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The worst coronations in history
The British used to be terrible at these events
Whereas so many traditions are 19th-century inventions, as any student of history knows, the coronation of Britain’s monarch is a rare example of a truly ancient custom, dating to the 10th century in its structure and with origins stretching back further, to the Romans and even Hebrews. As Tom Holland said on yesterday’s The Rest is History, it is like going to a zoo and seeing a woolly mammoth.
It is a sacred moment when the sovereign becomes God’s anointed, an almost unique state ceremony in a secular world. The custom originates with the late Roman emperors, associated with Constantine the Great and certainly established by the mid-fifth century in Constantinople. In the West, and following the fall of that half of the empire, barbarian leaders were eager to imitate imperial styles (a bit like today). Germanic and Celtic tribes had ceremonies for new leaders in which particular swords were displayed, a feature of later rites, but as they developed the practice of kingship, so their rituals began to imitate the Roman form.
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Various kings in Francia, Visigothic Spain and Anglo-Saxon England were described in chronicles as being ‘consecrated’, crowned in a religious ceremony, although it begins in more definitive form with Charlemagne in 800. His father Pepin had overthrown the last of the Merovingian kings – for more, see this brilliant short book – and so began the Carolingian line.
Pepin had been crowned by the Pope, but it was Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor of the West in Rome that is regarded as a pivotal moment in medieval Europe. The Frankish ruler claimed he had not known the pontiff was going to place the crown on his head, which seems pretty unlikely.
Athelstan, the first king of England, had been crowned in 925 at Kingston, a spot where seven kings of England had been enthroned. Perhaps the most notorious was Edwig, a 16-year-old whose proto-rock star qualities were not appreciated at the time of his coronation in 955. Indeed he failed to turn up, and when Bishop Dunstan marched to the king’s nearby quarters to drag him along, he found the teenager in bed with a ‘strumpet’ and the strumpet’s mother.
However, Edwig died four years later, and Dunstan was elevated to Canterbury, became a saint and, through chronicles recorded by churchmen, got his version of history.
This reign might seem impossibly distant and obscure, yet it was under Edwig’s brother Edgar that the current coronation format was established. Edgar was a powerful king, and the last of the Anglo-Saxon rulers to live a happily Viking-free existence. His coronation on 11 May 973 was an illustration of his strength, and also his aspirations. Held at Bath, most likely because of its association with Rome, it involved a bishop placing the crown on the king’s head, in the Carolingian style, and would become the template for the ceremony for his direct descendent Charles III.
But not all coronations would run so smoothly. After Edgar’s death his elder son Edward was killed in possibly nefarious circumstances, and his stepmother placed her son Ethelred on the throne. Ethelred’s reign was plagued by disaster, and it was later said in the chronicles — the medieval equivalent of ‘and then the whole bus clapped’ Twitter tales — that Bishop Dunstan lambasted the boy-king for ‘the sin of your shameful mother and the sin of the men who shared in her wicked plot’ and that it ‘shall not be blotted out except by the shedding of much blood of your miserable subjects.’
This would have been merely awkward, whereas many coronations ended in riot or bloodshed. The most notorious incident in English history occurred on Christmas Day 1066: Duke William got off to a bad start PR-wise when his nervous Norman guards mistook cheers for booing and began attacking the crowd, before setting fire to buildings.
The coronation of Richard the Lionheart in September 1189 was a lavish affair, and the king made the Archbishop of Canterbury anoint him with holy oil on the chest, hands and head – a tradition that pretty much survives today, although Queen Victoria removed the chest part, for understandable reasons.
Richard’s coronation was absurdly elaborate, attended by churchmen in purple silk, with candles and incense, the king being escorted along streets covered in cloth, with singers behind him, followed by the great and good of the realm. It was then followed by an enormous party with 1,770 pitchers of ale, 900 cups and 5,050 dishes — and then a riot, after the city’s Jews had turned up to offer gifts.
