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Fourteen "Continuity" versus "Change": Historians and English Coronations of the Medieval and Early Modern Periods
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The Coronation and Kingship

Since the early decades of the twentieth century our knowledge and understanding of English coronations have been greatly augmented and corrected. New material has been unearthed, the comparative analysis of coronations has proceeded apace, the relations between coronations and their political or social circumstances have been explored, while documents that have long been well known have been reassessed or reinterpreted in more variegated ways than in the past. That is not to say that the potential for differences of opinion among scholars has appreciably diminished; quite the contrary. To take but the years since the 1940s, the study of English coronations has engendered stimulating, productive debates freed from cloying religious or political piety. Over the last forty years or so coronation studies have attracted first-rate scholars who have maintained the subject in the forefront of research into the Middle Ages. It must be said that much credit for this


healthy state of affairs is owned to non-British scholars among whom such names as Schramm and Kantorowicz are, of course, especially notable. In the case of Schramm it was his general history of the English coronation (the English translation appeared in 1937) that supplied the synthesis of the subject against which further research could be measured. The theme of "continuity" or "change" was given a new lease of life not so much in connection with the internal study of coronations, as with regard to the implications of coronation studies for other branches of medieval history. This is well illustrated in the case of works on the evolution of English kingship. The ritual of the coronation may not have been designed as a comprehensive embodiment of the medieval constitution, but the ceremony was not without significance as a statement on the relation between the king and his subjects.

It was H. G. Richardson who observed that while contemporaries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries regarded unction as the climax to the coronation, for present-day scholars it was the oath that inspired most interest.[18] During the 1940s and 1950s there developed a far-reaching debate on the oath, in which there loomed large the question of whether the oath remained unchanged, thus sustaining forces of continuity in the concept of kingship, or whether it had undergone amendment in accordance with shifting ideas on monarchy. Paradoxically, historians had at once too much and too little material with which to work. Too much in the sense that, as regards those coronations for which the terms of the oath were extant (such as those of 1308 and 1327), several versions in Latin and in French were available, each displaying individual traits. By what criteria, therefore, could greater or lesser authenticity or authority be attributed to one as against another? How were differences between them to be explained? Of what significance were those differences? But too little in the sense that for many coronations no text of the oath had been discovered. In such cases how far was it safe to depend on the continuity principle and to take for granted that no changes of substance had occured? Thus, while it was conceivable that the coronation oath potentially was a valuable aid to medieval constitutional history, there was an intricate task of textual criticism to be undertaken as a preliminary.

Many articles of the 1940s and 1950s were devoted to that end.[19] It emerged that the oaths taken at two coronations deserved special attention. The first was that taken by Edward I in 1274. It was accepted by scholars that royal coronation oaths normally contained three promises: to preserve peace and to defend the church; to uphold just laws and to abrogate the unjust; to dispense justice to all without favor. But H. G. Richardson argued that a fourth clause was inserted into the oath of Edward I: "that the king would preserve the rights of the kingship—iura regni —unimpaired, and that nothing affecting the rights of the crown would be done without the counsel of the prelates and great men of the realm."[20] The evidence for the fourth clause was circumstantial, for the actual words of Edward I's oath had never


been discovered; nevertheless, Richardson considered that the indications were so convincing that the existence of an extra clause in 1274 could not be doubted. If he was right, what were the constitutional implications of the new clause? To this question Richardson was unable to provide a clear-out answer; but whatever the thinking behind the clause there were, he suggested, remarkable short-term consequences. The king used the clause to ward off papal intervention in English affairs, to resist incursions by barons upon royal rights, and to overcome resistance by the clergy to certain royal nominations to benefices.[21] The fourth clause, in other words, served to dilate royal power. It must be said, however, that skillfully as Richardson argued his case, he had inferred rather than demonstrated the existence of the clause. If the inference was sound then the constitutional implications were truly prodigious: rejection by the crown of almost any unbidden limitations on its actions; a triumphant Erastianism redolent of the sixteenth century; and a drive toward absolute monarchy that portended conflicts of the seventeenth century.

The second oath to merit scrutiny was that of Edward II. Historians reacted with more confidence in this instance, for the coronation of 1308 is exceedingly well documented: this was the ceremony at which the fourth recension of the Order was first employed, while the terms of the oath are available in Latin and in French. Moreover, the context within which the coronation took place is intriguing on several counts. The fact that late in the day the coronation was postponed from 18 February to 25 February invites explanation; was there a serious breach between the king and the archbishop of Canterbury who was out of the country? The disordered state of relations between Edward II and the barons hints at implications for the coronation, as does the ill-grace displayed by earls resentful of the honors bestowed upon the parvenu Piers de Gaveston. These and other possibilities have been countenanced by scholars, whose assembled works make the 1308 coronation the most closely scrutinized of English medieval crowning ceremonies.[22]

