The scented secrets of the Queen’s coronation anointing oil…

The fascinating recent BBC documentary delving behind-the-scenes of the Queen’s Coronation on June 2, 1953, held a scented secret for sharp-eyed fragrance fans… did you spot it?

While discussing the ancient rituals of the act of anointing the monarch, our eyes were drawn to the oil itself – rather incongruously kept nestled in a battered old box and bottle of Guerlain‘s Mitsouko!

May we admit experiencing a momentary thrill that the BBC had uncovered our Queen as a secret perfumista, who’d insisted on being anointed with a fabulous Chypre? We’d definitely consider being baptised in Mitsouko, but it turned out it was just the bottle and box. Oh well. No matter, for the story of the oil’s recipe was rather deliciously revealed…

The oil was made from a secret mixture in sesame and olive oil, containing ambergris, civet, orange flowers, roses, jasmine, cinnamon, musk and benzoin– actually sounding rather Oriental in its composition – and must surely have smelled glorious.

The anointing ritual is always hidden from view – a private moment for the monarch to reflect on their duties and the significance of being touched by that oil – and so a canopy was held over the Queen by four Knights of the Garter, and the televison cameras turned respectfully away, as the Archbishop anointed her with the fragrant holy oil on her hands, breast and head.

Quite a scent memory.

In fact, the phial containing the original oil had been destroyed in a bombing raid on the Deanery in May 1941. The firm of chemists who’d mixed the last known anointing oil had gone bust, so a new company, Savory and Moore Ltd, was asked by the Surgeon-Apothecary to mix a new supply, based on the ancient recipe, for the Coronation. We’d quite like them to whip up a batch for us, too.

During the ritual, the highly scented oil was poured from Charles II’s Ampulla (the eagle-shaped vessel shown above) into a 12th-century spoon. One imagines the Archbishop’s hands must have shook just a little during this procedure – thank goodness for that canopy. Meanwhile, the choir sang one of the most thrillingly dramatic songs in history: “Zadok the Priest”. The words are taken from the first Book of Kings, and have been sung at every coronation since King Edgar’s in 973, but the anointment ritual is even older, going back to King Solomon supposedly being anointed by Zadok himself in the 10th century BC.

Of course the rest of the Coronation was an extraordinary display of magnificent jewels and robes and the peculiarities of historical traditions played out ‘like a ballet’, as the programme described, but our minds kept returning to the mysteries of the anointing oil, what the Queen must have thought as she smelled it (was it the first time she’d smelled the oil?) and how it’s still, charmingly, kept in that tatty old bottle and box of Mitsouko.

Now then, to whom did that bottle once belong? For whomever they were, we congratulate them on their taste…

Those of you who missed the documentary can watch it while it’s still on BBC iPlayer.

Written by Suzy Nightingale

Penhaligon's Lily of the Valley perfume celebrates the Queen's Sapphire Jubilee

To commemorate the Queen’s Sapphire Jubilee year, Penhaligon’s have released an exquisite, highly limited edition version of their classic Lily of the Valley perfume. Only 65 of the crystal bottles have been produced – one to mark each year since the Queen’s accession to the throne in 1952.
The bows on every single bottle have been hand embroidered with a number, and the crystal bottle itself was created especially for Penhaligon’s by British manufacturer Silver Tree Crystal. A perfume fit for a Queen of course comes at a suitably rich price, but a percentage of the proceeds from this product will go towards QEST (the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust), the charity of the Royal Warrant Holders Association. QEST provides funds for the education of talented and aspiring craftspeople, thus sustaining traditional British craftsmanship.
Penhaligon’s Queen’s Sapphire Jubilee Lily of the Valley £650 for 225ml.
Available in select Penhaligon’s boutiques and concessions.
Too rich for your (non-blue) blood? You could always pick up a regular bottle of the beautiful original Lily of Valley, which is available for the more pocket-friendly price of £97.
Penhaligon’s say: ‘The sweetness of this soliflore is first of all one of character. With the gentility (of experience) and the innocence (of youth) here is a flower that hangs its bells coyly, that delicately shares its perfume. But a soliflore made from a fine orchestration of notes. The opening is as fresh as May and as optimistic as Spring, geranium brings composure and stature to this citrus. As this imagined and romanticised creamy white flower continues to open its petals, rose, ylang ylang and jasmine release their scent. And because discretion is a virtue; one could almost be unaware of the sandalwood and oakmoss that give Lily of the Valley a timeless and forever finale. Royal wedding posies have taken note.’
Written by Suzy Nightingale

A succinct history of scent: would you wear this "Queen's Delight" Elizabethan perfume…?

Imagine the excitement of smelling spices for the very first time, and then realising you could waft fragrantly (and flamboyantly – these were hugely expensive and kept in locked chests) smelling of success and radiating your wealth… The Elizabethan era saw an influx of exotic goods arriving from all over the world – including luxurious, never before seen perfumery ingredients – the valiant explorers bringing a bewitching treasure trove of scented materials to Europe. Men like think Vasco de Gama (1469-1524), Magellan (1480-1521) and Columbus (1451-1506) brought vanilla, pepper, Peru balsam, cardamom, sandalwood, clove, cocoa… Many were used for flavouring, but also found their way intro fragrant creations.
elizabeth-i
A growing trade with the East resulted in the transportation of living plants, too: orange trees (producing not just fruit, but that most romantic and innocent of fragrant blossoms), jasmine and rose. With perfect timing, the distillers were getting ever-more-expert: essential oils could soon be distilled from frankincense, pine, cedarwood, cardamom, fennel, nutmeg, agarwood (‘oud’ as we know it today), sweet flag, anise and more.
garden
Mostly, though, it is supposed that perfumes were still used to mask awful odours – which made lingeringly heady scents like tuberose, jasmine and musk particularly popular. Queen Elizabeth I beckoned Venetian traders to Southampton to offer their scented wares: it became fashionable to wear musk and rose scented pomanders and sachets, in particular.
Here’s another charming snippet from an Elizabethan recipe – remember, most of these fragrances would be made at home, and such recipes were often found in household books along with food and medicine recipes. Could you follow the instructions now, do you think? And more importantly – would you wear it if you could?
elizabethan-perfume-collage
Perhaps our noses are more atuned to complex aromas these days, with modern innovations meaning we can combine the best of nature with purer extractions and headspace technology (digitally analysing the scent of pretty much anything and allowing scientists to recreate the smell synthetically), but isn’t it fascinating how we can time-travel with our noses?
Now, why not continue your fragrant journey by exploring another fragrant era in our section devoted to the history of perfumery…?
Written by Suzy Nightingale