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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 Legitimation

So far this essay has considered the theme of continuity and change as it affected the ceremony of the coronation. In this last section it is proposed to adopted an "external" perspective—that of "legitimation"—and to consider the manner in which early-modern regimes in England contrived to used coronations to define and to propagate their legitimacy. There is no need to labor the point that one of the distinguishing features of the early-modern period, in English as well as in continental European history, is that the state


as we now understand it was beginning to emerge as a recognizable historical phenomenon. The interlocking themes that normally are considered to constitute the growth of the state are fully treated in literature on the subject:[25] the cult of monarchy, the development of new machinery of central and provincial government and administration, intervention in the economy, the creation of more powers of coercion and control of society, the steady expansion and management of the armed forces, and so forth. But it is also instructive to inquire whether coronations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shed any light on the process whereby regimes legitimized themselves; especially in the case of England where dynasties came and went with comparative frequency, either through natural causes or revolution.

The theme of legitimation calls to mind, of course, the theories of Max Weber and his disciples. For Weber the legitimation process focuses on three categories: tradition and custom, the charisma of leadership, and the legality of a regime, that is, the extent to which it conforms to its statutory obligations.[26] Weber's model is an ideal-type concept useful for organizing the results of empirical research. How far is it of assistance in examining English coronations as instruments in the legitimation process?

There were occasions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the legitimacy of a regime in a fundamental sense was at stake: was a particular monarch a rightful sovereign? A cloud of doubt hung over Henry VII. Later, Pius V's condemnation of Elizabeth I as heretic and his release of her subjects from obedience to the queen raised the specter of assassination attempts. The aftermath of the 1688 revolution saw the emergence of a Jacobite movement that, in spite of its tendencies toward internal division, was capable of mounting a serious challenge to the Orange and Hanoverian dynasties. In this regard the early modern period witnessed the revival of conditions that the Yorkist kings struggled against in the fifteenth century.[27] Then, Edward IV and Richard III, sensitive to the tenuous nature of their incumbency, exploited all ceremonials in the drive to validate the legitimacy of their rule. For them the coronation was indispensable to legitimation; hence the emphasis they placed on unction, that visible sign of divine approval of the "chosen one." In an age when poison, the dagger thrust, and on one celebrated occasion a hogshead of wine, were liable to be employed to dispatch pretenders or monarchs suspected of usurpation, no ceremony was too stagy, no myth too implausible to be availed of in the process of legitimation. And so Yorkist kings showed no compunction about circulating the story that the oil used at their coronations was none other than that transmitted miraculously to Thomas Becket by the Virgin by virtue of her special regard for the kings of England![28]

Early-modern coronations, at least up to 1685, were based on the fourth recension of the Order. The only change of note, which in no sense modified the meaning of the ceremony, was the use of English in place of Latin from


1603 onward. To this extent, therefore, the retention of the traditional Order even after the Reformation conforms to two of Weber's three criteria for legitimation: tradition and custom, and legality. But on closer inspection it appears that those parts of the coronation that did not carry implications for the actual crowning and unction could be amended if the regime wished to affirm a certain political or social point. The coronation of Elizabeth I provides a case in point. The ceremony followed the conventions until the mass. Then, according to some sources, when the host was about to be elevated the queen temporarily withdrew, dramatically exposing her rejection of transubstantiation.[29] Striking as this version of events is, it rests on the supposition that the host was indeed elevated. Other witnesses assert that the elevation was omitted from the mass, that the representatives of Catholic states withdrew from this part of the ceremony as an act of protest, and that Elizabeth I did not retire. At the time of the coronation of James I the Venetian ambassador even came up with a third version: that the host was elevated, that Elizabeth I remained in position, but that she covered her face with a handkerchief so as not to observe this objectionable act! Much ingenious detective work has been undertaken in an attempt to establish the facts, but questions remain. Who officiated at the mass? Was it George Carew, dean of Windsor, an egregious pluralist and opportunist who would comply with every whim of the queen, or was it Owen Oglethorpe, bishop of Carlisle, who performed the act of crowning Elizabeth I but was no time-server, and who on one occasion had elevated the host against her express command? Again, if Elizabeth I did withdraw, did she remain in the sanctuary or did she go elsewhere? Whichever version is preferred, however, the outcome is the same: Elizabeth I introduced a dramatic gesture into her coronation in order to publicize a statement on the religious ethos of the coming reign.

