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Thought for the Week: The Coronation: Anointment

Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was above all a civic, public-facing event – televised after the Palace over-rode the traditionalist Churchill as the then Prime Minister. But hidden away, literally, was the fragment of an ancient and sacred ritual. By tradition the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the hands, breast and head of the new sovereign, but at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the protocols forbade the filming of the actual anointing itself, so sacred was the event still felt to be.

What is striking about the coronation ritual as it has evolved is how it seems to have combined the deeply mystical with the civic and the ecclesiastical. The statement the Archbishop of Canterbury made when the anointing oil for King Charles’s coronation was blessed in Bethlehem moved effortlessly from ancient mysticism through Anglican solidarity to the King’s family heritage. This is the fruit of a long-standing relationship between the established church, the monarchy and the state in these islands, although we did find it in ourselves to execute a King along the way. But we quickly reverted to tradition; and the blessing of the oil and subsequent monarchical anointing seems to have helped in this process.

This tradition of anointing dates way back to before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jewish custom it was used exclusively for priests and the Tabernacle articles, but it was later extended to include kings. It was forbidden to be used on an outsider or to be used on the body of any common person. A number of religious groups claim the holy anointing oil they use to this day derives from the original batch prepared by Moses. Just Stop Oil activists, please note! Such groups include rabbinical Judaism, the Armenian Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Coptic Church and the Saint Thomas Nazrani churches.

In Europe monarchs started to adopt the practice of coronation anointing from the early Middle Ages. King Athelstan was probably the first to do so in Britain in 925. It then became associated with powerful notions of the Divine Right of Kings, but the solemn ritual has persisted well into the era of constitutional monarchy long after thoughts of Divine Right had faded. How we deal with the sacred can be a difficult and potentially incendiary matter which is perhaps why Charles’s mother opted for her anointing not to be filmed. The King has made the same decision.

Philip Goldenberg

Member of the Jewish Faith

Date: Tuesday 2nd May 2023


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