The Crownings Of Modern Monarchs
Coronations are defining occasions for nations and do not happen often during one’s lifetime. However, this year, there are two such grand events taking place this month—that of His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun of Thailand, and also of Emperor Naruhito of Japan. Doubtless the coronation of His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun will live long in the memory of those who attend in person and the many millions who watch the ceremony live on TV. Preparations for the coronation have taken over five months and have included the collection of sacred water from all 76 provinces to be used during the official coronation ceremony, which commenced at 10.09 am on May 4 at the Grand Palace.
Meanwhile the ascension of Crown Prince Naruhito to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne marks the beginning of the Reiwa Era. The revelation of the name for the impending reign, which was announced by chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga in April, marks another important step toward Japan’s first Imperial succession in 30 years. Formulated based on the introduction to a compilation of Japanese poetry, the kanji characters of rei can be translated as good fortune, while the second character, wa, means peace and harmony. For the first time the era name, or gengo, breaks away from tradition and uses characters drawn from Japanese classical literature.
In the last decade, two other enthronements of note took place. For Pierre Cartuyvels, the coronation of His Majesty King Philippe of Belgium in 2013 remains a happy and honourable memory. Cartuyvels previously held the position of political and economic adviser to His Royal Highness Prince Philippe, the Crown Prince of Belgium and so had a role to play in the ceremonies. “The investiture took place on Belgian National Day,” he recalls. “The public announcement of King Albert II’s intention to abdicate had been made only 18 days earlier. Under the Belgian Constitution the heir to the throne becomes king after taking an oath before parliament. Hence there is no physical coronation as such.” There was, however, pomp and pageantry to spare. “The event was combined with traditional National Day activities such as the Te Deum service at the Cathederal of Brussels, and a tribute to the unknown soldier at the Congress Column. There was also a military parade and a walk in the Royal Park between Parliament and the Royal Palace. A fireworks display followed in the evening,” Cartuyvels recalls.
Reminiscing on the day, he explains that preparations had begun in earnest some time before. “The period between the public announcement of abdication and the swearing-in ceremony was particularly short but work had already started earlier in anticipation. I was involved as a political adviser to the crown prince and was a member of a small but experienced team. We worked very discreetly some months in advance, liaising on issues with the royal household and the political authorities. Our team was very aware of the honour of accompanying the future king and queen on the day of the investiture. Hence we worked hard but in a serene atmosphere, relying on long-defined protocols and the military to ensure that everything was impeccable and ready for the important day.”
The oath-taking ceremony took place in the presence of the royal family and the three branches of power: the legislative branch—members of both the house of representatives and the senate; the executive branch—members of government; and the judiciary—the presidents of the different courts. Ministers of state who form the Council of the Crown and the minister-presidents of Belgium’s regional parliaments were also present, as well as court dignitaries and many other officials. “There were no foreign heads of state because the inauguration of a new king is considered a national event. Many countries were represented at ambassadorial level at the military parade,” Cartuyvels explains. “Invitations to the palace were sent by the marshal of the court, and the invitations to the swearing-in in parliament were sent by the chairpersons of the house and senate. ”
Despite not featuring an actual coronation ceremony, there were many events in the days leading up to King Philippe’s ascension to the throne. “There were a number of special events in the days before, like the inauguration of the busts of King Albert II and Queen Paola in parliament and a reception for the presidents of the house and the senate to present a gift to the departing king. There were also visits to three different cities in the country, a gala concert and the National Ball on the eve of the National Day.”
Walking through the order events on the day, he goes on to say, “The ceremony took place in parliament before the combined chambers. After taking the oath, the new king gave his first speech, known as the Speech from the Throne, which is the most solemn moment of the day. The new king and queen were then escorted back to the royal palace, where they appeared before the people on the balcony. Though everything was strictly timed and regulated, there was also place for spontaneity and interaction. It was a sunny day full of joy and national enthusiasm. I especially recall when King Philippe and Queen Mathilde decided to make a second appearance on the balcony, just before the start of the fireworks in the evening. The king improvised a short speech thanking the Belgians for the wonderful day and for the confidence they placed in him. It was very moving.” On a personal level, Cartuyvels says, “I have many happy memories of the event of course. It was a privilege being in the service of the new king at that moment. I got to experience from the inside the wisdom and dedication of the new monarch and witnessed the support provided by Queen Mathilde. I shall never forget it.”
