out that nearly 30 years later, Charles is associated with charities connected to preserving the Church of England’s traditions such as the 1662 prayer book and the later Book of Common Prayer. Prince William, the author said, “hasn’t spoken much about faith, but also hasn’t really had the opportunity to say much about faith.”
Since the year 2000, the queen’s annual Christmas message, viewed by millions in Britain and overseas, has taken a sharp turn toward the spiritual. What one observer called “a travelogue of the year past” during the early years of her reign has morphed into a discourse on the meaning of service in the community, as well as the importance of faith to the people she serves, and to the queen herself.
The more recent messages, Mr. Dennison noted, “are much more about her own Christian faith and the Christ teachings as a kind of guide to life that is available to everybody. She says in one of the broadcasts that [this] guide is something that is available to everybody at no cost. And that’s the example of Christ’s life.”
After years of personal and public tragedies, the queen, Mr. Dennison said, “nowadays mentions her own personal relationship with Christ. And I feel that for other believing Christian people in Britain, that must be incredibly inspiring because it’s not something we hear in this country unless you go and seek it out in a church context.”
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