The oath taken by Edward II contrasted with that of his predecessors in that it did include a fourth clause; even if it is conceded that an additional clause had been inserted in 1274, again that of 1308 was different. In this new clause (which was administered and responded to in French, not in Latin; it is the French version that is authoritative), the king was asked: "Sire, grauntez vous a tenir et garder les leys et les custumes droitureles les quiels la communaute de vostre roiaume aura eslu, et les defendrez et efforcerez al honour de Dieu, a vostre poer?"[23] The key phrase is: "les quiels la communaute de vostre roiaume aura eslu." Did it imply that the king not only bound himself to rule within the confines of existing law but covenanted to subject himself to future and thus unpredictable law shaped, perhaps, by the caprice of hostile fortune? If so, are we not confronted by a dramatic contrast with 1274 when English monarchy appeared poised to roll back limitations on its


power? In 1308 are we presented with the spectacle of a king whose power is strictly circumscribed, and whose relations with the "community of the realm" have undergone thorough revision?

Not necessarily so, according to one line of argument.[24] When the circumstances immediately surrounding the coronation are taken into account, the fourth clause palpably excites less controversy. Edward II, in an attempt to foster an atmosphere of political amity and cooperation at the beginning of his reign, sought means to restore the rapport between crown and magnates which had been eroded under Edward I. The coronation was useful to achieve that end. Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is certain that the terms of the oath were not concocted in haste; they were composed with the utmost care, the king and his advisers consenting to them only after painstaking analysis of their implications. The oath stands as a genuine statement of the royal position, and as such ought not to be depicted as a form of "surrender" to magnates. The fourth clause in no sense justifies the proposition that the king's will was subordinated to that of his subjects. Its purpose was to reassure them, to placate them, to remove any fears that Edward II later would violate promises taken in 1308. As regards the phrase concerning laws yet to be enacted, even here there was no radical intent or meaning. Once more the king was aiming to be conciliatory. The point of the phrase was not that a new method of creating law was envisaged, or that law might be enacted in opposition to royal will, rather that the customary procedures for creating law would be followed, but that once law passed the king would abide by its provisions and rule according to its prescriptions, just as he promised to rule within existing law. If anything the fourth clause is consistent with the thesis of the growth of royal power: Edward II was prepared to take such an oath precisely because he was confident of his ability to control legislation and to determine that normally it would coincide with royal interest.

These were among the more controversial issues treated by the scholar whose premature death left such a deep sense of loss, personal and professional, among his friends and colleagues: John Joseph Brückmann. It was in his doctoral dissertation, English Coronations , 1216–1308: The Edition of the Coronation "Ordines" (University of Toronto, 1964) that he advanced his own thoughts on the oath. Those thoughts did not entirely confirm the views of Richardson. For Brückmann the oath may have indicated changes in the patern of kingship, but in a different sense from that advocated by Richardson. It should be stressed that the principal contribution of the thesis to coronations studies is textual. Brückmann took the four known recensions of the English coronation Order and presented them in a critical edition. In itself this was an achievement of the first magnitude. The recensions, of course, had long been known to and used by scholars; but the absence of a reliable, thoroughly annotated text of these essential documents had ham-


pered research for many decades. Brückmann produced a text that was masterly in its accuracy, in the sophistication of its analysis, and in the amplitude of its critical commentary. But the dissertation involved more than an exercise in textual presentation and criticism: it included a general history of English coronations from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. In these pages he delved into some of the more knotty problems facing historians; especially was he interested in investigating changes in the coronation oath and the extent to which those changes were of constitutional significance.

Brückmann argued that although the oath taken at some coronations has been lost, and that where texts have survived it is in several versions, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the oath as actually spoken by the king in the thirteenth century varied only marginally in wording and not at all in meaning. He disputed Richardson's claim that during the thirteenth century the traditional threefold oath was augmented by a fourth wherein the monarch swore to defend the rights and privileges attaching to kingship. He considered the evidence to be too circumstantial to be convincing. For Brückmann the thirteenth-century oath remained traditional and lends no support to the idea of innovation. He also queried Richardson's interpretation of the 1308 oath with its fourth clause. Even when the political background to the coronation of Edward II is taken into account, however, even admitting that the king on the eve of his crowning was seeking to placate his magnates, the constitutional principles involved in the proposition that the king will observe not only the established laws and customs of England, but in addition those which the community of the realm might elect in future, can only be deemed revolutionary. Brückmann saw the oath of 1308 as imposing severe limitations on the power of the king. It foreshadowed a monarchy subjected to unprecedented restrictions since the community of the realm at any time might impose legal constraints on royal action, constraints to which Edward II already had committed himself under oath. In the development of English monarchy, said Brückmann, the coronation of 1308 occupies a position of pivotal importance. Whereas Richardson perceived "change" in the coronation of 1274 and "continuity" in that of 1308, Brückmann saw the opposite.

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