Ahead of the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, the Government has announced changes to the Coronation Oath. Instead of referring individually to each Commonwealth Realm (independent countries where the King is also head of state), the oath will refer to them “collectively”.

This Insight looks at the history of the oath and why it is to be revised.

Coronation Oath Act

The Coronation Oath Act 1688 provided for an oath to be taken by King William III and Queen Mary II and all future monarchs. This replaced a previous oath, which the Parliament of England believed had come to be “framed in doubtful Words and Expressions”.

The new oath was in three parts, and bound the monarch to:

  • rule according to laws agreed “in Parliament”, therefore limiting their power following the “Glorious Revolution
  • cause law, justice and mercy to be executed in their judgments; and
  • maintain “the Protestant Reformed Religion Established by Law” (ie, the Church of England)

Section 3 of the 1688 Act provided the words to be used in the oath, while Section 4  stated that the oath was to be read to the monarch by the Archbishop of Canterbury or York, or another Bishop appointed for that purpose.

Each part of the oath is framed as a question to the monarch. Having answered all three, the monarch kisses a Bible and declares: “The things which I have here before promised I will perform and keep so help me God.”

Until 1707, the monarch also had to swear a Scottish Coronation Oath in their separate capacity as King or Queen of Scots. After the 1707 Union, the (English) Coronation Oath Act 1688 was extended to Scotland as part of the new Kingdom of Great Britain. Thereafter, there has been only one statutory Coronation Oath for British monarchs.

Legal status of the oath

The Coronation Oath is a legal obligation, although a monarch can carry out duties known as “royal functions” before they have taken it. For example, King Charles III immediately became Monarch following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 and has had full authority since to grant Royal Assent to Acts of Parliament and to preside at meetings of the Privy Council.

King Edward VIII did not take the Coronation Oath as he was never crowned, but he nevertheless discharged royal functions during his 325-day reign.

It is often claimed that a monarch cannot approve laws which would conflict with the Coronation Oath. In the early 19th century, King George IV initially refused to grant Royal Assent to a bill that allowed Catholics to vote, as he believed it contradicted the part of the oath about maintaining the Protestant Reformed Religion.

Conversely, Queen Victoria approved the disestablishment of the Church in Ireland despite having sworn to maintain the “united church of England and Ireland” in her Coronation Oath.

Nevertheless, even in 1996 the then Prime Minister Sir John Major said his ministers “would not advise Her Majesty to sign into law any provision which contradicted Her Oath”.

Previous changes to the oath

Technically, any form of the Coronation Oath which does not match the wording set out in the 1688 Act is contrary to law. In practice, however, several changes have been made without amending the original Act.

These changes have generally reflected constitutional developments. The oath as set out in the 1689 Act referred to the “Kingdom of England”, so in later oaths this was changed to “Great Britain” and then to the “United Kingdom”.

Other changes took account of the fact that after 1931 (and the Statute of Westminster) the King or Queen was separately monarch of various Commonwealth Realms, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the oath taken by King George VI in May 1937, he swore to govern all those realms (which were listed) according to their “respective laws and customs”. Queen Elizabeth II’s oath took account of the fact that India and Ireland – both Commonwealth Realms in 1937 – had become independent republics by May 1953.

In 2017, the legal scholar Graeme Watt argued that the oaths taken in 1937 and 1953 “lacked statutory authority” and were therefore unlawful.

In 1937 and 1953 senior legal advisers to the government argued that most changes were “implied” amendments which had legal authority from other statutes. Nevertheless, Lord Hailsham (the then Lord Chancellor) said future revisions must “be limited to what was essential to give effect to the alteration in the [UK or Monarch’s] constitutional position”.

In 1953, changes were simply made through an agreement between the UK and other Commonwealth Realms.

In a written statement Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, confirmed that the Government intends to follow this approach. He said “that no express legislative authority is required to make the changes on the basis that they are to ensure consistency with the position regarding the Realms and Territories, as reflected in legislation”.

King Charles III’s oath

It has been 70 years since the last coronation. While internal constitutional changes to the United Kingdom (ie devolution) do not require acknowledgement in the oath, external changes do. Pakistan became a republic in 1956, as did the Union of South Africa in 1961 and Sri Lanka in 1972.

Furthermore, there are now 14 Commonwealth Realms. In his written statement, Mr Dowden said that as their number had “evolved” since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II then in the oath to be taken on 6 May the Realms “will be referred to collectively”.

In the 1990s there was speculation that the Coronation Oath would also be altered to meet the then Prince of Wales’s “vision of his spiritual role as ‘Defender of the Faith’”. More recently, the Constitution Unit of University College London has suggested possible amendments to the oath (PDF). Mr Dowden’s statement, however, does not suggest any further alterations along these lines.

The King will also take the statutory Accession Declaration Oath following his Coronation Oath on 6 May 2023. This is to confirm that the Monarch is “a faithful Protestant”, as a Catholic is prohibited by law from being Monarch.

Further reading

About the author: Dr David Torrance is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in the monarchy and devolution.

Photo by: ©UK Parliament/ Photography by Roger Harris under CC by 3.0

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