Preferred Citation: Bak, János M., editor Coronations: Medieval and Early Modern Monarchic Ritual. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Two Inaugural Aspects of French Royal Ceremonials

Inaugural Aspects of French Royal Ceremonials

Ralph E. Giesey

In all the years (now decades) of my devotion to the study of royal ceremonial in France, I have been concerned almost exclusively with just one aspect, the "constitutional"—that is, with what in France during the old regime was called droit public or loi fondamentale . Among royal ceremonials in France during the 1300-plus years from Clovis to Charles X, the coronation holds the preeminent place. For the first half of that period—until the late thirteenth century—the coronation seems to have enjoyed a monopoly of the ceremonial side of constitutional matters. Embodied in it were the answers to three critical aspects of rulership: "who, when, and how." Only one of these three, the "when," the precise moment of beginning of rule, is the proper subject of this essay. My main purpose here is to show how other royal ceremonials came to share this "inaugural aspect" with the coronation. It will help, however, to set the context of the "when" by considering, very briefly, the "how" and the "who" as they relate to the coronation.

The "how" of the constitutional issue—that is, prescriptions of the manner in which the king is to rule—are embodied in the coronation oath. Quite rightly this has been the object of intensive research—most recently by Richard Jackson in his recent book on the royal coronation[1] and in a special study of late medieval oaths that he is preparing. I shall not be concerned here with the oaths, except coincidentally on one occasion.

The "who" of the constitutional issue is regulated overall by juristic principles, and the importance of the coronation as a ritual confirmation varies according to the nature of the monarchy being considered. If we consider the two extremes, the truly elective monarchy and the fully dynastic one, we find a considerable difference: in the former, the coronation invests power in someone who until very shortly beforehand had had no royal rights whatever; in the latter, the coronation confirms in power someone who from birth


had had a preemptive right to the throne. In France, if anywhere, the latter was the case during the eight hundred and forty-three years from Hugh Capet's accession (987) to Charles X's deposition (1830). The Capetian dynasty experienced perturbations to be sure—challenges to its right to rule by the English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and by the Catholic Ligue in the sixteenth. The dynasty was even suspended for twenty-two years during the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. Still, I do not find in all of monarchic history any equal to the Capetian dynasty in longevity and stability, even if you count female and not just male transmission of successive right.

Such uncontested dynastic succession had both pluses and minuses for the performance of the coronation. On the plus side, the ceremonial would almost always be conducted in peaceful circumstances, its planning and staging undisturbed by political exigencies. The substance of the ceremonial could also be infused meaningfully (not just hopefully) with notions of dynastic grandeur. On the minus side, however, one has to ponder the extent to which uncontested dynastic succession weakened the constitutional significance of the French coronation by making it appear less as an elevation to power than as a confirmation of a preexistent right to rule. On the face of things, therefore, if he "who" is being crowned enjoys dynastic right to the throne, then the coronation's power over "when" royal status is achieved is seriously preempted. In this respect the "who" directly affects the "when," to which I now turn.

I shall be dealing here with "state ceremonials," those in which the king personifies the Crown, or State. The late medieval and Renaissance times are rich in such ceremonials, befitting the fact that the modern state came into being during that era. Besides the coronation, these state ceremonials are the funeral, the entry, and the lit de justice . Each of the last three developed a distinctive way of sharing the inaugural principle, the "when" of exercising royal power, with its erstwhile exclusive exponent, the coronation. They did this sometimes by articulating a trait of inauguration they possessed by nature; sometimes they did it by what is best left called "coincidence"; and sometimes they did it by outright usurpation. As I proceed to deal with these ceremonials seriatim, I shall try to show how each's inaugural elements were related to those of others. I shall not hesitate to push the inaugural element to the limit, to go beyond the mode of analysis into that of interpretation and even of imaginatively reconstructing what might have been.


