The late Anthony Kilminster on the Coronation as ‘a particularly special moment’
My mother acquired a television set for us in time for Christmas 1952. Many families did the same and in South Wales we watched with fascination as black and white pictures flickered before us. But why the sudden surge of interest at that moment? Answer: the forthcoming Coronation of the Queen in June 1953.
Everyone around us wanted to have a TV set in good time. I imagine that for many, though not for all, the same must have been the case in towns and villages right across the nation. The coronation was a time of acute expectation – mingled with prayer, excitement and patriotism. The Second World War had ended only eight years earlier.
The Coronation service appeared to be a mirror of the history of our nation – how our ancestors lived and our nation was formed. We tend to intertwine civil and ecclesiastical, sacred and secular, in a way no republic can. A coronation brings into sharp focus the mutual relationship of Sovereign, Church and People. For all three it invokes the blessing and protection of Almighty God.
Even before the Norman Conquest, kings were anointed with oil stressing the honour and dignity of kings as the ‘Anointed of the Lord’. Anointing was a biblical practice. Saul, chosen when the Israelites asked for a King, was anointed by the Prophet Samuel. And so also have our monarchs been anointed with Holy Oil.
The religious importance attached to anointing is eloquently expressed in the words uttered by Shakespeare’s Richard II on the invasion of Bolingbroke:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed King.
In 1953 the anointing oil was poured into the ampulla (a Latin word for a globular vessel the Romans used for holding liquids and ointments) before the ceremony and placed on the high altar. It was then consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the service itself the ampulla (with its golden head shaped like an eagle’s) and the spoon were the only two items of Coronation regalia used that had survived destruction at the hands of the Parliamentarians after the Civil War.
Somehow the British seem to mix together religion, history and legend. There is a legend that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St Thomas à Becket whilst he was on a visit to France and gave him the ampulla together with holy oil for anointing English kings. The ampulla was lost but later found by the Black Prince at Poitiers and brought to England.
Anyway, it together with the spoon survived the Commonwealth – a republican period of oppression when the established Church of England and the Book of Common Prayer were driven underground until the Restoration in 1660.
In 1953 the service was one of great splendour. The Queen accepted a beautifully bound Bible on being told ‘Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.’ But after the Creed the Holy Communion service was temporarily suspended for the Anointing – the most sacred and mystical part of the Coronation – one could say the ‘hallowing’ of the monarch. At this point the Abbey was filled with Handel’s musical setting of ‘Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King; and all the people rejoiced and said: God save the king, Long live the king, May the king live for ever. Amen. Hallelujah’.
While the hair-tingling Hallelujahs lifted in crescendo, The Queen was disrobed for the exceptionally solemn moments of anointing. Her jewellery was removed and her train was detached. At last, as a suppliant for divine grace dressed only in a plain white garment of the severest simplicity, she took her seat in King Edward’s Chair. The Archbishop thereupon anointed both her hands (palms) with holy oil and similarly her breast and her head and gave her a blessing.
I recall the Anointing being a deeply affecting section of the service. It was hidden from the television cameras (though not to be coy but because in former times it was supposed to take place in secret). It was undertaken solemnly beneath a canopy or pall brought forward by four Knights of the Garter. Just as the holy of holies in the Temple was hidden from the common gaze by a curtain or veil so the canopy held above the Queen hid from our view the sacramental conveyance to her of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Queen and the Archbishop were, after all, engaged in a particularly special moment.
By the anointing and the delivery to her of the regalia and her crowning the Queen gained not only a temporal authority but a spiritual sanction. The words resonate over the years: ‘… be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern, In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’
Thanks be to God for her.
A form of this article was first published almost 20 years ago and is reproduced here in memory of its author, Anthony Kilmister CBE, who died on 13 March aged 90. Tony was one of the founders of the Prayer Book Society in 1972, alongside being a former member of Forward in Faith’s National Council, and a self-acknowledged ‘Prayer Book Catholic’. May he rest in peace.