Coronations In Catholic Theology: Part II

by Charles A. Coulombe

Whence came this quasi-clerical, and in the above cases miraculous power? How was it conveyed to these ordinary mortals? Whence, indeed, came the authority of Kingship itself? True it was, that in most countries, the Crown was passed along by hereditary right; Poland, the Empire, and the Papacy by election. But in both sets of cases, the added charism, so to speak, required something more. That something is implied by the benediction of the cramp-rings by the King of England on Good Friday:

O Lord, sanctify these rings, sprinkle them with the goodness of Thy heavenly dew and benediction, and consecrate them by the rubbing of our hands which thou hast deigned to bless, according to the order of our ministry, through the anointing of the holy oil, so that what the natural metal cannot effect may be accomplished by Thy grace ... (quoted in Bloch op. cit., p. 106).
The anointing of holy oil, to which the prayer refers, took place at the rite of coronation. While the coronation was not itself held generally to confer the Kingship, it nevertheless seemed to be necessary for the royal personage to enjoy the fullness of the graces thereof. It will be remembered that, although his father had died in 1422, Charles VII of France continued to be called the dauphin because he could not be crowned at Rheims. which city was in English hands. It was not until St. Joan of Arc cleared them from Rheims in 1429 and Charles was accordingly crowned that he was called King Charles VII. So important was this coronation that it was often called the eighth sacrament.

The exact form varied from country to country, and we shall look at a few presently. But the general elements were similar. The King was generally crowned by the Primate — the leading bishop of his country (Canterbury for England, St. Andrews for Scotland, Rheims for France, Toledo for Castile. etc.). He was anointed, usually on the head, hands, and shoulder blades, at least, with holy oil, and he would be presented to his people. The great lay and churchmen of his realm would offer homage, and the crowds would shout acclamations. Of all of this, however, it was the anointing which was considered most essential.

It must be remembered that, for Mediaeval Christendom, as for modern-day Catholicism and Orthodoxy, God was held to act through material persons. In the person of His priests, He brought Himself onto the altar under the appearance of bread and wine; He took fallen mankind and trans-formed them via the waters of Baptism into His adopted children; He heard the sins of said children in Confession and absolved them after giving them suitable penance. In the person of His bishops, He consecrated more bishops, confirmed mature Christians, ordained priests, dubbed knights, consecrated bells, churches, graveyards, and other things, and crowned kings. In the person of His kings, he dispensed justice and mercy in the temporal sphere. In the persons of His Popes and Emperors, He administered the others. Yet, mediaeval man was no less aware of the obvious human failings of these folk than we would be (nor at all reluctant to denounce them). It is just that they were much more aware of the divine nature of their callings than we are.

But in similar wise, God was held to give grace through material substances. Bread and wine, obviously. But he might use chalk, ashes, bells, palms, gold, incense, salt, or oil. In whatever case, these things were specially blessed or consecrated (just as human beings needed to be), exorcised — removing them so to speak from the circles of fallen nature dominated by Satan, and employed.

There are three kinds of holy oils consecrated by bishops on Maundy Thursday. The oil of the sick is used in the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Chrism we shall look at more closely shortly. But the oil of catechumens, used extensively at baptisms, is what was generally used at coronations:

The oil of catechumens is also used for the anointing of priests and for the conse-cration of kings and queens. How magnificent is the symbolism which anoints the forehead of the baptised with the same oil as is used for the hands of a priest and for the head of a king! The newly baptised do indeed become sharers in the priesthood and in kingship. (Dom Fernand Cabrol, O.S.B., Liturgical Prayer, p. 225)
But chrism is still more precious an oil, made as it is with balm. It is and was used for the consecration of bishops, chalices and altars, for the blessing of bells, and for the dedication of churches. It was considered to be the noblest substance in the Church’s arsenal. As mentioned in part one, the French Kings were anointed with chrism from an ampulla brought by the Holy Ghost for the baptism and coronation of Clovis as King of the Franks in 496. It was used at each coronation up to and including that of Louis XVI. In the Revolution, the ampulla itself was destroyed by the mob, but some of the contents were rescued. These in turn were used for the coronation of Charles X in 1825.

