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How King Charles III Became a Royal Mensch

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How King Charles III Became a Royal Mensch

Pomp and circumstance, yes, but beneath some of it a tale of moral heroism.

Commentary by Jeffrey Salkin | Religion News Service

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I admit it. I have a thing for the royals.

Which means the following: There was a time (I am not kidding you) when I could have named all the kings and queens of England in order. I probably could get pretty far with that, even today — though I do have a nasty habit of getting some of the Edwards out of order.

It also means I have seen “The Crown.” Twice.

And, yes, it also means I tuned in to the coronation of King Charles III.

The ceremony moved me, oddly. I say “oddly” because I have no great love for the monarchy as an institution but, as a student of religion, the Anglican rituals moved me.

Especially the part where King Charles was anointed with oil. That, in particular, touched this rabbi, who is well acquainted with the biblical symbolism of kings being anointed with oil. That is the origin of the term “messiah” — from “mashiach” — one who is anointed.

But, there was a piece of the story of the anointing oil that moved me far more deeply than even the hoary biblical symbolism.

The oil came from Jerusalem. Not just from anywhere in Jerusalem. It came from the Mount of Olives, not far from the final resting place of King Charles’ late grandmother, Prince Philip’s mother — Princess Alice of Battenberg.

Here is the story. And, yes: It is a Jewish story.

Princess Alice of Battenberg, circa 1920. / Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Princess Alice was born in Windsor Castle, and she grew up in England, Germany and Malta. After marrying Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark in 1903, she lived in Greece until the exile of most of the Greek royal family in 1917.

During World War II, Princess Alice remained in Greece. There, she sheltered Jewish refugees. She founded a Greek Orthodox order. As a result of her heroism, Yad Vashem recognized her as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Princess Alice died in 1969. She had wanted to be buried in Jerusalem. In 1988, her body was transferred to the crypt at the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane, on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

So, yes: As I watched King Charles III formally ascend the throne, the story of his grandmother’s heroism sat with me.

I thought, as well, of his uncle’s brazen betrayal of Great Britain — I am talking about the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, “David”— and his embrace of the Nazis.

I thought of the contrasts, and I smiled.

I smiled for yet another reason.

Last April, I led a mission of Reform rabbis to Krakow, Poland, to bring humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian refugees who have been coming to that beautiful city. In particular, we were there to work with the staff of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow — JCC Krakow. Its executive director, Jonathan Ornstein, is one of world Jewry’s most inspirational and competent leaders, and it was a privilege to work with him.

Shortly after we arrived at the JCC, we noticed there was a portrait of (then-Prince) Charles and Camilla (then-Duchess of Cornwall) on the wall.

Why?

Some years ago, Prince Charles developed an interest in Holocaust survivors in Krakow. On a visit to that city, he requested a meeting with some of them, and he inquired about their needs. They told him they longed for a place where they could socialize and engage in recreation. 

On his return to the U.K., Prince Charles contacted World Jewish Relief, a London-based charity that helps Jewish communities. That led to the creation of the JCC in Krakow, which has been partially and generously supported by his patronage.

Add to that: the presence of a diversity of faiths at the coronation; the king’s welcoming of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of Great Britain — inviting him and his wife, Valerie, to “crash” at St. James Palace over Shabbat, so he could walk to the coronation. … You don’t have to be a monarchist to sense that, when it comes to the Jews, this king is a mensch.

And, if you know the history of the Jews of England, you would smile even more.

Go back to 1290 — All Saints’ Day, to be exact. For it was on that day King Charles’ who-knows-how-many-times-grandfather, King Edward I (nicknamed Longshanks), expelled the Jews of his realm (the origin of the term “Jewry,” by the way) from England. The expulsion followed a period of blood libels and acts of mass violence.

While some Sephardic Jews trickled back into England in Elizabethan times, it was not until the mid-1600s that Oliver Cromwell officially invited the Jews to resettle in England — partially because of some biblically-based admiration for the Jews, but mostly for economic reasons. As Anthony Julius writes in his magisterial “Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England,” antisemitism has been a constant theme in English history — shape-shifting, as Jew-hatred always is, but constant — especially in its various literary forms, as in Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens.

All of which is to say: The coronation of King Charles III represented a tikkun — a repair — of some of the darker themes in British history.

For that reason, had I been there (the invitation probably went to the wrong email address), I would have joined the crowds in proclaiming: “God save the King!”

Jeffrey Salkin
Jeffrey Salkinhttp://www.religionnews.com
Jeffrey Salkin is a columnist for the Religion News Service

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