The Coronation Oath & The Title of The Queen as Queen of Australia.
Photograph by Sir Cecil Beaton CBE
As the Queen approached old age the media and others have consistently raised the issue of abdication, but Her Majesty has always held that the oath she took at her coronation in 1953 was binding upon her for life.
At that ceremony the Archbishop of Canterbury asked of her, “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples … according to their respective laws and customs?” and “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?” she responded, “I solemnly promise so to do” and “I will” This solemn commitment meant an end to her life as a normal person and the commencement of her duties as Queen Regnant of sixteen separate countries including the United Kingdom and Australia. (A Queen Regnant is the monarch whereas a Queen Consort, as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was, is the wife of the monarch.)
All those who serve the Queen in Australia, including lawyers and judges, soldiers or federal politicians, are required to swear or affirm allegiance to Her Majesty. This allegiance is, in fact, an oath made not merely to the Queen but through her to the coronation oath she took in 1953 to serve the people with mercy and according to law. The oath of allegiance is also binding upon all who take or have taken it, not just for the period of their service, but for life.
The basis of the coronation oath is to establish a pact between the sovereign and the people. Likewise, allegiance to the Queen establishes a pact between the swearer through the Queen to the people. It is not as some may say ‘mere words’ but a solemn and binding commitment. Under our system of constitutional monarchy in Australia, the Queen is also head of the parliament, although her position is taken by the Governor-General federally and by the respective Governors in each State as the Queen’s representatives. This is why they are required to open each session of parliament on behalf of the Queen.
As mentioned above, federal politicians must also constitutionally swear or affirm allegiance to the Queen, and through the Queen to the constitution and the people, before taking their seat. The oath is “I, A.B., do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her heirs and successors according to law. So help me God” and the affirmation is similar.
British monarchs have sworn an oath at their coronations since that of King Edgar in 973 A.D. That ceremony had been drawn up from earlier documents by Saint Dunstan. The anointing originated from the biblical record (1 Kings 1 v 39) of the coronation of King Solomon (970 to 931 BC).
Since Saxon times the decision on who was to be king rested with a council (the Witan) and later with the parliament. Even when a person took the throne by force, the council or later the parliament had to agree. In this manner the English monarchy was different from monarchies in European countries.
In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England and took the throne. His claim was spurious even though he was a distant cousin of King Edward of England (Edward the Confessor). However, he submitted to the Witan for election (mind you, they had no choice) but also adopted a number of laws in existence. This is shown at the Coronation of William’s descendant, Edward II in 1308 when he was asked “Will you grant and keep and by your oath confirm to the people of England the laws and customs granted to them by the ancient kings of England your righteous and godly predecessors, and especially the laws, customs and privileges granted to the clergy and people by the glorious King Saint Edward your predecessor?”
In 1688 the king of England and Scotland, James II, faced great opposition to his attempt to restore the Roman Catholic faith. England had established the Anglican Church with the Act of Supremacy of 1534 and Scotland had officially become a Protestant country in 1560.
This opposition led to the indirect abdication of James who fled to France and the English parliament then invited his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William to jointlytake the Throne. Like Mary, William was also a grandchild of Charles I. This episode became known as ‘The Glorious Revolution’, so-called because there was no war, and no blood was spilt.
In 1689 William and Mary were crowned in accordance with a new statute entitled ‘the Coronation Oath Act 1688’. That statute sets out the requirements of the coronation oath to this present day. However, even though the statute itself has not been amended, different wordings have been used to accommodate the needs current at the time. For instance, in 1707 England and Scotland became one nation under the name Great Britain and in 1801 Ireland joined Great Britain which then became the United Kingdom. In 1877 Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India and
‘The Statute of Westminster of 1931 and the Declaration of the Imperial Conference of 1926 recognised the independent sovereignty of what was then called the Dominions, which included Australia. All of these changes resulted in amendments to the coronation oath of the monarch following each change, but the statute remained unaltered. Therefore, the amendments are termed ‘by implication’ and were made for the sake of expediency.
The two coronations which took place following the Statute of Westminster were that of George VI and his daughter, our present Queen. As a part of the Queen’s coronation oath she was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them
George VI & Queen Elizabeth Signed photo in possession of the ANF Library
belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?” The Queen: “I solemnly promise so to do.”
The oath taken by George VI also contained the words ‘Canada, Australia and New Zealand’, and by this the realms, which included what were known as the dominions, were recognised as self-governing nations under the Crown with the King, and later Queen, being separately sovereign of each realm. In this manner George VI therefore became acknowledged as the first King of Australia.
The changes to include countries such as Australia in the oath taken by George VI from that of his father George V in 1911 was announced in Australia by the then Australian prime minister, Joseph Lyons who advised that the new oath was drafted following agreement by the members of the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ and was required because the old oath ‘did not indicate the existing constitutional position of the British Commonwealth, following on the 1926 declaration of equality of status, and the subsequent passing of the Statute of Westminster’.