Much the same can be said for Bilaibhan Sampatisiri. When His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Bilaibhan and her family had the honour of being part of the team that helped to organise the young heir’s coronation. “The preparations actually began almost two years before the event itself,” Bilaibhan says. “Our family has a close relationship with the Queen Mother, Tshering Yangdon. My parents had known the then prince since he was a small boy and the Queen Mother would bring him to stay at our family’s Swissôtel Nai Lert Park Hotel during school breaks.”
While on one of their annual visits to Bhutan, the Sampatisiri family was invited to assist with the ceremony. “We went to have dinner with a good friend, Jigme Thinley, Bhutan’s first democratically-elected prime minister, and he asked if we could help train the staff that would serve at the banquets during the coronation period. The Bhutanese royal family and the Queen Mother are very dear to us and so we were very happy to be given the honour. We sent our staff to Bhutan to look at what needed to be done and I went with the team. And there was plenty to do—from setting up new kitchens to assessing the different banqueting locations and service requirements, which included the main Thimphu Dzong [palace]. It was very important for us to get everything right, because the kitchens and the royal banquet hall were to become permanent so that they could be used for future functions and ceremonies.”
Aside from overseeing the technical design of the kitchen and banquet hall, the Sampatisiris also provided training for the supervising team from Bhutan, says Bilaibhan. “We asked the Bhutanese to select staff with knowledge of the hospitality and culinary sectors, as well as a housekeeping team—we had to ensure that everything, including the accommodation for the VIPs, were up to international standards. These teams then came to Thailand to train with us at our hotel for around three months. I think three or four groups came in the end.”
Back in Bhutan, as the important day drew near, Bilaibhan worked with her hotel’s executive chef to create the menus for each function. “We had to look at the guest list, dietary restrictions and requirements, the type of cuisine that had to be served. We had it all worked out, down to the amount of ingredients needed for the specific number of guests. A week prior to the actual day we sent a team of around 30 of our people consisting of chefs, waiters and waitresses to Bhutan to help prepare,” she explains. Then a full trial run took place a few days before the ceremony with the members of the Bhutanese parliament dining in the banquet hall. “We did everything from baking the bread and pastries to serving the entire multi-course meal as if it was the actual day,” says Bilaibhan. “There were many different receptions and meals, of course, but the most important one was the gala dinner due to take place after the coronation.”
Of the actual ceremony on November 6, 2008, what stands out most for Bilaibhan was the pageantry and colour. “It was a sunny day and there was an absolute kaleidoscope of colour,” she says. “The lamas in their saffron robes, banners of all hues fluttering in the breeze, the dignitaries in their courtly dress...and the flowers. My mother, Thanpuying Lursakdi Sampatisiri, arranged a gift of 1,000 orchids for the Bhutanese royal family. As you might know, my mother was an avid flower arranger and she selected the blooms to reflect the colours of Bhutan—yellow, orange and red.” Later in the day the main coronation dinner took place at the Thimpu Dzong.
“It was held both indoors and outdoors in the huge courtyard. It was November and the weather was chilly so guests were given blankets to keep themselves warm. We had a challenge ensuring that the soup was served steaming hot,” she laughs. “I also remember that we decided to serve pomegranate sherbet, because pomegranate is considered an auspicious fruit in Bhutan. You see, designing menus for state occasions requires attention to detail. You are representing the host country and the royal family, so you have to be aware of the culture and convey their traditions to the guests. I’m happy to say that everything went well and it was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
This story first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Thailand Tatler magazine.
Related: Rare Glass Plate Negatives Unveil Thai Princes Who Attended Harrow In London Over The Century