Other nations clamoured for the privilege. It was conceded to England and Sicily from time immemorial, and to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem as the realm of Our Lord Himself. Finally, Pope John XXII granted the same privilege to the Kings of Scotland, in return for an oath to extirpate heresy from the country being added to the coronation ritual there. As a result, these four Kings considered themselves foremost in Christendom. But now it would be useful to examine a few of the particular coronations themselves, to see the principles we have enunciated at work.

We will start in the later days of the Byzantine Empire, in the great City of Constantinople. As inheritor of the tradi-tions of the Roman Empire, two symbols early were worn by the Emperor as symbols of his authority: the chlamys or purple robe (originally the sign of Roman generals in the field), and the crown or diadem, first worn by Constantine in imitation of Eastern rulers. The first successors of Constantine, like his predecessors, were simply proclaimed by their troops and accepted by the Senate and people of Rome, who then did homage. But to these elements of acclama-tion and homage was added formal presentation of the crown. As Christianity spread throughout the Empire, the anointing of Saul as King of Israel by the Prophet Samuel was seen as a foreshadowing of Christian Kingship — the more so because anointing was also a part of the sacramental structure of the Church already. At last, the whole ceremony, formerly open air, was moved indoors, into Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of Constantinople.

In its final form, the Patriarch placed the chlamys on the Emperor, made the sign of the cross on his forehead with chrism, and then put the crown on his head. Before each of these actions, he silently read a prayer, the one for placing of the chlamys giving the flavour of the whole:

O Lord our God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who through Samuel the prophet didst choose David Thy servant to be king over Thy people Israel; do Thou now also hear the supplication of us unwor-thy and behold from Thy dwelling-place Thy faithful servant N whom Thou hast been pleased to set as king over Thy holy nation, which Thou didst purchase with the precious blood of Thine only-begotten Son: vouchsafe to anoint him with the oil of gladness, endue him with power from on high, put upon his head a crown of pure gold, grant him long life…
After the actual crowning, the people assembled in the mosaiced glory of Hagia Sophia crying out "Holy, holy, holy," and "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill". Then the Emperor received Holy Communion in one kind; the standards and halberds carried by the glittering troops were dipped and raised again. The clergy and senators prostrated themselves then; not, indeed, to the Emperor per se, but to the Living God Whom he had just consumed — becoming as it were a living Holy Grail.

After this came the acclamations. The cantors sang verses such as "Glory be to God in the highest ... This is the great day of the Lord ... This the day in the life of the Romans". To these, the people would reply, "Many, many years to you, autocrat of the Romans", and the like. At last, the Emperor left the church and entered into the adjoin-ing metatorium, whereupon he mounted his throne and accepted the homage of lay and clerical dignitaries. After this, he had the right to enter the sanctuary and perform the liturgical duties mentioned above.

Because of its association with the Three Kings and with the Baptism in the Jordan, the Epiphany was a favourite date for Byzantine and other coronations. In the former case, when the rite was performed on this day, a prayer was recited which perfectly sums up the identification of the church as Chosen People of the New Covenant with Israel, that of the Old; and which underlines the identification of Church with Empire described so vividly by Viscount Bryce:

May He who today was baptised by the hand of the Forerunner; proclaim you Emperors by His own mighty hand, bene-factors crowned by God, and show to the world that you are good. After sanctifying the Empire by water; may He baptise it with oil of incorruptibility, and give to the Romans safety, mighty protection, glory, and the imperial majesty.
As in the East, so in the West. While the East enjoyed an unbroken line of Emperors from the time of Constantine, in the West it ended with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476. From that time on, it was considered that there was only one Emperor in Christendom, he of Constantinople. However, as his ability to inter-vene in Italy grew less and less (the Byzantines being engaged with Muslims, Avars, and other enemies), the Pope must needs look about for protectors nearer home. These appeared in the form of the Franks. In reward for their defence of the Holy See against the Lombards, St. Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. As with the Epiphany, the Third Mass of Christmas became thereby a favoured time for coronations — William the Conqueror choosing it, as one example.

