Anointed with holy oil and enthroned on St. Edward’s chair, King Charles III was crowned on Saturday in a solemn ritual that stretches back more than a millennium but unfolded with multiple concessions to the modern age.
The coronation, the first since Queen Elizabeth II’s in 1953, was a royal spectacle of the kind that only Britain still stages: four hours of pageantry that began with the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on Pall Mall and ended with the vaporous trails of acrobatic jets streaking above Buckingham Palace, as Charles watched from the balcony with Queen Camilla, who had been crowned shortly after him.
Yet this was a coronation for a radically different country than when Elizabeth first wore the crown. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh leaders greeted Charles as he left Westminster Abbey, and there were various attempts — not always successful — to make a medieval ritual more inclusive and democratic.
Female bishops from the Church of England took part in the liturgy; hymns were sung in Welsh, Scottish and Irish Gaelic; and when Charles, 74, took a sacred oath to defend the Protestant faith, he also offered a personal prayer, in which he promised to be a pluralistic monarch for a diverse society.
“I come not to be served, but to serve,” said Charles, moving gingerly in a velvet and gold lace robe first worn by his grandfather, George VI. “Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and belief.”
At the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, who presided over the service, the congregation chanted, “God save King Charles,” their voices echoing in the abbey’s vaulted nave.
Among those in the audience of 2,200 were heads of state, including President Emmanuel Macron of France; entertainment figures like the singer Lionel Richie; and the first lady of the United States, Jill Biden, though not President Biden, who posted his congratulations to Charles on Twitter from the White House.
Outside, thousands of spectators lined the streets under a steady drizzle. There was little of the excitement that has electrified crowds after royal weddings or the sadness that suffused mourners during the queen’s funeral in September. But there was a collective sense of history in the making, and even a tingle or two as the newly crowned king and queen passed in their gold stagecoach.
History, of course, had been made already: Charles ascended to the throne upon the death of the queen. But the coronation sanctifies a monarch’s rule and, through a national celebration, aims to bind the sovereign to the people.
If Elizabeth’s coronation was one of the world’s first mass-media events, its black-and-white images transmitted globally by the BBC, this was the first coronation of the digital age, shared by spectators on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook.
“I am just intrigued,” said Zoë Boyce, 24, as she waited on a blanket in a park with a friend, Sarah Chappell, 23. Ms. Boyce insisted she was “not a big fan” of the monarchy, but said, “I think you can appreciate it without supporting it.”
“It’s just a day in history isn’t it?” Ms. Chappell added.
There were discordant notes. Hours before the service began, the police arrested the head of Britain’s most prominent republican movement, Graham Smith, and others who had planned to protest in Trafalgar Square, along the procession route.
Mr. Smith said this past week that the anti-monarchists would chant and brandish placards saying, “Not My King,” but would not disrupt the proceedings. Yet the police, armed with a much-disputed new law that allows them to crack down on demonstrations, rounded up Mr. Smith and others, well before Charles appeared.
As word of the arrests spread, other protesters milled restively outside the cordoned-off area around Trafalgar Square.
“I think it’s disgusting,” said Charlie Willis, 20. “To have a giant party about having a crown put on your head when you have people dying of starvation and poverty. I mean would you do that?”
One misstep in the days leading up to the ceremony was the archbishop’s plan to “call upon” millions of people across the United Kingdom and its realms to pay homage to the king, a modification that he framed as a democratizing step because that ritual had traditionally been reserved for the aristocracy.
But after a backlash, Archbishop Welby softened the wording. “I now invite those who wish to offer their support do so, with a moment of private reflection, by joining in saying, ‘God save King Charles,’” he said a touch tentatively.
For many, however, the coronation was an excuse to cheer, wave Union Jacks and take part in the quintessentially English experience of getting wet together. “Congratulations for braving the weather,” said a voice from a loudspeaker near Buckingham Palace. “May the damp in our clothes not dampen our spirit.”
“It’s rather festive, and the scene is very stoic of the British,” said Rupert Birch, 56, an entrepreneur, who was sheltering from the downpour under one of the plane trees that line Hyde Park.
