The Coronation Cathedral
Origin and history of the coronation of the Kings of France

 

 

With the baptism of Clovis by Saint Remi in 498-499, the precedent of royal unction was established in the Reims Cathedral. However, the first King to be coronated, Pippin the Short, was crowned at Soissons in 751, then again at Saint Denis in 754 by Pope Stephen II.

 

 

Reims, Coronation city since the 11th century

 

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Louis I (the Pious) was the first King to be coronated in the Cathedral of Reims, in 816, and a diplôme from the Emperor to the Archbishop Ebbo made explicit reference to the baptism of Clovis as the reason for this decision.


Nevertheless, the choice of Louis the Pious was not immediately followed by his Carolingian or Robertian successors, and it was only in the early 11th century that the Cathedral of Reims finally imposed itself as the Coronation Cathedral.

From then on, with the exceptions of Louis VI (Orleans) and Henri VI (Chartres), all the kings of France who were coronated by royal unction (Louis XVIII and Louis-Philippe were not) were crowned in Reims by the Archbishop, or another prelate if the metropolitan seat was vacant.

 

 

 

Entrance of Louis XVI in Reims

© Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims

 

 

The King is dead. Long live the King!

 

The coronation by royal, or divine, unction proceeded from the teachings of Saint Paul, who claimed that there was no authority except from God ("Non est enim potestas nisi a Deo, quæ autem sunt, a Deo ordinatæ sunt", Rom. 13, 1).

Jurists and theorists of absolutism, especially during the Ancient Regime, didn't always agree with this. For some, the coronation did not make the King, he became King at the instant of the death of his predecessor, according the famous proclamation of the Chancellor of France, "The King is dead. Long live the King!"

For others, coronation conferred legitimacy to the King. This was the belief that impelled Joan of Arc to conduct Charles VII to Reims to be coronated in 1429, even though, entrenched at Bourges, he had been reigning as King for seven years.

 

 

The legend of the Holy Flask

 

Like the Kings of the Old Testament, the coronation was the alliance between God and the Capetian sovereign: in exchange for divine unction, the King promised to reign with justice, to protect his people, and to uphold the religion.

This alliance took tangible form with the apparition of the legend of the Sainte Ampoule, or Holy Flask, in the 9th century.

It was during the coronation of Charles the Bald in Metz that the Archbishop of Reims, Hincmar, related in his Vita Remigii, the miracle of the small vial brought to Saint Remi by a dove, sent by God, to anoint Clovis.

From several Remoise traditions, Hincmar embellished the discovery, in the tomb of Saint Remi, of a vial of aromatics that had served to embalm the body of the Prelate. Authenticated by Pope Innocent II in 1131 and entrusted to the keeping of the Abbey of Saint Remi until the Revolution, The Holy Flask assured the Church of Reims the privilege of being the coronation cathedral of French kings.

 

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Seal of Saint-Remi Abbey of Reims (1219) :
Saint Remi, the Holy Flask, and Clovis in the baptismal basin

Moulage Archives Nationales, sc/St 2153.

© Christophe Jobard, 2003