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The English Coronation

Thanks largely to the success of Joan of Arc the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France in the cathedral of Rheims on 17 July 1429. This was a blow to the English claims of rightful inheritance of the French Crown under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes. Bedford had already come to the conclusion that young Henry should be crowned King of France as soon as possible. He hoped that such a coronation would rally support and enthusiasm among the population for the English cause. Accordingly he had despatched a request to England that Henry might be brought over to France as soon as possible. He stressed the urgency.

On 15 April 1429 a Great Council was consequently convened at Westminster to consider the Regent’s request. The chancellor, Archbishop Kemp, explained Bedford’s plan to have Henry crowned in France so the French lords could swear fealty to him and do him homage, thus committing them more deeply and he hoped more irrevocably to King Henry’s cause. The lords discussed the matter without enthusiasm. To entrust the young king’s person across the sea, into a land still racked by war, was no light undertaking. They put off any final decision by declaring themselves in need of “fuller counsel and advice”. Bedford had to content himself with an answer of neither yea nor nay.

But matters had became even more urgent with the relief of Orléans and the defeats of the Loire campaign, followed by the coronation of Charles VII in Rheims. Bedford feared that Charles VII might now move on Paris itself. His letters to the council probably influenced their decision to summon parliament to Westminster three weeks earlier than originally planned. Archbishop Kemp opened the parliament on Thursday, 22 September 1429, in the presence of the young king seated on the throne in the Painted Chamber. It was agreed that Henry should cross to France, but first he must be crowned King of England; and that during this very parliament.

The date for the coronation was set for Sunday, 6 November, the Feast of St. Leonard, precipitating a period of frenzied preparations. The records allow us a few glimpses. On 10th October Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was appointed Lord High Steward for the coronation and on 30 October he was authorized to appoint a deputy to perform his functions as Chamberlain. Robes and regalia for the boy king had to be prepared or fashioned anew. A writ on 4 November instructed Robert Rolleston, the Keeper of the Great Wardrobe, to deliver “certain trappings and other things” to Philip Dymmok (Dymock) whose family traditionally provided the King’s Champion to ride into the coronation banquet and challenge anyone who would dispute the king’s title. The King’s Master of Horse was to provide a war horse and the Serjeant of the Armoury the suit of armour. On the actual day of the coronation a warrant was issued directing the Treasurer and Chamberlains of the Exchequer to deliver to John Merston, Keeper of the King’s Jewels, “the golden eagle and the ‘ampulla’ wherewith the Kings of England were wont to be consecrated”. The monks of St. Peter’s Abbey of Westminster had their share of preparations too, such as the provision of candles and tapers, the construction of a raised platform in the “theatre” between the high altar and the choir, and of course, the bringing out of the already ancient coronation chair.

We are fortunate that Gregory’s “Chronicle of London” gives a detailed description of Henry’s coronation. In accordance with tradition the young King took up residence in the royal apartments of the Tower of London. Here he created 32 Knights of the Bath (an innovation of his grandfather’s in 1399 – the present Order of the Bath dates from 1725). The next day he proceeded from the Tower through the city lined with cheering citizens to his palace of Westminster, where he was to spend the night before his coronation. Fountains representing Generosity, Grace and Mercy greeted him on the way. The weather was fine and the crowds were so thick that several persons including a woman and a priest were crushed to death. A number of cut-purses were arrested and lost their ears.

On Sunday a solemn procession formed to the Abbey. The bishops led, each bearing a holy relic or some item of the coronation regalia. The prior of the Abbey bore a staff called the virga regia, while the abbot himself had the honour of bearing the royal sceptre. The newly created Knights of the Bath wore furred hood lined with grey meniver. The young King was clothed in fur trimmed cloth of scarlet and was carried by the Earl of Warwick into the abbey and up to his chair on the platform built between the altar and the monks’ choir. Here he sat “beholding the people all about sadly (i.e. solemnly) and wisely.” When everyone had taken his place, Archbishop Chichele began with the ritual of Recognition. From each side of the platform he proclaimed: “Sirs, here comes Harry, King Harry the Fifth’s son, humbly to God and to Holy Church, asking the crown of this realm by right and descent of heritage. If you hold you well pleased withal and will be pleased with him, say you now ‘ye’ and hold up your hands.” Four times he proclaimed it and four times the abbey resounded to the cry of “Ye! ye!”

Henry now prostrated himself before the high altar, while exorcisms were read over him by various bishops and anthems chanted, after which he was stripped of his fine robes down to his shirt that had four laced openings of green taffeta to allow the anointing of his body with holy oils. The Bishop of Chester (i.e. Coventry and Lichfield) and the Bishop of Rochester chanted a litany (probably the Litany of the Saints) over him, followed by the archbishop reading a number of collects or prayers. Henry was then helped up and the openings in his shirt unlaced. Archbishop Chichele proceeded to the anointing. Knights of the Garter probably held the cloth of estate over the King during the anointing (they certainly did so eight days later as the anointed areas were washed by the bishops with lukewarm white wine). He was anointed firstly on the breast and both nipples, then in the middle of his back and his head, across both shoulders, his elbows and the palms of his hands. The anointed spots were covered with soft cotton pads and a white coif or hooded cap of silk was placed over his head. Henry prostrated himself once more while Chichele read further collects with a solemn preface. Henry was then clothed in a robe of scarlet lined with ermine and the spurs of St. Edward. The royal sceptre was given into one of his hands and in the other the staff virga regia with the injunction: Reges eos in virga ferrea (psalm 2:9 “Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron”). The eight year old boy must have found the two long sceptres rather unwieldy to manage as he was led back to the coronation chair.

