Coronations In Catholic Theology: Part I

by Charles A. Coulombe

The character of Kings is sacred; their persons are inviolable; they are the anointed of the Lord, if not with sacred oil, at least by virtue of their office. Their power is broad -- based upon the Will of God, and not on the shifting sands of the people's will... They will be spoken of with becoming reverence, instead of being in public estimation fitting butts for all foul tongues. It becomes a sacrilege to violate their persons, and every indignity offered to them in word or act, becomes an indignity offered to God Himself It is this view of Kingly rule that alone can keep alive in a scoffing and licentious age the spirit of ancient loyalty that spirit begotten of faith, combining in itself obedience, reverence, and love for the majesty of kings which was at once a bond of social union, an incentive to noble daring, anda salt to purify the heart from its grosser tendencies, preserving it from all that is mean, selfish and contemptible. -- John Healy, early 20th Century Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, Ireland. (P.J. Joyce, John Healy, pp. 68-69).

It is easy, given the opposition in recent times of many Catholic French-Canadians and Irish to the Crown, both in Ireland, Canada, and Australia, and their subsequent espousing of republicanism, to assume that Catholicism and republicanism are somehow organically connected. But this would be as foolish a notion as citing the New England Puritans, the South African Afrikaaners, and those Ulster-Scots involved in the 1798 Irish revolt as proof that Calvinists must be republicans (although that is indeed an argument often heard in the U.S.).

In this year of the 40th anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Elizabeth II as the Queen of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon (sad to think of the last three and twelve others which attained dominion status during this reign becoming republics, and of the five colonies which became republics on independence), it were well to think of the origins of and theology underlying the rite of coronation, which after all owes its begin nings (like the other services of Anglican ism) to Catholic roots. Thus, a quick survey of authentic Catholic teaching regarding monarchy in general would not be out of place, followed by a consideration of coronation theology in particular, and ending with brief descriptions of some of the more notable as illustrations thereof.

Before Vatican II, in every monarchy in the world (including Great Britain) after High Mass on Sundays, some variation of the following prayer was said:

We beseech Thee, Almighty God, that thy handmaid Elizabeth our Queen, who has been called by thy kindness to rule over this kingdom, may also receive from Thee an increase of all virtues. Fittingly adorned with these, may she be able to shun all evil doing, (to conquer her enemies), and, finally, being well pleasing before Thee, may attain with the Prince Consort, and their royal offspring to Thee, Who art the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This was, then, the official desire of the Church -- the well being of the lawful monarch of the land. Even during the "troubles" in Ireland, when disloyalty among Catholics was rife (not, the honest will admit, without some provocation on the part of the Protestant Ascendancy there), such stalwarts as the Archbishop of Tuam were vocal in their support -- not of the Ascendancy, of course, but of the Crown, anointed of God. Similarly, the noted Irish spiritual writer and Abbot of Maredsous, Belgium, Dom Columba Marmion, O.S.B. Wrote on 22 May 1921, at the height of the Anglo- Irish war:
Poor Ireland is in a sad plight; & unless God gives very special help & light, I don't see any way out. England will never give us a republic as long as she has a soldier to carry a gun; & Ireland won't be satisfied with anything less. l am not for separation from England, nor for a republic; but I desire a very large measure of "self-determination'; such as you have in Australia.
The Irish conflict was not, however, the first time that the Church had had to witness the unhappy spectacle of her children fighting a legitimate monarch of alien race and religion. As the Irish problem was a never-ending sore on the face of Europe, so too was the Polish. When the Poles rose against Tsar Nicholas I in 1831, Pope Gregory XVI wrote the bishops of that country:
When the first report of the calamities, which so seriously devastated your flourishing kingdom reached our ears, We learned simultaneously that they had been caused by some fabricators of deceit and lies. Under the pretext of religion, and revolting against the legitimate authority of the princes, they filled their fatherland, which they loosed from due obedience to authority, with mourning. (Cum primum cap. 1).
Responding in the same encyclical to the claim that, the Tsar being Orthodox, the Catholic Poles owed him no allegiance, the Pope replied:
We are taught most clearly that the obedience which men are obliged to render to the authorities established by God is an absolute precept which no one can violate, except if by chance something is commanded which runs counter to the laws of God or of the Church. "Let everyone", says the Apostle, "be subject to higher authorities, for there exists no authority except from God, and those who exist have been appointed by God. Therefore he who resists the authority resists the ordination of God wherefore you must needs be subject not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience sake" (Rom 13.1,2,5). Similarly St Peter (1 Pt. 2.13) teaches all the faithful: "Be subject to every human crea ture for God's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to the governors sent through him... "for (he says) such is the will of God, that by doing good you would silence the ignorance of foolish men". By observing these admonitions the first Christians, even during the persecutions, deserved well of the Roman emperors themselves and of the security of state. "Christian solidiers, "says St Augustine, "served an infidel emperor: when it came to the subject of Christ, they recognised no one except Him who is heaven. They distinguished between the eternal Lord and the temporal lord, but also were subject to the temporal lord because of the eternal Lord" (St Aug on Ps. 124). (op. cit., cap. 3).
Of course, Gregory XVI had lived through the upheavals of the French Revolution, which had toppled so many thrones.

