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Claire Spencer (Theology, 1991) at the Coronation

Robinson alumna Claire Spencer (Theology, 1991) attended the Coronation of King Charles III on Saturday 6 May. Below, she shares her experience of this incredible day.

'We gather at dawn on the banks of the Thames facing Lambeth Palace. Well, not exactly at dawn but it was early, and drizzling (of course). A bunch of slightly bemused, so-called outstanding Australians, called upon to represent our country and experience the Coronation of King Charles III on behalf of the 25m of us back home.

It started with a call from the High Commission a few weeks ago – would you be willing to represent the country with the Prime Minister and a small group of outstanding Australians. Various responses ensued – ‘have you got the right person’ (me), ‘stop messing me around I’m in the midst of a shift in emergency’ (Emily – emergency nurse at St Thomas’). But there we all were. A merry band with its own rock star, a comedian, a Rhodes Scholar, a nurse, a scientist, an opera singer, brave souls, soldiers and an arts administrator.

For those of you who knew me at Cambridge you might indeed wonder how a very British theologian from Teddington ended up representing Australia at such a momentous event. Well, I left the UK in 1999 for an adventure. 23 years ensued in Sydney and then Melbourne. In 2020 I was awarded an order of Australia for services to the Performing Arts and Community. In 2022 I came back to London to run the Barbican Centre.

So anyway, back to the day. After assembling at Lambeth Bridge a straggly procession commenced as we made our way via ticket check, security, and obligatory toilet stop to the Abbey. As we entered via the West Door, we were greeted with those who had been wise and got there early to grab the front row spots. Katy Perry wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find her seat. It was a cacophony of chatter as seats were taken. Orders of Service were perused, toilets located (we were all obsessed). And all this before 8.30am.

At 9am the music started and my god it was extraordinary. That Abbey is big, but the acoustic is so majestic. I felt that absolutely nothing got lost. We kicked off with the The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists – Bach, Bruckner – and then the organ found its lungs with more Bach. A slight confusion with I Vow to Thee My Country rather than Jupiter (or maybe a late programme change?) and then soloists Alis Huws and Pretty Yende. I don’t think the soprano will ever sound the same again to my ears. For an atheist, it was spiritual.

The fact that so much new music was composed for this service was testimony to the depth of creative talent in this country. The juxtaposition to the current challenges around funding for our creative industries was not lost on me. Would this coronation have been the same without this music? Of course, it wouldn’t have been.

Having thought I would struggle to sit still for so long, it was surprisingly quickly that the official arrivals commenced. Faith Leaders first – including the Chief Rabbi of GB who had special arrangements in place to ensure he did not break Jewish Laws by attending on the Sabbath. And then the representatives of the Commonwealth including Australia. Our team was lead in by flag bearing footballer Sam Kerr (Australia and Chelsea) followed by Governor General and Prime Minister – the latter affectionately known by the country as Albo. A nod to our national tendency to not finish words and have nicknames for everyone. It was an unexpectedly emotional moment, a reminder I was there for all Australians.

And then the final push to the start (yes, we are still in the preamble at 10.45, Coronations clearly take time to birth!) The heralds getting into position for the fanfare.

Presentation of the orders of Chivalry and Gallantry Award holders was next – Soprano Yvonne Kenny carried the Order of Australia. And the hardware came out – swords, crowns, sceptres, standards, rings, spurs, armills, more swords. So much armoury.

And then they were here – the King and Queen. I have never met either of them – but I was struck at their solemnity, the presence. And that neither of them is very tall. The procession moved slowly – Queen first and then the King.

When the official order of service commenced, the theme of service was clear from the beginning. I come not to be served but to serve were the first words we hear from the king. We were seated in the knave near the West Door, so couldn’t see the King – there are a series of screens through the Abbey so you don’t miss anything – fun fact, when not broadcasting they are cunningly disguised as pillars. But you could hear him. He was steady and clear. More music – Bryn Terfel with a newly composed piece and then the king was presented to all points in the Abbey. We got our first chance at God Save King Charles – growing in confidence and gusto as we rotated through east, south, west and north.

Rapid succession through the Bible and the Oaths – including the statutory Accession Declaration Oath. The choir sing from The Book of Common Prayer 1549. Thankful for a theological education to understand what that was all about.
Prayers and then the British Prime Minister appears at our shoulder to read from Colossians. “unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” Very poignant.

Screens, anointing, more music and then another musical masterstroke courtesy of Handel for the Coronation of George II in 1727 – Zadok the Priest sung by the choir. My goodness it was so intense. The anointing was hidden – but the solemnity of the moment certainly wasn’t. And then the investiture and crowning. Lots of presenting of various pieces of regalia – finishing with the Royal Sceptre.

The moment before the King was crowned was absolutely silent. It was weirdly like we were all holding our breath. And then the Archbishop bellowed (yes bellowed) God Save the King and we all bellowed it right back at him. I think he was relieved he’d got through the service. It was joyous, momentous and I think we all felt that we have been part of something deeply historic. I have never had that feeling before.

The touching moment with the Prince of Wales was swift and then to the enthroning and the homage. A swift gallop through the Queens crowning, the Lord’s Prayer, hymns, (didn’t know the first one, sang Praise My Lord the King of Heaven at full pelt to make up for it). God Save Our Gracious King is sung with more gusto than heard before and then off they go.

And then things got weird. Celebs and public service mixing can often be so – but this was next level. Ant and Deck had at least 100 selfies (they were gracious in every one) but we had our eye on Katy Perry. She was sauntering up the knave so the Aussies went for it. And that my friends is the photo that made it to the BBC.

Reflecting back this morning – it was such an honour to be there. My parents can only match their pride with my graduation day. Friends will dine out on my association with Nick Cave. But I will remember the music, the solemnity and the joy and how quickly you can move between the two. A lesson for next week’s return to work maybe.'


Photography: Claire Spencer