That first Holy Roman crowning was a simple affair indeed, with the Pope surprising Charlemagne by putting the diadem on his head and thrice saying "To Charles Augustus. crowned of God, the great and peace-giving Emperor of the Romans, long life and victory!!

In time, however, this simple beginning developed hugely. By the High Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Emperor was expected to be crowned four times: first of the three kingdoms the Emperors generally were sovereigns of (Germany, Italy, and Burgundy), and lastly for the Empire, the res publica Christiana. Of his three Royal crowns, the most important was the German, election to which guaranteed the Imperial diadem.

The Electors were those princes, ecclesiastical and lay, to whom the privilege of determining who should be German King and Roman Emperor fell. Called "Eminence" like the Cardinals who do the same for the Pope, they were both territorial magnates and great officers of state. Three ecclesiastics: the Archbishop of Mainz (arch-chancellor of Germany); the Archbishop of Trier (arch-chancellor of Burgundy); and the Archbishop of Cologne (arch-chancellor of Italy); and secular lords: the King of Bohemia (arch-seneschal); the Count Palatine of the Rhine (arch-steward); the Duke of Saxe-Wittenberg (arch-marshal); and the Margrave of Brandenburg (arch-chamberlain) made up the electoral college. As great officers of state, they each played key roles not only in the election itself but in the following coronation of the Emperor-elect as King of Germany.

Both events took place during the Middle Ages in Charlemagne’s old capital of Aix-la-Chappelle, or Aachen, where the tomb of the Great Emperor is, and where his memory remains even today, undiminished.

The German coronation was performed in the basilica where Charlemagne lies. The Archbishop of Cologne presided, and the Emperor elect was presented to him by the other two Archbishop Electors. The oil of catechumens was used, and the Emperor’s head, nape of the neck, breast, right arm between elbow and wrist, and palms of both hands anointed therewith. After this, he was vested with what were called the Imperial and Pontifical robes (including buskins, a long alb, a stole crossed priest-wise over the breast, and the mantle). Then the regalia (sceptre, orb, and sword of state) were presented to him. At last, the three archbishops-elector jointly placed the Crown of Charlemagne on his head. Mass was then said, during which the new Emperor received communion in one kind. Afterwards, he was inducted as a canon of Aix-La-Chapelle.

The crown of Burgundy was bestowed on him in the cathedral of St. Trophime in Arles by the Archbishop of that city. To Milan’s church of San Ambrosio, or else at the cathedral of Pavia, the Emperor would then repair in order to be crowned King of Italy. He would then don the famous Iron Crown of Lombardy, which within its circlet boasts a band of iron, beaten out of one of the nails which fastened Christ to the cross.

When at last in Rome, the Emperor elect was given his Imperial coronation. In front of St. Peter’s, the Pope would be enthroned and sur-rounded by his cardinals at the head of the steps. There the Emperor kissed his foot, and recited the following oath:

