Saint Vincent’s Reading List: LXXIV The Coronation of Louis XIV. June 25, 1654

Saint Vincent’s Reading List: LXXIV The Coronation of Louis XIV.  June 25, 1654 

Lettre du Roy, A Monseigneur Le Mareschal de l’Hospital, Gouverneur de Paris; Sur son Sacre fait in la Ville de Rheims; Avec commandement de faire chanter le Te Deum en l’Eglise Nostre Dame de sa bonne Ville de Paris. Le 25. Jour de Juin 1654. A Paris, Chez P. Rocolet, Impr. & Libr. Ordin. Du Roy, & de la Maison de Ville, Au Palais, en la Galerie de Prisonniers, aux Armes du Roy & de la Ville.  M.D.C.LIV Avec Privilege de sa Majeste. SpC. 944.033 F815L1654

Title page of the edict.
Title page of the edict, 1654

         On May 14, 1643, the thirty-eight year old Louis XIII died at the royal chateau at Saint Germain-en-Laye. At his last breath he was succeeded by his son Louis XIV who was a few months short of his fifth birthday. Because Louis XIV was a minor, a regency was established under his mother Queen Anne of Austria. Anne was aided by her ally Cardinal Mazarin. In 1651, during the height of the civil war known as the Fronde (1649-1652), Louis XIV reached his majority. Finally, with the defeat of the Frondeurs and firmly in control of the kingdom, Louis XIV’s coronation was set for June 25, 1654 in Rheims. Eleven years had passed since his succession to the throne. 

         This long gap between Louis XIV’s accession to the throne and his coronation is explained by the tumultuous struggles between the crown on one side and the Parlement of Paris and factions of the nobility on the other. France had also been at war with Spain since 1635, which added to the upset in the kingdom. The noble and parlementary opponents of the monarchy had carefully couched their opposition against the wicked and pernicious influence of the regent (a woman after all) and the Italian Cardinal Mazarin. In this way, they could maintain the important fiction of their loyalty to the ill-advised young king. However, by the time of his majority in 1651 it became clear that the sentiments of the king were completely aligned with those of his mother and Cardinal Mazarin. Although the battle was close and mightily fought, the monarchy was victorious. In many respects, the coronation of the king was the symbolic assertion of full royal authority over the kingdom.

         In his decree the king noted, “There is nothing more that I desire than to receive this holy and celestial anointing following the example of the Kings my predecessors.  Such a great event must be accompanied by the necessary piety, magnificence, and ceremony. This could not be accomplished during the late troubles which afflicted my State, when I was young.  Therefore, I have been obliged to defer this ceremony.  However, now through my efforts and with God’s assistance this State has been happily and entirely pacified.”[1]

         The coronation of the French king traditionally took place at the great cathedral of Rheims. The ceremony itself, about eight hours long, largely dated from the ninth century.  The English word “coronation” does not adequately convey the religious and sacramental nature of the ceremony. In French the word is “Sacré.” The most important moment of the ceremony was not the crowning of the king, but rather his anointing with the holy chrism. In Roman Catholic political and sacramental theology a king ruled by divine right, and exercised his civil and religious authority in God’s name. A mere human could not carry the weight of such authority, and needed to undergo an ontological change that would make him a worthy vessel capable of wielding this divine authority. Roman Catholic theology held, for example, that deacons, priests, and bishops underwent an ontological change at the moment of their ordinations (via the sacrament of Holy Orders) in which their humanity was essentially and irreversibly changed. This would empower them to exercise some or all parts of the ministerial priesthood of Christ.

         Although never solemnly defined as a sacrament, the anointing of a king was accepted as the sacramental means by which a king was made capable of bearing and exercising divine authority over church and state (complementary to the universal authority of the pope). The king, though fully human in appearance, was no longer merely human ontologically speaking. This sacramental anointing bestowed upon the king the divine graces necessary to act in God’s name. This divine authority had, in fact, been given to the king by God at the moment he succeeded to the throne. The “sacré” or coronation, strictly speaking, was the public ritualization and commemoration of something which had already taken place. Authority which is divinely bestowed must be obeyed under pain not just of civil penalties, but also of religious penalties.  Part of the symbolism of the public ceremony was the public acceptance by all of the subjects of the three estates of France that royal authority over them was none other than the exercise of God’s authority over them.

         In this edict, Louis XIV writing to François de l’Hospital,[2] the Duke de Rosnay, Marshall of France, Lieutenant General and Royal Governor of Paris, commands that on the same day as he is anointed in Rheims, a public and solemn Te Deum is to be sung in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.[3] The Governor is further commanded to ensure that the “Corps de Ville,” the city’s official representatives, are all in attendance.  The king also ordered the Governor to ensure that, in addition to the religious ceremony at Notre Dame, the occasion be marked by cannon salutes, fireworks, and other types of public rejoicing.  The king noted that, at his command, this type of celebration would take place in every cathedral in France, so that “everyone will ask God to give me the means to re-establish public tranquility, so that my subjects can enjoy a firm and durable peace.”

         Vincent de Paul makes two references to the king’s coronation.  In a letter written on May 29, 1654 Vincent notes that he is trying to get some business at court finished, “If this is not done today, it is to be feared that it will not be done for a long time because the King leaves tomorrow to be crowned in Rheims.”[4] On August 7, 1654 Vincent comments in a letter, “It has been about two months since the Queen, the King, and the Cardinal left this city, both for His Majesty’s coronation and also because of the siege of Stenay which has taken up almost all of the time of the King and His Eminence.”[5]

[1] Page 3 of the edict.

[2] François de l’hospital (1583-1660) served as Governor and Lieutenant General of Paris from 1648 to 1657.

[3] A fourth century Latin hymn of Thanksgiving and praise to God.  This hymn is deeply embedded in liturgical settings throughout Western Christianity.

[4] Pierre Coste, C.M. Pierre Coste, C.M., Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, ed. and trans. Jacqueline Kilar, D.C., Marie Poole, D.C., et al., vols. 1–14 (New York: New City Press, 1985–2014). Hereafter cited as CCD, 5:145.

[5] Ibid., 5:176.

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