The Capetian dynasty was blessed for over three hundred years by always having the sons of previous kings to succeed to the throne, a fact of life that allowed the principle of primogenitary right to prosper. For the first two


hundred years, however, from Hugh Capet through Louis VII, every king found it prudent during his own lifetime to secure the crowning of his heir apparent—even, on two occasions, of having him also consecrated. These presuccession rites usually took place somewhere other than Reims, and they did not preclude the need later, after the king-father died, to perform the full consecration and coronation rites at Reims.[2]

During the course of the twelfth century, the use of a premature sacre and/or couronnement to strengthen the successive right of the heir-apparent was complemented, and then replaced, by the device of naming him in official documents as rex designatus . At least for the first of the reges designati , Louis VI, consecration was still urgently needed to overcome baronial opposition when he succeeded to the throne in 1108. His grandson then, Philip II (1180–1223), was the first Capetian who, during his lifetime, did not have his son either crowned or consecrated—or designated.[3]

These diverse ways of initiating kings prematurely cannot be considered truly inaugural. In every case, the commencement of the reign was officially reckoned in documents only from the date of the final sacre and couronnement. Rather than the "when" of rulership, presuccession rites served the "who." They were essentially dynastic devices, and they were abandoned when the Capetians' dynastic claim became secure. From a logical point of view, it could even be argued that presuccession initiations diminished the efficacy of the ceremonials as such. For if it was considered necessary for a king to be crowned and consecrated twice during his lifetime, then either one or the other of the performances had to be regarded as superfluous or else neither one of them was constitutive all by itself. Furthermore, since presuccession crownings and consecrations were as often as not performed separately, the interplay between their respective principles of rulership—secular choice operating concommitantly with divine grace—was obfuscated. Only in 1223 was the optimal situation achieved (and observed ever thereafter) of having the sacre and couronnement performed only conjointly and only on one occasion for each king.

One could extend the last sentence to read, ". . . and only at Reims," if one excepted the instance of Henry IV in 1593. The status of Reims is so firmly established in our perception of the cult of the French monarchy that it seems almost perverse to point out that Reims' unassailable claim to be the locus of the sacre et couronnement proved to be, almost inevitably, the cardinal flaw in that ceremony's claim to be the true inaugural event. Sooner or later the successor to the throne would find himself so far from Reims when his predecessor died that even a hurried trip thence would take such a long time to accomplish that the principle of maintaining a reasonable propinquity between the demise of one king and the coronation of the next would break down. That is what happened in 1270, when the heir apparent, Philip III, was with his father, Louis IX, when the latter died on a crusade in North


Africa. We are not told of any ceremonial that was performed, just that Philip was recognized as king of France by the barons who were there. It had to be done: the exigencies of governance had to come before the proprieties of the ceremonial at Reims.[4]

It has occurred to me, speculating upon the possibilities that presented themselves in Tunisia in 1270, that crowning and sacring might have been separated then. That is, the coronation might have taken place at once, investing Philip with essential powers of command, but the rites of consecration withheld until it was possible to perform them at Reims. The presuccession rites of the not-too-distant past, which had often separated crowning and sacring, could have provided a precedent of sorts. But, as mentioned above, such separation had the flaw of not allowing the secular and sacred principles of rulership to reinforce each other by being acted out simultaneously. Keeping the ceremonials together—that is, heeding Reims' geographical prerogative, which it is difficult to imagine not having been done—did mean, however, that both of them were separated in time from rulership itself. The official dating of the new reign now—and ever after—began from the time of the old king's demise. The traditional rites at Reims were left intact, to be performed when feasible. Philip III did not get to Reims until over a year later, but all that was added to the actuality of royal power by the ceremonials performed there was the power to cure the king's evil.

Not to have given Philip royal powers at once would have been to suggest the existence of an interregnal period. Such was intolerable from a constitutional point of view. There was created, however, what I call a ceremonial interregnum, that is, a hiatus in the rule of properly crowned and sacred kings. Other state ceremonials, to which I now turn, would subsequently enter the inaugural picture. Reims will, however, return to the scene when the time comes to consider how its ritual program was modified to keep step with those other ceremonials. Indeed, nothing shows better the ingenuity of the French in ceremonial matters than their effort to maintain the standing of the oldest of the inaugural rites in the face of new ones that arose.


