Ancient tradition in a plastic bottle: the oil chosen to anoint King Charles

Most of the olives harvested in the groves of the Monastery of the Ascension, a Russian orthodox compound on the sun-blasted slopes overlooking Jerusalem’s old city, find their way into the oil lamps that light its buildings, or pots used for cooking.

But on Saturday, some of the crop harvested by the black-clad nuns who serve at the 150-year-old complex on the Mount of Olives will function as something altogether more exalted: the holy oil that will anoint King Charles III at the religious high point of his coronation.

“It’s a great honour for us,” said Father Roman Krassovsky, head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, before embarking on a tour of the monastery’s budding olive trees, cradling a plastic bottle of their oil beneath one arm.

“[The Mount of Olives] is where Jesus began the way of the cross. And now King Charles is picking up his cross, which the Lord is laying on his shoulders as King.”

With starring roles for an air-conditioned gilded carriage and a 152kg stone reputed to be able to tell the difference between a bona fide royal and a pretender, the coronation will not be short on spectacular pageantry. But the moment of King Charles’s anointing will form a more private counterpoint: conducted behind a screen, it will be the only part of the ceremony not visible to the public.

“The coronation, at this point, looking at the way they’re framing it, is an interesting combination of . . . humbleness and hubris,” said Alice Hunt, a historian at the University of Southampton.

In past coronations, some monarchs were anointed with the same oil as their predecessors. But like his mother, King Charles will not be. In her case, there was little alternative: a vial storing the oil used to crown her father was destroyed during a German bombing raid in the second world war.

Father Roman said that in King Charles’s case, in addition to the religious significance of the Mount of Olives — from where Christians believe Jesus ascended to Heaven — his decision was likely to have a personal component. His grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, is buried at the Monastery of Mary Magdalene, which is located lower down the slope, and also provided olives for the holy oil.

After harvest — the crop is sometimes stored in Father Roman’s garage — the olives were sent to be pressed in Latrun. The oil for the coronation was then taken to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to be consecrated, before being dispatched to the UK.

The ritual in which the oil will be used has its roots in the biblical world chronicled in the Old Testament, when Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the Priest. It was later adopted by Christian monarchs in western Europe, with the first known anointment of an English king taking place in 973AD when Edgar was consecrated at Bath.

Like much of the ceremony, the anointment will be surrounded by the trappings of royal history and power: the oil will be poured from a golden vessel in the shape of an eagle on to a spoon thought to date from the 12th century. But it is also explicitly religious: once decanted, the oil will be used to mark the sign of the cross on King Charles’s head, chest and hands.

Historically, the religious symbolism of the ceremony played a crucial role, conferring legitimacy on the new monarch, says Hunt. In contrast to King Charles’s decision to undergo the anointment behind a screen, King Henry IV chose to be anointed visibly in 1399 to underscore his status as a divinely approved monarch, after usurping the throne from his cousin.

“His legitimacy was a bit dodgy because he had deposed Richard II,” she said. “This was him saying: look I have been anointed, I am now your legitimate king, and this is a sign of God’s approval.”

A century and a half later, Mary I, bent on restoring Roman Catholicism in England, secretly requested new oil to be made in Brussels for her coronation, rejecting the one used to crown her Protestant predecessor — her brother Edward VI — due to qualms about its status.

For the religiously-minded, that power of divine legitimacy endures today. “[Monarchy] is a God-given sacrament,” said Father Roman. “It is the one form of government which God gave. But unfortunately in the last 100 plus years it has been banished, so to speak, or destroyed.”

Although other European nations, such as France, once had elaborate ceremonies like the UK’s, over the years they have gradually vanished, as monarchies have modernised or expired altogether.

King Charles’s anointment will also have some differences from those of his forebears. Somewhere in the mists of time, monarchs’ elbows dropped off the list of body parts anointed. The holy oil will also no longer contain secretions from the glands of civets or the intestines of whales.

But despite the changes, the heart of the ceremony remains based on a template that has lasted a thousand years. “It’s unique in its survival, and it’s quite eccentric for that,” said Hunt. “It reaches so far back in time. It’s not just the props . . . it’s the act of anointing that reaches back to biblical times. It’s mind-blowing for it to still be real.”

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