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Faith in Freedom

The Servant King

(or Queen)

Britain's Throne

Having sworn his Oath to his people the Servant King or Queen strips to a white shirt and sits in the Coronation Chair of Edward the Confessor to be anointed. The Coronation Oath that the English King first made to his people in AD 973 still shapes what we believe a Sovereign, a Prime Minister or a President should be.

Image: The Covenant Publishing Company

Part One - Why have a king?

You might ask, why have a King at all? God had exactly the same question in the Old Testament. God told the people of Israel that a King was a bad idea –

“He will take your sons and make them serve in his chariots and with his cavalry. . . and make them plough his fields and reap his harvest; . . .He will take your daughters for perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his cronies. . .He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves” (1 Samuel 8:3-18).

Nevertheless the people stubbornly persisted in wanting a King. This was an intensely felt need in Israel as long ago as 900 BC and in Britain at least since AD 8th century. It resembled the modern desire for a leader who will get done what we ask him to do.

To be afraid that your farm and harvest will be plundered or burned, your wife raped, your children slaughtered and you yourself killed or enslaved is a gut-wrenching fear. The people of 10th century Britain were exposed to violent assaults, and they looked for a leader who would protect them, who could call all the men of Wessex together as Alfred had done, and defend them. They wanted a champion who was powerful, intelligent and just, who could keep peace in the kingdom, preserve the laws, protect them from those “who were taking bribes and perverting the course of justice” and keep invaders at bay. They wanted a King who was willing to die for them.

They were sufficiently grounded in the Old and New Testaments (2 Samuel 3:12; 1 Chronicles 11:3; Luke 22:20), or at least the clergy was, to know they needed a covenant between King and people. The covenant would be described in the Oath that the King made to his speech. It would be confirmed by the solemn acts of anointing and crowning.


The story is this. King Eadred had finished Alfred's work by uniting Danes, Angles and Celts in one kingdom of Britain. He had ruled with the agreement of the earls and clergy - the wise men of his Witan. His fifteen-year-old nephew, the unfortunate Eadwig, succeeded him. At the coronation feast, Eadwig left Dunstan and the other bishops and the Witan of earls and barons to play in bed with a mother and her daughter.

Depending on your historian, either the bishops or the Witan were outraged by the discourtesy, and asked Dunstan to bring the King back to the feast. Dunstan did. Not long afterwards, he was exiled.

Eadwig did not reign for long, but by the time he died an unusual number of land deeds had issued from his court. Eadwig had taken land from those who owned it and had given it to his friends.

These injustices were bitterly resented. People began to feel that if a king were crowned, he would have to promise to give them justice, and he would have to take his oath seriously.

The Coronation Oath

Eadwig's brother Edgar succeeded to the throne in 959. Edgar was a just ruler (see Liberty Timeline). In AD 973 Dunstan was prepared to crown him. For the occasion he created a Coronation Oath that would bind Edgar and his people in a covnenant.

Here is the Oath that Dunstan wrote and Edgar swore before he was crowned King –

“First that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments.”

Edgar's promise to give his people peace, justice, and mercy is a radical idea, and quite unknown in large swathes of the world today. It is so important to the British people that the history of freedom will feature the repeated efforts of the people to hold kings to their sworn oaths.

The Oath was based on Christian ethical teachings because they had found these teachings the most practical on earth for creating sane and civilised relationships. But there was more than Christian teachings in their concept of kingship, as we shall see.

The Covenant - the promise of King to people and people to King

The British people were asking a great deal of their Sovereign, and giving a great deal in power and allegiance. Consequently they made a tremendous pageant of the Coronation. That, at least, is one explanation of the remarkable ceremony that still unfolds in Westminster Abbey, one thousand years after Dunstan first created the Coronation Covenant.

When the King entered Westminster Abbey for his coronation, he wore a crimson surcoat under a crimson velvet Robe of State, ermine cape and ermine-trimmed velvet train. The Archbishop of Canterbury presented him to the British people gathered there, and cried, “Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, are you willing to do the same?"

If they were willing they shouted, "God save the King!" or, in the case of a Queen, "Vivat Regina!" Their acclamation could not be taken for granted. Men and women who might have been monarchs never arrived in the Abbey because they lacked the confidence of the people, and a substantial number of British kings lost their thrones because they misplaced or discarded their people’s confidence.

As you have already guessed, in the beginning the people acclaiming the King were a rather small group of knight-barons and clergy. The barons would have cared primarily about themselves. However, often what was good for them – a law-abiding King serving as an executive power that could organise the courts and check and curb the illegal and murderous powers of the powerful – was also good for all the British people.

For their part, quite a few members of clergy were serious about their responsibility as protectors and representatives of the people. Without their leadership the Charter of Liberties (1100), the freeing of slaves by the Council of Westminster (1102), Magna Carta (1215) and the Coronation Oath would never have seen the light of day.

After the people affirmed their allegiance, the King swore his Coronation Oath. Then Holy Eucharist was celebrated.

Unseen powers

Some people wonder why this is part of the coronation. Its indispensable role is to remind everyone that there is a Lord, “the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” who is the Creator of the king and the people. The Eucharist celebrates the Lord who is greater than any earthly king and who has given king and people a single command.