Sarah Briscoe, 44, who works in financial services, credited the king with being ahead of his time on issues like environmental sustainability. But she acknowledged the burden he had in succeeding Elizabeth, Britain’s longest-serving monarch who became a revered figure and an anchor for the country.
“His mother was so brilliant,” Ms. Briscoe said. “It’s impossible for him to live up to her, isn’t it?”
The royal family’s awkward dynamics were on display in the ceremony. Prince Harry, the king’s estranged younger son, arrived alone with a gaggle of his cousins. Harry’s wife, Meghan, stayed home in Montecito, Calif., with the couple’s children, Lilibet and Archie, who celebrated his fourth birthday on Saturday.
Harry was seated in the third row, between the husband of his cousin, Princess Eugenie, and Princess Alexandra, an 86-year-old cousin of the queen who is 56th in line to throne. He did not appear in the lineup on the palace balcony, with British papers reporting that he was on his way back to California by midafternoon.
By contrast, Harry’s brother, Prince William, his wife, Catherine, and their children played a conspicuous role. Prince George, 9, their eldest son, held the king’s robe as one of the pages. Their 8-year-old daughter, Princess Charlotte, beguiled onlookers in an ivory silk crepe dress by the designer Alexander McQueen — a miniature version of the dress worn by her mother.
For Camilla, 75, now elevated from queen consort to queen, the coronation represented the end of a decades-long rehabilitation project that began with her marriage to Charles in 2005, after the messy dissolution of his marriage to Princess Diana.
Among other prominent women were Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, who stood, ramrod straight, bearing the jewel-encrusted Sword of State during one of the longest parts of the service.
She last won headlines in July 2022 for unsuccessfully challenging Rishi Sunak for the Conservative Party leadership. Mr. Sunak, Britain’s first Hindu prime minister, played his own role by reading the first chapter of the Epistle to the Colossians.
While most members of the royal family rode in carriages or cars during the grand procession back to the palace, Princess Anne, the king’s younger sister, rode on horseback. An accomplished equestrian, she had the status of Gold Stick-in-Waiting, an honorary bodyguard to the sovereign.
Even in a country used to royal spectacle, that parade beggared description: 19 military bands and 4,000 troops, stretching a full mile from the palace gates along the mall and around the corner into Whitehall.
After saluting the troops in the garden behind the palace, Charles and his family appeared on the balcony to watch the aerial flyby, which was cut back by the low clouds. In place of the 60 aircraft originally planned, a flotilla of helicopters and Red Arrow acrobatic jets roared overhead.
The day’s enduring focus, however, was on Charles. Somber throughout the two-hour ceremony, he looked like a man feeling the weight of the crown — in his case, an imperial one set with 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 269 pearls. Only when he appeared on the balcony later did he flash a smile.
In the ceremony’s most intimate moment, Charles was anointed with holy oil, harvested from the Mount of Olives and consecrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The archbishop conducted the ritual behind a screen — symbolizing the privacy of what is intended as almost a divine encounter between the sovereign and God.
Like other elements of the ceremony, the anointment dates to the coronation of King Edgar in A.D. 973 in the Roman city of Bath. That it has survived, unchanged, until the 21st century has intrigued historians.
“How could a rite which had relevance to feudal England have any validity in the modern era?” the historian Roy Strong wrote in his book, “Coronation: A History of the British Monarchy.” “But it did not only survive as some antiquarian aberration,” he said. “Indeed, it flourished.”
Still, the antique — some would say anachronistic — nature of the ceremony posed a challenge to the organizers, including the king, who has spoken of his determination to make the monarchy more forward-looking, relevant and inclusive.
As part of his oath, Charles swore to uphold the Church of England, reaffirmed his Protestant faith and promised that all future monarchs would be Protestant. Seeking to put those words in a modern context, Archbishop Welby said the church sought to “foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.”
Later, in his sermon, the archbishop saluted Charles’s commitment to charity and his lifetime of service to the people of his country. “We are here to crown a king,” he said, “and we crown a king to serve.”
Megan Specia, Emma Bubola and Saskia Solomon contributed reporting.