After the long period of fascination, discussion, and mourning surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s death ended, the Royal Family and their mighty public relations team moved on to the business of steering conversation towards the upcoming coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Constant updates on social media followed, discussing everything from the choice of crown (St Edward’s, made for Charles II in 1661 and used in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation; and Queen Mary’s for Camilla, first used in 1911), to the music, to how to plan your coronation watch party. But what this deluge of historical information about the coronation has reminded us — most of us having never seen the coronation of a British monarch — is that the ceremony itself along with its various accoutrements are steeped in theology.
The coronation is a moment of divine transfiguration, or is meant to be understood that way. As Britain and many other nations are becoming more secular, the stark reminder of the coronation’s theological and religious elements feels strange. Perhaps the conversation would have ended there if not for some very specific choices the soon to be crowned monarch is making in the public presentation of the coronation to the British people and to the world.
Charles’s relationship to religion has always been markedly different from that of his mother; she, a staunch believer, relished her role as Defender of the Faith — the faith for her being markedly Christian and Anglican. Charles once called himself “defender of faith” rather than of “the faith,” perhaps appealing to a more pluralistic approach to the monarchy. When he addressed the nation after his mother’s death, he spoke more about his own personal faith and how in “the values it inspires, I have been brought up to cherish a sense of duty to others, and hold in the greatest respect the precious traditions, freedoms, and responsibilities of our unique history and our system of parliamentary government.” Here, the role of faith differs from a deeply personal belief that is then interpreted through the role of the monarch; in Charles III’s view, faith for the monarch is specifically and solely tied to a larger sense of duty. Approaching the monarchy as a religiously-enabled entity as well as a historically political and now cultural one complicates how it has been understood for centuries. The monarch arguably cannot exist without the divine right of kings. So how is Charles thinking about a modern monarchy and its relationship to both the divine and ever-growing secular world?
Interestingly, we may gain insight into this by examining how Charles’s other great passion, the environment, is shaping the coronation. Charles’s relationship to environmental issues has been long documented since the 1970s. Shannon Osaka’s article for The Washington Post outlines his complicated history to environmentalism and naturalism and how it may shape his future as monarch. But earlier this month, a new topic emerged as a point of conversation around Charles, the environment, and his upcoming coronation.
On a state visit to Israel, Charles and Camilla visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in order to have his coronation oil (or chrism) anointed there. The chrism as anointing oil has been used by English monarchs since the tenth century and the current recipe, which was used by Queen Elizabeth II, was first used by Charles I. Charles III is doing a great deal to link himself not just to previous monarchs but to monarchs of old, including his Stuart namesakes. The trip to Jerusalem allowed for the inclusion of olives from the garden of the Monastery of Mary Magdalene (where his grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece is buried) and the Monastery of the Ascension, both located on the Mount of Olives, adding deep theological weight to this anointing oil.
While the visit made some headlines, what brought more attention was a more particular change to the chrism’s recipe. Charles has insisted on the removal of ambergris and civet musk oil from the recipe, citing animal abuse and harm. A cruelty-free anointing oil seems strange but not necessarily paradoxical until we remember what the oil is supposed to do in the first place. According to belief, to be anointed with holy oil is to take on the literal mantle of Christ as king — it is the moment in which the monarch comes in contact with and is transfigured by the divine. Changing the recipe citing environmental concerns, while laudable, complicates the idea of the oil’s essentialized holiness. Stepping back from that, we are reminded of what ambergris and civet musk oil represent culturally. Symbols of wealth, power, and colonization, they are the embodiment of monarchical might that covered all of the land and seas. In the anointing oil and the process of anointing, the monarch becomes King in every sense. The change to the oil raises interesting theological and imperial questions, putting the very notion of the “monarchy,” here understood as appointed by God, in crisis.
Additionally, just earlier this month, the official invitation for the coronation was released, leading many to talk about the invitation’s design. We find quite standard heraldic imagery throughout, including the new crest for Camilla that features a boar rampant representing the coat of arms of her father, Major Bruce Shand. But most notably was the inclusion of a Green Man at the bottom of the invitation, surrounded by various flora and fauna meant to represent Britain and the King’s love for nature. The Green Man’s presence on the invitation led to articles with titles like “Is Charles planning a pumping pagan party?” where the author asks if the King “actually wishes to be crowned Archdruid, Master of the Hobby-Horse?”
Heraldic artist and manuscript illuminator Andrew Jamieson, who designed the invitation, explained the Green Man’s presence: “Central to the design is the motif of the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign.” Its inclusion can be understood as hearkening back to an older, natural, prehistoric Britain, predating the nation’s Christian turn. While not as theologically impactful as the chrism, this way of refiguring the coronation and its attachments sets Charles and his reign apart from his forebears.
By using the environment as a way to supplant and redesign the coronation, Charles provides, or at least tries to, a monarchy that is rooted in an earthly community rather than divine singularity. But in doing so, he creates a friction; we know that historically, the claim to the monarchy’s existence lies in divine right. But if the monarchy ceases to be divine, then it can also cease to be. And considering Charles’s first monarchical namesake, I think Charles might know it, too.
Imani Danielle Mosley is assistant professor of Musicology at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on the postwar and modernism in Britain post-1945. She is currently writing on sacred sonic culture, acoustics, and ritual in the English churches and cathedrals central to Benjamin Britten’s sacred music. She can be found online at @imanimosley (Twitter) and at imanimosley.com.
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