12 April 2023
Who was the first king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey? How old is the English coronation ritual? Which king waded through the mud at their own coronation?
With the coronation of King Charles III fast approaching, on 6 May 2023, let's take a look at crowning ceremonies in previous times, described and illustrated in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library.
King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272) is shown sitting on the throne and holding a model of Westminster Abbey, as drawn by Matthew Paris, chronicler and monk of St Albans, in the 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r (detail)
So where is the ceremony taking place this year, indeed for the first time in seventy years, since the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1953? Westminster Abbey has been the location of the coronations of the kings and queens of England, and subsequently of the monarchs of Great Britain, since the 11th century. This abbey had been founded by King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066) at the very end of his reign, before being re-founded by Henry III in the 13th century. Much of the existing structure of the building dates from Henry's time, such as the famous Cosmati Pavement in front of the high altar.
The first English monarch to have been crowned at Westminster may have been the short-reigned Harold II Godwinson, in 1066, although there is no contemporary evidence to confirm this. The first coronation we know for certain to have been held at Westminster is that of Harold's successor, William I (r. 1066–1087), known to posterity as the Conqueror and in his own times as the Bastard. William's crowning took place on Christmas Day, 1066, and it is illustrated in this copy of Jean de Wavrin's Recueil des croniques et anciennes istoires de la Grant Bretaigne, made in Bruges towards the end of the 15th century, and once owned by another king of England, Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483). Unusually, it was Archbishop Ealdred of York who placed the crown on William's head, in place of the absent Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury.
William I is crowned by two bishops at Westminster Abbey (they are not named in the text), in Wavrin's Chronicle: Royal MS 15 E IV/2, f. 236r
There is one footnote to these events. There is a story told by the Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis, who was born soon afterwards, in 1075, and is usually regarded as a faithful chronicler. According to Orderic, when William received the acclamation of his noblemen and prelates, at the moment when the crown was placed upon his head, the soldiers standing guard outside the church feared that the king was being attacked. They immediately set fire to the buildings outside, and in the ensuing panic the clergy struggled to complete the consecration rites. This was an inauspicious start to the Bastard's reign.
William the Conqueror on his throne, as depicted in the 'Long Chronicle' of Battle Abbey, made in the 12th century: Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22r
What else connects modern coronations and those of earlier times? A manuscript known as the Anderson Pontifical, that was found in the stables at Brodie Castle in Scotland in 1970, contains the text of an Anglo-Saxon coronation order. This text prescribes that the king was to make a three-fold promise; he would then be consecrated and the antiphon 'Zadok the priest' was to be sung; he would then be given a ring and a sword; next he would be crowned, before receiving a sceptre and rod; and the ceremony would conclude with further prayers, before the consecration of the queen was to take place. The pontifical itself would have been used by a bishop or archbishop for conducting services, including the coronation.
This form of order was perhaps first used for the coronation of King Edward the Elder of Wessex (r. 899–924) in 900, and it continued in use into the 11th century. But we also know that it was preceded by an older form of service, dating from the middle of the 9th century, and that another coronation ritual took place even before then: the first recorded coronation of an English king was that of Ecgfrith, son of King Offa of Mercia, in 787. Elements of the Anglo-Saxon form of service were retained as recently as 1953, for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952–2022). We imagine that this may repeated to some degree this year, preserving a tradition that is more than 1,200 years old.
The so-called 'second' coronation order is found in this Anglo-Saxon pontifical, probably written at Christ Church, Canterbury, in the late 10th century or the early 11th century: Add MS 57337, f. 61r
What form did the early coronation promise take? A manuscript that was possibly created for Bishop Leofric and his cathedral at Exeter, sometime in the second half of the 11th century, holds a clue. Along with sermons and prayers is an Old English copy of the promise made by early kings of England at the beginning of their coronation services. The text is attributed to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d. 988), but it may have originated earlier, as well as being altered by later writers. According to this manuscript, the king was to promise three things, acknowledging that it was his sacred responsibility to maintain peace, good order and the rule of law among his Christian people:
- The Church of God and all the people would hold true peace under his rule.
- He would forbid acts of robbery and iniquity.
- He would uphold justice and mercy in all judgements.
The Old English coronation oath is found in this 11th-century manuscript: Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 36r
We end with a coronation that took place just over 400 years ago, on 2 February 1626. The king in question was Charles I (r. 1625–1649) and things didn't go entirely to plan. One of his courtiers, Sir Robert Cotton, owned a house at Westminster adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, and through whose garden Charles would have to proceed when he disembarked from the royal barge on his way to the Abbey. But Cotton also possessed an incredible collection of early manuscripts (among them Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels), one of which was an early gospel-book that he believed had been used in the coronation ceremonies of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. The manuscript in question had in fact been presented to King Athelstan (r. 924–939) by either Otto I, king of Germany, or his father, Henry the Fowler, most likely on the occasion of Otto's marriage to Eadgyth, Athelstan's half-sister. Athelstan presented the manuscript in turn in the 930s to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury.
Robert Cotton signed his name at the bottom of the opening page of the Coronation Gospels (the manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731 and the parchment leaves were later placed in paper mounts): Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r
Whether the manuscript in question, which goes by the name of the 'Coronation Gospels', was actually used in the early English coronation ceremonies is a moot point. What matters is that Robert Cotton believed it did, and that he wished that Charles I would continue that tradition in 1626 by swearing his oath upon it. But Charles had other plans. He disliked Cotton (in time he even had his library closed on suspicion of containing seditious materials). When Charles saw Cotton standing on the steps by the River Thames, holding the Coronation Gospels in his hands, the king is said to have commanded that his barge be rowed further upstream. He thereby avoided Cotton with the precious manuscript, but he also ended up having to make his way through the river-mud in order to reach firmer ground. Such a snub seems typical of Charles I, who, as fate would have it, came to a sticky end in January 1649.
One thing to keep an eye (and ear on) this year. In 1521, Pope Leo X conferred the title 'Fidei Defensor' (Defender of the Faith) on King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), in recognition of the king's pamphlet Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (Declaration of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther). The original papal bull is preserved in a fire-damaged manuscript held by the British Library. Charles III has previously gone on record as saying that he would like to be known as Defender of all Faiths. It remains to be seen if this modification is incorporated in the new coronation ritual.
The bull conferring the title Defender of the Faith upon Henry VIII (who shortly afterwards broke from Rome): Cotton MS Vitellius B IV/1
We hope you have enjoyed reading this blogpost and that the coronation of the new king, Charles III, proceeds without a hitch.
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