The bishops now brought the royal sword. All in turn placed their hands upon it and intoned: Accingere gladio tuo super femur tuum, potentissime (psalm 44:4 “Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O thou most mighty”). Each time the King answered: Observabo. The sword was then conveyed to the high altar, from where the King caused it to be redeemed at the traditional price of a hundred shillings, indicating that virtue and his power came from Holy Church. Now at last came the moment of actual coronation. Cardinal Beaufort of Winchester had returned from the Continent for the coronation of his great-nephew, but the crowning of an English king was a jealously guarded prerogative of the See of Canterbury. It was Archbishop Chichele who placed the crown of St. Edward on young Henry’s anointed head. Beaufort merely assisted, along with the other bishops of the Canterbury Convocation.

Removing the crown the King prostrated himself a third time before the altar while prayers were read over him. Then he was arrayed in robes similar to a bishop’s, reflecting the almost priestly character conferred on him through the anointing with holy oil. He was dressed in a dalmatic or tunica with a stole over his shoulders, but not crossed over the chest like a priest, and a cope. The crown was placed back on his head and he was escorted back to his chair of estate from which he would follow the coronation mass. Two bishops stood on either side of him “helping him to bear the crown, for it was overly heavy for him, for he was of a tender age.” Archbishop Chichele celebrated the mass, another bishop singing the epistle and Cardinal Beaufort the gospel. At the Offertory Henry rose and approach the altar with offerings of bread and wine for the consecration as well as a pound’s weight in gold. At the communion Henry prayed the Confiteor himself aloud and Beaufort and the other bishop held a silken towel stretched before him (as the communion cloth). The King received communion “kneeling with humility and great devotion” from Archbishop Chichele brought to him on the paten from the chalice on the altar. The Bishop of London then brought the precious chalice of St. Edward from which the King sipped the consecrated wine. Henry remained there kneeling until the mass was concluded, when he was escorted to the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor to pay his respects and to change his ecclesiastical robes for a kingly one of rich cloth of gold. Instead of the heavy and too large coronation crown he was given a smaller, lighter crown of gold fashioned for the young Richard II. It had been a long and tiring ceremony, but henry had held up well. In 1377 the ten year old Richard II had been exhausted by it and needed to be carried to the coronation banquet. Eight year old Henry would leave on his own two feet.

A procession now formed and left the abbey to proceed through the palace to the Great Hall of Westminster. The newly created knights clothed in scarlet led the way followed by the lords and then the Lord Chancellor, Archbishop Kemp of York, bare headed (i.e. without a mitre – as chancellor not bishop) but with his archiepiscopal cross borne before him. Beaufort followed him in his red cardinal’s robes trimmed with white fur and his cross of Winchester before him. Then came Gloucester in his appointed office of Lord High Steward and the Lord High Constable, the Earl of Stafford as Bedford’s representative; then the Duke of Norfolk as the Lord High Marshal. The King walked between the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of Bath (probably the same who had helped “hym to bere the crowne” in the Abbey). Four swords of state were carried before him, two sheathed and two naked. The Sword of Mercy had a blunted or broken point to symbolise the royal prerogative of mercy.

In Westminster Hall, under the same wooden beams that look down on us today, the King sat at the high table beneath a cloth of estate. To his right sat his great-uncle Cardinal Beaufort in lesser estate and to his left Archbishop Kemp as Chancellor with a French bishop to underscore Henry’s dual sovereignty as King of England St and of France. Of the tables that ran own the length of the hall before him, the central ones were occupied by the bishops, the justices and the knights, while on the right was the table with the barons of the Cinque Ports and the clerks of Chancery, and on the left the Lord Mayor of London, the aldermen and “worthy commoners of the city of London”. On a wooden platform on the right stood the Kings of Heralds (Kings of Arms) in colourful tabards bearing the royal coats of arms and wearing their silver-gilt crowns. When the first course of the banquet was served, they moved down into the hall to accompany the King’s champion as he rode in on his horse, armed like St. George, and proclaimed the King’s good title in all four quarters of the assembly, challenging each and all who dared deny it.

The banquet itself consisted of three enormous courses, each having a large choice of the most varied dishes and each accompanied by the most elaborate and fanciful confectioneries, custards and desserts. The motifs of these masterpieces of the confectioner’s art symbolized the dual heritage of the King as sovereign of both kingdoms. Leopards and fleur-de-lis abounded, while at the end of the first course St. Edward the Confessor and St. Louis of France were represented with the young King between them. The second course concluded with the figures of the Emperor Sigismund18 and the late King Henry V as knights of the Garter leading young Henry also dressed in the insignia of the Order. The third course ended with a representation of the enthroned Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus. St. George and St. Denis present a kneeling King Henry as the Christ Child extends two crowns to the young King.

After this long and exhausting feast, a tired but happy Henry was permitted to retire to the royal apartments to recover from the exertions of the day. London too had to recover. Abbot Whethamstede of St. Albans assures us that the crowds had been so great that a priest, a woman and several others had been killed in the press. Cut-purses had had a field-day, and a number had been taken to suffer the loss of their ears for their industry.

The eight year old Henry had come through the ordeal well. He had impressed all present with his dignity and solemn concentration, as well as by his stamina at seeing through a long and gruelling day at such a tender age. Undoubtedly Warwick and the royal chaplains and clerks would have explained to him the religious and political significance of the ceremonies he was about to undergo, and a naturally reflective child could hardly fail to be impressed by the solemnity of the coronation. Henry understood that now he was king indeed, crowned and anointed. He bore an indelible spiritual character just as a priest’s soul bore the imprint of his sacred office. Henry was King not just by his royal birth, but by the Grace of God, manifested in his sacring – his anointing with holy oils and his crowning by Mother Church.