Before the Norman Conquest, a new king’s reign began at the moment he was acclaimed, or sworn in. In the interests of peace and security, this would happen as soon as possible after the old king’s death. Consider, for example, the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042. His predecessor, Harthacnut, died suddenly on 8 June that year, ‘as he stood at his drink’, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. ‘Before he was buried’, the Chronicle continues, ‘the whole nation chose Edward to be king in London’. For this reason, pre-Conquest English kings could afford to delay their coronations for a long time. The Confessor was not crowned until Easter 1043, a full nine months after his accession. Being a pious man, he probably wanted to be crowned on the holiest day of the year.Share
The essential point is that in pre-Conquest England coronation was simply confirmation, an act designed to call down God’s blessing on the new ruler; there was no sense in which it conferred the kingship itself.
This changed completely after the Normans took over. In France, coronation was all-important, and a new king’s reign began only when the holy oil of unction was poured on his head. Whatever the English thought, it is clear that William the Conqueror considered himself to be king of England from the moment of his coronation, not before. Indeed, we're told that the English begged William to be crowned as soon as possible, so that some degree of law and order could be re-established, to stop all the Norman harrying and pillaging.
This new rule was maintained for the next two centuries. The first detailed description of an English coronation ceremony is Roger of Howden’s account of the coronation of Richard I in 1189. Howden punctiliously refers to Richard as ‘the duke’ right up to the moment he is anointed. It meant, of course, that would-be candidates for the throne tended to spur their horses hard in the direction of Westminster when they heard the news of their predecessor’s death. Henry I set the all-time record in 1100, racing there from Hampshire to be crowned just three days after the death of his brother, William Rufus. But no king in this period delayed their coronation any longer than was absolutely necessary.
What happened, then, between the death of one king and the coronation of his successor? The answer is: chaos. There was no law and there was no government, at least officially. Great men garrisoned their castles in expectation of attack from their neighbours. Old scores were settled. In the case of several medieval English kings, we read how, the instant they were dead, their servants fearfully deserted their bodies, riding off in all directions in order to safeguard their property. Order was only restored once a new ruler was in place.
The change came in 1272, with the death of Henry III. Two years earlier, his eldest son and heir apparent, the future Edward I, had set out for the Holy Land on crusade. It would obviously have been intolerable to have a situation where Henry - already elderly when Edward departed - died in his son’s absence, and England had to wait for months until his successor returned home. Elaborate security arrangements were made prior to Edward’s departure, including the transfer of many royal castles into the hands of his supporters, so his grip on England would be secure in the event of his father’s death. But it was also evidently decided to disregard previous practice when it came to the coronation, for when Henry III died on 16 November 1272, Edward’s reign began more or less immediately. The next day the new king’s peace was proclaimed in Westminster Hall, and three days later, when Henry was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, all the magnates present swore fealty to Edward as their new king. As they explained to Edward in a letter, they did this before his father’s tomb had been sealed.
As a result of this shift, which went unremarked at the time, Edward was able to defer his coronation ceremony for a long while. It was not until 19 August 1274, almost two years later, that he eventually returned to England and was crowned. One consequence was that coronation ceremonies could be far grander and more elaborate after 1272 than before, because royal officials had months to plan and organize them, rather than weeks or days. (Read more.)