Compelled as I am on this occasion to regard "state" ceremonials exclusively in light of their inaugural aspects, the shape of the French royal funeral in my mind changes somewhat from the way I described it twenty-five years ago. I have to say that right now I see the royal funeral serving an explicitly inaugural purpose only very briefly, in the fifteenth century, well before the full bloom of the Renaissance ceremonial. That occurred at the graveside scene, just before the coffin was finally interred. The household officers' batons, along with the sword and banner of France, were lowered and raised in accompaniment to the cries for the old and the new kings. In the early stage


of elaboration of this ritual, the cries contained the Christian names of the dead and the living kings, as for example: Le roi Charles est mort! Vive le Roi Louis! In effect, I would argue, the beginning of the reign of a specific king was fictively embedded in the ceremonial obsequies of his predecessor. This was enhanced considerably by the fact that up to the moment of those funerary cries the new king's name was never mentioned—indeed, his very existence was not recognized since he was required by custom to absent himself from the ceremony and be out of the public eye.[5]

Early in the sixteenth century, however, the Christian names were dropped, giving us the classic expression Le roi est mort! Vive le roi![6] I do not regard this as inaugural, for the reference is not to Charles or Louis or Francis but to that one fictional King with a capital "K"—the body corporate, the Dignitas regiae —who never dies. No king is being inaugurated: kingship itself its being acclaimed perpetual. The royal officials who stood over the mortal remains of the king's body natural while they proclaimed the instantaneous renewal of the King's body corporate were dramatizing the concept of the "King's two bodies" as well as any jurisconsult of the time was able to express it in words. The best I can come up with, in truly inaugural terms, is to say that the classic, anonymous version of the funeral cries, by their announcing that kingship is ever alive, provide a fictional legitimacy for the fact that the new king had been exercising the full powers of royal office from the moment his predecessor had died—that is, the graveside cries reinforced the principle begun in 1270 that effective rulership should never cease.

The lifelike funeral effigy of the dead king, around which grew up the grandest display of the king's corporate self, was never displayed at the graveside ritual in St. Denis. It had been carried, triumphally displayed, separately from the encoffined body on a shrouded wagon during the funeral cortège within Paris and out to St. Denis, but then was retired.[7] During the final interment the ritual was entirely liturgical, focused upon the dead king, until the spell was broken by the final half of the graveside cries by hailing the new king: Vive le roi!

Allowing fancy free reign, one could imagine some representation of the new king being introduced at that moment, or even the new king himself appearing. But the new king was prohibited by custom from appearing at his predecessor's funeral. Such was not the case at ducal funerals, however, and here we do find that the mise au tombeau could be structured as a truly inaugural event. The House of Lorraine, which copied the French royal funeral ceremony over the span of a century, shows this most clearly. At the beginning, in 1508, the deceased prince, René II, happened to claim the Kingdom of Sicily in addition to his fundamental dignity as Duke of Lorraine. His successor, his son Antoine, did not claim Sicily, however, and this led to the following oddity at the climax of René's funeral. The herald-at-arms began the ritual with the cry: Le tres hault, tres puissant et tres illustre roy, nostre souverain


seigneur et maitre, est mort, le roy est mort! le roy est mort! He then called for the various ducal and royal emblems, batons, and so forth to be deposited in the grave. Finally, the master of the horse, who had deposited the royal sword, descended into the grave and recovered it, raised it on high and cried out: Vive nostre souverain seigneur et maitre le duc de Lorraine! Vice le duc! vive le duc![ 8]

There are no Christian names attached to the old and new princes, but since the deceased was a king but his successor only a duke, the necessity to formulate the graveside cries as Le roy est mort! Vive le duc! makes it clear that no one undying office is being referred to. The new duke was probably there, and it is even possible that the sword emblemizing his power was carried before him as he left the church.

