This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
The coronation of Louis XVI in June of 1775 was an event charged with medieval splendor. Entering the city of Reims where French kings had been crowned for over 1,000 years, Louis (riding in a ceremonial coach, accompanied by nobles, escorted by royal troops) heard the jubilant cries of the common people — cries that only grew louder as he passed through the city streets to the cathedral. Entering the cathedral, and formally greeted by the archbishop of Reims, Louis heard the Te Deum, sung in thanksgiving to God for the gift of a king.
The coronation on Sunday, June 11, 1775, was an ancient ceremony dating back to the time of Clovis, the fifth-century king of the Franks. In a procession displaying great pomp and ceremony, Louis entered the cathedral, where, on a raised platform, he was presented to the people. Then came the oath taking, in which Louis pledged to preserve the laws, customs, and liberties of the people and to defend the Church.
Then came a ceremony filled with mystery. The abbot of Reims entered with an ampulla (or flask) containing oil said to have been brought from heaven by the Holy Spirit in dove-shape for the crowning of Clovis. Inserting a golden needle into the ampulla, the abbot extracted a mere drop of the oil, which was then mixed with the oil of chrism used for Confirmation. First on his head and then on his breast, his back, and the joints of his arms, Louis was anointed with the sacred chrism in token that he was now the temporal ruler of France, consecrated by God. Following this solemn rite, Louis was vested in his regalia and crowned king.
The coronation ceremony expressed the medieval ideal of kingship. Louis XVI was not just a political leader, head of state, or ruler; he was the anointed of God. His task was to govern a Christian people that they might attain the good things of this world and the blessings of the world to come.
The man who took on this sacred office for France, however, was not the fittest who had ever held it. Louis XVI had many good qualities, to be sure. He was courageous and a man of strong convictions. Unlike his grandfather, King Louis XV, he was faithful to his wife — the beautiful daughter of Maria Theresia of Austria, Maria Antonia, whom the French knew as Marie Antoinette. Moreover, unlike so many of the king’s court, Louis XVI was a serious and pious Catholic. But the king was slow to make decisions. Full of self-doubt, he allowed members of his court (who did not always keep his best interests in mind) to tell him what to do. At times it appeared that Louis was more interested in his pastimes than in being a king. He preferred hunting, or practicing the crafts of masonry and lock making. The king was an accomplished locksmith.
It was Louis XVI’s misfortune to reign when he did. At other times he might have muddled through, allowing a chief minister to perform the daily tasks of government. But France in the late 18th century was in a very bad way — so bad, in fact, that a more able ruler might not have known how to set matters right. Though Louis XVI perhaps did not know it, the times in which he lived were ripe for revolution.
Mass for an Ill-Fated Monarch
The following is a recording of the Mass, composed by François Girout for the coronation of Louis XVI.