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Coronation Book of Charles V

Image from the Coronation Book of Charles V

Coronation Book of Charles V of France
British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B. viii, f.55
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

The Coronation Book of Charles V at first seems a rather staid example of 14th-century manuscript illumination. The images are straightforward – there are no fantastic beasts lurking in the margins, there are no frolicking peasants or complicated religious allegories. What we see, instead, is a unique look into the rituals that ruled medieval life at the highest level of society. We see a royal coronation set out for us in 38 scenes. This desire to record contemporary events was extraordinarily unusual in a time when people were accustomed to romanticised versions of past events and past rulers, such as the ‘histories’ of King Arthur or Alexander the Great. This manuscript is one of the first of the late Middle Ages to incorporate ‘real’ history. In an age before television or even newspapers, this manuscript provided a permanent record of the rituals used on a specific day, at a specific place, and involving specific people.

Who was Charles V?

Charles V, king of France from 1364 to 1380, is an important figure in the history of the Hundred Years War. Charles acted as regent when his father, King John II, was captured at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and taken to London as a hostage for four years. During this time and after his succession, Charles had to contend not only with King Edward III and the English, but also with an uprising in Paris, unhappy peasants in the countryside, and threats against the kingdom from wandering bands of mercenaries. In the Treaty of Bruges of 1375, he managed to reverse most of the gains England had made on the continent under Edward III.

Although constantly challenged, Charles maintained the French court in an opulent and refined manner that anticipated the courts of the European Renaissance. Christine de Pisan, Charles’ biographer, paints a picture of a wise ruler whose academic tastes led him to commission and to collect some of the finest works of medieval illuminated manuscripts of his day. Eventually Charles amassed at his royal residences a library of over 900 manuscripts, of which around 100 are known to survive today. Among the most important of these manuscripts is this Coronation Book.

What is special about a medieval coronation?

The religious overtones of a medieval coronation are thought to originate with ancient concepts of divine kingship and priest-kings. Medieval French tradition held that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove delivered a holy oil, or chrism, to the early Christian King Clovis (a form of the name Louis). Anointment with this holy chrism transferred divine grace to its recipient and a custom developed of anointing all kings of France upon their succession. French kings (and other European kings who followed this custom, including the English) therefore became kings Dei gratia, ‘by the grace of God.’ Even in modern times, Queen Elizabeth II received the appellation Dei gratia regina (abbreviated to ‘D.G. REG’ on British coins) after her anointing. The anointing ceremony most often accompanied the ceremony of coronation, which involved the actual placing of the crown on the head of the monarch, and provided earthly confirmation of the succession.

What is a Coronation Book?

An ordo is a collection of prayers, ceremonies, and hymns used during a liturgical celebration. A coronation ordo or order, an alternate term often used to describe the Coronation Book of Charles V, describes the rituals and customs followed in the crowning and anointing of a king or queen. The manuscript held today in the British Library’s collections was commissioned by Charles V in 1365 to commemorate and certify the rituals he underwent at his coronation and anointing one year earlier, on 19 May 1364.

What makes this Coronation Book important?

While certainly not photographic in a modern sense, the images in the Coronation Book of Charles V show an interest, unusual at this time, in creating a ‘portrait’ record of an historic event. Individuals are identified by well-known features (Charles’ long nose and reddish hair), clothing (ecclesiastical garb of the Archbishop of Rheims), and heraldry (the fleur-de-lis robe with red border of Louis of Anjou, Charles’ younger brother and heir). Specific events of the ritual are clearly presented in an almost comic book style ranging from the arrival of Charles at Rheims, the site of the ceremonies, through the next 28 scenes to the coronation and Eucharistic mass. The following nine scenes represent the detailed ceremony followed for Charles’ queen, Jeanne de Bourbon, and place special and unparalleled importance on the separate role of the Queen in French coronation and anointing rituals.

The emphasis on precise detail, which sets out not only who was involved in the ceremonies, but also what role individuals played, is unique. Before this manuscript was created, coronation ordos tended to include either abstract representations of God’s divine favour for the new king or generic displays of ‘a king’ performing the rituals. Charles V’s Coronation Book, with its eye for detail, would have significant influence on later coronation and anointing ceremonies – surprisingly, perhaps, in England.

This Coronation Book probably entered English hands around the year 1425 when John, Duke of Bedford, regent of France after the Battle of Agincourt, took ownership of much of the library of King Charles VI. The manuscript includes an oath of allegiance to the king of England, which may indicate its use in the ceremonies of Bedford’s nephew, Henry VI, at his coronation in Paris on 17 December 1431. It is possible that this very manuscript was used in later English coronation and anointing ceremonies, although there is no definite evidence supporting this. At one point, possibly after the book entered the library of Robert Cotton in the early 17th century, the French manuscript was bound with an English Pontifical (a book for use by a bishop or archbishop) that contained a version of the English coronation ordo, indicating continued English interest and adaptation of the French original. The Coronation Book became national property through a bequest of Sir John Cotton in 1702 and entered the collections of the British Museum in 1753.

Anointing of the King’s hands

The image shown here, 18th in the series, shows the Archbishop of Rheims anointing the King’s hands. The King and Archbishop are accompanied by Louis of Anjou, who holds the King’s sword. Two bishops and a monk assist the Archbishop, while an older noble follows Louis of Anjou. Among these four are probably representatives of the religious and secular Peers of France, whose participation in the coronation and anointing ceremonies provided earthly confirmation for the new king. The crown and the container of holy chrism sit nearby on an altar, ready to be used.

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