Monday, 1 July 2013

Pageantry, Forgery, Faith and Muddles: An Overview of Tudor Coronations

I recently attended an interesting talk at the Hampton Court Palace learning centre given by Dr Alice Hunt, a historian from the University of Southampton. The topic was the history of Tudor coronations, and how the ceremony changed through 50 years of tumultuous Tudor change. Dr Hunt proposed that the idea of the coronation ceremony remaining unchanged since ancient times is a myth. In reality, although the main elements or ‘skeleton’ if you will, of the ceremony have remained the same since the first coronation in 973, the ceremony has often been changed to adapt the needs and circumstances of every age and every particular monarch. Tudor coronations, Dr Hunt proposed, are good examples of how this process of small changes over timeless practice works out in practice.   


Dr Hunt presented evidence from five different Tudor coronations from 1509 to 1559. The starting point was Henry VIII’s coronation which was the least controversial and most traditional of the lot. Henry was barely 18 at his crowning, his wife Catherine of Aragon was 23, and they chose Midsummer Eve 1509 as an auspicious date for their coronation. They were crowned like all the previous medieval monarchs, and Dr Hunt used this model ceremony as a way to describe what coronations always involve.

Henry and Catherine’s ceremony followed the plan set down in the Liber Regalis, a medieval manuscripts kept in Westminster Abbey that details down every aspect of the ceremony. This illuminated work was created in 1382 for the coronation of Richard II’s Queen, Anne of Bohemia, but the ceremonial order described within goes back to the year 973 when it was created by St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. The order of the service set down in the Liber Regalis is the ‘skeleton’ of the coronation ceremony that has been followed through the ages. It sets down which part should follow the other (oath, anointing, crowning, homage, etc), though it gives some leeway as to who should be involved in it. 

A rare contemporary woodcut from 1509 celebrating the joint coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Henry sits beneath the Tudor rose of England, while Catherine sits beneath her own heraldic emblem of the pomegranate.

The key moment during the ceremony is not the crowning but the anointing. In fact, a monarch cannot be crowned until he is anointed beforehand. Anointing is a solemn religious ritual, recalling the anointing of biblical kings like David and Solomon, and it involves oiling different parts of the body including hands, chest and head. It is considered the holiest part of the ceremony, so much so that the ritual was hidden from the cameras even during the 1953 coronation. Through it, the monarch receives the personal blessing of the Holy Spirit and is considered transformed by it. The ritual was far more important to Tudor monarchs than the crowning itself and they always referred to themselves as being anointed monarchs, not crowned monarchs.

There is however some circular logic at work here because already by Tudor times a monarch was considered legitimate even before his anointing (which is why coronations often take place weeks or months after accession). What does the coronation do if it does not create a monarch? The Tudors tried to get around this paradox by theorizing that the anointing was a definite sign of God’s favour upon the legitimate heir. It created a personal bond between the monarch and Christ, and this idea was eventually used by Henry to assert his authority as the real shepherd of the English Church in place of the pope. 


Tudor coronations began to be tweaked from Anne Boleyn’s coronation on 1 June 1537. Anne’s coronation was unique in many ways, and also the last time in British history that a queen consort was crowned in a separate ceremony. It was a very extravagant affair, conceived by Henry VIII and planned by a committee working under the King’s strict guidance. The coronation festivities were said to have exhausted the treasury, the most lavish element being the procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey, an integral part of coronation ceremonies from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Tudor century saw the apotheosis of these processions when they got bigger and bigger and included rich spectacles along the way like, tableaux, recitals, speeches, and fountains flowing with wine.

The most conspicuous aspect of Anne’s procession was that she was paraded in the streets with her hair down, a traditional symbol of virginity, when in fact she was six months’ pregnant, and visibly so. But far from being a mark of shame the organizers used it as the main theme of the procession spectacles! Wafers inscribed with golden lines were thrown in the air as she passed by, and poems were declaimed along the way on the happiness and glory the unborn son would bring (everyone assumed the child would be male). There are conflicting reports on how the show was received. Edward Hall, a favourable Tudor historian, said it was a joyous and grand occasion while the partisan Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, wrote that it was a chilly affair with the crowds jeering and laughing at Anne. The glorification of Anne’s unborn son of course came to nought since she delivered a daughter instead (though considering that her daughter, Elizabeth I, presided over a glorious kingdom and reigned as a man in all but gender we could say that the good wishes expressed at Anne’s procession were not in vain.)

Anne Boleyn's coronation procession, recreated for Old and New London, a history book published in 1878 by Walter Thornbury.