The coronation of his successor John, on 27 May 1199, was supposedly lined with bad omens; he dropped the lance that was supposed to represent his office, while his cronies in the congregation sniggered. John would eventually lose Normandy to the king of France.
That of his son, Henry III, was merely pathetic. John’s relentless scheming and double-crossing led the country to civil war, and with London under the control of the rebel barons the 9-year-old Henry had only a small group of courtiers in Gloucester – crowned with his mother’s bracelet as his father had lost, or perhaps sold, the crown, like a deadbeat dad. The coronation banquet was then disturbed by news that a nearby castle was under attack.
Perhaps the most scandalous coronation took place at the newly completed St Paul’s Cathedral in February 1308. The young queen, Isabella, was the 12-year-old daughter of France’s King Philippe Le Bel, and had inherited her father’s good looks, with thick blonde hair and large blue, unblinking eyes. Her husband, Edward II, was a somewhat boneheaded man of 24 years whose idea of entertainment was watching court fools fall off tables.
It was a fairy tale coronation for the young girl, apart from a plaster wall collapsing, bringing down the high altar and killing a member of the audience, and the fact that her husband was gay and spent the afternoon fondling his lover Piers Gaveston, while ignoring her. Isabella’s two uncles, who had made the trip from France, were furious at the behaviour of their new English in-law, though perhaps not surprised.
After the ceremony, Gaveston also angered many noblemen by carrying Curtana – the Sword of Mercy – symbolising royal authority. Of huge ceremonial importance, Curtana is still used at coronations, though the current sword was made for Charles II’s coronation as much of the physical regalia was lost or purposefully destroyed in the course of the Civil War and Commonwealth.
After prolonged conflict with his magnates, Edward was overthrown and eventually murdered, his nemesis Roger Mortimer declaring that he had not followed his coronation oath and was under the control of evil advisers.
A coronation is a mystical bond between God, the king, and his people, an inviolable pact that blesses the ruler with divine approval. Because the coronation was seen as God’s anointing, it made the removal of kings very difficult, and it was the sacral nature of the event which caused regicide to be viewed with particular horror in medieval Europe — worse than any other crime. If one wanted to analyse taboos in anthropological terms, this made good sense as killing a king was likely to lead to political chaos and instability, as indeed followed the downfall of Richard II in 1399.
At the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, the Count of Flanders laid his hands on the king of France; but, Georges Duby wrote in France in the Middle Ages, ‘he drew back at the last moment, stunned by the horror of what he was about to do and by fear of committing a mortal sin if he tried to kill the man who was not only his natural lord, but was also placed under God’s especial protection (by virtue of the unction of coronation).’
Shakespeare has Richard II tell his cousin Aumerle: ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king. The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord.’
Edward II had also angered his magnates by allowing Gaveston to infringe on some fiercely guarded coronation duties. These traditionally belonged to certain families, and symbolised their importance, but even the strangest task could be considered a great honour. Before his coronation in 1377, Richard II had been petitioned by a John Wiltshire of London that he and his heirs had the right to ‘hold a towel when our said king shall wash his hands before eating [breakfast] on the day of his coronation’. The records were checked and it was found that this was indeed his family right.
Richard’s coronation was a spectacular affair, featuring a boy dressed as an angel offering him the crown, but the crowds were so big he almost fainted. But because almost no one alive could remember the last coronation, a full fifty years earlier, the coronation’s organisers used a book called Liber Regalis, written for the coronation of Edward II. It is still used today.
Perhaps the most impressive role is that of a champion, a tradition dating back to William the Conqueror. When his wife Matilda of Flanders was crowned as Queen of England, attendees were met by the sight of a ‘great hulk of a man’, Robert Marmion, arriving in the cathedral. This terrifying, heavily armed giant rode his horse into the middle of the hall and shouted ‘if any person denies that our most gracious sovereign, lord William, and his spouse Matilda, are not king and queen of England, he is a false-hearted traitor and a liar; and here I, as champion, do challenge him to single combat’.