According to British Christians, the Lord did not tell them what to wear or what to eat, did not stipulate how or when they were to pray or what jobs they should or should not hold. Christ simply told them to "love God and love each other", and gave them the freedom and reason to figure out how. For those in doubt about what love meant, the Old and New Testaments reminded them that it meant treating others fairly and kindly, helping them when they needed help, forgiving them or asking their forgiveness, sitting down and having a meal with them, truly seeing and cherishing them.

Immediately after reciting the Nicene Creed during Holy Eucharist, the uncrowned King was stripped to an anointing gown. Shorn of his jewels and robes, he sat in King Edward’s Chair in a simple, long white shirt that was fastened at the back. The King was about to be anointed on the hands, breast and head with oil as an outward sign and seal of the invisible Spirit.

And it is just now, as the King sits in his white shirt in the oak chair that was carved for Edward I, but named after the saint and king Edward the Confessor, that a peculiar and wonderful light begins to illuminate the scene. That this is so is not merely our impression. A number of ancient English chroniclers have described it.

Edward the Confessor holds coronation ring

Edward the Confessor holds the coronation ring that symbolises the promise that the King pledges to his people.

From the Wilton Diptych

Part Two - The Light

The ancient English chroniclers describe this light as the penumbra cast by Saint Edward the lawgiver, who gave the British their just laws and ancient liberties. There is just one problem with this idea. As far as we know, Edward did not give the British any laws or liberties, but there was a light, as we hope to show.

When Edward the Confessor arrived on the throne, taxes were high. Though no gold had been paid to the Danes for years, the English royal court – so like a modern government – had persisted in collecting the tax for it. Edward, who liked a simple life of riding and hunting, ended the tax for Danegeld. That was justice. It gives us a glimmer of the light.

The last in the line of Anglo-Saxon kings, Edward was the bridge between the Anglo-Saxon kings who had preceded him and who had respected the people’s Anglo-Saxon laws and liberties and the Norman kings who followed him. Anglo-Saxons loved his memory, and insisted on the Common Law established by Alfred the Great. Normans claimed that Edward had made William the Conqueror his heir. Edward was perfectly positioned to be an Anglo-Saxon and a Norman symbol.

On the banks of the Thames where Edgar and St Dunstan had founded a Benedictine monastery, Edward the Confessor built a new church. Known today as Westminster Abbey, this is the place where English and British monarchs, beginning with William the Conqueror on Christmas Day 1066, were crowned. Edward the Confessor founded the great coronation cathedral. In 1161 he was canonised a saint.

Desperate to find a champion to stand against Norman kings apt to forget their Coronation Oaths and the Common Law, the canny chroniclers and the British people chose Edward to embody their law and their liberty. He became the law-giver who had given the people the ancient “laws and customs” that every British King or Queen pledged to protect.

The British people’s resolve in holding their monarch to his oath was extraordinary. They repeatedly risked their lives to defend justice since they rightly believed that life was extremely unpleasant without it. Sometimes their efforts failed. Thankfully, they often succeeded. Their determination was partly due to the wonderful light they saw. Let us explain.

After he was anointed, the King was invested in the Colobium sindonis, the “shroud tunic”, a loose white undergarment of linen cloth. Open at the sides, sleeveless, and cut low at the neck, it evoked the figure of Jesus and symbolized the King’s connection with Jesus Christ. It pointed to the covenant of Holy Baptism, which the coronation ceremony resembled. Like the person who is baptized, the King was “buried with Christ” and “shared in his resurrection”. Jesus was the model for the servant king.

In the liturgy for the Maundy Thursday service with which British kings were particularly identified, it says that a dispute arose among the disciples as to which of them was to be considered greatest. Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves" (Luke 22: 24-27). Kings and Queens were all-too human, but the coronation makes explicit that Jesus' selfless, incorruptible service was to be theirs.

Over the shroud the King was invested in the supertunica, a long coat of gold silk that was fastened by a sword belt. He was robed in the Robe Royal, a four-square mantle whose four corners signify that the four corners of the world are subject to the power of God. Then he was crowned.

Looking at this resplendent creature, one may forget what the people understood – the one who rules is the one who serves. This idea would be gently and firmly underlined in Holy Communion. The King is charged by God to be a servant King who protects the people's liberties and just laws. He stands in "the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome".

Elizabeth II at her coronation in Westminster Abbey

Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation.
She swore to rule the peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland according to their respective "laws and customs", to cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all her judgements, and to maintain to the utmost of her power the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.

Image: Cecil Beaton

Part Three – Why the Servant King or Queen Matters Today

The brief answer is that the King's promise to protect the people's laws and customs is not made to Parliament but to the people. The Constitutional Covenant of the King or Queen is made with his people, and can never be overturned by Parliament or any other authority.

However, in the 20th century, Parliament reduced the King's powers until they were but a shadow. As a result, Parliament and Prime Minister reign supreme with scarcely any checks to their power. The people of Britain now lack an executive who would balance Parliament's powers unless The Queen leads them in defending their Constitution, refusing His or Her Royal Assent to any laws that deprive them of liberty or sovereignty.

What remains, though it is deliberately forgotten by the politicians, is an ancient ideal and a present liberty and right. The ideal is one that applies as long as the British have kings and leaders. They have the right to demand that "the one who rules is like the one who serves", caring nothing for his own money, power or welfare but only for the liberty and wellbeing of his people.


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass