These last few days we’ve seen a lot of things done in the traditional way in this country. For most of us, it’s the first time we’ve experienced them, even though they date back centuries. On Sunday I participated in one of them when I went to hear the Accession Proclamation being read. There was really no need, as I, along with millions of others, had watched it being read at St James’s Palace on live television the day before. Everyone who watched on Saturday had known since Thursday afternoon that we had a new king, so why did it have to be read out in public all over the country?
The simple answer is that it’s always been done in this way. Not with mayors dressed in their finery and uniformed men carrying maces, though. I’m afraid I have no idea what the paddle thing was about. Sorry. The chap carrying it didn’t seem to know, either. All of the costumes and pageantry are fairly modern, as is some of the wording in the Proclamation, but the format and the practice date back centuries.
Before Saturday the only people who had seen and heard an Accession Proclamation read out at St James’s Palace, were those who were in the courtyard at the time. No one was surprised that Charles III became King on Thursday; he’s been heir to the throne for seventy years and the succession takes place immediately on the death of the monarch, but that hasn’t always been the case.
There used to be a gap between the death of one monarch and the accession of the next, because it was the coronation that made the monarch. The gap could be weeks or months long and was sometimes a period of instability. Worse, the person who was eventually crowned wasn’t necessarily the person the previous monarch, or the country as a whole, had expected it to be.
It wasn’t until the mid-thirteenth century that this changed. When Henry III’s oldest son left England to join the Eighth Crusade in 1270, Henry was in his sixties and there was every chance that he would not live to see his son return. There was probably an equal chance that his son would not return, but that’s another matter. Henry’s reign had been long and turbulent and it was possible that, in the months it would take the news of his death to reach his son and for his son to return and be crowned, someone else might try to take his place. Before the crusader left, he was named as Henry’s heir and it was declared that he would become king on the death of his father rather than on the day he was crowned. The day after Henry died Edward I was proclaimed king in Westminster Hall. At Henry’s funeral all the magnates swore allegiance to him and when the messengers carrying the news of Henry’s death finally caught up with Edward they greeted him as king. It took him two years to return to England, where he was later crowned.
I thought it would be interesting to see how the news of the deaths and accessions of kings was treated in the fourteenth century. It proved to be quite interesting. When Edward I died in 1307 he was on his way to fight the Scots. The army could literally see Scotland at the time. His death was, therefore kept secret for fear of bringing an attack on a leaderless and, possibly, mourning army. It wasn’t until after Edward II had arrived at Burgh by Sands to see his father’s body that the news was made public and he was proclaimed king in Carlisle Castle.
This was an accession that had been expected. Edward I was in his late sixties and Edward II was his oldest surviving son. This wasn’t the case for Edward II. Twenty years later, aged only 43, he abdicated in favour of his fourteen-year-old heir. In reality he was deposed, having been accused and found guilty of not being able to reign. As with Edward II and Edward I, the transition was immediate and Edward III became king the moment his father abdicated. Also like his grandfather and father, he didn’t know that he was king until after the event. Four days after the abdication in Kenilworth Castle the proclamation was made in London that Edward III was now king. It took several weeks for the news to spread through all of his kingdom.
Fifty years later Edward was succeeded by his grandson, Richard of Bordeaux. Whilst I can find a lot of information about Edward III’s funeral and Richard II’s coronation (only eleven days apart), there is nothing in my books about Richard’s accession proclamation, but I’m pretty sure that it happened in much the same way that his grandfather’s had.
Like his great-grandfather, Richard was eventually deposed. He refused to abdicate, because he had been anointed king and he saw it as his duty to continue as king. I can’t find anything about Henry IV’s accession proclamation either, which is a shame, because he was not the next in line and, having deprived both Richard and Richard’s true heir of the kingdom, it would be interesting to know what it said and how it was received. The passage from one king to the other was, however, seamless. A parliament called in the name of Richard II was dissolved on one day and the same men were summoned to meet in the name of Henry IV the next day.
In the days before newspapers, radio, television and the internet, word of mouth was the only way of knowing that one monarch had died and another had taken their place. It seems odd that, with all our modern means of communication, we still have the Proclamation read out in towns across the country, but it was good to be there and say, for the first time in my life, God save the King.