Such was surely done a century later, in 1608, when Charles III, Grand Duke of Lorraine, was buried at Nancy. He had an effigy ritual that copied the French royal practice in details and perhaps exceeded it in splendor. On the other hand, the graveside ritual, close as it appears to the French formulation in style, embodied elements of constitutional significance that the French royal model could not. Not only was the grand duke's son present but also the sword and other emblems of sovereign power were carried before him in a most pompous fashion as he left the funeral. It was a veritable ceremonial of inauguration, the likes of which were quite impossible in the French royal counterpart: the new king was barred from attending his predecessor's funeral in the first place, and, even if he had been allowed to be there, any form of inaugural ceremonial would have been forestalled by Reims' exclusive claim to inaugural prerogatives. Ironically, therefore, dukes could borrow royal ceremonial apparatus and do with it things the kings could not. In the case at hand, the dukes were freer because they had no proper coronation rite and, in general, did not have a two bodies theory to contend with.[9]


The triumphal entry of the new king of France into Paris usually took place not long after the coronation. From the point of view of Parisians (then as now I daresay) nothing that happened out in the provinces really counted until its impact was felt in Paris. For Parisians the royal entry was the ultimate phase of the inauguration process in terms both of time and significance. The crowned king was coming for the first time into the capital city to exercise his sovereign powers. The pageantry was splendid. The people of Paris welcoming the king was all France welcoming him.[10]

Porte Saint-Denis was always the entry point, and the route through the city to Notre Dame was absolutely traditional. It happens that the same route in the other direction is the one always taken by the royal funeral cortège on its way to the royal necropolis in St. Denis. Therefore, the last


crowned king the Parisians had seen before the new king made his first entry was his predecessor (in effigy) making his final exit. Did the Parisians appreciate this symmetry between the funeral and the entry? Were the masters of ceremony trying to convey the notion of continuity, or renewal, of rulership? Alas there is no evidence.

It needs to be mentioned that the entry of a prince into his capital could be an explicitly inaugural event in the fourteenth century. I refer to the famous Entrée-joyeuse of the Duke of Brabant into Brussels, when the ruler and the ruled performed a ceremonial of great constitutional import: he got keys to the city; they got confirmation of rights. Something of this is evident in the later fourteenth- and fifteenth-century royal entries into Paris, as the kings stopped at Châtelet and vowed to maintain certain established privileges, but in general this element tended to fade away as the aspects of pageantry grew more abundant.

The full-blown Renaissance royal entry consisted much less of acts performed by the king than of acts—tableaux vivants especially—performed for him as he rode from station to station. The guilds and other corporations of the city that prepared the station tried to flatter and to edify the king. The theme of royal continuity was a mainstay. Having the live new king gaze upon representations of his illustrious forebears supplied an historicizing counterpart to the royal funeral's acting out of the juristic abstraction that the king never died.

Other cities offered the king formal ceremonies of entry upon the occasion of his first visit. Lyons and Rouen excelled in magnificence, but for our present concern the most important—perhaps more important than the Parisian entry—was Reims. Since this entry was made before the king was crowned, its iconographical aspects had to be (or so it seems to me) carefully scrutinized. I am not aware of any comprehensive study of these entries, or whether a complete series of them was performed and has survived. The few I do know about have very interesting pictoral tableaux relevant for the inauguration.[11] (We shall look at one of them at the end.) Indeed, was not the entry into Reims the first stage of the "official" inauguration?

Lit De Justice

If I had been the master of ceremonies in the later sixteenth century, after the lit de justice had achieved its splendid ceremonial status during the reign of Francis I, I would have tacked that royal enthronement in Parlement onto the king's entry into Paris. In my ceremonial livret I would have explained the event in this way.

