Edward II & the Holy Oil of St Thomas Becket

The coronation of a king is a sacred affair marking a moment of great divinity and splendour. It is a highly crafted event. The medieval mind was a superstitious and devout one, and then more than now, the coronation literally as well as spiritually heralded the moment when the king was set above his people by the ordinance of God. This elevation came at a critical moment in the service through the ceremony of unction, the moment in which the king receives the holy oil and chrism. In the ordo, (fourth recession) the act of unction, both then and now is fundamental. ‘The archbishop anoints the king with holy oil on his hands, breast, between the shoulders, on the shoulders, on both elbows and on the head in a form of the cross. Then his head is anointed a second time with chrism…during this action the anthem Unxerunt Salomoneum is sung’.(1) From here on in, the king takes on a quasi-spiritual status which underpins his sacred calling throughout his lifetime. It gives him in essence, spiritual as well as political legitimacy.

Edward-II-Coronation
Edward II is crowned at Westminster Abbey, February 1308

By 1317, Edward II himself was only too aware that his reign had been beset by successive and often far-reaching problems. The last five years had been particularly difficult with the murder of Piers Gaveston, the ongoing political tussle with his cousin Thomas of Lancaster and the wide spread famine that was ravishing the country and Europe beyond. God it must have felt, was displeased and England, and Edward in particular, suffered in consequence. The king’s mood turned intensely reflective and before long Edward was brooding about his coronation and that all important moment of unction. Perhaps it had all gone wrong? Perhaps his favoured saint Thomas Becket has turned against him as Edward had failed to reach out and accept anointing with a recently discovered phial of holy oil?

The phial of oil in question was, according to the Dominican monk Nicholas of Wisbech, a miracle oil. Wisbech, though originally from England, was a former royal clerk of Edward II’s brother-in-law the duke of Brabant, as well as confessor to the duchess who was Edward’s sister. The monk claimed, that during Thomas Becket’s exile from England after 1164, the Virgin Mary had appeared before the beleaguered archbishop and declared that the fifth king who occupied the throne after Henry II (r.1154-1189) would be a good man and a champion of the church. If this was not enough, the Virgin produced a phial which she handed to Becket declaring that if anointed with it, this king would go on to recover the Holy Land. The fifth king after Henry II was of course Edward II. Coupled with this, since his childhood, Edward had been a devout follower of the cult of St Thomas Becket, who following the archbishop’s murder in 1170, was canonised in 1173. The cult of St Thomas was widespread throughout Europe during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During Edward’s lifetime, he made regular pilgrimages to Canterbury and devotions to Becket, no more so than when Edward was under political pressure and in need of spiritual guidance. When Wisbech told him the story of the holy oil before the king’s coronation in 1308, Edward was simply hooked.

This phial, according to the Dominican monk, after it was gifted to Becket was hidden in the monastery of St Cyprian in Poitiers, France before it was then moved to somewhere in Germany. It is possible that Edward II’s great-uncle, Richard earl of Cornwall (brother to Henry III) discovered it when he was crowned king of the Romans at Aachen in 1257. By 1268, Richard returned to England that year with a large stash of relics, and it is quite possible that the phial was amongst them and subsequently kept in the English royal treasury. This was true at least until 1297, when Edward I, waging war against the king of France, required financial aid. In order to secure a political alliance as well as financial support the old leopard sought the support of the duke of Brabant which was duly given, and to seal the deal Edward I offered a collection of royal jewels and relics as collateral. The phial most likely then passed temporarily to Flanders where the monk first came across it. By 1305 the loan was repaid and by the time Edward II ascended the throne in July 1307 the latest duke, Edward’s brother-in-law, was persuaded by his wife’s confessor, Nicholas of Wisbech to return it to the new king of England for use at his upcoming coronation thereby fulfilling the prophesy. When the time came and the oil was presented to the king, Edward was curious enough to seek the advice of his councillors, who advised him not to use it, keeping instead to ancient custom using the holy oil provided previously to all his ancestors. The king gave way at the last minute, afraid that breaking tradition could open him up to later challenges on his soveriegnity,  the phial was therefore put aside. Nine years later, Edward regretted his decision.

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Edward II sends envoys to Pope John XXII

In March 1317, the king ordered Wisbech who was then back in England from Flanders, to travel to the papal palace of Avignon and outline the prophecy to pope John XXII. The pope refused to believe it without actually seeing the phial and so Nicholas was sent back to collect it, and on his final return to Avignon was then instructed to deliver another message to the Holy Father. Edward it seemed wanted to be anointed with it. Nicholas returned to the king at York in early February 1319 with disappointing news, the pope it seemed was having none of it. Wisbech was then interrogated by the bishops of Ely, Norwich and Salisbury to ensure he was in fact telling the truth about the holy relic. Edward was clearly disappointed by the setback and had seemed to set his heart on receiving unction with this oil as a possible means for breaking his latest political misfortune. The bishop of Hereford and other envoys were promptly dispatched to Avignon to persuade the pope to change his mind.

By June 1319, Edward received word via letter of the pope’s final verdict. It was damning. A frustrated John XXII wrote that he had, along with the cardinal bishop of Sabina discussed the matter. They concluded that the oil was very different in nature to that used by English kings; that it was of no importance either way; that if Edward still insisted on being anointed with it, he should do so in private and quietly to avoid scandal. If he choose this route then on no account should a bishop perform unction. If that was not humiliating enough, the sting came at the end of the letter when the pope set out that if Edward wanted to achieve in his reign and break the cycle of misfortune, it was not as a result of unction but by the king’s disposal towards God. He needed to ‘obey the divine decrees by leading a virtuous life and cultivating justice in himself and his subjects’.(2) Ouch!

MS Ludwig XIV 6 Fol 255v
Nicholas of Wisbech is imprisoned

Edward was humiliated. In a highly superstitious and religious age, the king who firmly supported the cult of St Thomas had been drawn in by the stories of the Dominican monk Nicholas Wisbech. The king also favoured the Dominican order above all others. Nicholas himself may also have believed the story, as had Edward’s now deceased brother-in-law. Days after receiving the papal letter, the king sent a reply asking Nicholas to be dismissed from his office having proved ‘unworthy’. This was as much Edward saving face as it was highlighting his bitter disappointment. Nicholas was briefly imprisoned, but later managed to escape his gaol and fled from England where nothing more is heard about him. The king continued to brood on the subject, and by mid-summer wrote another letter to the pope admitting ‘his own weaknesses’ and ‘dovelike simplicity’ in being taken in by the suggestion that the holy oil and a further anointing would somehow change his misfortunes. (3) With that the holy oil of St Thomas Becket was promptly forgotten.

Notes

(1) Coronation: A History of Kingship and the British Monarchy. Roy Strong. (Harper Collins, 2005), 87

(2) Philips, Seymour. Edward II, 341

(3) Ibid, 342

Images

Feature: Coronation of Richard I. Matthew Paris. Flores Historiarum

Image One: Coronation of Edward II. Corpus Christi College Cambridge.

Image Two: Pope holds court.

Image Three: Men imprisoned. MS Ludwig XIV 6 f. 225v

 

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