Religious matters were equally prominent at the coronation of James II, although in a contrary sense: every effort had to be made to concoct a ceremony that remained faithful to tradition but which would disguise the Catholicism of the new king. By resorting to the pretence that the conventional ceremony was too long and that it imposed inordinate physical strains on the monarch, James II's coronation was purged of potentially controversial material with the essence of the ceremony left untouched. More than any other aspect of the crowning ceremony, this was the one that brought from the pen of Macaulay the cynical but celebrated passage:

James had ordered Sancroft [archbishop of Canterbury] to abridge the ritual. The reason publicly assigned was that the day was too short for all that was to be done. But whoever examines the changes which were made will see that the real object was to remove some things highly offensive to the religious feelings of a zealous Roman Catholic. The Communion Service was not read. The ceremony of presenting the sovereign with a richly bound copy of the English Bible, and of exhorting him to prize above all earthly treasures a


volume which he had been taught to regard as adulterated with false doctrine, was omitted. What remained, however, after all this curtailment, might well have raised scruples in the mind of a man who sincerely believed the Church of England to be a heretical society, within the pale of which salvation was not to be found. The King made an oblation on the altar. He appeared to join in the petitions of the Litany which was chaunted by the Bishops. He received from those false prophets the unction typical of a divine influence, and knelt with the semblance of devotion while they called down upon him that Holy Spirit of which they were, in his estimation, the malignant and obdurate foes. Such are the inconsistencies of human nature that this man, who, from a fanatical zeal for his religion, threw away three kingdoms, yet chose to commit what was little short of an act of apostasy, rather than forego the childish pleasure of being invested with the gewgaws symbolical of kingly power.[30]

The coronations of Elizabeth I and James II should cause us to be cautious about the extent to which Weber's legitimation thesis can be applied without qualification. Insofar as the actual acts of crowning and unction remained orthodox they conform to his propositions on tradition and custom and on legality. But around these two essential features of the coronation was a penumbra of associated ritual which could be changed in the interests of legitimation; legitimation could require a departure from tradition and custom.

There is one aspect of the coronation that bears close scrutiny vis-à-vis the theme of legitimation: the sermon.[31] It gave to the church, one of the great and distinctive institutions of the state, the opportunity to address the king and "community of the realm" jointly just before the monarch was crowned. Indeed, it exemplified that association between church and state which stood at the center of the view of coronations advocated by the Henry Bradshaw group. The sermon was preached at an early stage of the coronation, coming after the Procession and Recognition, but before the Oath. It sought to convey to those assembled and others beyond (the sermon was printed and given wide distribution) the church's statement on the condition of society, on the tasks facing the monarch, and on the guiding principles that he ought to adopt. The sermon was no inconsequential diversion peripheral to the more serious proceedings; it was an integral part of the ceremony when the voice of the church spoke prophetically. Although the evidence is circumstantial, it is probable that those who preached the coronation sermons were selected both because their views on the state matched those of monarch and because they had earned royal favor or gratitude in the past; the honor of preaching the sermon was a reward for service. Nevertheless, it would be misguided to suppose that preachers were nothing other than servile mouthpieces for the monarch, or that their sermons aimed simply to propagate a message agreeable to the regime. Early-modern coronation sermons contain outspoken passages on the obligations of kingship and on the penalties of their nonobserv-


ance. They seek to instruct the king as well as to counsel his subjects; to urge him to great tasks; frankly to warn him against the dangers and temptations ahead. Even so, coronation sermons glorified the monarch, dwelt upon the divine origins of the institution of monarchy, railed against rebellion, and sustained every proposition with copious references, biblical, classical, and historical. As a exercise in legitimation the sermon's contribution to the coronation could be of firstrate importance: the voice of the church affirmed to the community at large that divine approbation rested on the monarch.

