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As formal acknowledgement of a monarch's right to rule, the coronation confirms their accession and acceptance by their subjects. For early warrior kings, the principle of succession was by election within the ruling tribes or families, copying Roman practice, so the inaugural ceremony was both public acclamation of the new ruler and acknowledgement of military prowess. This ‘election and elevation’ was subsequently replaced by primogeniture (succession by first-born, usually male), and assent changed to recognition of a monarch's established right. With the spread of Christianity there developed the practice of consecration by unction (anointing with holy oil); there was a widespread belief that anointment conferred sacredness, and the Church expected monarchs to fulfil both spiritual and secular roles. An interest in symbolism led to ‘coronation’, combining both crowning and unction as a liturgical ritual, well established in England by the tenth century.

The coronation ritual, organized by the clergy, came to combine all these elements: the order used for Aethelred in 978 showed clear divisions into election, oath, anointing, delivery of insignia (regalia), and blessing. By the twelfth century, the undisputed place of coronation for English monarchs was Westminster abbey, whose monks then took over and developed the order of ceremony and associated ritual. The coronation eve saw the vigil procession from the Tower of London to Westminster palace (1377–1661, except when plague was rampant), and this has been partially revived in the carriage procession from Buckingham palace. Since medieval times, it has been usual for a queen-consort to be crowned with her husband, although not all queens have been crowned (Henrietta Maria, Caroline of Brunswick) and some have had separate ceremonies (Elizabeth of York, Anne Boleyn). After the Reformation the ritual was secularized and abridged, but the modern ceremony—acclamation, oath, anointing, delivery of the insignia, crowning, enthronement, and homage—continues to reflect earlier forms even though some details have been simplified.

The coronation of Scottish monarchs was generally simpler. Inauguration involving elevation, usually at Scone, was central, but crowning and anointment were eventually granted to Robert I (1329) before use at David II's coronation (1331). Since many later rulers succeeded as children or infants, ceremonial was minimized. Changes in the oath could have considerable political significance: at the last Scottish coronation (1651), Charles II had to swear to the covenant, and anointment was omitted as being too popish a practice.

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