The Crown and the Chrism: The Recipe of the Coronation Oil

By Colleen Kennedy

This post will turn to the television show The Crown to focus on the English coronation process, attending specifically to the most sacred aspect of the ceremony, the anointing of the monarch, and the ingredients of the holy anointing oil.

Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy) is anointed. Image Credit: The Crown (episode: “Smoke and Mirrors”, Netflix) 2016. Screenshot.

In the fifth episode “Smoke and Mirrors” of the Netflix series The Crown, Princess Elizabeth, having recently ascended after the death of her father King George VI (r. 1936-1952) and the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII (1936), plans for her coronation televised for the first time and overseen by her husband Prince Phillip.[1] Three times within the episode, the characters discuss the most sacred gesture of the hallowed affair: the anointing of the monarch, a transformative and aromatic event.[2] The episode begins with a flashback to the days before the coronation of Elizabeth’s loving father “Bertie.” He asks his young daughter to play the Archbishop of Canterbury so they may practice the anointing ritual, explaining to her: “When the holy oil touches, I am transformed, brought into direct contact with the divine. Forever changed. Bound to God. It is the most important part of the entire ceremony.”

When four Knights of the Garter carry a golden canopy to cover Elizabeth, the television producer cuts away from the anointing process—showing an image of the stained-glass windows of Westminster Abbey instead. Unlike the rest of the coronation, the anointing was neither photographed nor televised (unlike the rest of the ceremony). Elizabeth’s abdicated uncle, the Duke of Windsor explains to his party of expats and French socialites, “Now we come to the anointing, the single most holy, most solemn, most sacred moment of the whole service.” After a member of his viewing party in Paris asks why they cannot see this moment, Windsor replies, “Because we are mortals.”

But we, the viewers at home, do get to see this dramatized anointing. The Archbishop repeats the lines Elizabeth once practiced with her father as we watch him pour the chrism from the ampulla onto a spoon, and then anoint Elizabeth’s hands, breast, and forehead, and we see Elizabeth’s transformation in a close-up of her face as she listens to his performative utterances, “As kings, priests, and prophets were anointed, and as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet so be thou, anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord thy God has given thee to rule and govern.” The Archbishop’s words link the young Queen’s body both to former British monarchs as well as Biblical priests and prophets, and the monarch’s temporal kingdom to Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Although the historian Wesley Carr admits that each coronation is altered, adapted, and modified (using Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation as his point of study), “the basic structure of all subsequent coronations can be seen in the original rite,” which dates back to the crowning of the English king Edgar in 973, but also had earlier Christian European antecedents.[3] The chrism was sacred and used repeatedly, with the same recipe used from the coronation of Charles I (1626).

Closeup of the 1953 Coronation Oil. Image Credit: The Coronation (BBC) 2018. Screenshot.

The Current Dean of Westminster, showed off the 1953 chrism in a recent documentary about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation: “It is kept very safe in the Deanery, in a very hidden place in a little box here, which has in it a flask containing the oil from 1953.  And it is not just olive oil, it’s quite a complex mixture of different things. This is the recipe for the Coronation Oil. The composition of the oil was founded upon that used in the seventeenth century. Then you see what it consists of sesame seed and olive oil, perfume with roses, orange flowers, jasmine, musk, civet and ambergris.”[4]

Closeup of the Coronation Oil recipe. Image Credit: The Coronation (BBC) 2018. Screenshot.

There have been occasional interruptions in reusing the oil. Mary I, as the Catholic successor of her Anglican half-brother Edward VI, refused to use the Protestant chrism and procured oil from the Catholic Bishop of Arras. After Elizabeth I’s long reign, the balm was either exhausted or compromised by time, and James I needed a new batch. The oil intended to anoint Edward VIII (who abdicated) and instead anointed George VI was not used for Elizabeth II, as its container was destroyed during the bombing of London, but Charles I’s recipe was restored and reused for her coronation, nonetheless. We can imagine that when the current Prince of Wales (the future Charles III) succeeds to King, a new batch of anointing balm will be created using the recipe of Charles I, that the anointment will still remain a guarded and sacred affair, and that no bloggers or Twitter accounts will capture this aromatic and ritualistic moment.


Future related posts will further consider the ingredients of the chrism, and the historical and innovative significance of the chrism to Elizabeth I and Charles I.

[1] Hannah Furness. “Secrets of the oil used to anoint the Queen at her Coronation.” The Telegraph. 14 Jan. 2018. See also the documentary “The Coronation,” BBC (2018).
[2] Wesley Carr. “This Intimate Ritual: The Coronation Service.” Political Theology 4.1 (2002): 11-24.
[3] “Smoke and Mirrors,” The Crown, season 1, episode 5, (2016) Netflix.  You can watch the Coronation on YouTube at: The Royal Household, “The Coronation,” The Home of the Royal Family.  https://www.royal.uk/coronation  or “BBC TV Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: Westminster Abbey 1953 (William McKie),” YouTube, uploaded by Archive of Recorded Church Music, 2 June 2018.
[4] “1953. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: ‘The Holy Anointing,’” YouTube, uploaded by pedrcymro29, 21 Oct. 2013.


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