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Consecration of the new King: what is Anointing?

Following the tradition set by Elizabeth II, the anointing of His Majesty King Charles III will not be broadcast during the Coronation on 6 May. Dr George Gross sheds light on the holiest and the most mysterious part of the Coronation Day.

Dr George Gross
Dr George Gross

The act of Anointing or Consecration, with its biblical origins in the anointing of King Solomon, is the most magical part of a British Coronation. The monarch is imbued with sacredness by the act of Anointing, almost akin to the ordination of a priest or bishop. It is about changing the monarch’s character by consecration – as Shakespeare wrote, ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king’ (King Richard the Second, Act III Scene ii).

Seen as a sacred and religious moment (similar to that of baptism), the ceremony was hidden from television cameras during the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to preserve the mystery surrounding it. The four Knights of the Garter held the canopy of gold over and around the monarch to shield the act from view. During the act of Anointing, the monarch disrobes from their crimson robes and takes off any jewellery, giving up all symbols of their status. They are seated on St Edward’s Chair (the Coronation Chair), clothed in a simple white tunic or vestment.

The Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
The Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

The Archbishop of Canterbury is handed the Ampulla containing special ‘holy’ oil or chrism. An eagle-shaped flask in solid gold, it dates back to the remade crown jewels for the Coronation of Charles II in 1661. The Archbishop is then presented with the Coronation Spoon of 12th-century origin, and possibly made for Henry II. The Archbishop pours the chrism into the spoon and anoints the monarch on their head, hands and breast/chest, with the accompanying words (much unchanged since the 17th century):

‘Be this/thy head anointed with holy oil: as kings and prophet were anointed. And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet, so be you anointed, blessed and consecrated King/Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern’.– The Form and Order of the Service. Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2 June 1953

The Anointing oil undoubtedly came into play during the Coronations of Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. Not all monarchs, however, spoke enthusiastically about it. Elizabeth I, anointed in 1559, rather disparagingly referred to the chrism as ‘grease’ that ‘smelt ill’.

The recipe for the Coronation Oil has been kept secret throughout history. For the coronation of George I in 1714, the anointing oil mixture was created by James Chase and Daniel Malthus, the apothecaries in ordinary, for £206. According to Exchequer accounts kept in the National Archives, it was ‘a very large composition of rich, essentiall, chymical, odoriferous oyles, balsams and spirits highly perfumed’.


Cornelis de Vos. The Anointing of Solomon. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie

In the 2018 documentary featuring the late Queen Elizabeth II, it has been revealed that the oil used during Her Majesty’s coronation included sesame and olive oil, ambergris, civet, orange flowers, roses, jasmine, cinnamon, musk and benzoin. This secret formula was similar to the one used for Charles I in 1625/6. It was originally prepared from a mixture used by Peter Squire for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, King George V in 1911 and King George VI in 1937. A phial with remaining oil, carefully hidden in the Deanery, was destroyed in a bombing raid in May 1941, so the new batch had to be made for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Peter Squire’s firm of chemists who had mixed the last known anointing oil had been purchased by a new company, Savory and Moore Ltd. They were asked by the Surgeon-Apothecary to mix a new supply, based on the ancient recipe. Savory & Moore took over John Bell & Croyden and they were in turn bought by Lloyds in 1992. To this day, the John Bell & Croyden pharmacy in Marylebone also holds two bottles of sacred oil.

In a break with tradition, the oil to be used for the upcoming Coronation of King Charles III has been consecrated in Jerusalem, at a special ceremony in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It has been created from the olive groves of the Mount of Olives and has been perfumed with similar oils to that of 1953, including sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber and orange blossom. This is a reference to the King’s late father, the Duke of Edinburgh, whose mother Princess Alice is buried at the Mount of Olives near her aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth. The choice of anointing oil from Jerusalem is also a pointer to the Abrahamic religions, with Jerusalem being a city of great importance and significance for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

In this story

George Gross

George Gross

Visiting Research Fellow

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