There has recently been much speculation in the newspapers about how different Britain’s monarchy may be when the Prince of Wales ascends the throne. Much more interesting than the next king’s views on homeopathy, however, is the question of how the next coronation will be televised. Elizabeth II’s coronation was, of course, a dramatic first for being filmed and broadcast across the nation and the world. However, one part of the coronation did not appear on screen: the anointing of the queen with holy oil was deemed too awesomely sacred to be exposed to the camera lens. The result was that TV producers grappled with the consequences of an ideology which first began to develop in Britain in the early Middle Ages.
The Life of St Columba, the founder of the monastery of Iona (just off modern Scotland), tells the story of how the saint was visited by an angel who instructed him to ‘ordain’ a particular nobleman as king on God’s instructions. The tale is clearly based upon the Old Testament narratives of Samuel anointing Saul and David and meant to suggest that God played as active a role in choosing rulers in medieval Scotland as he had in ancient Israel. But the monks of Iona seem to have been particularly interested in telling the story because it made their founding saint God’s special messenger. The point of the story was clear: the ordained king’s family would rule only as long as they stayed on good terms with Columba and his successors.1
When papal legates visited England in 786, they lectured the Anglo-Saxons on how they should treat their kings: ‘Let no one dare to conspire to kill a king, for he is the Lord’s anointed … and everyone who has consented to such sacrilege shall perish in the eternal fetters of anathema, and, associated with Judas the betrayer, be burnt in the eternal fires.’ Such fabulous fulminations must have been music to the ears of the kings who greeted the papal envoys and organised councils where they could set out their plans for the Church in England. In fact it seems highly likely that the legates were here giving the kings exactly what they wanted – an extra layer of defence in the brutal world of Anglo-Saxon politics by making plotting against the monarch a mortal sin.
King Offa of Mercia was so taken by this idea of anointing that he had his son, Ecgfrith, consecrated as king around the same time. Offa had taken and held his throne with the sword; now he hoped that a ritual ordination would protect his own dynasty from the swords of any future ambitious aristocrats. In this he was no doubt inspired by the example of Charlemagne and his family on the continent. Charlemagne’s father seized power in a coup in 751 and then had himself and his children anointed, thus implying a divine sanction for his actions. Offa was clearly emulating the continental emperor, an act of monarchical keeping up with the Joneses. Indeed, it would appear that Offa was very keen to suggest that his family were just as good as Charlemagne’s – having asked for one of Charlemagne’s daughters as a wife for his Ecgfrith, he was very miffed when the emperor dismissed the idea.
The monarch as God’s anointed was an idea of growing popularity in eighth-century Britain, but in each context anointing meant something slightly different. For the monks of Iona it was about foregrounding their own importance as the makers of kings; for the papal legates it was about providing some political ammunition to the unstable rulers upon whom they depended; for Offa it was about suggesting that he was just as grand a ruler as Charlemagne. In 1953 the decision not to screen the queen’s anointing suggested that monarchy maintained a mystical aura, even in the age of mass democracy. What the next anointing will try to tell us, we must await and see …
1 See Richard Sharpe (trans.), Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba (Penguin, 1995), 208-9.
Conor O’Brien is a Teaching Fellow in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. His new project is on the origins of Carolingian political theology.
Image: Laurits Tuxen, The Anointing of Queen Alexandra at the Coronation of Edward VII, from Wikimedia Commons.