Prior to the Queen’s coronation in June 1953, all realms, including the United Kingdom, passed a Royal Styles and Titles Act. In Australia the title of the Queen in Australia under the Australian Act was declared to be “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Australia and her other Realms and Territories Queen. Head of the Commonwealth. Defender of the faith.”
In 1973, the Australian parliament passed a new Act in which the title of the Queen in Australia was thereafter to be “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth.”
This Act eliminated both the reference to the United Kingdom, and the title 'Defender of the Faith' which was part of the Queen’s title in the 1953 Act as it continues to be in the United Kingdom. It also specifically styled the Queen as Queen of Australia. The removal of the reference to the United Kingdom was an acknowledgement that Australia was a separately sovereign nation and the removal of the title 'Defender of the Faith' reflected Australia’s constitutional position as a secular nation. Australia has no established religion and the Australian Constitution protects, in section 116 ‘the free exercise of any religion’.
I say ‘specifically styled the Queen as Queen of Australia’ because, as explained earlier, the coronation oaths of the monarchs which took place since the Statute of
2016 Signed Photo of The Queen of Australia wearing the Badge of Sovereign of the Order of Australia. Signed photo in the possession of the ANF Library
Westminster 1931 made special reference to the monarch as King or Queen of Australia. Those monarchs being George VI and Elizabeth II. Edward VIII did not have a coronation.
Even though the title ‘Queen of Australia’ has been in place for nearly fifty years, the Australian media continues to refer to Elizabeth as Queen of England whereas, as has been explained, her proper title is Queen of the United Kingdom and in Australia it is separately ‘Queen of Australia’.
The title of the Queen as Queen of the United Kingdom evolved over the years just as the title Queen of Australia did. Originally the British monarch was, indeed, called, King of England but during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1707) both England and Scotland agreed to unite into one nation under an Act of Union. Although separately sovereign countries, both had shared the same king since James VI of Scotland had assumed the English throne on the death of his distant cousin Elizabeth I in 1603. James was a descendant of Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII. Article I of the Act of Union 1707 required “That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England shall upon the first day of May next ensuing the date hereof and forever after be United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain the two kingdoms of England and Scotland be ever after united.” This meant that both England and Scotland as sovereign states, ceased to exist and Anne and her successors were thereafter designated Queen, or King of Great Britain. Following the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801, the monarch’s title again changed to King of the United Kingdom.
As mentioned earlier, Edward VIII did not have a coronation and therefore did not swear the coronation oath. He became king on the death of his father George V on 20 January 1936 and remained king until he abdicated on 11 December 1936. During his reign he gave royal assent to Bills including the one which ended it. Not being crowned did not affect his actions as King.
Obviously it would be impossible to take the oath before becoming monarch as the moment one sovereign dies, his or her heir immediately accedes to the throne. This is called the accession. However, the oath must be sworn to at an appointed time as, according to sections 4 of the 1688 Act and section 2 of the Act of Settlement, it is a requirement on which the Crown is held.
Generally, the time between accession and coronation is around one year, as a period of mourning must pass. The period between the time Elizabeth became Queen and her coronation was sixteen months. It was two years in the case of Edward I as he was on a crusade in the Holy Land when his father died. In modern times, due to the huge crowds expected to line the streets, the coronation is planned to take place in the English summer. For instance, the coronation of Victoria was in June. Edward VII’s was planned to take place in June but was delayed until August due to a medical operation. George V’s coronation was in June and that of George VI was in May.
Under the Australian constitution, the people of Australia “agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established.” Therefore, whoever is the legitimately crowned sovereign of the United Kingdom is sovereign of Australia. This was the people’s choice in the referendums to accept the constitution and also in the republic referendum of 1999.
Whilst prior to the federation of the six separate Australian colonies into one nation Britain and the British parliament made the main decisions relating to Australia. However, in the constitution drafted by our Founding Fathers and voted upon by the Australian people, the way was paved for Australia to gradually be released from all ties that then bound Australia to the United Kingdom. Today, as they have done for over a hundred years, only the Australian people elect their own parliament which is now the supreme legislative body in the country and has no ties to any external power whatsoever.
We, the people, choose to have a system of constitutional monarchy with the Queen of the United Kingdom as our sovereign. The people can, at referendum, opt for another system of governance. That is our choice, and no one else’s.
Obviously the Queen does not reside in Australia, but she is represented by a resident Governor-General, now always an Australian. We do not pay the Queen any money for her upkeep or even for her duties as Queen of Australia. We do pay a salary to the Governor-General and pay for the upkeep for the official residences. However, the amounts involved pale into insignificance when compared with heads of state of most countries.
Moreover, our system of constitutional monarchy is a system that not only works, but works well and has done so, without blemish and without any major constitutional crisis, for over a hundred years.