Crowned King of England

Westminster AbbeyWhen I studied for my law degree, a long time ago, there was a compulsory paper on jurisprudence in the final year. One of the questions posed on that course was ‘where does law get its authority from?’

There were various answers which (from a dim and distant memory of over 20 years ago) I think ran rather as follows:

  • From ‘natural justice’
  • From itself (layer on layer), or
  • Because everyone agrees with it

In medieval times, the answer would have been that authority came from the king. And he got HIS authority from his coronation, where he was duly anointed and crowned King.

So Coronations were pretty important.

The Interregnal period

The period immediately after the death of the monarch, when there was no King extant, was a dangerous time. Indeed after the deaths of both William the Conquerer and his son Rufus, everyone ran to secure their own property, leaving the King’s corpse lying on the ground.

This did not happen after the death of King Henry I – no doubt after 35 years of strong rule he had earned a bit more respect. However the fear of the interregnal may partly explain why Stephen was able to execute his coup and be accepted and crowned in place of Matilda. Men feared a kingdom without a king, and Stephen was there on the spot whereas Matilda was not.

The longest interregnal period was before the coronation of Henry II. Henry did not hurry over, as he was already recognised as the heir, and then he was delayed by contrary winds. It was a source of amazement at the time that the country was so peaceful during this period.

The Coronation ceremony

By custom this would take place in Westminster Abbey on a Sunday. The King would swear the threefold coronation oath –

  • to preserve the peace of the church and the christian people
  • To prohibit looting and crime, and
  • To maintain justice and mercy in his judgements

One of the bishops would then ask if the people wanted such a ruler to which the reply was “we wish it and grant it”.

The King would then be anointed, usually by the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his hands, breast, shoulders and arms with holy oil, and on his head with a special type of consecrated oil called chrism. The anointing stressed the sacramental nature of Kingship.

In the next part of the ceremony the King was girted with a sword – to defend the Church and protect the weak, and then crowned and invested with ring, sceptre and rod. He was then throned and received the homage of his subjects.

After the coronation there was generally a banquet (often in Westminster Hall), and an exchange of gifts.

The effect of the coronation

A crowned King was set apart from everyone else. In particular the anointing made him special. He was from then on seen as a semi mystical figure, with ultimate authority over his subjects, and was even believed to have healing powers (the Kings touch).

However it was not all one way. The coronation oath was a solemn binding contract with his people. For example in 1185 there was some discussion as to whether Henry II should lead an expedition to the Holy Land or stay and govern England. It decided however that in view of his coronation oath, it was better for him to stay and govern his own kingdom.

The exceptions – so what is the rule?

Men accepted the authority of their duly anointed King – until he proved himself to be unacceptable! Then he would be dealt with – anointed King or no anointed King.

Two examples come to mind. King John being forced to sign the Magna Carta. And King Charles I being executed. There are others.

So maybe the authority does come from the people after all!

(Note – much of the content for this post was found in England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett.)

Westminster Abbey picture is Wikipedia commons

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