In the name of Christ I, N., the Emperor, promise, undertake and protest in the presence of God and Blessed Peter the Apostle, that I will be the protector and defender of the Holy Roman Church in all ways that I can be of help so far as I shall be supported by the Divine aid, according to my knowledge and ability.
The Emperor would be met at the silver door of St. Peter’s by the Bishop of Albano, who recited over him the first coronation prayer. Conducted inside the church, he was taken to the centre in front of the sanctuary, where the Bishop of Ostia recited the second prayer. Thence the Emperor went to the confessio of St. Peter where was recited the Litany of the Saints; the Bishop of Ostia conducted him to the Altar of St. Maurice, and anointed him on the right arm and between the shoulders. Alone, he proceeded to the High Altar, where the Pope presented him with a naked sword which he flourished, and then sheathed in its scabbard. He was given the scep-tre by the Pope, who then set the crown on his head. This action was accompanied by this prayer:
Receive the sign of glory in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; that, despising the ancient enemy, and despising the contagion of vices, you may so love judgement and justice, and so live mercifully, that from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself you may receive the crown of an eternal kingdom in the fellowship of the saints.
The Pontiff concluded the proceedings with the coronation Mass, during which the Emperor served him in the same manner as a sub-deacon, handing him the cruets and so on. He was later made a canon of St. John Lateran. The whole order is given in the Roman Pontifica, whence it was found until purged by John XXIII in 1962, along with ordos for crowning kings, dubbing knights, bestowing the cross on crusaders, and many other beautiful things.

The other successor of Charlemagne was the King of France. At the cathedral of Rheims, he was anointed: first on the top of the head in the form of a cross, between the shoulders, and at the bending and joints of both arms; this was done of course with chrism into which had been mixed a particle from the sacred ampulla. Standing up, the new king was invested with the dalmatic, tunic, and royal robe; all were of purple velvet sprinkled with fleur-de-lys of gold and represent-ing the three orders of deacon, sub-deacon and priest. Kneeling again, his palms were anointed, and he was given the gloves, ring, and sceptre. Then the Peers of France, great magnates and officers of state like the electors in Germany were summoned by name and called to assist their King. These were the Archbishop of Rheims, the Bishops of Langres, Beauvais, Chalons, and Noyon, the Dukes of Burgundy, Normandy, and Guienne, and the Count of Champagne. The Archbishop then took the crown from the altar, and set it on the King’s head. After this came the enthronement, and the showing of the King to the people. Then followed High Mass, during which the king received in both kinds. Afterwards the King was made canon at Lyons, Embrum, Le Mans, Montpellier, St. Pol--de-Leon, Lodeve, and several other cathedrals. The third day after the coronation he touched for the King’s Evil.

Across the Channel, his brother of England was conducted the day before the coronation itself in a procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. There he spent the night, being instructed by the abbot as to his royal responsibilities. The next morning he went to Westminster Hall, and among other ceremonies was elevated onto a throne called the Marble Chair. After this, a procession with the regalia was gathered and marched into the abbey church. The King marched with it, supported by the Bishops of Bath and Durham, and wearing a cap of estate. Inside the church, thrones (one of which is the famous coronation chair, under whose seat rests the Stone of Scone whereupon early Scots kings had been crowned) had previously been set up. The King ascended this, at which the Archbishop of Canterbury called for the Recognition. This duly performed, the King proceeded to the High Altar, offering both a pall to cover it and a pound of gold. Next followed a sermon preached by one of the bishops, the administration of the Royal Oath by His Grace of Canterbury, and singing of the Veni Creator and a litany. Then the Archbishop anointed the King with the oil of catechumens on his hands, breast, between the shoulder blades, on the shoulders, on the elbows, and on the head; then at last with chrism, again on his head. After the anointing, he was vested in dalmatic and an ankle-length tunic, which had large golden images on both sides. Then came buskins, sandals and spurs, sword and belt, stole, and at last the royal mantle, woven throughout with golden eagles. When he was properly vested, the Crown of St. Edward was placed on his head by the Archbishop, the ring placed on his wedding finger, gloves drawn over his hands, and the cross-topped sceptre given him. Then the golden rod with the dove on top was placed in his left hand. After this, the bishops and nobles enthroned their King, while was sung the Te Deum. After this, was crowned the Queen, and then the Mass proper to the occasion sung, at which the royal couple received communion in one kind, and the King alone received a draught of wine from St. Edward’s stone chalice. The Mass concluded, the King and queen were revested, and had other crowns placed on their heads by the Archbishop. Then the participants processed to Westminster Hall.