Anne’s own crowning was also unique, Dr Hunt revealed, since it is recorded that she was crowned not with a traditional Queen Consort’s crown but with St Edward’s Crown, the crown used for the coronation of the sovereign. This was the first and only time such a thing happened in British history and it is unclear why it was so. Perhaps a mistake was made, perhaps the Queen Consort’s crown could not be found, but Dr Hunt said it is possible that it was a decision on Henry’s part in order to ‘renew’ his own power as political and spiritual emperor over England following the break with Rome. It could also have been Henry’s way to emphasize that, after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Anne was now the undisputed Queen of England. 


Edward VI’s coronation heralded a revolutionary reign that saw Catholic rituals swept away and religious images destroyed. However the most memorable alterations in the ceremony were caused not by religion but by the age of the young, nine-year-old king. Planned for Shrove Tuesday 1547, the ceremony was shortened and the most tedious parts—including the homage at the end—were cut out so as not to bore the young king. Also interestingly, in a break with the past Edward wore three crowns at his coronation: St Edward’s Crown was used for the actual crowning, the Imperial State Crown was placed secondly as per usual, but then a small child-size crown was placed upon the young king’s head. It is not clear why the third crown was used—perhaps it was a mere matter of convenience since the Imperial State Crown was too heavy to wear down the aisle for the processional route. But whatever the reason, the ritual was picked up immediately by his successors Mary I and Elizabeth I who also had themselves crowned thrice with the same crowns. Roy Strong in his ritualistic tome Coronation ventured that this triple coronation might have been a deliberate riposte to the pope, who was famously crowned with a triple-crowned papal tiara, and to the Holy Roman Emperor who was usually crowned three separate times with three different crowns.

Edward VI's coronation procession, from a stained glass window in Mansion House, the City residence of the Lord Mayor of London.

One of the most famous alteration in Edward VI’s coronation however was supposedly motivated by religion. This was the first coronation since Henry VIII had proclaimed the English monarch as Supreme Head of the English church, and to emphasize this point Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is said to have told to the congregation during the act of anointing that ‘the oil is but a ceremony...the king is yet a perfect monarch notwithstanding as well as if he was inoiled.’ In other words, the anointing was just a mere formality, an empty Catholic ritual necessarily rolled over from the past. Edward VI was king by virtue of his position alone, with no need for oil to be applied. The problem is, Thomas Cranmer never actually said this!

It was an absolute surprise to hear Dr Hunt discuss that this account from Edward VI’s coronation was actually forged in the late 17th century by a man named Robert Ware, an Irish Protestant writing religious tracts during the last years of Charles II when anti-Catholicism was rampant. There is no contemporary evidence that Thomas Cranmer ever made those comments during Edward’s anointing. The fraud has long been exposed academically, yet the story keeps popping up in popular history and occasionally the serious historian’s work as well! The reality is, it is very unlikely Cranmer would have wanted to undermine the anointing, the most sacred aspect of the coronation ceremony which in fact bound the English sovereign to God in a similar way as the pope was bound to Christ. The opposite truth is instead that Cranmer actually over-anointed Edward, oiling him in more places that any medieval king. He added the wrists, elbows and feet to the traditional body parts, and he used both holy oil and chrism for each part!  

1553: MARY I

That Mary, Edward’ older sister, became Queen at all is actually remarkable since she had been declared illegitimate and barred from the succession as far back as 1533 when Henry divorced her mother Catherine of Aragon. Her place in the succession had been reinstated in the 1540s, but she had never actually been re-legitimized in law and this presented a problem when it came to planning her coronation. Parliament proposed that an act should be passed to re-legitimize Mary so as to make her coronation completely lawful, but this was a politically charged step as in effect it would have altered the constitution of England. If Parliament endorsed Mary's legitimacy as Queen before she could be confirmed monarch at her coronation, a precedent would be set whereby monarchs were subject to Parliament’s approval. Mary was understandably appalled by the idea and she refused to countenance the proposal, going ahead with her coronation without any Parliamentary re-adjustment to her birth status.

Mary’s coronation was also revolutionary since, by a combination of tragedy and sheer luck, she had become the first Queen regnant in English history. Dr Hunt pointed out that the most remarkable thing about the ceremony was that not much ritual was changed to accommodate a Queen Regnant. Mary was crowned with the same procedures mandated for a king in the Liber Regalis—a remarkable step in the history of gender equality. There were some reports that she was given both the kingly sceptre and the queen consort’s sceptre with the dove—as if she was being considered both king and queen at the same time—but this might have been a mistake from the Italian ambassador who reported this fact. (Another important precedent setting was the fact that her consort, Philip of Spain, was not crowned after their marriage, setting a tradition for royal male spouses that persists to this day.)

Mary's coronation, shown in miniature from the Coram Rege Rolls, a government record kept in the National Archives. The image is highly significant as it is one of the first representations of an English Queen regnant.

