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Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

What it was really like inside the Abbey

What it was really like inside the Abbey

This was history in the making - and you had to pinch yourself to think you were seeing it close-up, inside Westminster Abbey.

Over there was the battered but rather beautiful Coronation chair, with a King about to be crowned. It looked almost fragile waiting for its royal occupant.

You could feel the sense of expectation. It was really happening right here, on an altar full of candlelight, prayers and a glow of gold. The Abbey was like being inside a jewel box.

The first Coronation in 70 years proved to be a sumptuous, seamless and often surreal ceremony.

Before 2,300 guests, King Charles and Queen Camilla went through the ancient rituals, with a twist of modern signals about diversity.

But it was also like a spectacularly lavish wedding, with friends, families and famous faces crowded into every corner of the church, playing with their phones, checking to see who else was there.

And where else would international royalty, world leaders and 100 overseas heads of state get an opportunity to meet Ant and Dec?

The King is crowned in the 700-year-old Coronation chair


There were glamorous outfits and hats, splashes of military uniforms with epaulettes, plumes and swords, clerical robes and every shade and shape of national dress. The selfies on the way in were going to prove that they'd really been here.

There were traditional roles with baffling titles such as Bluemantle Pursuivant and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant and a number of men seemed to be entirely dressed in medieval flags.

Walking down the nave when he arrived, the King seemed to be pausing to take it all in.

What was he thinking, after all the decades that he'd been waiting for this day? Was he thinking about his mother, his own family, the responsibility?

When the Archbishop of Canterbury appeared to give the crown a couple of twists on his head, the King might have been thinking less charitable thoughts.

A guest in the Abbey takes a selfie with Ant and Dec


And the only person who could have stolen the King's show was possibly Penny Mordaunt, the lord president of the council, who hovered around the high altar looking like a deity who had escaped from an ancient Greek urn.

But the King must have been delighted with the music, not least because he'd chosen it himself, like all of this elaborate ceremony. It was like a big work of art and he was its creator.

At close quarters in the abbey, the orchestra and choir were remarkable, the music welling up like a tidal wave of sound. It was bouncing off the stained glass windows.

The piece by William Byrd had all the aching melancholy and stillness that you suspect King Charles would really have enjoyed. Handel's Zadok the Priest, full of drama and anticipation, was a real spine-tingler.

There was also the most eclectic collection of people in the congregation. There were hundreds of charity workers, US First Lady Jill Biden, President Macron and rows of celebrities, such as Joanna Lumley, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, and hello, it's Lionel Ritchie.

Many of the guests had been inside the abbey for hours before it started, which meant some of the best-dressed queues ever seen for the toilets. I'd never really thought about the mechanics of such a visit for a peer in floor-length robes and ermine.

It was a lavish and colourful spectacle in the Abbey


There had been stories about MPs complaining about a lack of tickets for the Coronation. Part of the problem might be there are now so many ex-PMs to accommodate. Even Liz Truss got a seat.

Boris Johnson arrived looking like his shirt collars were staging their own backbench rebellion.

The current PM, Rishi Sunak, had a speaking part, delivering the Bible lesson.

For those hoping to watch any body language between Prince Harry and his brother Prince William, there was nothing to see, as they may as well have been sitting a continent apart.

Harry arrived looking relaxed and chatty, despite this being a huge transatlantic flying visit, and was seated a couple of rows behind Prince William, the Prince of Wales.

Prince Harry was heading back to the US straight after the service


The older brother, who must have been thinking that one day he'll face his own Coronation, was more engaged in his own role in the ceremony.

There seemed to be glances exchanged too between the husband and wife at the centre of this event, who were maybe having the big public wedding they didn't have before.

King Charles now has his Queen Camilla beside him. It took them about half an hour to get to the Abbey in the morning, but their journey to this point has taken them decades.

It's impossible to go into Westminster Abbey without feeling the weight of history on every side. It seeps from every plaque and statue. Even the clothes had a story. The King was wearing a robe that had been his grandfather's and Catherine was wearing earrings that had been Diana's.

Many guests might have been remembering being here at the late Queen's funeral, which eight months ago went out through the same doors as today's newly-crowned couple.

The King and Queen left the Abbey in the Gold State Coach


Such grand occasions, snapshots for the history books, are where the past, present and future overlap.

With the music soaring and the guests on their feet, the King and Queen left the Abbey to step inside the crown-on-wheels that is the Gold State Coach, with umbrellas up against the rain.

The carriage pulled away, past a sea of waving camera phones, and another era had begun.

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