The new king has exercised royal power from the moment his father died; indeed, he had issued many edicts already. The ultimate demonstration of the kingly power, however, is his personal enthronement in Parlement at a lit de


justice. When the king makes his joyous entry into Paris after being crowned at Reims, he reveals to his people the sanctified nature of the royal power he has exercised heretofore out of necessity. The climactic event of the entry, of this revelation of royal power, is most rightfully found in the king's enthroning himself at the head of Parlement. The scepter and the main de justice exchange places in the king's hands, from how they had been held at Reims, for at the lit de justice it is only fitting that the main de justice have the dominant place, held in the right hand.

I might even have insinuated that the lit de justice was to couronnement what curing the king's evil was to the sacre.

There is a hint that a faint version of this scenario was carried out in 1549, when Henry II enthroned himself in Parlement just sixteen days after his formal entry into Paris. The event was not, however, entered into the registers of Parlement as a lit de justice but only as a royal séance . And we cannot suspect that this was an error of the clerk of Parlement, for that clerk was Jean Du Tillet, the person in all of France most learned in royal ceremonial and who had been a prime mover in shaping the lit de justice.[12]

Michel de l'Hôpital, chancellor of France, was responsible for the first use of the lit de justice for inaugural purposes—the pronouncement of the majority of the king, Charles IX, in 1563.[13] I see here, too, something of the spirit of legitimizing royal power I suggested earlier in my ceremonial fantasizing. Charles's "majority lit " rectifies a flaw in the royal power up to 1563; for, although he had been crowned as a minor in 1561 he had had to have a regent rule for him until he came of age. Still, France had been ruled in the name of King Charles IX for two years, under whatever auspices you choose, and that was enough to render the "majority lit " a weak instance of inauguration. L' Hôpital's power politics was more to the point. In the long run, constitutionally, the "majority lit " was clearly an ad hoc arrangement necessitated by the fact that the king was a minor; a ceremonial nicety to be sure, but (one surely hoped) not something that would often be necessary.

Fate dictated, however, that three successive kings of France would accede as minors in later times, in 1610, 1643, and 1715. Each of them had to have a regency government, and each held a lit de justice when he came of age. In these instances, however, the "majority lit " that was performed contained the merest token of inaugural significance compared with an earlier lit de justice that each of these kings had performed, the explicitly "inaugural lit de justice."

Only a matter of hours after Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 his eight-year-old son Louis, dressed in regal attire, was lifted onto the royal seat at the head of the Parlement of Paris and the regency of his mother, Marie de Médicis, promulgated in his name.[14] Political exigency was obviously the motive: Marie was by no means everyone's choice for regent. No one, I daresay, gave any thought at that time to what this revelation of the new ruler,


presiding at a state ceremonial that expressed the royal power most awesomely—one reporter designated the event as literally the inauguration of the king[15] —would mean for the traditional symbolism of the other state ceremonials. Indeed, all three of them would be performed within six months.

Before considering that question, however, let me put in simple terms what this "inaugural lit " meant for the basic inaugural principle I have been considering: in Paris in 1610 there was terminated a 340-year estrangement between the exercise of royal power and its ceremonial inauguration that had begun in Tunisia in 1270. I don't believe anyone in 1610 would have seen it that way. Even I today find it hard to regard the metaphor of estrangement as much more than a pedant's delight. It is, however, more worthwhile than the position that positivist-minded historians would be likely to take, which is that the events of 1270 and 1610 both show nothing of interest beyond the fact that political exigency always causes ceremonial proprieties to be treated slightingly, sometimes by disuse and other times by abuse.

Let us consider the abuse. It could be argued that the lit de justice was debased by its hasty and improvised utilization in 1610. On the other hand the lit de justice, unlike the other state ceremonials, was not a once-in-a-lifetime proposition for any king. Had it not already shown its versatility as an instrument of propagating (propagandizing?) royal authority in 1563? Was the lit de justice not the obvious means at hand to resolve the crisis of regency in 1610? If Charles IX could use one to end a regency why couldn't Louis XIII do the same to begin one? In short, the constitutional character of the lit de justice did not limit its ceremonial prospects.

