By Louise Gay
Sacrare: to dedicate to a deity; to dedicate, as a curse, to a divinity. The Latin verb derives from sacer (-cra, -crum), formerly sacros, which designates what belongs to the world of the divine, opposed to what is specific to everyday human life (the profanum). The transition from one to the other takes place through rites. It also designates what cannot be touched without defiling or being defiled. (Larousse Etymological dictionary)
Unlike modern Romance languages, English does not use the Latin verb sacrare and its derivative to characterise the specific rites surrounding the unction that most European monarchs received upon their coronation. Since Carolingian origins, this public ceremonial has been considered as an act which confers divine grace on the new king, thus synthesising a double legitimation, one transcendent, the other based on the recognition of men. This rite of passage therefore allowed the sovereign to exercise fully legitimate power upon his accession. In England and France, anointed kings even became thaumaturges (or miracle-workers) in the eyes of their subjects: from the touch of their hands miraculous healing of various illnesses could allegedly occur (Marc Bloch, 1924). This pretension was already mocked in the 13th century by Castilian king Alfonso X in one of his cantigas.
Queens were not forgotten in this process: since the 9th century, they received the unction after their husband, or during a later ceremony when the king had already been enthroned at the time of the marriage. Differences in rites nevertheless existed to reflect the distinction of status between sovereign and consort. Though few medieval ordines (a collection of the prayers pronounced during the ceremony, which served as a manual for its unfolding) have come down to us regarding queens, they generally benefited from a simpler ceremony. In the French kingdom, they were anointed with a common sanctified oil and not the Sainte Ampoule, which was reserved for the sole monarch. Thus, they could not “acquire” the same healing power. Anointed on the head — as a bishop — and on the chest, the queen was “consecrated but not sacred” (Stanis Perez, 2019). However, the ceremony gave her a special stature which, according to the Carmelite Jean Golein in his Traité du sacre (1372), brought her closer to ordination than any other woman. This “aura of sacredness” was also reinforced by the communion under the two figures of the royal couple during the mass ending the coronation, an ecclesiastical privilege as Golein highlighted.
This event closely linked the queen to the Virgin by reusing the iconographic attributes of the latter. Medieval illuminations almost systematically present queens according to the aesthetic canons attributed to Mary (golden hair loose on the shoulders, pale skin, thin waist, blue eyes). Far from being a mere courteous idealisation, these textual and iconographic associations stem from political issues. Indeed, these representations offered indications on the expectations in terms of queenship, whose functions were not, or barely, explicitly theorised in the Middle Ages before the turn of the 14th-15th centuries. The analogy between reginal and Marian iconography thus served a double purpose. On the one hand, it reinforced “the feminine Christic aspect of royalty”. On the other hand, it invested the king’s wife with the same functions of intercession and mediation attributed to the Queen of Heaven. Because if Mary is the advocate of the people before the divine, the queen is supposed to play a similar role between the king and his subjects (Lisa Benz St-John, 2012).
Ceremonial practices reflect to a point political evolutions throughout the centuries across western kingdoms. In Castile, royal rituals distinguished themselves from their neighbours after the 12th century. However, due to the weakening of the kingdom caused by civil wars, economic inflation, and social unrest, Alfonso XI chose to be anointed in 1332. This was a gesture that translated a desire to temporally take advantage of the foreign concept of sacred monarchy against his turbulent nobility (Teofilo Ruiz, 1984). In France, the queen’s anointment declined at the end of the Middle Ages before disappearing completely in the 17th century because the practice barely corresponded to the development of the absolute monarchy (Patrick Demouy, 2013). In the aftermath of the Revolution of 1789, the Sainte Ampoule as well as the regalia were destroyed as symbols of both Church and royal oppressions.However, kings from theBourbon Restoration, put back in power by the foreign leaders of the Sixth Coalition, renewed with the sacre until the July Revolution in 1830 ended it permanently.
Religious struggles of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries across Europe also left a mark on these inherited medieval rituals. In Protestant monarchies, elements considered “too Catholic” were either reformulated or eliminated. In England, coronation and anointment ceremonies were acted out according to the religious sensibilities of the time and locality. In 1553, Mary I refused to use the oil of her predecessor Edward VI since she believed it had been tainted by Protestantism. Instead, she wrote to the Bishop of Arras in Brussels asking for him to send a newly blessed Catholic oil (Retha Warnicke, 2016). In 1660, Charles II did not receive the unction in Edinburgh because the attending minister was Presbysterian, though twenty-five years later his openly Catholic brother James II did, and removed Protestant elements in his turn. A Parliamentary Act of 1690 eventually forced the royals to maintain “the Protestant reformed religion by law”. The accession of the Protestant and Germanic Hanover dynasty then sounded the death knell for the royal touch to cure people (Paul Monod, 2012).
A key step in the coronation ceremony, the anointing thus constitutes a strong element of legitimisation that proceeds from both politics and religion. For the sovereign(s), the rites mark the transition from a profane physical body to a sacred political body — henceforth inviolable and sometimes invested with supernatural abilities considered as the emanation of the divine will. Consolidating kings and queens at the top of the secular elite in a differentiated way to translate the hierarchy within the couple, it gives them prestige while justifying their temporal power. Honni soit qui mal y sacre…
Lisa Benz St. John, Three Medieval Queens, Queenship and the Crown in Fourteenth-Century England (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2012).
Marc Bloch, Les Rois thaumaturges (Paris: Librairie Istra, 1924)
Retha Warnicke, ‘Mary I, Queen of England: Historiographical Essay, 2006 to Present’, in The Birth of a Queen: Essays on the Quincentenary of Mary I, ed. Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 255-273.
Patrick Demouy, « Le sacre de la reine de France dans le pontifical de l’Église de Reims (BM Reims, ms. 343) », in Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France (2013), 284-297.
Paul Monod, « Coronations », in Early Modern Court Culture, ed. Erin Griffey (New York: Routledge, 2022), 215-231.
Stanis Perez, Le Corps de la reine (Paris: Perrin, 2019).
Teofilo F. Ruiz, « Une royauté sans sacre : la monarchie castillane du bas Moyen Âge », in Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, n°3 (1984), 429-453.