Therein was held the state banquet, during the first course of which, three horsemen rode into the hall. The two on either side were the earl mar-shal on the left and the lord constable on the right. In between these was the King’s hereditary champion, the head of the Dymoke family; he was armoured from head to toe, with red, white, and blue plumes in his helmet. At the entrance, a herald read the champion’s challenge:

If any person of what degree soever, high or low, shall deny or gainsay our sovereign lord N., King of England, son and next heir unto our sovereign lord the last king deceased, to he the right heir to the imperial crown of this realm of England, or that he ought not to enjoy the same; here is his champion, who saith that he lieth, and is a false traitor, being ready in person to combat with him; and in this quarrel will adventure his life against him, on what day soever he shall be appointed.
The champion then threw down the gauntlet. Twice more the challenge was made, in the cen-tre of the hall and in front of the King’s table. After this last, the King drank to the champion out of a silver-gilt cup, which was then given as the champion’s fee.

The English coronation remains much the same today although at the Reformation it was translated into the vernacular and the oaths changed. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Catholic Church does not recognise Anglican orders, James II was permitted by the then Pope to receive the crown at the hands of Archbishop Sancroft (although he did not of course receive communion from him) — which for Catholics might be considered to confer on the British ceremony a meaning which other Protestant coronations might not have.

In other realms, the proceedings were much the same with certain local variations. Mediaeval Sweden’s Kings were crowned by the Archbishop of Upsala in his cathedral (after the Reformation it was done in Stockholm’s Storkyrka). His Grace anointed the new King on the breast, temples, forehead, and palms, after which he conferred the crown. Then the state marshal proclaimed: "Now is crowned king of the Swedes, Goths, and Wends, he and no other". Although the Lutherans retained the anointings in Sweden, the minister of justice took to jointly placing the crown on the king’s head. A similar change took place in Norway, where the coronation took place in Trondheim cathedral: although the anointings were maintained, the 1814 law directed the country’s Prime Minister to jointly place the crown with the Archbishop of Trondheim.

Castile’s and later Spain’s kings were crowned either at Toledo Cathederal or the church of St. Jerome in Madrid, by the Archbishop of Toledo. After the anointing, they would be invested with sword, sceptre, crown, and orb. In Bohemia, while the Archbishop of Prague would crown the King, the Queen received hers from the Abbess of the Noble Ladies of Hradschin, a chapter of secular canonesses ensconed close to the royal palace. Both in Poland and Aragon special cere-monies accompanied the King’s sleep the previous night; in the first case, he had to greet the procession of lay and clerical notables which arrived in his bedroom prior to conducting him to Cracow Cathederal, lying on his bed fully vested. In the latter, he must spend the night before in vigil, just as a squire would before his receiving the accolade of knighthood.

The Reformation, however, meant the beginning of the end for the miraculous world view which produced the coronations of Christendom. In the Lutheran nations, anointing was retained, although the new theology provided no real justification for doing so. But the new religions destroyed the very concept of Christendom, of a united Empire and Church, of all the hundreds of unities which gave the coronations their original meaning. If before the reality was never attained, afterwards even the aspiration disappeared. As Vladimir Soloviev, "the Russian Newman", revered by Catholics and Orthodox alike today put it in his Russia and the Universal Church (pp. 30-31):

For lack of an imperial power genuinely Christian and Catholic, the Church has not suc-ceeded in establishing social and political justice in Europe. The nations and states of modern times, freed since the Reformation from ecclesiastical surveillance, have attempted to improve upon the work of the Church. The results of the experiment are plain to see. The idea of Christendom as a real although admittedly inadequate unity embracing all the nations of Europe has vanished; the philosophy of the revolutionaries has made praiseworthy attempts to substitute for this unity the unity of the human race — with what success is well known. A universal militarism transforming whole nations into hostile armies and itself inspired by a national hatred such as the Middle Ages never knew; a deep and irreconcilable social conflict; a class struggle which threatens to whelm everything in fire and blood; and a continual lessening of moral power in individuals, witnessed to by the constant increase in mental collapse, suicide and crime such is the sum total of the progress which secularised Europe has made in the last three or four centuries.