In response to this, and in particular to the murder of Louis XVI, Gregory's Predecessor, Pius VI said in his allocution of July 17, 1793, Pourquoi Notre Voix:

The most Christian King, Louis XVI, was condemned to death by an impious conspiracy and this judgement was carried out. We shall recall to you in a few words the ordering and motives of this sentence. The National Convention had no right or authority to pronounce it. In fact, after having abolished the monarchy, the best of all governments, it had transferred all the public power to the people -- the people which, guided neither by reason nor by counsels, forms just ideas on no point whatsoever; assesses few things in accord ance with the truth and evaluates a great many according to mere opinion, which is ever fickle, and ever easy to deceive and to lead into every excess, ungrateful, arrogant, and cruel ... (cap. 2).
Obviously, this monarchy, the "best of all governments" which Pius was defending was not the limited sort of monarchies with which we are familiar in the Common wealth, Benelux, Scandinavia, and Spain today, but the mediaeval Catholic concept of the institution. In addition to its more this-worldly functions, this sort of monarchy had a demi-priestly character. The Kings themselves, hereditary for the most part, were not merely the equivalents of our heads of state. For just as Papal and Imperial authority were considered to be divine in origin, so too was Royal. Yet the Kings often had little power: no power of income tax, nor of regulation, nor of the secret police, nor of so many of the myriad interferences we have come to accept as the rightful appurte nances of governmental power. Instead, as Kenelm Digby says:
...the whole state was founded on the pacific type of the best kingdom. The pacific character of royal majesty was a religious idea, emanating from what was believed of the celestial dominations and powers; for it was a devotional exercise in reparation of the sins of anger; passion, and revenge, to offer to God the peace, mildness and tranquility of the thrones. The Christian religion had put everything in its place, so that the hierarchy of men was as complete as that of angels in the order shown by Dionysius. As in the latter; thrones are after the Seraphim and Cherubim, so in the state, physicalforce was regarded after love and science. In the ancient Christian sculpture, dominations, which command angels, and principalities, which rule over men, are represented with crowns and sceptres; but powers which command the Satanic race are shown with spear and shield, since the devil only yields to force. Therefore, the crown and sceptre were the symbols of royal power; and the maxim was "Tis more kingly to obtain peace than to enforce conditions by constraint".
It is important to remember that just as Christendom was one body in religious matters, so it was in temporal matters also. This is admirably summed up by James, Viscount Bryce, in his The Holy Roman Empire (pp.102-105):
The realistic philosophy, and the needs of a time when the only notion of civil or religious order was submission to authority, required the World State to be a monarchy: tradition, as well as the continued existence of a part of the ancient institutions, gave the monarch the name of Roman Emperor. A king could not be universal sovereign, for there were many kings: the Emperor must be universal, for there had never been but one Emperor; he had in older and brighter days been the actual lord of the civilised world; the seat of his power was placed beside that of the spiritual autocrat of Christendom. His functions will be seen most clearly if we deduce them from the leading principle of mediaeval mythology [as the ignorant call it], the exact corre spondance of earth and heaven. As God, in the midst of the celestial hierarchy, rules blessed spirits in Paradise, so the Pope, His vicar; raised above priests, bishops, metro politans, reigns over the souls of mortal men below. But as God is Lord of earth as well as heaven, so must he (the Imperator coelestis) be represented by a second earth ly viceroy, the Emperor (Imperator ter renus), whose authority shall be of and for this present life. And as in this present world the soul cannot act save through the body, while yet the body is no more than an instrument and means for the soul's mani festation, so there must be a rule and care of men 's bodies as well as their souls, yet subordinated always to the well-being of that element which is the purer and more enduring. It is under the emblem of soul and body that the relation of the papal and imperial power is presented to us through out the Middle Ages. The Pope, as God's vicar in matters spiritual, is to lead men to eternal life; the Emperor; as vicar in matters temporal, must so control them in their dealings with one another that they are able to pursue undisturbed the spiritual life, and thereby attain the same supreme and common end of everlasting happiness. In view of this object his chief duty is to maintain peace in the world, while towards the Church his position is that of Advocate or Patron, a title borrowed from the practice adopted by churches and monasteries choosing some powerful baron to protect their lands and lead their tenants in war. The functions of Advocacy are twofold: at home to make the Christian people obedient to the priesthood, and to execute priestly decrees upon heretics and sinners; abroad to propagate the faith among the heathen, not sparing to use carnal weapons. Thus does the Emperor answer in every point to his antitype the Pope, his power being yet of a lower rank created on the analogy of the papal... Thus the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire are one and the same thing seen from different sides; and Catholicism, the principle of the universal Christian society, is also Romanism...
For this reason, both the Emperor and the Kings had in a sense a demi-priestly character, conferred by their coronations. They were firstly the defenders of the Church within their realms. A sort of sub-diaconal character was theirs, and various kings were often traditionally canons of one or several of their cathedral cities. Kings also often had liturgical roles.

