Gold News

Luxury, Power and the UK's Gold King-Making Kit

Two big 2023 shows of golden treasure in London...
Last SATURDAY MORNING an old man was crowned with a very old hat while sitting in a very, very old chair, says Adrian Ash at BullionVault, writing on the UK's right royal Bank Holiday Monday to readers of the Weekly Update .
If you watched the ceremony (or even just caught the highlights) then you doubt...have been dazzled by the massive amount of gold involved in turning a prince into the King. 
You will also, most likely, have heard the TV commentators explain how the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom aren't as old as they might have been.
That's because, after chopping off the head of our first King Charles back in January 1649, the army commanders now running England had all the diamonds, rubies and other gemstones from the Crown Jewels ripped out and sold off to raise cash...
...and they also had all the gold and silver from the many crowns, orbs, sceptres and ceremonial swords from the Coronation Regalia melted down to make coin.
Put another way, Oliver Cromwell and his cronies quite literally cashed in the sacred sovereignty of the English monarchy to mint Sovereigns. Or rather, they made sixpences, broads and shillings for the grubby hand-to-hand business of everyday (ironically) crowns and half-crown destroying those sacred objects.
Charles I himself hadn't minted any Sovereigns either (nor had his father James), issuing farthings and groats instead, plus the all-too-hopefully named Unite and Triple Unite in gold. But when the English came to their senses again in 1660, tired of rulers who banned Christmas in the name of Christ, they invited Charles' son Charles to come home and take over as king once again...
...albeit as a new kind of king, with a little less almighty privilege than his now headless Dad had discovered he did not in fact possess.
That meant the coronation regalia had to be made anew as well. So London's goldsmiths got busy turning what could have functioned as coined money for universal exchange among anyone and everyone into unique objects with a unique power. Because as this Saturday just proved once again, the ceremony of turning a man into the King can't be achieved with just words or music or a big cheering crowd or even 4,000 troops waving their hats in the air.
It really does need a lot of shiny treasure, too.
It's fitting, therefore, that what escaped Cromwell's melting pot and now therefore remains of England's medieval king-making kit is the Anointing Spoon...
...needed to drizzle the prince's head with what must be the world's most exclusive olive oil...
...thereby making him persona mixta, a "mixed person" who is both lay and ordained in some readings, but also both human and saintly if not very nearly divine in others. 
The spoon is silver gilt. It was first recorded in the Royal treasury in 1349...
...a spoon of "antique forme" even then...
...and most likely made in the 12th Century but attributed by ancient custom and ceremony to the coronation in 1042 of Edward the Confessor, England's last-but-one Anglo-Saxon King (and the sainted king remembered in the 17th Century remake of the St.Edward's Crown which then goes on the new monarch's head so the earthly crowd can marvel at his majesty).
Either way, the spoon is "a remarkable survival" says the Royal Collection's website today, "the only piece of royal goldsmiths' work to survive" from so very long ago, and used to anoint so very many sovereigns since.
Thanks to the magical spoon, "The King will be consecrated with the oil of chrism," said one preview of Saturday's event at Westminster Abbey. And while that word literally means "made sacred", the act of consecrating the King is itself "the most sacred moment" of the ceremony because "it signifies God's blessing."
Indeed, the anointing with oil is so sacred that all onlookers were banned from witnessing it on Saturday, just as they were banned when Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II took the throne in 1953.
Hence the screens erected last weekend around the king-to-be and his high priest (in this case Justin Welby, formerly a treasurer for various oil exploration companies) plus his immediate assistants. Because the moment of anointing is when God ordains the monarch. Ordinary mortals aren't invited to watch. Not even Ant and Dec, Judi Dench, Lionel Richie, Justin Trudeau or Jill Biden.
For such mystic rites requiring such ancient treasure, silver might of course need a good polish before coming out of the treasury house to perform its role every few decades. But gold makes the perfect material...
...immune from tarnishing and as bright and beautiful today as it was when first grasped as a sceptre or touched as a sacred ring by its first King.
Gold's permanence, unchanging and eternal, is as central to its royal and religious significance in all cultures and in all ages as its bright lustre and unique colour. Altogether, those physical gold's timeless and universal use as the ultimate prize, the supreme gift...are what has made the precious metal so politically powerful, too.
I mean, imagine your local King invites you...whether today or 2.5 thousand years share a toast with him, drinking one of the 2 streams of wine pouring from the bottom of this jug.
That guy's got to be a real somebody to own such treasure, right?
Panagyurishte Treasure, Gold Amphora. Usually at the National Museum of History, Sofia but now at the British Museum until mid-August
This huge jug is part of the Panagyurishte Treasure, named after the small town in modern Bulgaria near where it was found in 1949 by three brothers digging a claypit to make bricks.
In all the brothers stumbled upon 9 drinking vessels, all of solid gold and weighing some 6 kilograms in total. This royal regalia is thought to have been crafted in the 4th Century BC in what was then the Greek-related kingdom of Thrace, owned by (and apparently buried in a rush by) an important local dynasty whose name is now lost to us.
Usually this treasure is on display at the National History Museum in Sofia. But until mid-August 2023, it's now the star loan in the British Museum's summer show Luxury and power: Persia to Greece.