Among Weber's three themes of legitimation, that of the charisma of the leader surely finds extravagant illustration in early-modern coronations, as well as those of the medieval period. It is a theme capable of much deeper analysis than it has received hitherto. The crowning of a new monarch occasioned a veritable profusion of pageants, balls, processions, private festivities, poems, encomiastic prose, songs, plays, sermons, prophecies, horoscopes, paintings, drawings, engraving, natural signs and portents, miraculour healings (not least by kings who "touched"), and a host of other celebratory or wondrous events. The publication of comprehensive editions of the journals and correspondence of such perspicacious observers as Evelyn, Pepys, or Horace Walpole (a sharp-witted and detailed source on the coronation of George III) have placed at our disposal eyewitness accounts of coronation celebrations that can be exploited to great effect. Here is a field of research that still has many rich results to yield. Already we are indebted to scholars who have published essays in this collection, and to others such as Sydney Anglo and Father Reedy.[32] Their work suggests profitable lines of inquiry: the significance of the themes, often classical or mythological, chosen for pageants or for literary and musical works; the use of symbolism and the meanings it was intended to convey; the qualities of the monarch singled out for special emphasis. Of exceptional importance is the royal procession traditionally held in London on the day before the coronation.[33] It was the event that drew together into a carefully contrived manifestation of civic pageantry many diverse festivities and celebrations. Whatever merit attaches to the thesis that in early-modern England "courtly culture" and "popular culture" were drifting apart into distinct forms,[34] the coronation was an occasion that united all the cultural and celebratory impulses of society into one great carnival with a single point or focus: the king or queen. The ceremony of crowning and anointing the monarch served the legitimation process in respect of tradition and custom and of legality; its attendant festivities served the cult of the charismatic leader.

The conclusions to be drawn from this discussion by now are apparent. The first is uncontroversial but has emerged with some force: even the most distinguished historians of medieval and early-modern English coronations have had difficulty in deciding whether the forces of continuity or of change have been the more characteristic of their subject. This is scarcely surprising.


To the question "what happened?" in the case of an individual coronation, rarely is it possible to supply a precise and detailed answer. The surviving evidence often is too fragmentary or self-contradictory to sustain dogmatic interpretations. Those historians who have been drawn toward all-embracing theories of the history of the coronation often have been inspired by aspirations other than a dispassionate pursuit of historical research. This leads to the second conclusion: as a topic for historical inquiry coronations have a significance above and beyond the minutiae of the ritual itself. Without in any sense straining their possibilities, coronations and their history can augment and refine our understanding of themes in constitutional, political, and social history. If a somewhat rough-and-ready simile may be used, a coronation is rather like a blood test: it may provide essential clues as to the condition and general health of the patient. Thus, coronations, especially if they are understood in the widest sense of comprising processions and festivities as well as the crowning of the monarch, can inform us as to the temper of a community, even of a nation. In this sense coronations both restate those permanent principles that are considered central to monarchy and give expression, either consciously or unconsciously, to current aspirations and concerns. Third, the "blood test" approach to coronations is probably relevant up to and including the crowning of William III and Mary. Thereafter (although this is outside the period covered by this essay) coronations tended to become but shadows of the great ceremonies of earlier periods. Several hypotheses can be advanced as an explanation. The 1688 Revolution greatly advanced the power of Parliament at the expense of that of the crown; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century monarchs reigned in a political atmosphere and according to a constitutional theory very different from that of the middle ages or early-modern period. Again, coronation ceremonial itself was treated in cavalier fashion in the 1700s and 1800s: Hanoverian coronations lacked the attention to detail that characterized those of earlier periods, the nadir probably being reached with the crowning of George III whose coronation was reduced almost to a shambles as one mishap followed another; on that occasion even the sermon scarcely could be heard above the clatter of cutlery and popping of corks as the congregation used the opportunity to take lunch! The coronations of George VI and William IV were mean affairs; that of Victoria only marginally better. In short, after 1685 the constitutional and social significance of the coronation went into decline. By the time of Victoria's coronation, however, there were signs of a desire for the revival of a ceremony of some splendor. In a debate in the House of Lords on 28 May 1838, the Marquess of Londonderry was at the head of those who badgered the government, accusing it of a parsimonious attitude toward what ought to be an occasion of national rejoicing. The debate resulted in some prickly exchanges. Earl Fitzwilliam expressed the opinion that, "coronations were fit only for barbarous, or semi-barbarous ages; for periods when crowns were


won and lost by unruly violence and ferocious contests."[35] The sober tones of Hansard record the response: "The Marquess of Londonderry asked whether the noble Earl opposite was of the opinion that there ought to be no coronation at all? Earl Fitzwilliam answered in the affirmative. The Marquess of Londonderry said that he supposed that the noble Earl was prepared to follow up the proposition by moving that there ought to be no Lord Fitzwilliam at all."[36] And quite right too!

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