Whenever it is, the next coronation in Westminster Abbey will, one hopes, not include some of the more recherché features of the last one, in 1953. Charles III, presuming it is he, will sign up to a job rather different from the one his mother took on 60 years ago.
But then, renegotiating the job description takes place every time the throne has a new occupant. It has to: times change and our expectations change with them, and that is how it should be.
Thinking about this, I come to see that every king or queen of England has been the last one to be able to do or assume something or other. We (the people) have imposed a progressively tighter and tighted belt on what we allow each one of them to do. Each reign almost from Æthelstan onwards marks a new tidemark, as it were, in terms of shrinking the role; giving up powers and responsibilities; being expected to be and do less than any predecessor; adapting to what we want from our sovereign, and putting up with it.
Each time, each succession, it has been something else. Every monarch has been the last to get away with something. So, we no longer expect the king or queen to lead us into battle (none since George II), or even be present on the battlefield (George VI). We expect ou sovereign to spend most of his or her reign in England rather than fighting abroad (Henry V) or ‘popping home’ (George I).
We don’t want any king or queen intervening in a labour dispute (George V) or expressing dislike of a major political party (Victoria). We no longer want any of them to have the power to dissolve Parliament unilaterally (William IV), reconstruct the judicial system for us (Henry II), imprison an opponent (James II) or execute someone (Charles I).
We no longer tolerate monarchs bunking off with a mistress (Edward VIII) or having illegitimate children (William IV, again).
Many functions of the monarchy have, of course, migrated over the years to the concept of the Crwn in Parliament. Things are done now in the name of the Crown, not by the crowned one herself. Such delegation will continue. As it does, the monarchy becomes slimmer and less important in the life of the nation.
We are well past the point where the king or queen has to be politely guided into abdication (Edward VIII) or deposed and exiled (James II), or deposed, imprisoned and murdered (Richard II, Edward V) or deposed, imprisoned and executed (Charles I). The next two coronations will illustrate exactly where the contract between ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’ has reached along its continuum.
But they will be great shows.