Reims is one of France’s biggest cities, and it also happens to be home to some of the country’s most important historical events. But for centuries, the most remarkable moment it has ever witnessed is probably the coronation of French kings.
But why were French kings crowned in Reims? What is so special about this place?
Many of the French kings were crowned in Reims because the relic of the vial (Holy Ampulla) that contained the holy chrism was there. This and the political weight that the archbishops in Reims held were the reasons why it became the official coronation site of French kings.
However, there is much more to the history of a ritual that defied centuries. Below, we will go back in time and learn more about Reims, the French monarchy, the significant people behind them, and the legend of the Holy Ampulla.
Why Were French Kings Crowned in Reims?
Reims is one of France’s major cities. It’s nestled in the heart of the Champagne region, surrounded by beautiful sloping vineyards and the lush scenery of the Montagne de Reims. The city is home to some of the most important Champagne Houses in the world.
But among those popular maisons de Champagne is a historical and iconic building: the Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims.
In 498 AD, Saint Remi baptized Clovis I “King of the Franks” in the Reims Cathedral, which would make him the West’s first Catholic sovereign. It was a medieval period where coronation was rare in the “Occident.”
At the time, the coronation was more of a political concept. It was a period when crowning French kings included anointing such as baptism as part of the coronation ceremony.
Since the baptism of King Clovis, all the kings would follow the traditions at Notre Dame De Reims before ascending to the crown. So, in a way, the Reims Cathedral made the Kings of France.
That said, the Gothic cathedral was not officially regarded in relation to Clovis’ baptism. At least not until Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, was crowned in Reims in 816 AD.
While Louis the Pious’ successors did not follow in his footsteps, with the Holy Ampulla and the political weight of Reims’ archbishops, particularly Archbishop Hincmar, King Henry designated Reims as the official site for coronations in 1027.
The First King Crowned in Reims
During the baptism of Clovis, he drank wine from a golden chalice as part of his communion. It was the same golden chalice that 25 of the 33 French kings crowned in Reims had drank from.
However, while Clovis’ baptism was a pivotal moment in establishing the ritual of the crown, he was not the first French king to be crowned in Reims. The first-ever king crowned in Reims was Louis the Pious, son and co-emperor of Charlemagne.
Louis the Pious was crowned twice. The first was by Charlemagne in 813 and by Pope Stephen IV in 816 AD, which was held in Reims.
Crowning in Reims by Hands of Archbishops
Following the rituals at Reims since the baptism of Clovis, all French kings are crowned by their archbishops. Another prelate would sometimes do the crowning when the metropolitan seat is not occupied.
Out of the 33 French kings, 25 were crowned in Reims. The coronation of Louis VI was held at Orleans Cathedral and Henri IV at Chartres Cathedral.
However, Louis XVIII and Louis-Philippe were not crowned because the coronation had to be conducted by an archbishop in accordance with Apostle Paul’s teachings, which state that there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been ordained by God.
This principle was controversial during the Ancien Régime. Jurists and absolutist theorists believed that coronation does not make someone a king. The death of their predecessor does. And this echoes the Chancellor of France’s famous declaration: “The King is dead. Long live the King!”
The Legend of the Holy Ampulla
According to the legends, Saint-Rémi used miraculous oil (Holy Chremen) which a dove sent by God delivered in an ornate vial during the baptism of King Clovis. The special vial is called the Holy Ampulla, which was “invented” by Archbishop Hincmar.
Coronations of French kings were a sealed alliance between God and the Capetian sovereign. The king must rule according to the law, defend his people, and protect the church. But it wasn’t until the 9th century when the legend of the Holy Ampulla became known that the alliance became well established.
Reims Archbishop Hincmar explained the miracle of the Holy Ampulla in his Vita Remigii during the coronation of Charles the Bald. The first record use of the vial was by Pope Innocent II for the anointing of Louis VII in 1131.
Since then, it’s been used as a vessel for the holy chrism or anointing oil for the coronation of the kings of France.
The Holy Ampulla was also used during the coronation of Louis XVI in 1774. However, during the French Revolution on October 7, 1793, the vial was broken with the fragments of the relic now preserved at the Palace of Tau.
Coronation of the Kings of France in Reims
Reims crowned 25 of the 33 French kings from 1027 and 1825, including Charles VII in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War in 1429, with the presence of Joan of Arc. The coronation of French kings in Reims usually involves the prestigious Holy Ampulla and their archbishops.
But, before the coronation of Louis the Pious in 816, the crowning ceremonies of French Kings in other cathedrals were simple. The ceremony involved anointing the king’s head, followed by the crowning, and then offering of a scepter. It is then followed by a coronation oath to uphold the Church.
Coronations that consisted of the ring and the king’s sword did not happen until the 10th century. During the coronation of Philippe Auguste in 1179, the dubbing of knighthood became a part of the ceremony. In the 13th century, French Kings would take an oath against heretics.
The waking of the king and the long procession from the archbishop’s palace to the cathedral began in the 14th century. This first procession happened during Charles V’s coronation in 1364.
Were Any French Kings Not Crowned at Reims?
Most French Kings were crowned in Reims. But, two kings were not crowned in Reims since 1027. Louis VI was crowned in Orleans by Archbishop Sens in 1108. On February 27, 1594, Henry IV was crowned in Chartres Cathedral. The latter’s coronation in Chartres is due to Reims’ rejection, seeing him as an opposition.
Who Was the Last French King Crowned in Reims?
The last King of France to be crowned at Reims cathedral was Charles X. Its inauguration was also the last loyal coronation held in Reims. The coronation took place on May 29, 1825.
Which French King Crowned Himself?
Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I on December 2, 1804. It took place at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims. Legend has it that the emperor snatched the French crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and crowned himself.
The reason why Bonaparte did what he did was to assert his position as a ruler outside of the Church’s traditional authority. Napoleon implied that he was ascending to the throne based on his own merits and the desire of the people.
So, what makes Reims “The City of Coronation?” The relics of the prestigious Holy Ampulla, the ornate vial that contained the holy chrism thought to have been sent by God and delivered by a dove, were kept in Reims.
The royal anointing of Clovis was also an important turning point that sealed the ties between the French monarchs and the Catholic Church. It established the centuries-old coronation ritual at Reims Cathedral.
We hope you’ve learned something today. Let us know if you have more questions and we will be happy to help. Thanks for reading!