The Byzantine Emperor, successor to Constantine in the East, played a focal part in the liturgical life of Constantinople. On the feast of the Annunciation, he would attend the Divine Liturgy at the church of St Mary Chalkopratia, following under the arch on two columns separating the sanctu ary wherein rested the casket containing the girdle of the Blessed Virgin. Christmas would find him descending from the Imperial gallery in the same church in procession through theassembled dignitaries to the sanctuary. He would then ascend the steps into the sanctuary and receive communion, alone among all lay-folk in doing so. At the Kiss of Peace on this day, the Patriarch would kiss the Emperor and three newly baptised. The people would chant to their Emperor:

May He who gives life exalt your power, Princes, in all the world. May he subject the foreign nations so that, like the Magi, they bring gifts to your Imperial Majesty.
In the Byzantine Calendar, 1 January is the feast of St Basil, which Emperor and court celebrated within the palace grounds. Therein a procession went to the church of St Basil. The Emperor, sitting in his throne within that church received dignitaries; three groups of foreigners -- an Armenian prince, Bulgarian allies, and the Armenian prince's chief officials -- would enter the precinct of the throne bearing gifts in emulation of the Magi. Every other major holiday of the Church Year was marked by the Emperor and his court. Holy Week saw him go into seclusion, doffing his crown, leaving his throne empty and all acts of governance to his Eparch, the civil governor of Constantinople. On Holy Saturday he would lay down a hundred pounds of gold before piscina in front of the high altar of Hagia Sophia in emulation both of Nicodemus's hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes brought for the embalming of Christ, and of the gold of twenty-four elders laid beside the crystal Apocalypse. Then the Emperor retired to reappear wearing his crown and carrying in his right hand a pouch of dust and in his left a cross, signifying his own death and the inevitable judgement by the King above all earthly Kings.

When, after 1453 and the fall of the Imperial City, the Grand Dukes of Moscow laid claim to be successors of the Byzantine Emperors, they imported, along with the Double-Headed Eagle on Gold banner, much of this ceremonial. On the Epiphany, for example, the Tsar and his court would process to the nearest river for the ritual blessing of the waters in commemoration of Christ's baptism in the Jordan.

No less impressive was the liturgical ceremonial surrounding the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. Throughout Latin Christendom, he was prayed for in the Good Friday Collects and the Holy Saturday exsultet. In addition to these, the Missal included among its collections of collects, secrets, and postcommunions to be said at the discretion of the priest after those required by the Proper of the Day, a set to be said for the Emperor. The collect thereof is very revealing:

