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Louis XVI in his coronation robes painted by Antoine-François Callet

The last of the Bourbon dynasty, Louis XVI, was crowned in 1774 at Reims Cathedral (145 km northeast from Paris). The location was not incidental. In 496, the Germanic chieftain Clovis was baptized a Christian with his 3,000 men and accepted as the first king of France. Heaven-sent oil that anointed Clovis was kept there. That oil made the king sacred.

The coronation of Louis was an event full of pomp and ritual. Here is an excerpt from Jacques Barzun’s book From Dawn to Decadence (pp 252-53) which described the event:

“All the high orders–civil, military, and religious–have been mustered and arrive in procession to attend mass and witness the unction (anointing) of the king. He is not yet in sight. He has to be fetched from behind a closed door by a delegation of notables. They knock on the door. ‘What do you want?’ asks the king’s chamberlain without opening. ‘We want the king.’ ‘The king is asleep.’ Challenge and response are gone through twice again–in vain. The highest ecclesiastical peer then calls for the particular king: ‘We want Louis XVI whom God has given us as king.’

“The door opens and the king is borne in on a litter richly draped. The prelate then delivers a harangue: ‘Almighty and eternal God, who hast raised Thy servant Louis to be king, grant that he shall secure the good of his subjects and that he shall never stray from the path of justice and truth.’ The king is lifted bodily by two bishops and brought into the main aisle of the church, whom the king has appointed to hold the ampulla of oil. They have swarn on their lives, and vowed moreover to be hostages, to ensure that no harm shall come to that holy vessel until its present use is over.

“Before Louis can receive the ointment, he must swear to protect the church and to exterminate heretics. Thereupon he is presented to the assembly and asks for its consent to the act that will make him king. This is given by a moment of silence. The primate hands the king the Holy Scriptures for him to take the oath of office. The words state particulars such as enforcing the prohibition of dueling. Sworn in, he is handed the sword of Charlemagne. Prayers follow, calling for prosperity to reach all classes of the nation during the reign. For the seven unctions administered to the king, he lies facedown toward the altar; one drop of the holy oil has been mixed with the ordinary kind. He is anointed on the chest, shoulders, top of the head, middle of the back, and inside each elbow.

“During and between the main phases of the ceremony, choral music resounds. There follows another harangue by the archbishop, who enjoins on the king charity to the poor, a good example to the rich, and the will to keep the nation at peace. Yet he also recommends that the king not give up his claims to ‘various kingdoms of the north.’ Last comes the clothing of the king, from the shirt to the coat of purple velvet lined with ermine. He is then led to the throne. The archbishop doffs his mitre, bows, and kisses the sovereign, exclaiming in Latin, ‘May he live forever!’ The doors of the church open and the people rush in.

“So far, the clergy has been conferring the elements of power. Now it is the role of the nobility to perform the concurring rite. The Keeper of the Seals of France goes to the altar and summons the peers of the realm one by one to participate in the solemn act. They come forward, the archbishop takes from the altar the crown of Charlemagne and places it on the king’s head, and the peers raise a hand to touch it in a gesture symbolic of their support. Then a sort of petition to the Almighty that varies each time is recited. On one occasion the wish was made that ‘the king, with the strength of a rhinoceros, may scatter enemy nations to the ends of the earth.'”

As auspicious as the event was. It’s apparent symbolism didn’t save Louis XVI from the guillotine in 1793 when the revolutionary government executed him for high treason.

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