For Richard II’s coronation, his uncle John of Gaunt gave the champion’s right to Sir John Dymoke, Lord of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, apparently the wish of the late king Edward III, and so it became theirs as a hereditary right. However, Sir John turned up in shining armour at the doors of Westminster Abbey too early and slightly drunk, and was only saved because Henry Percy, as marshal of the coronation, had placed himself by the door in case of trouble. As scripted, during the banquet, Dymoke barged in saying that if anyone questioned Richard’s right, he was ‘ready now, until the last hour of his breath, with his body, to beat him like a false man and a traitor’.
The tradition of throwing down the gauntlet was maintained down the centuries, though it was once picked up — during the coronation of George III in 1761 — by a woman worried ‘that so finely dressed a gentleman should lose his glove in so great a crowd’. The Dymoke family have maintained the right ever since, with the sole exception of the coronation of William IV in 1831 when the authorities tried to cut costs by not featuring a champion; and although the tradition was revived by Queen Victoria, the horseback ride wasn’t. Charles III’s champion is 68-year-old farmer Francis Dymoke, if anyone fancies fighting him for the crown.
Sir John’s son Thomas Dymoke acted as champion for Henry IV, Richard II’s successor and nemesis. But having overthrown his cousin, Henry turned into a tragic figure, his reign cursed by ill-health, bad luck, and various Shakespearean rebellions. It began at his coronation: as he was about to be crowned, it turned out his hair was covered in lice, and the special investiture ring slipped from his finger and fell down a crack, never to be seen again. It was a sign from God.
One of the most disastrous coronations occurred during the Hundred Years’ War. Inspired by Joan of Arc, in 1429 the French had beaten the English at the Battle at Patay, after which their leader Charles VII entered Reims and was crowned at the spot where the kings of France had been enthroned for almost a thousand years. In response, on 26 December 1431 the English had their candidate, the 10-year-old Henry VI, crowned King of France at Notre-Dame in Paris, where one road was turned into a river of wine filled with mermaids, and Christmas plays were performed on an outdoor stage.
Unfortunately, the coronation was a complete mess. The entire service was in English, the weather was freezing, the event rushed, too packed, filled with pickpockets, and worst of all the English made such bad food that even the sick and destitute at the Hotel-Dieu complained they had never tasted anything so vile.
A chronicle called the Parisian Journal lamented: ‘The food was shocking … most of it, especially what was meant for the common people, had been cooked the previous Thursday – the English were in charge … all they cared about was how soon they could get it over and done with.’
Coronations usually involved a certain amount of free food for the country’s poor, a tradition which led to the most catastrophic coronation in history — that of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia on 30 May 1896. A celebratory fair was held in Khodynka Field, Moscow, where huge crowds turned up hoping for free gifts and food. A rumour spread that there weren’t enough gifts, and in the resulting surge 1,400 people were crushed to death.
Foolishly the tsar was persuaded to carry on the evening celebrations, so he and the empress attended a ball given by the French ambassador where they danced, even while the bodies were being taken away; in modern political parlance this was, to put it mildly, ‘bad optics’.
The Russian royal family, as everyone knows, was not one of those that survived the great 20th-century cull. Today there are only a handful left, and only in Britain is there such a coronation ceremony. Yet despite a reputation for being good at this sort of thing, in recent centuries the British have proved notoriously bad. George I’s coronation was disrupted by rioters opposing the new Hanoverian regime; George III’s was considered a textbook case of bad organisation; and George IV’s was a notorious public relations disaster — the king refusing to invite his estranged wife Caroline, who turned up and was refused entry. She then died a few weeks later. The former regent’s profligate coronation was estimated to cost close to £1 billion in today’s money.
In contrast, Victoria’s coronation was famously a dud affair. ‘Some nations have a gift for ceremonial’, the Marquess of Salisbury wrote two decades later. ‘In England the case is exactly the reverse.’ No one would say that any more, and in an age when soft power and stardust are so important in attracting global talent, perhaps it is in this sort of event where the country has found its true role.
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