The two great historic experiments, that of the Middle Ages and that of modern times, seem to demonstrate conclusively that neither the Church lacking the assistance of a secular power which is distinct from but responsible to her, nor the secular State relying upon its own resources, can succeed in establishing Christian justice and peace on earth. The close alliance and organic union of the two powers without confusion and without division is the indispensable condition of true social progress. It remains to enquire whether there is in the Christian world a power capable of taking up the work of Constantine and Charlemagne with better hope of success.

It was precisely this aspiration which all the various liturgies of coronation in all their rich-ness symbolised.

The form survived, however, long after the spirit departed. But the age of Revolution and "Democracy" doomed even that. After the abdication of Francis II in 1806, no more Holy Roman Emperors were crowned. In 1830, Charles X, last legitimate Bourbon to rule France and last French King to be duly crowned, was deposed. Over the course of the 19th century the Kings of Denmark and Sweden gave up the rite; the king of Spain had done so earlier. The end of the First World War saw also the demise of coronations in Hungary, Saxony, Prussia, Bavaria, and Russia (a most elaborate rite, descended directly from the Byzantine). The 19th Century-created realms of The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia-Yugoslavia, and Albania never adopted the practice, although Roumania’s King Ferdinand was crowned at Alba Julia in 1922, alone of all his nation’s rulers to be. At last, Olav V, in 1957, decided to dispense with his country’s coronation rite, also (although his son, King Harald, had a sort of inauguration popularly called a "coronation", it was not). Finally, and most tragically, in 1978, Pope John Paul I declined the traditional elaborate Papal coronation also, a decision repeated later that year by the present pontiff. Thus, the rite was abandoned in the very centre of the religion which had given it birth.

So we are faced with the paradox that the single most Catholic rite of governance is preserved today only in Great Britain and the Commonwealth; the 40th anniversary of its last performance must be of especial significance not only to the subjects of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II around the world, nor just to Anglicans beyond the borders of her realm, but also to those Orthodox and Catholics who con-tinue to hold the traditional teachings of their faiths in regard to government. It may be that such Catholics are a minority of present-day French-Canadians, and that concerned subjects in general might be a minority of English-Canadians. Nevertheless, one meeting ground between the two groups may be found in the mystic occurrence of the coronation, whose meaning was a common tongue of governance to French and English alike, as well as to all of Christendom. It may be claimed that the phrase "By the Grace of God" is now and never was any more or less of a polite fiction than "By the Will of the People". Surety there are always powers behind any throne, elected or hereditary. But the aspirations of a nation — towards either the heavens or else the horizon (not to say the ground) determine in large part the quality of that nation.

L.G. Pine very appropriately observes:

Our immense progress in physical science unaccompanied by moral or spiritual growth means either that we face the nightmare of impending destruction or the indefinite prospect of an uneasy truce, ever bordering on actual warfare, between the most powerful states. In the meantime the proliferation of machinery never stops and, with rare exceptions, individual life becomes standardised in an ever fiercer chase after more expensive cars, refrigerators and tele-vision sets, and in the pursuit of sexual experience. It may help, then, to look back to a simpler, more human and attractive age. (Titles, p. 12).
This 40th anniversary year (1993), then, should, in pursuance of this goal, cause us to reflect upon two concrete tasks. The first, is to ensure that another coronation does take place, and that the sentiments expressed by the King’s champion are our own. Secondly, to work to keep Canada as one of the realms the new King will inherit with the crown of his fathers. Beyond that, however, we must remember that mere perservation is never enough. Crowns and coronations symbolise a world-wide heritage which needs to be regained.

Part I

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