Sightseeing the Coronation

Beefeater in London
By Cameron Hewitt

On May 6, for the first time in nearly 70 years, the United Kingdom coronates a new monarch: King Charles III. Regardless of how you feel about the new king (and whether you're on "Team Harry and Meghan" or "Team Charles"), there's no doubt this is a historic occasion.

Anyone who's visited London has seen "bits and bobs" of the coronation ritual scattered around the city, and perhaps some of the ones scattered across the UK. And on May 6, 2023, for the first time in seven decades, they'll all be assembled in the same place, at the same time: at Westminster Abbey, at 11:00 a.m. UK time (that's 6 a.m. Eastern...and 3 a.m. Pacific).

At the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels exhibit will be closed so that the royal regalia usually displayed there can be used in the coronation ceremony. If you've toured the Tower, you've likely stood in a long line to shuffle through the darkened rooms containing these items.

The monarch-to-be is anointed with holy oil poured from an eagle-beak flask, handed the jeweled Sword of Offerin, and dressed in a 20-pound gold robe. During the ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury places upon the royal head the St. Edward's Crown, a re-creation dating from 1661. (The original crown, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell, dated back to 1061 — the time of King Edward the Confessor, "the last English king" before William the Conqueror invaded from France in 1066.)

After being crowned, the new monarch is handed two items. The Sovereign's Scepter is encrusted with the world's largest cut diamond: the 530-carat Star of Africa, beefy as a quarter-pounder. And the Sovereign's Orb — a golden sphere topped with a cross — symbolizes how Christianity rules over the earth. This is intended as a reminder that even a "divine monarch" is not above God's law. The coronation is a kind of marriage between the church and the state in Britain, since the king or queen is head of both, and the ceremony celebrates the monarch's potential to do good for the whole of the nation.

Because the St. Edward's Crown weighs nearly five pounds, Charles is expected to wear it for only about 20 minutes, until the ceremony's end. The lighter, more practical Imperial State Crown is the "everyday" alternative that was worn by Elizabeth for important occasions, and that's the one that Charles will wear for the rest of his Coronation Day.

One crown that you won't see at the coronation (but is on display at the Tower of London) is the Crown of the Queen Mother, with the 106-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond. Because this diamond is considered "unlucky" for male rulers, it adorns the crown of the king's wife (or, more recently, the queen's mother). However, the soon-to-be Queen Camilla has opted for the Queen Mary Crown instead. As with many elements of the UK's cultural heritage, this diamond was plundered (from India) and its rightful ownership is hotly debated. Quietly omitting the Koh-i-Noor from the coronation sidesteps that particular controversy.

Speaking of the Tower of London, the Yeoman Warders — those lovable Beefeater tour guides — will be changing their uniforms: The ER ("Elizabeth Regina") will switch to CR ("Charles Rex"). This insignia, which appears in far more places than just Beefeater bellies, is one of many things that need to be updated as the UK switches sovereigns.

Eventually, the image of Queen Elizabeth II on coins, pound sterling notes, and stamps will be phased out in favor of King Charles III — not only in the UK, but also in overseas members of the Commonwealth of Nations that have the sovereign on their cash (including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Bermuda). As a redesign becomes obligatory, some Commonwealth countries are discussing whether to keep the UK's ruler on their currency at all. As this transition takes time, for the next couple of years, coins jangling in the pockets of people from Glasgow to Auckland, and from Saskatchewan to Sydney — not to mention multiple Hamiltons — will have a mix of monarchs.

Other locations with special ties to Charles and/or the coronation include Caernarfon Castle, in North Wales, where Charles was "invested" with his royal title, the Prince of Wales, in July of 1969 at age 20 — starting down a path that culminates on May 6 at Westminster Abbey. King Charles has special ties to Wales; he studied at Aberystwyth University and learned to speak serviceable Welsh, which he's used to deliver speeches. Last fall, Charles' first public duty as king was to bestow his former title on his son — William, Prince of Wales — who will retain it until he becomes king himself.

And at Edinburgh Castle, among Scotland's own Crown Jewels (the "Honours of Scotland"), you'll find an item whose plainness belies its historical importance: the Stone of Scone (a.k.a. the "Stone of Destiny"), a rough-hewn gray slab of sandstone, about 26 by 17 by 10 inches. As far back as the ninth century, Scotland's kings were crowned atop this stone, when it stood at the medieval capital of Scone. But in 1296, the invading army of Edward I of England carried the stone off to Westminster Abbey. For the next seven centuries, English (and subsequently British) kings and queens — including Queen Elizabeth II — were crowned sitting on a coronation chair with the Stone of Scone tucked in a compartment underneath.

In 1996, in recognition of increased Scottish autonomy, the Queen agreed to let the Stone of Scone go home, on one condition: that it be returned to Westminster Abbey for all British coronations. And, sure enough, the Stone of Scone has been transported — temporarily! — to London for King Charles III to sit upon on May 6.

One other big change? Throughout the Rick Steves guidebooks — which is where all of these coronation sightseeing tips came from — we're busily updating our monarchs...swapping out the "Queen" for the "King." As with those coins, we appreciate your understanding if you're out sightseeing this summer in the UK and keep tripping over references to the late, great Elizabeth. After all, 70 years is a very long time.

Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of several Rick Steves guidebooks.