O God, the Protector of all kingdoms and in particular of the Christian Empire, grant to thy servant our Emperor N.; always to work wisely for the triumph of Thy power; that being a prince in virtue of Thy institution he may always continue mighty by virtue of Thy grace.
In the light of the words of Viscount Bryce quoted earlier, it will be obvious that in the popular imagination, the Emperor indeed stood next to the Pope. This was shown very clearly at the reading of the seventh lesson of Matins, sung before the Pope's Christmas Midnight Mass at the Basilica of St Peter:
It relates the publishing of Emperor Augustus' edict, commanding a census of the whole world. This seventh Lesson, according to the Ceremonial of the Roman Church, is to be sung by the Emperor; if he happen to be in Rome at the time; and this is done in order to honour the Imperial power; whose decrees were the occasionof Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, and so fulfilling the designs of God, which He had revealed to the ancient Prophets. The Emperor is led to the Pope, in the same manner as the Knight who had to sing the fifth lesson; he puts on the Cope; two Cardinal-Deacons gird him with the sword, and go with him to the ambo. The lesson being concluded, the Emperor again goes before the Pope, and kisses his foot, as being the Vicar of the Christ whom he has just announced. (Dom Prosper Gueranger; 0.S.B., The Liturgical Year, vol.II, "Christmas"; bk. i; p.l 60).
In an era when throughout Christianity East and West the Liturgy penetrated every facet of life from the farm-house and fisher's cot to manor-house and castle-keep, when the whole year was subject to the Church calendar, every royal court in Christendom responded to the holy days in like manner. Christmas was observed by them with great solemnity, the King of England waiting anxiously for the branch and blossom of the Glastonbury Thorn which then as now would bloom on Christmas, despite the cold (as a reminder of its origin in the staff of St Joseph of Arimathea; when bringing the Holy Grail to England he planted his staff, and it took root, becoming the famed Thorn). New Year's Day was always marked by a solemn High Mass, after which the various Kings would receive the great officers of state, the leading bishops and abbots, and foreign envoys. On Epiphany, monarchs presented their principal church or chapel royal gold, frankincense,and myrrh; to this day the Lord Chamberlain presents these gifts on behalf of the Queen (George III was the last to do it himself) to the Chapel Royal, St James's.

The Carnival season was celebrated at court with as much jollity as in present day New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro; Lent followed with fitting penitence and fasting. Maundy Thursday would see the sovereigns wash the feet of twelve poor men. This lasted until 1918 at Vienna and Munich. In England it was done by the King until James II was replaced with William of Orange, who delegated this task to his almoner. After 1731 this was changed again into a presentation of Maundy Money by the almoner to a group of old people at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall. In England also, Good Friday saw the blessing by the King of rings, which were then distributed among the people and were credited with the ability of curing cramp. All the Kings of Europe would march in the Corpus Christi processions which occurred in their respective capitals. All of these activities were symptoms of the expected standard of public spirituality.

This standard took various forms in various countries; each nation developed over long centuries its own specific style of monarchic devotion and holiness. In France, this was what was called the religion royale, centring around the Holy Ampulla containing chrism delivered by the Holy Ghost to St Remigius in 496 and used at the French coronations; the ability of the Kings of France to heal scrofula (of which more later); devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Assumption; and the quasi-priestly characteristics of the French Crown, such as receiving communion in both kinds, being members of certain chapters of canons, and being allowed to touch the sacred vessels. Among the Habsburgs of Austria grew up the Pietas Austriaca, which included devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Cross, the Immaculate Conception, and Corpus Christi.

It might be objected that these practises were mere formal devotions, rote exercises -- not unlike formal services in prep school chapels. But they elevated even mediocre monarchs; those who followed them sincerely became the royal saints like Edward the Confessor and Louis IX who were the glory of the Middle Ages. Sanctity is rarely among the stated goals of a modem head of state.

In some cases, the monarch was believed to have miraculous powers. So the Kings of England and France cured scrofula (called "The King’s Evil"). This "touching for the King’s Evil", was an important part of French and English Mediaeval Kingship. The formula used by the King of France when touching the sufferer was "the King toucheth thee; God healeth thee". The last of the French Kings to touch was Charles X; of the reigning English, Queen Anne (who, incidentally touched the infant Dr. Samuel Johnson). As it was held that only kings of rightful lineage could touch effectively, Louis Phillipe did not attempt to, and William of Orange sent those who applied to him to the Court-in-exile of the Stuarts in France; those who recovered from their disease after this trip inevitably became convinced Jacobites. But even the last of the Stuarts, Henry IX, Cardinal York, kept up the rite.

In like manner, the King of Denmark cured epilepsy, the King of Hungary jaundice, and the Holy Roman Emperor, successor of Charlemagne, was said to have some control over the weather (so in Germany fine warm weather is called Kaiserwetter). The Kings of Castile were resorted to by the possessed for exorcism, as we see in Alvarez Pelayo’s 1340 work, Speculum regum, written to King Alphonso XI:

It is said that the kings of France and of England possess a [healing] power; likewise the most pious kings of Spain, from whom you are descended, possess a power which acts on the demoniacs and certain sick persons suffering from divers ills. When a small child, I saw myself your grandfather king Sancho [Sancho II 1284-1295], who brought me up, place his foot upon the throat of a demoniac who proceeded to heap insults upon him; and then, by reading words taken from a little book, drive out the demon from this woman, and leave her perfectly healed (quoted in Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch, p.88).

Part II

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