‘Chrism’ is not a word that’s much in use, for it is a technical term, relevant only in quite specific contexts. But a context in which it’s quite important is topical now. ‘Chrism’, according to the OED, is ‘oil mingled with balm’ and used specifically for the ceremonial anointing of persons or objects that are to be, and perceived as, holy. The act of anointing a monarch renders that person holy. That is the significance of the use of the chrism in the Coronation ceremony which is both a secular and a sacred event and functions, among other things, as the process by which a new monarch is endowed with divine grace.

It’s a ritual that goes back to medieval times when the monarch enjoyed divine authority to rule. The history of Britain, and particularly of Britain under the Stuarts, who included our present King’s two earlier namesakes, Charles I and Charles II, has been one of the gradual stripping of that ‘divine right’ of kings until the inspired (though maybe not divinely inspired) combining of kingship with democracy – the ‘king in parliament’ that emerged in the nineteenth century.

The process began with Charles I’s determination to cling on to his ‘divine right’, in the face of a newly self-aware Parliament, whose leaders loudly proclaimed their qualifications as the elected representatives of the people at large to have a commanding voice in the management of public affairs. Charles’s failure to move with the times led to his trial and execution. When, after the interregnum of the Commonwealth, his son ascended the restored throne as Charles II in 1660 the question was still not resolved, and at his death in 1685 affairs were complicated still further by his poorly disguised leaning towards Catholicism. His brother James succeeded him and was quite overt in his support for the Church of Rome, by now wholly unacceptable to the English as a nation. He too was got rid of, though by the more humane method of allowing him to flee across the Channel.

James was succeeded by his Protestant daughter Mary, married to the equally Protestant (and so acceptable) Dutchman William of Orange, whose arrival by sea in 1688 constituted the ‘Glorious Revolution’, which appeared to have settled the matter. But Mary died childness in 1694, and when William died in 1702 his successor was Mary’s sister Anne. She, married to Prince George of Denmark, bore him several children, only one of whom survived into childhood, but even he only until the age of 11. When she died in 1714 Anne was succeeded by George, Elector of Hanover, according to the Act of Settlement that had been drawn up in 1701.  

Throughout these political complications and subsequently, the centuries-old ceremony of the crowning of the monarch continued, perhaps surprisingly, to be observed, and although many of the symbolic objects – orb, sceptre, ceremonial swords – used in it date from the time of Charles II or even later, replacing those melted down after his father’s execution, one dates back to the early twelfth century: the silver-gilt Spoon with which the monarch is anointed with the Chrism. It’s from that Greek word that Jesus himself is named: ‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one’, translated from the Hebrew ‘Emanuel’. And so we return to our starting point: the King is anointed as the successor to a line of monarchs stretching back to the days when the notion of ‘divine right’ spelt the doom of too staunch a believer in God’s authority over the state.  It’s because the British, with their curious knack for political compromise, have evolved a new meaning for that relationship that we expect Charles III to encounter no such constitutional problems now.

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