Representing Kingship (and Queenship): On the Role of the Visual for the Understanding of Medieval Rituals

by Dr Rosa M. Rodríguez Porto (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela)

In ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, episode 5 of the first season of the Netflix blockbuster The Crown, viewers are offered an insider’s view of the preparations for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Many of those watching would not have previously given the medieval origins of the rituals displayed there much thought, but – for sure – they would have been hooked by the tensions arising among the protagonists, who are in this moment trying to define each of the elements in the ceremony. The oath Prince Phillip was obliged to make to his wife as royal consort stands out.

One imagines this tension would have been concealed at the time for those attending the ceremony or who would be glued to their televisions for the broadcasted event, certainly to those leafing avidly the coverage in glossy papers days later. The solemn rite at Westminster Cathedral would have effectively mobilised popular affection in favour of the new sovereign, creating the fiction of a united and harmonious kingdom, and even the feeling that there was some sort of divine sanction for it. Because, as the Duke of Windsor says with his viperous tongue at some point, ‘who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have? A goddess’.

Fig. 1: The Crown, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ (T1, E5 – TV episode 2016).

In the Middle Ages, coronation rituals were conceived as acts able to confer a supernatural power to the recipient (and were so at least until the end of the ancien régime), but their participants were not less aware of their political relevance to convey what it meant to be King or Queen. The spectacular nature of these events was intended to leave a durable impression on those present, even more acutely than for those in 1953 or today. That was after all a time before mass production and dissemination of images.

Coronations could be extremely complex and, for them to be effective, they had to be able to integrate diverse dimensions in a multisensory experience: time and space, sound and gestures, the choreographic movements of the participants, and the actual objects that were to be used in the ritual. As Jean-Claude Bonne (2004: 193-4) has explained, the goal was to visualise the position of the sovereign along a double axis: vertical for what regarded to his relation with God (usually mediated by the ecclesiastic officiating the ceremony), and horizontal in relation to the members of the court who also had a role in the ritual. For these reasons, ceremonies were the battleground where secular and religious powers tried to assert their respective authority, but also a critical test field to disclose the network of political alliances and hostilities generated around the monarchs.

Not surprisingly, for centuries, the liturgy for the coronation of Kings and Queens (as well as for Emperors and Empresses) was adapted to the changing circumstances in which these ceremonies took place, although the basic core remained rather stable since the 10th century, when the so-called Roman-Germanic Pontifical was compiled (later to be substituted by the 13th-century Pontifical of the Roman Curia). Sometimes local rites evolved in parallel to those sanctioned by the Roman Church; in other cases, solemnities were developed in open defiance to them. But in all instances coronation ceremonies were arranged to precisely translate the perceived ideological foundations of royal authority into an understandable audiovisual performance, whose steps were well known to both participants and audiences. In this regard, changes and diversions from precedent were usually very subtle and, nonetheless, noticeable.

How to reconstruct, then, how these ephemeral ceremonies were actually performed and, at the same time, what was going on behind the curtain?

Historians have to confront themselves with the liturgical collections where these rituals are described, the scarce material evidence that may survive (the spaces where these rites took place, thrones, crowns and sceptres, and other regalia), as well as contemporary retellings of these events. But we also preserve a handful of ‘coronation books’, that is, illustrated manuscripts where the liturgy for a coronation is compiled, together with images that depict the rituals step by step. Strikingly enough, according to the extant witness, these rare books seemed to have been produced only for French and Iberian Kings. Two come from the Kingdom of Aragón – Escorial, &.III.3 [B] (c. 1353), and Madrid, Biblioteca Lázaro Galdiano, Reg. 14425 (c. 1380) – whereas the other one was produced for the King of Castile Alfonso XI.

It is the latter, the so-called Libro de la Coronación (Escorial, &.III.3 [A], c. 1330-1331), that is the focus of my research, with a future monograph planned on the topic and provisionally entitled El ‘Libro de la Coronación de Alfonso XI y María de Portugal’: Imagen y poder regios en la Castilla del siglo XIV.

