Mysterious ‘Green Man’ on King Charles’s Coronation Invitation Brashly Invokes Britain’s Pagan Past

A Harvard professor remarks that it is ‘rather bold of Charles to put him on the invitation: a pagan image by the head of the Church of England.’

Buckingham Palace via AP
The Green Man is seen at the bottom of the invitation to the Coronation of Britain's King Charles III at Westminster Abbey. Buckingham Palace via AP

If you were invited to the coronation of King Charles III, and even if you weren’t but sneaked a look at the invitation, you can’t miss the Green Man at the bottom center of the card. Who is he? 

The palace explains that “central to the design” of the invitation is the “motif of the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign.” Startlingly lifelike, he is “formed of leaves of oak, ivy and hawthorn, and the emblematic flowers of the United Kingdom.”

The Green Man was first named by Lady Raglan in 1939, in an article under the headline “The Green Man in Church Architecture” for a magazine called Folklore. He is the “central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe.” She explains that the “fact is that unofficial paganism subsisted side by side with the official religion and this explains the presence of our Green Man in a church window with the Virgin beside him.”

The Green Man, also known as simply a “foliate head,” can be found throughout Britain and Ireland. There is a stained glass window of him in Wales, a painted image in Kent, and a stone carving in Kilkenny. He is also on East Ninth Street, at the East Village. A novel by Kingsley Amis takes his name.   

A professor at Harvard, James Simpson, tells the Sun that “numberless pubs” in the United Kingdom feature the Green Man, who also appears on “numberless wood carvings on medieval misericords and doorways.” He adds that it is “rather bold of Charles to put him on the invitation: a pagan image by the head of the Church of England.”   

This photo released by Buckingham Palace on April 4, 2023 displays the invitation to the Coronation of Britain's King Charles III in Westminster Abbey. King Charles III’s wife has been officially identified as Queen Camilla for the first time, with Buckingham Palace using the title on invitations for the monarch’s May 6 coronation.
The invitation to the coronation of Britain’s King Charles III. Buckingham Palace via AP

Scholars trace the Green Man’s ancestry to remotest antiquity, in such figures as a Norse god, Odin, and the ruler of the Egyptian underworld, Osiris. His relatives include Robin Hood and Peter Pan, as well as the later English May Day custom of Jack in the Green. He was the theme of the Burning Man Festival, in 2007.  

The Green Man is also what Mr. Simpson calls a “major player” in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a late 14th century chivalric romance written in Middle English by an unknown author in a distinctive “bob and wheel” alliterative verse. It branches off from the tree of Arthurian legend, and a 2021 cinematic adaptation from A24 studios starred Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander. 

“Sir Gawain’s” plot turns on the appearance of an uninvited guest at Camelot, and a bloody deal he strikes with Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur and a mainstay of the Round Table. The palace explains that the invitation was designed  by “Andrew Jamieson, a heraldic artist and manuscript illuminator whose work is inspired by the chivalric themes of Arthurian legend.”

As Mr. Simpson notes, the inclusion of a pagan symbol on the invitation to the crowning of the king who also holds the titles of “Defender of the Faith” and “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England could strike an incongruous note. By legend, the Anglo-Saxons under King Æthelberht converted to Christianity in 597 of the common era. Charles will be anointed with blessed oil. 

One can imagine, though, the affinity England’s new sovereign could hold for the Green Man. Charles is nothing if not ecumenical. In 1994, he mused, “I, personally, you see, would much rather see it as ‘Defender of Faith’ … not the faith,” later adding that “at the same time being Defender of the Faith, you can also be protector of faiths.”

Then there is the king’s long-standing environmentalism, his loyalty to the roots, vines, and leaves from which the Green Man is woven. At the United Nations climate conference at Glasgow he urged nations to adopt a “warlike footing.” He claims to have retrofitted his Aston Martin to run on “surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese process.”

When he first acceded to the throne, King Charles allowed that “it will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply,” presumably including his championing of what the poet William Blake called “England’s green and pleasant land.” If the invitation is any indication, though, the Green Man will be watching.

The New York Sun

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