Where Were French Kings Crowned

by | Aug 17, 2023 | Aristocracy, France, Kingdoms, Kings, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

The pomp and ceremony associated with French Kings throughout the ages call to mind splendour and extravagance beyond the imagination of many ordinary people. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in a royal coronation ceremony. Even today, a coronation is a prodigious event, taking months to prepare and involving teams of hundreds of staff to ensure that such a solemn and imperious ceremony is conducted smoothly and in line with age-old traditions. 

For many centuries, the tradition for French Kings was to be crowned at the beautiful great cathedral of Reims – Notre-Dame de Reims, or Our Lady of Reims. 

The Ancient City Of Reims

Reims is an ancient French city with a rich and captivating history. 

It’s situated approximately 80 miles northeast of the French capital of Paris, in the heart of the famous Champagne region. It’s believed that the popularity of champagne as a luxury drink owes its origins to the links between the champagne makers of Reims and their regal connections. 

The tradition of French Kings receiving a holy sacrament in the area dates back to the early Middle Ages, when Clovis I, one of the early King of the Franks received the sacrament of baptism at the cathedral church of Reims around the 6th century. 

Facade of Reims Cathedral

Facade of Reims Cathedral – The Crazy Tourist (thecrazytourist.com), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This historic event set the pattern for future Kings of France to be crowned in the cathedral of Reims – a tradition that endured for many centuries. 

Reims And The French Revolution

Given that Reims played such a key role in the grandeur and sovereignty of royal ceremonies, it’s perhaps surprising that the city survived the worst days of the French Revolution relatively unharmed. 

While there was some damage from revolutionaries and insurgents during the various uprisings of the late 18th century, the majority of the cathedral’s treasures and statues were left intact. 

Like many of the world’s great cathedrals, however, Notre Dame de Reims has been subject to some of the ravages of time, such as fire and storm damage, and the stone cathedral that stands today is not the original building that first graced the site back in the 5th century. 

As such a prominent location for sovereign grandeur, so symbolic of everything the revolutionaries were opposed to – royal excess, the power of the church, the elitist traditions etc… – it’s remarkable that Reims and its legendary cathedral were not subject to greater attacks during the darkest days of The Terror. This is even more surprising given its relative proximity to Paris, the site of so much revolutionary violence and destruction. 

The Crowning Of French Kings

While the coronation of monarchs in France, as in most other nations, is a significant event, the religious history of French Kings meant that the crowning ceremony was regarded as less symbolic than the anointing with oil – the holy sacrament that signified the divine appointment of the new monarch. 

The devout religious element of French coronations was steeped in the church’s traditions and teachings, aspects of the ceremony that were carried from century to century, from one generation of French kings to the next. 

As with many royal traditions, the crowning of kings and the coronation services within French royalty were taken extremely seriously and treated with the utmost respect by all involved. 

It was considered the honour of a lifetime to be present at the coronation of a new sovereign, and it was generally something only those in the highest echelons of French society would experience – the members of the royal family, the high-ranking French nobles and aristocrats, and the esteemed members of the clergy. 

As with modern ceremonies, dignitaries from other nations may also have been present, with the invitations likely to have been highly strategic in the political and territorial advancement of France. 

From Reims To Paris – Napoleon Breaks With Tradition

The famous French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte became legendary for a whole range of controversial or scandalous decisions during his rise to power and subsequent fall from grace. 

Perhaps one of the most notable acts of the famously nonconformist leader was his insistence that his imperial coronation take place in Paris, rather than following the centuries-old tradition of French kings being crowned in the cathedral at Reims. 

The location was not the only alteration to the ancient coronation rites. Napoleon made a number of changes to the ancient ceremony which placed less emphasis on the religious element of sacraments and anointing. 

These decisions were not arbitrary whims, rather they were a symbolic declaration of his controversial approach to the church, i.e. that he was not subject to the religious dictates that previous French kings and queens had embraced. 

While the French Revolution had forever changed the regard for royalty and sovereignty within France, Napoleon’s modernisation of ancient ceremonial traditions was a message to both the people of France as well as his enemies and allies in the wider world. 

The Coronation of Napoleon in Paris, with him crowning himself rather than kneeling before a pope or archbishop, was the epitome of his stance as the ultimate ruler, independent of the church governance that the French kings before him had recognised. 

The Coronation City

Despite the ceremonial upheavals ushered in by Emperor Napoleon, the city of Reims remains renowned within France and beyond as the la cité des sacres – the Coronation City. 

Even though the crowning of French kings may be a distant memory for this beautiful old city, it maintains a rich history as the site of many inaugural ceremonies, the place where so many royal reigns officially began. 

Today, Reims is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the iconic cathedral de Notre Dame the undoubted jewel in the crown. This iconic gothic structure still captivates modern visitors keen to absorb the centuries of history and royal ceremony that are evident at every turn, from the stone facades – the gallery of kings – to the souvenir shops and history books. 

Though the pomp, ceremony and crowning of French kings may be resigned to the past, the rich tradition of historic coronations ensures that Reims will remain one of France’s most enduring treasures.

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