Above: the Anointing of Queen Alexandra at the Coronation of Edward VII.
On May 6, 2023, King Charles III shall be crowned at Westminster Abbey – as almost every King of England has been since William the Conqueror went through a similar ceremony in 1066. The round of rituals since his mother’s death last year remind the informed observer of just how much Catholic ceremonial has been retained by the repurposed Monarchy since the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. Leaving aside the controversy amongst Catholics that the British Monarchy inevitably arouses, it is ironic that the very flaws many of us see in the institution are the result of an event which is still considered part of the march of progress from Magna Charta to the American Revolution and the Emancipation Proclamation. But let us leave that all alone and look more closely at a ceremony that is in fact deeply rooted in the Catholic view of governance that held sway at least until 1918 – and as far as the Papacy itself was concerned, 1963.
A great deal has been said about the alterations in the ceremony since it was last used in 1953 for Elizabeth II, and often enough used to criticise the new Monarch for it all. But the truth is that the LGBT and refugee choirs at the following concerts, and the vaguely referenced alterations to the ceremony itself (if any actually eventuate) are the doing not of the King but “his” government and his “subjects.” When his Mother was crowned, Churchill was Prime Minister and her peoples – especially in Britain and in the areas occupied by the Japanese – had just proved their bravery, and in the United Kingdom were still under wartime rationing. The Queen’s coronation reflected them. His Majesty’s governments and peoples are far different from the embattled veterans (often enough of two major wars) who hailed his mother.
One factoid that has in fact caught media attention has been the nature of the chrism with which the King shall be anointed as part of the ceremony; they are excited that it shall be non-“Animal Cruelty” Chrism. Apart from the suspicion that such an oil is like “Mountain-Grown Coffee” or “Sugar-free Petroleum” – a product that need not be mentioned – it is not the most important fact about the chrism at all. That fact is that, prepared in Jerusalem, it shall be co-consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, alongside the Anglican Archbishop of the city. This means that for the first time since the coronation of James II in 1685, the coronation chrism shall have been indisputably blessed by a hierarch in the Apostolic Succession. It will then be a Sacramental with certain blessings attached to it – regardless of the status of the “Archbishop” who shall actually anoint the King with it at the Coronation (for a Catholic he must be considered a clerically-clothed layman, unless he has the “Dutch Touch” of Old Catholic orders, as some do). But the fact that it is chrism that is being used at all takes us back to England’s Catholic past.
The anointing was the most sacred part of the Catholic coronation rite – even more than the placing of the crown upon the new Monarch’s head. This was so when Bl. Karl was crowned King of Hungary in 1916, when Ferdinand of Austria was crowned King of Bohemia in 1838 and King of Lombardy-Venetia in 1836, when Charles X received the French Crown in 1830, and when Franz II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1792 – all the way back through successive Emperors and Kings to the early Middle Ages. It was seen as a renewal of the rite performed by Samuel for King David. This was an important sign and more than symbol for our Catholic ancestors. For them, Kingship was participation in the Kingship of Christ – which participation was actualised by the coronation, which gave the Monarch authority to rule. The anointing for most Monarchs was done with the oil of catechumens; but by Papal permission, those of France, England, Scotland, Sicily, and Jerusalem were done with chrism. In a word, the oil being prepared for King Charles – although blessed by a Greek Orthodox Patriarch for an Anglican rite – is what it is because of the Popes – not unlike the King’s title of “Defender of the Faith.”
Charles III’s coronation will follow the same basic structure and use most of the words and prayers of its Catholic prototype. The individual called “Archbishop of Canterbury” to-day will officiate, in emulation of those prelates in Catholic times. In every Catholic realm, it was the Primate – Canterbury in England, Reims in France, Toledo in Castile, etc., that performed the rite, as the highest cleric in the country; but to the Pope was reserved the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor in Rome – just as, on a few occasions, they had crowned the Byzantine Emperor while visiting Constantinople.
The bishops of the Church of England and the British Peers will gather in Westminster Abbey, even as was done before the Protestant Revolt. Then as now, the King would be recognised officially by these key players in the State. Before them the new Monarch would swear to defend the Church, and to maintain the people in their rights. Then, in every country where this rite was performed, the anointing followed. This very sacred element of the ceremony – resembling as it did extreme unction, due to the anointing of the head, chest, back, and elbow – led many commentators to refer to it as a sort of “eight sacrament.”
This impression was reinforced by the clothing that followed the imposition of the oil of catechumens or chrism. While varying according to country, most versions of the rite featured the Monarch being clothed in garments reminiscent of diaconal vestments – stole, dalmatic, and so on. The Catholic King was considered to be a “mixed person,” partaking at once of lay and clerical character. As a result, the Holy Roman Emperors served as deacon, and the Kings of France as subdeacon at Papal Masses when in Rome – and the latter Monarch received from the chalice at Mass like a priest. If the Emperor was visiting the Pope at Christmas, he would sing a lesson from the Matins of Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s. In Rome, the Holy Roman Emperor was made a canon of St. Peter’s, the King of France was given a canonry of St. John Lateran, and the Kings of Spain and England (until the break with Rome) the same positions at St. Mary Major and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls respectively: most Catholic Monarchs (including this quartet) had various canonries and position in royal abbeys and other religious foundations.