The funeral ceremony, however, suffered irreparable damage in 1610. One of its cardinal rules was that the new king should stay out of the public eye until his predecessor's lifelike effigy had had its allotted weeks to make visible the marvel that the K ing lived on although the k ing had died. Louis XIII's inaugural lit vitiated the purpose of his father's effigy before the effigy was even made. No one at the time seems to have noticed this, and Henry IV's funeral was conducted in the traditional fashion. But never again after 1610.[16]

The inaugural lit of 1610 also preempted whatever notion tradition had implanted that a fully ceremonious entry of the new king into Paris should be the first public manifestation of royal power in the capital city. I pushed that idea to the limit in an earlier section, especially in my fantasy that the king's first lit de justice should have been celebrated as the climax of the entrée. In 1610 it came first. The fact is that the entrée was very flexible. The one into Paris might enjoy the status of a state ceremonial but entrées into provincial cities could be just as grand, even grander because nothing in those cities' experience was likely to equal the king's coming, Not so in Reims, of course, where the king's entry, however great its pomp, could be just a prelude to the


most sublime of all French royal ceremonials. Looked at another way, however, whatever pomp attended the king's precoronation arrival at Reims was sure to involve the entrée per se with the inaugural principle at large.

Louis XIII's coronation took place in mid-October of 1610. During the six months that had elapsed since he had become king, those responsible to stage his entrée into the city of Reims and ordain his sacre et couronnement in Reims' Cathedral gave considerable thought to the question of how their ceremonials could be made to jibe with the inaugural lit de justice performed the day after Henry IV died in mid-May. What they accomplished shows that ceremonial exigencies could be just as great as political ones. Their deeds have been analyzed keenly from two different points of view, by Richard Jackson as they influenced the sacre, by Sarah Hanley as they reflected awareness of the lit de justice.[17]

The most inspired innovation was the ritual of the "sleeping king" performed in an antechamber of the cathedral when two archbishops came to fetch Louis for his coronation. By a series of three knockings on the door and callings out of his name they insinuated that Henry IV's son was still asleep while the god-given King of France was fully awake. This skit brought to perfection an earlier form of precoronation ritual for a minor king that intimated (and resolved) the tension between the want of years and the wearing of the crown, but in 1610 it also linked the wide-awake kin about to be crowned with the king who had already been "inaugurated" at a lit de justice.[18]

The stage for the "sleeping king" had already been set when Louis entered Reims the day before. One tableau juxtaposed the lit de justice of May with the sacre et couronnement of October in terms of designating the king (Rege designato) and receiving the kingdom (Regno suscepto), and another linked the two ceremonials as the king's betrothal, then marriage, to the kingdom. The theme "the King never dies" also received considerable attention, but only as found in writings of jurists (the entry's director was a legist) and not with reference to its ceremonial expression in the royal funeral where it had first been articulated a century before and last performed just a few months earlier.[19]

The inaugural aspects of French royal ceremonial had never before been as conscientiously unified as they were in 1610. Ad hoc as the arrangements surely were on that occasion, they provided the format for the inauguration of the next two kings because they too acceded as minors and had to hold inaugural lits to establish regencies. For a very long period during the ancien régime—150 years if one counts the time until the next adult king acceded, in 1760—the sacre-coronation found itself at the tail end (the inaugural lit being at the head) of the inaugural ceremonies. Yet another irony, for getting crowned had been during all the early centuries of the monarchy the exclusive terminus a quo for dating the reign and acting like a king. But yet, it was


not anomalous in the context of the new order of things. The perpetuity of royal power, or (as well) of the nation itself, had become the salient component of fundamental law. The inaugural principle as such was essentially superannuated. Perfect kingly status was achieved by the first breath the new king drew in after his predecessor had breathed his last. The sacre et couronnement was needed in order to dramatize this new theory of royalty as much as it had been required in times past to initiate the reign of every new king.

Two Inaugural Aspects of French Royal Ceremonials

Preferred Citation: Bak, János M., editor Coronations: Medieval and Early Modern Monarchic Ritual. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.