Before delving into the study of the Libro de la Coronación, it is necessary to come to terms with the function that illustrations play in coronation books. Although they have been used as evidence to reconstruct the precise arrangement of these rituals, they should not be taken at face value. Scholars working on their visual narratives have pointed out how images had an agenda of themselves, mediating (and sometimes) conditioning the way the whole ceremony was perceived. Instead of being some sort of ‘handbooks’ for crowning the new sovereign or faithful descriptions of actual events, these manuscripts were in most cases an expression of how kings (and their entourage) saw themselves and wanted to be seen by their subjects.

As a matter of fact, in several instances images are in disagreement with the actions prescribed by the liturgy itself. It is at those junctures when we can spot which aspects of the ceremony were sources of friction or conflict for those involved. A striking case in point is the Libro de la Coronación, which was left unfinished presumably because the King perceived it as detrimental for his interests. Not surprisingly, when his coronation finally took place in the summer of 1332, the ritual diverged from what had been prescribed in the book. It is the comparison between the liturgy, the ceremony as reported by contemporary chroniclers and the images in the royal manuscript that allows us for an innovative view of what was going on in Castile around 1330, and what the King was concerned about.

To begin with, the very idea of organising a coronation ceremony may have seemed weird at the time, because Castilian kings usually did not feel the need to perform any ecclesiastical rite to get to the throne. They were warriors at the service of God against Islam and, therefore, were naturally entitled to it, with only a public proclamation required to mark the beginning of the new reign. Moreover, Alfonso XI had been the reigning monarch since he was a small baby, and more than five years had passed since he had come out of his minority. For him, coronation was certainly not going to be a rite of passage. So what then? As Peter Linehan (2002: VII, 130-3) contended, there was only one thing missing: Alfonso’s father had died too early to knight him, and the king was in desperate need to find a way to get the accolade without remaining subjected either to the Archbishop officiating the rite or to any of the senior members of his own family.

Acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue, the Libro de la Coronación had explicitly allowed the King to go against custom – if he ‘preferred’ – and take the sword from the altar himself, without being given it by anyone else. Not surprisingly, that was the formula chosen by the artists commissioned to illustrate the book. And yet this was not enough for Alfonso. The solution found was an imagination prowess: to use an articulated image of the Apostle St James – still preserved – to get the blow directly from the saintly champion of the Reconquista. Alfonso felt empowered enough to take the crown from the altar himself, much like Napoleon would do centuries later. These scenes must have been as mind-blowing for those present as they are for modern historians puzzling.

But that is only one side of the story images tell us. If we look carefully at the visual narrative that accompanies the liturgical texts, one figure becomes conspicuous, and even more so if we compare the Libro de la Coronación to all the other coronation books. Queens have a very secondary role – if any – in them, with the exception of Jeanne of Bourbon in the Livre du Sacre made for Charles V of France, as argued by Claire Richter Sherman (1977) and Carra Ferguson O’Meara (2001: 153-79). And yet, Queen Maria of Portugal is depicted here in almost as many illustrations as Alfonso himself, a higher rate in comparison to the French king’s beloved wife. Her prominent presence becomes less strange when we remember that Iberian queens did have a share in ruling. Still, one becomes suspicious when realising that the ecclesiastic entrusted with the thorny duty of providing the liturgical materials for the Castilian coronation book was a Portuguese bishop, Raymond II of Coimbra. Proof that things may have gone too far for Alfonso and his advisors is that, in the actual coronation, the King not only crowned himself but also put the crown on his wife’s head. As it was going to happen in 1953, and with very different results, gender roles, political anxieties and marital strives were at stake behind the spectacular display of power.


Bonne, Jean-Claude, ‘Images du sacre’, Le Sacre royal à l’époque de Saint Louis, ed. by Jacques Le Goff et al (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 91-226.

Linehan, Peter, ‘Alfonso XI of Castile and the Arm of Santiago (with a Note on the Pope’s Foot)’, The Processes of Politics and the Rule of Law (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 121-46.

O’Meara, Carra Ferguson, Monarchy and Consent: The Coronation Book of Charles V of France: British Library MS Tiberius B VIII (London: Harvey Miller, 2001).

Sherman, Claire Richter, ‘The Queen in Charles V’s Coronation Book: Jeanne de Bourbon and the Ordo ad reginam benedicendam’, Viator 8 (1977), 262-266.

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