The robing completed, the King or Emperor was then presented with the sword of state; he would draw it from the scabbard and point it at all four directions in turn, to show his willingness to defend Church and people from all foes. Depending on the country, he would be seated on a throne (the coronation chair in the abbey, in the case of England), presented with one or more sceptres symbolising his right to rule and obligation to dispense justice, and orb – a globe topped by the Cross symbolising Christ’s rule over the planet, which symbolised the Monarch’s role as deputy for Christ in temporal affairs. He would be presented with a ring, signifying his marriage to his land and people.
The bishop (or in the case of the Holy Roman Emperor when crowned King of the Romans at Aachen or Frankfort, three bishops), would at last place the crown upon the new Sovereign’s head. This headgear had deep significance in each country – from the Empire’s Crown of Charlemagne to the Hungarian Holy Crown of St. Stephen. Either before or after this (depending again upon country and era), the King would receive Holy Communion. His wife might be crowned in a separate ceremony, after which the pair would be presented to clergy, nobility, and commoners to receive the homage and acclamations of their new subjects. The would follow a parade of sorts back to the palace where inevitably a banquet for the country’s notables would ensue. Thus the Monarch entered in his demi-priestly, judicial, and military roles endowed with legitimacy and authority from God as mediated through the Church.
This reality was reflected in Catholic times, by the way in which the Church calendar dominated the life of the various Imperial and Royal courts of Europe. It was precisely because Christ at the Last Supper had merged His own Davidic Kingship with the Communio of the Church – symbolised by the washing of feet at the Last Supper – that Maundy Thursday as celebrated at every Catholic Court in Europe featured the Sovereign washing the feet of the poor. This remained the case until each became liberal or were overthrown over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly with the presentation of gold, frankincense and myrrh by the Sovereign to his chapel royal on the Epiphany, and (after the custom became established in the 13th century) his marching in the Corpus Christi procession. This would remain the case with Austria-Hungary until 1918, and Spain until 1931.
Of course the sort of Monarchy that these ceremonials graced was not the sort of “crowned republic” with which we are familiar to-day – even with the restored Monarchy in Spain. The Church having given him authority, the Monarch had sufficient power to guide the foreign and military policies of his people, all the while being obligated by his oath to respect the local liberties of his provinces, and to try to co-ordinate as a father would the differing interests – clergy, nobles, gentry, guilds, cities, and peasantry – of his peoples: what we would to-day call subsidiarity and solidarity. All of this came to an end of course, in different times and places, to be replaced with the sort of absolute governments under which we all live.
One of the interesting characteristics of the British nature is their ability to hold on to the shells of things long after the content has vanished. After his coronation – so very reminiscent of that of his predecessors – fCharles III will go through the Royal Maundy every year (no more foot-washing, but there is a church service and the fortunate elderly poor chosen for it receive specially minted money and a banquet) and have the three gifts of the magi presented upon the Epiphany to the Chapel Royal. His springtime sojourn at Windsor will still be called “Easter Court,” and as he did this year, he will make Christmas broadcasts rather heavily underlining Jesus Christ’s birth. In a word, in so many ways the appearance of what was once a Catholic Monarchy will be preserved, even though the parliament which has controlled the British Monarchy since 1688 in the name of freedom produces governments as evil and practically atheistic as any in the world (for all that there are honourable exceptions among its members).
It would be tempting to dismiss all of this as publicly-funded LARPing (although in reality the Monarchy – thanks to the Crown Estate – brings the taxpayer millions in revenue annually). But apart from the fact that the bare bones of what was once a Catholic Monarchy can be instructive as to what governance could and might be, there is always the hope that somehow, someway, these bones might one day live again.
The King shall be anointed with real Chrism. His taking the name Charles III (rather than George VII, as was thought would be the case) reminds one of the first three to bear that name: Charles I, murdered by Cromwell, who negotiated with Rome for reunion; Charles II, who came into the Church on his deathbed; and the “real” Charles III, Bonnie Prince Charlie, who risked all for his peoples in the ’45. Let us pray for his conversion (even if it be deathbed, as with his namesake and Edward VII), and that of his peoples around the globe. And lets us pray also for our own nations and their rulers, that through their conversion, something resembling old Christendom might return to this troubled Church and World.
Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author of many books, most recently Blessed Charles of Austria: a Holy Emperor and His Legacy, as well as Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History, Vicars of Christ: a History of the Popes, with A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail. His writings have appeared at the Catholic Herald, Crisis, The European Conservative and he also has his own podcast with Mr. Vincent Frankini.