Ceremonially, Mary’s coronation harked back to the Catholic traditions of the Middle Ages, and was performed ‘according to the rites of the old religion’ according to the imperial ambassador. The whole service lasted 7 hours—the entire audience at the talk gasped when they heard this!—finishing at 4pm when Mary emerged from the Abbey crowned and ‘twirling the orb’ in her hand. She refused to be anointed and crowned by Thomas Cranmer, who as Archbishop of Canterbury had presided at the divorce of her mother. Instead, to perform the ceremony she released Stephen Gardiner, the Catholic Bishop of Winchester, from the Tower where he had been imprisoned under Edward VI—sending Cranmer to the Tower in his place. She also sent to Brussels for a new vial of holy oil, since the old anointing oil used on Edward VI might have been ‘contaminated’ during the previous Protestant ceremony. Interestingly however she did not remove the oath that now proclaimed the English sovereign to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and swore it even though she personally professed allegiance to the pope in Rome.   


Just as had happened for her sister, there was some suggestion on Elizabeth’s accession that Parliament should re-legitimize her, since her status had also technically never been legalized after she was reinstated in the succession. Elizabeth however vetoed the idea on the same grounds Mary had used, that of royal independence from Parliament, her council famously stating that “the crown taketh away all defects whatsoever” (including presumably the suggestion of illegitimacy). The issue of Parliament’s authority over the Crown would keep simmering for decades, eventually exploding with full force in the next century with the English Civil War. 

Royal hand-me-downs. Believe it or not, the coronation robes worn by Elizabeth in this famous painting were mostly recycled from her sister Mary's coronation (compare the similarities with Mary's picture above)

Elizabeth was crowned in golden robes, as shown in the famous painting in London’s National Gallery (see above) but surprisingly Dr Hunt revealed that those were mostly Mary’s robes, recycled for the occasion! Only the bodice was made anew for Elizabeth. She also wore her hair down, the ceremonial sign of virginity, like her mother Anne Boleyn had done at her own coronation in 1537, though of course in Elizabeth’s case the symbolism was appropriate. Not that Elizabeth was much interested in symbolism at that point in her royal life: the date she chose for her coronation was not any particularly important symbolic date in the calendar, but a humdrum January 15th, a day that had been recommended by her personal astrologer, John Dee. 

The Virgin Queen’s coronation was actually a very muddled affair, one of the most poorly documented coronations of Tudor England according to Roy Strong, partly because of the many particularities and irregularities that took place. Most of the high clergy of England had been appointed by Mary and they refused to take part in the ceremony, and Elizabeth ended up instead being anointed and crowned by the Bishop of Carlisle. Even he however proved troublesome when Elizabeth asked him not to perform the Catholic ritual of the elevation of the host during the Mass. He refused to comply, so yet another clergyman, George Carew, dean of the Chapel Royal, was recruited to provide Protestant rituals at certain points in the Catholic ceremony.

To muddle things even further Elizabeth herself made sure that the religious signals given during the ceremony would be hard to read. Although she chose the same Catholic ceremony that Mary had used, at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist Elizabeth walked away from the centre stage and hid behind a curtain, leaving people wondering why she had done this. Did she disapprove of the Eucharistic consecration, as a good Protestant would, or did she think it so holy that she wished to retire in a private space to contemplate it, as a good Catholic would? This was no mere personal issue because no one was yet sure what position the new Queen would take in matters in religion. Was she going to reinstate Edward VI’s militant Protestantism, or keep Mary’s Catholic rituals? Dr Hunt called Elizabeth’s curtain trick an inspired move as it kept everyone guessing about Elizabeth’s real intentions, and gave her time to make up her mind slowly on the issue (which eventually struck a middle way between Edward and Mary’s religions). In retrospect it was just the first of many acts of political ambiguity that Elizabeth would use throughout her reign—and that allowed her to exercise real political wisdom.

The Future

Coronations might seem static and unchanging but they are in reality dynamic events that always change to reflect the times and circumstances. Through it all however, as Dr Hunt showed us, the essential things remain the same: the anointing remains the heart of the coronation and will continue to be at its heart at the next coronations also. In that regards, Dr Hunt actually had a few thoughts on the coronation of our next monarch. She said that the ceremony always needs to be planned carefully in advance and she believes that the issue is already being discussed unofficially and behind the scenes at Clarence House—despite any official denial. Forward planning is in fact essential if the next coronation is to be adapted for our own times and needs, as well as the needs and beliefs of the next monarch. She also ventured that, again despite Clarence House’s position, Camilla will be crowned as Queen, and that the public is slowly being prepared for it as the Duchess of Cornwall gains more prominence and gravitas. It will surely be interesting to see if she is right...

Dress Reharsal? Camilla might well be crowned at the next coronation.

For more information on Tudor coronations see Dr Alice Hunt's excellent book, The Drama of Coronation, available at Amazon.

To learn more about the history of coronation see Sir Roy Strong's magisterial book, Coronation, also available at Amazon.  

To learn more about the coronation service, visit this dedicated page on the Westminster Abbey website.

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