This blockbuster exhibition is supported by BullionVault. It looks at how, when a coalition of Ancient Greek city states managed to defeat the invading army of imperial Persia at the Battle of Mycale in 479 BC, the victorious Athenians were shocked and amazed by the luxury, beauty and treasure which they found piled up in the Persian command tents.
According to the historical chronicles...written of course by the winners...the Athenians thought such decadence was the reason the despotic Persians had lost, defeated by the clean living and democracy which the Greeks themselves practiced. See the word 'Spartan' for instance.
But the archaeological record tells a subtly different and more interesting story, where Persian luxury starts to filter into Greek culture...adapted by but very much changing the Greeks themselves. And one immediate challenge which Athens faced from the Persian loot it acquired was what-in-the-hell to do with it all?
Giving it to the Athenian commanders was unthinkable; that would simply ape the way the decadent Persians behaved, and it would deny the democracy which the city now prided itself on. Sharing it out would be tricky without destroying the objects, and it would also risk people hoarding such luxury to try seeming better than everyone else. Sure you could melt it down and mint it into coin – something the nearby kingdom of Lydia may have been the first to 'invent' some two or three hundred years before. But these objects really were (and are) stunning... why not keep them as they are, physical statements of Athens' communal power and wealth, and store them securely on behalf of the city and its citizens?
That way, you can always still melt them down for coin to pay your troops if another invading army comes calling. And meantime, you could maybe get the treasure out so every so often, and parade it through the streets for the people to marvel and gasp at.
Sound familiar?
"The Crown Jewels are the nation's most precious treasures" says Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which looks after the Tower of London and 5 other UK piles once belonging to the Crown and now cared for on behalf of the nation. 
Meaning the people. Or rather, the state. Meaning that political beast which raged from royal to republican to constitutional monarchy during the 17th Century, getting a new set of coronation regalia in the process, before edging towards today's parliamentary democracy but with the head of state still anointed by the Church on behalf of God himself behind a screen so that no one can see the magic happen.
Back in Ancient Athens, for comparison, the Parthenon was a temple with no altar, dedicated to the city's protector, the goddess Athena, and used to store the city's booty and treasure. Here's one of the stone tablets recording what's in the warehouse... ancient Greek version of BullionVault's own Daily Audit and one of my personal favourites in the British Museum's new exhibition:
Inventory of the Pronaos, 420s BCE, at the British Museum
In amongst the luxury and power piled up in Athens' gold and silver, the goddess Athena herself was cast into a giant statue made of gold and ivory and kept in the treasury house
She and the city had a deal, as a key section of the Luxury and power: Persia to Greece exhibition explains. If Athens ever needed to call on the monetary value locked up in her colossal image, the people could melt her down to make coin to pay for defending themselves against an invading army...
...but only on the understanding that they would then melt down the coin and remake her statue once the danger had passed.
Again, I can't help but hear a big chime with today, this time between the modern world's sovereign gold reserves and that ancient treasury in Athens.
Yes, the 1990s' gold sales by the UK and most other Western central banks don't fit. But that was when they didn't need treasure, because there was simply no threat of crisis to fear. Or so everyone thought, back at the end of history and before the 21st Century became what has to date proven pretty much a non-stop series of financial, economic and geopolitical crises.
Outside that decade's laughable expectation that all things would be well because all manner of things would be cast in the West's own self-image, central-bank gold reserves are the state's ultimate war chest. In the event that things get so bad that the nation itself faces destruction, then its gleaming treasures can be turned into coin to fight for its preservation.
But thing is – and something confirmed by those 1990s' gold sales, in fact – mobilizing the national gold reserves in a time of crisis would actually make that crisis the ultimate disaster, the final catastrophe beyond which the state no longer exists if it doesn't prevail. 
So pending that evil day, there they sit...whether at Fort Knox or the Bundesbank or the Banque de France or the People's Bank of China...utterly useless beyond the totemic power of a coronation spoon because to use them would be to signal the end of the world.
Some nations like to parade their gold reserves, albeit metaphorically, while most others kept them very hidden. As for we Brits, we sold off half our gold reserves back at the lowest real-terms prices in history around the eve of the crisis-ridden 21st Century.
But that's no problem for such a proud and ancient nation. Simply behold, instead, a magic spoon. Or don't behold it, in fact. Not when it's being used.
That is reserved for God, His anointed, and the high priest alone.

Adrian Ash

Adrian Ash, BullionVault Gold News

Adrian Ash is director of research at BullionVault, the world-leading physical gold, silver and platinum market for private investors online. Formerly head of editorial at London's top publisher of private-investment advice, he was City correspondent for The Daily Reckoning from 2003 to 2008, and he has now been researching and writing daily analysis of precious metals and the wider financial markets for over 20 years. A frequent guest on BBC radio and television, Adrian is regularly quoted by the Financial Times, MarketWatch and many other respected news outlets, and his views from inside the bullion market have been sought by the Economist magazine, CNBC, Bloomberg, Germany's Handelsblatt and FAZ, plus Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore.

See the full archive of Adrian Ash articles on GoldNews.

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