When ceremonial was king

By John Anthony S. Estolloso

Any monarchy that aspires to be respected and to function effectively fundamentally relies on the visual trappings of power. Remove that from the integral furniture of royalty and it will collapse like a house of cards. For a monarch to reign, he or she must be seen to reign; hence the need for opulent displays of regal rite and ritual.

Last May 6 (Greenwich time) witnessed the coronation of King Charles III. For some of our generation, it was a historic milestone that we may not get to see again in our lifetime. The reign of the late Queen Elizabeth II spanned seven decades, during which she revolutionized how the Royal Family – or any monarchy, for that matter – is viewed by a world that is rapidly turning secular and republican. In all appearances, Charles’ coronation was an acid test to that royal refurbishing, and for better or worse, the pageantry might just have been worth the several hours of streaming.

Bluntly put, the Coronation is characteristically a symbolic anachronism, a bygone remnant of history, its main ritualistic elements harking back more than a thousand years to England’s Saxon kings. Listen closely to the suave BBC commentator explaining the minutiae of each stage and segment of the ceremony, and what you get from it all is the idea that it is a performative artifact that relies on symbol and gesture to project covert meanings of power and authority. Steeped in history and attended by non-royal heads of state, the liturgy and rite – prepared to meet the semiotic demands of both state and crown – was an extravagant exhibition of the monarch’s powers spiritual and temporal.

One need but look to the regalia worn (or flaunted?) during the ceremony to understand these visual projections of power. Basic to the ceremony would be the antique crowns, encrusted by jewels appropriated from a more colonial age, worn by both king and consort. The regalia, maces, staves, and bared swords borne by attendants speak of political power reverberating faint echoes when once Britannia ruled the waves and her colonies with the gauntlet of imperialism, under the glove of royal patronage and protection.

Recall the processional through the nave of the Abbey, its floor a vast mausoleum to England’s poets and statesmen, and you can gawk up the banners emblazoned with heraldic devices and coats of arms, reminding the observer that the peerage must stand by the Crown or perish by it. Listen closely to the fanfares, hymns, and marches played throughout the rite and you sense a solemn and subtle confirmation of the ‘divine right of kings’, whatever that means. Scrutinize the uniforms, kilts, robes, and capes donned by the various orders present and you catch a slice of a stratified hierarchy made regal and meaningful to the masses by gaudy trappings and medallions.

Yet the absence of certain traditional gestures and objects was also food for thought. For one, gone were the stuffy scarlet robes and the sallow gowns worn by the peers and ladies of the realm, rendering a leaner look at the congregation. Nowhere were the coronets supposed to be donned after the proclamation of ‘God save the King!’. Were these ritual redactions conciliatory gestures to bridge an ancient institution to contemporary sensibilities more concerned on blurring the lines between social hierarchies? Or were these actual manifestations that the Royal Family has come to terms with the understanding that for a constitutional monarchy to survive, it must assume a more republican stance, even if only through rite and ritual?

Varied may be our readings of what the presence or absence of these symbols construe, what bears reflection about the Coronation is how ceremonials are understood, appreciated, and respected in our times. After all, a gesture or symbol loses its significance if its latent message fails to be interpreted, or at least, read by the viewer. The invitation at our end is to look to our contexts as well. Our unfinished and fragmented national identities will not lend itself to a coherent monarchy: we can live with a hell-run democracy, but even damaged democracies hold on to the trappings of power and authority.

So we ask ourselves: to what degree are we compelled to respect the symbolic apparatus and devices of our country? How many of us stand in attention when the National Anthem is played, regardless where this is played? To what level of respect do we render the raising and retreat of the Flag? Are our public officials conscious of the habiliments they wear when they represent the people in events and matters of state?

In our academes, do our students and mentors find significance in the academic garb they don during commencement ceremonies? Do the members of our academic communities find identity and meaning in school symbols? Do our schools instill a respect for our social institutions through a deliberate reading and discussion of the images and practices associated with them?

In synthesis, what takeaway we can get from the Coronation’s effusive display of rite and ritual is a hint to take things to a visual level. Perhaps it is not enough to demand respect for our institutions; our institutions must likewise dress and act the part – and it must exude that requirement in whatever imagery it employs in its behalf.

Distant may be Charles III’s coronation from our democratic tendencies, the ritual is still lucidly explicit in what it intends to be seen. Beneath the banners, maces, swords, capes, and uniforms borne and worn by sundry characters that day, the message is clearly etched as a heraldic sigil on a plain field: the dreams of Empire may be a fading memory, yet England and Windsor prevail – and long may the King live to uphold both.

[The author is a social studies teacher in one of the private schools in the city.]