King Charles III leaves the palace en route to his coronation

In a ceremony steeped in 1,000 years of tradition, King Charles III left Buckingham Palace on Saturday for the last mile of a seven-decade journey from heir to monarch. More than 2,000 guests, thousands of troops, tens of thousands of spectators, and a smattering of protesters gathered around Westminster Abbey for the coronation of the new king. This grand occasion marks a display of heritage, tradition, and spectacle unmatched anywhere in the world.

The abbey was buzzing with excitement and filled with fragrant flowers and colorful hats when guests began arriving two hours before the ceremony. Celebrities such as Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, and Lionel Richie flocked to the abbey along with politicians, judges in wigs, and soldiers with shiny medals attached to their red tunics. Members of the House of Lords joined in their red robes, adding an air of pomp and ceremony to the already magnificent occasion.

Thousands of people from across the UK and around the world had camped overnight along a 2km trail to catch a glimpse of the monarch as he made his way from Buckingham Palace to the medieval abbey where kings have been crowned for a millennium. Crowds swelled during the morning as the newly crowned King and Queen Camilla took the route back to the palace, this time in a 261-year-old gilded carriage accompanied by 4,000 soldiers, forming the largest military parade in Great Britain in 70 years.

For some, this grand celebration is a celebration of an institution that represents privilege and inequality. Anti-monarchist group Republic said six of its members, including its chief executive, were arrested as they arrived at the protest. However, for the monarch’s supporters, this coronation marks the beginning of a new chapter for the United Kingdom.

Although the king no longer has executive or political power, and the service is purely ceremonial as Charles automatically became king upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in September, the King remains the UK’s head of state and a symbol of national identity. Charles will have to work to unite a multicultural nation at a time when respect for the monarchy has been replaced, for many, with apathy.

Built around the theme “Called to Serve,” the coronation service emphasizes the importance of the young, and it’s a new addition in a service laden with the rituals through which power has been passed down to new monarchs over the centuries. The symbolic peak of the two-hour service will come midway when the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby places St Edward’s Crown in solid gold on the monarch’s head. Trumpets will sound, and gunfire will be fired across the UK.

In another change, Charles did away with the traditional moment at the end of the service where nobles were asked to kneel and swear allegiance to the king. Instead, Welby will urge everyone in the abbey to swear “true allegiance” to the monarch. He will also invite people watching on television to pay their respects, though that part of the ceremony was toned down after some criticized it as a dull effort to rally public support for Charles. Welby will now suggest that people at home take a “moment of silent reflection” or say “God Save the King.”

Public response to Charles, however, during the service and along the parade route, is key. “None of this matters if the audience doesn’t show up,” said George Gross, a visiting researcher at King’s College London and coronation expert. It’s about this interaction, and today’s audience is very different from the one who saw Elizabeth crowned.

Nearly 20% of the population now comes from minority ethnic groups, up from less than 1% in the 1950s. More than 300 languages are spoken in British schools, and less than half of the population identifies themselves as Christian. Although organizers say the coronation remains a “sacred Anglican service,” the ceremony will for the first time include active participation from other faiths, including representatives of Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh traditions.

The coronation of King Charles III may be a shorter affair than the three hours of Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. This time, organizers shortened the procession route, cut the coronation service to less than two hours, and sent out 2,300 invitations to global royalty, heads of state, civil servants, key workers, and local heroes, plus a smattering of celebrities. The guest list includes US First Lady Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, and eight current and former British prime ministers.

The King’s family will be close at hand, including his sparring sons Prince William and Prince Harry, but not Harry’s wife Meghan and their children, who remain at home in California. Today’s audience may be different, but the occasion remains a momentous event in the history of the United Kingdom.

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