What happened when one monarch succeeded another? The liminal period between the death of a sovereign and the coronation of the new monarch was immensely important. The new regime needed to establish itself quickly and decisively. Succession entailed many administrative and ceremonial procedures, few of which changed over the course of the seventeenth century. This page will outline the most important. Admittedly, most of the Stuart successions were unusual and did not adhere to the standard framework. James VI and I (1566-1625), for instance, was in Scotland when Elizabeth (1533-1603) died. The negotiations behind the restoration of Charles II (1630-1685)were exceedingly complicated. James II (1633-1701) was still alive when William III (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-1694) acceded to the throne. Nonetheless, aspects of the process outlined here still featured in those problematic successions.
Officially, it was the task of the Gentleman of the Bedchamber on duty to inform the next in line that their predecessor had died. In practise, though, news travelled the court quickly. Thus in 1702, upon the death of William III, Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury (1643-1715), attempted to gain favour by being the first to congratulate the new queen. Anne refused to admit Burnet, knowing that the responsibility of informing her of the king’s death belonged to the Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
A succession council met, usually within hours of a royal death. The new monarch swore and signed the coronation oath of Scotland, in absentia. The three exceptions include James VI and I, Charles I (1600-1649), who returned to Scotland for his coronation in 1633, and Charles II, who was crowned at Scone in 1651. Parliament convened to recognise the new sovereign and swear fealty. The council drafted a proclamation, copies of which were printed and distributed across the country. Proclamations were read publicly at major landmarks in Whitehall, Westminster, and the City, and were marked with the ringing of bells and firing of canon. Foreign envoys sent news of the succession abroad. Within days of succession, the new sovereign would make their first speech to parliament, outlining the priorities of their new regime.
An early priority was always the royal funeral. This was an opportunity to signal continuity between the reigns, and assert the authority of the new monarch before a large metropolitan audience. Royal funerals changed significantly during the seventeenth century. James I’s funeral was particularly lavish. William III, by contrast, was buried at night in a comparatively low-key ceremony.
The most important ritual, though, was the coronation. Coronation formalized the process of succession within a set of ancient ritual conventions centred on a royal oath, the crowning, and the presentation of the regalia, and included other features such as a sermon and the distribution of medals. The sermon and medals were an important vehicle for the monarch to signal their aims and priorities. The medieval ritual was fully gutted of its Catholic aspects and reconstructed around a Protestant confessional framework for the accession of James VI and I in 1603. In 1689 William and Mary introduced legislation that stipulated the conditions for all future coronation. With the exception of the Scottish coronations, all early modern coronations took place at Westminster Abbey. Some coronations, such as those of Elizabeth and Charles II, were accompanied by elaborate civic pageantry on the eve of the ceremony. The pageantry that was supposed to accompany James I’s coronation had to be delayed by a year due to plague. These displays should not be confused with the coronation itself, which was the religious ritual occurring in the Abbey.
The most significant part of the coronation ritual was the oath. This changed quite substantially over the course of the seventeenth century. At the centre of debates about the coronation oath was the question whether the contract was between God and the sovereign, or between the sovereign and the people. In The Law of True Monarchies (1598) James VI and I argued, ‘As to this contract alleged made at the coronation of a King, although I deny any such contract to be made then’. By 1689, after the Glorious Revolution, the coronation oath was interpreted in a very different way. One topical commentator, Daniel Whitby, argued that ‘kings of England were kings by virtue of an original contract, made between them and the people, by oaths that they took at their coronation’. The oath was substantially rewritten to emphasize the contract between sovereign and polity, and prohibit a Catholic succession. The 1689 Act for Establishing the Coronation Oath was designed to ensure that this oath remained set for all future coronations.
The coronation marked a formal end to the process of succession. In reality, though, regimes remained unstable for some time. It took months (sometimes years) to establish a firm grip over the polity.