Twenty-first century Americans are accustomed to separate the religious and civil spheres of human activity. Some speak of a “Wall of Separation” of what we call “Church” and “State.” This apparently simple “wall” occasionally becomes porous. In the national community disagreement occurs on issues such as prayer in public schools. There are apparent contradictions in law. Prayer is prohibited in public schools but is allowed in the Congress.

Before 312, when Constantine gave Christians freedom to practice their religion, Christians interacted with a Roman Empire that often was unfriendly to them. Thereafter, Christianity became more and more involved with the government of the Roman Empire and its successor states. Emperors and kings had a stake in doctrinal decisions that could effect civil order. Popes and bishops took on civil and judicial responsibilities. In the “Christian Empire” all agreed that the ultimate source of power and authority on earth was Christ. Disagreements arose over to whom Christ had given ultimate power, the religious authority or the civil authority. Today we refer to these conflicts as Church-State disputes. The separation of Church and State into distinct spheres is a modern concept. One thousand years ago it would have been incomprehensible. Emperors convoked Church councils and appointed bishops; bishops and popes were territorial princes and civil judges.

Christian Europe in the thousand years before the French Revolution of 1789 often is called “Christendom,” a society united by faith in Christ. Before the Reformation of the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church determined the definition of society’s faith in Christ. Membership in the Catholic Church was equivalent to membership in society. Non-Catholics were sometimes tolerated and occasionally persecuted. Within Christendom there were, however, two distinct “spheres.” The Sacerdotium was the religious sphere, comprising the clergy and Canon Law, the law of the Church. Sometimes it was called the “Spiritual Arm” of society. The Imperium was the civil sphere, comprising the civil rulers, emperor, kings, princes, and the civil law of the various states. It was often called the “Temporal Arm” of society.

The members of each sphere had different views concerning their interrelationship. Each believed that their respective authority, and the power derived from it, directly came from God. They differed on the extent and limitations of that authority and power. Advocates of the “Spiritual Power” contended that only they could legitimate the authority of the “Temporal Power.” After all, they were the custodians and interpreters of the Law of God, which was the basis of civil order. Proponents of the “Temporal Power” said that it was their responsibility to provide protection and security for all Christendom, thus ensuring that the “Spiritual Power” could exercise its responsibilities for the salvation of souls.

These differing views provoked many crises of authority that threatened the stability of society. Each side struggled for supreme power. For short periods one or the other would triumph; a pope deposing an emperor, an emperor deposing a pope. The conflict was often played out in symbolic actions. An emperor would prostrate before a pope seeking absolution from excommunication; a pope would seek confirmation of his office from an emperor. Nowhere is this intricate dance more apparent than in the ceremony of royal coronation, the ritual in which a monarch’s assumption of legitimate authority and power is enacted.

The ceremony of royal coronation as it developed in Europe from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries expresses, in ritual form, the often-contradictory understandings of society. It combines elements drawn from Roman, Germanic and Christian ceremonial and law. This combination of cultural and religious traditions exemplifies the integration of the Roman and Germanic cultures with the Christian religion. This order dominated Europe from the time of Charlemagne through the Reformation, and according to some, until the French Revolution.

Such a world is very different from our own although some of the issues it addressed resonate in our own time. What is the supreme guide of human activity, the civil law or the law of the Church? How can we understand this world of the past and thereby better understand our own?

The great moments in the lives of individuals and societies are marked by ceremonies. The most significant ceremony in the society of Christian Europe was the coronation of the monarch. The ceremony itself is filled with symbols. Symbols should not be understood as mere signs, but as signs that effect an underlying reality. The symbolism in the coronation ceremony is “sacramental” in the full sense of the word as understood in Catholic sacramental theology. It is an outward sign of a hidden reality. The enacting of the ritual is not simply ceremonial but causes a change to take place in the participants. It is not surprising that the ceremony is very similar to Catholic sacramental rituals.

The film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II may be recent. The coronation took place in 1953. However, this ceremony contains the same elements as a coronation that might have taken place in France, Germany, or England in the eleventh or the fourteenth centuries. Some obvious differences are the language. In pre-Reformation times, the entire ceremony was in Latin. In post-Reformation England, the relationship of the Church and State had radically changed due to the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

What are the origins of this very complex ceremony?

The fiction of a republican form of government was maintained in the Roman Empire. “Emperors” occasionally succeeded their fathers but their legitimacy came not from blood descent but from the acclamation of the Senate and the Roman People. This acclamation eventually was reduced to acclamation by the army. The new emperor was acclaimed as "Caesar" and “Imperator” while the soldiers implored the gods to grant him Salus et Victoria, “Health and Victory.” Emperors were not crowned, as were monarchs in Egypt and Persia, because, in theory, they were not kings, but the “First Man” of the republic. The early emperors often wore a golden laurel wreath that was a sign of military triumph rather than of royal status. As the Eastern Empire became more “oriental,” its emperors assumed the title of “Basileus” or king and a ceremony of coronation developed in which the emperor crowned himself. Among the Germanic peoples, the soldiers acclaimed kings and chiefs, but this was simply recognition of their legitimacy. Legitimacy was based on their accepted and proven “blood descent” from the previous monarch. As the Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire they retained their traditional method of “legitimizing” a rulerHe was the son or the grandson of the previous monarch who was then recognized by the army.

As time passed in the Frankish kingdom, a system developed whereby the king was a mere figurehead and the “Mayor of the Palace,” not related to the king, exercised the real authority. This was due to an inherent weakness in the system of inheritance. There was no way mere inheritance could guarantee a good, wise, or strong ruler. Other, more qualified or merely stronger, figures entered the picture. In 749 Pepin asked Pope Zachary whether it was correct that the one who exercised the royal power should have the royal title, he was asking the pope to legitimize a “coup d’état.”

This overthrow required a symbolic act. This act of legitimization was “anointing.” Anointing had a clear religious symbolism. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophet Samuel anointed Saul as king. The ritual of anointing was symbolic of the divine conferral of royal power on Saul. He then transferred the divine legitimacy to David by anointing. This was not merely symbolic. The act of anointing meant that God conferred power. Anointing would now be used as a Christian sign of royal power coming from God. This is not surprising. By this time, anointing had been added to the laying on of hands in the sacraments of Initiation and Holy Orders. In both instances it symbolized the conferral of the power of the Holy Spirit.

The anointing of Pepin symbolized and effectuated the conferral of royal power from God to the new king. The anointing and crowning of the king by a pope or bishop created a problem that would plague the relation of church and state. Did the pope or bishop confer the power in the name of God or did they merely act as intermediaries through whom the legitimate power was conferred?

As a sidelight, Childeric III, the king whom Pepin replaced, was ritually deposed. Among the Frankish monarchs of the Merovingian dynasty, the royal status was symbolized by the wearing of long hair. Childeric’s hair was cut off as a sign he was no longer king! Other monarchs lost their heads. Pepin soon rewarded the pope by confirming him as civil ruler of central Italy, the Papal States.

The coronation of Charlemagne was imitative of the acclamation of a Roman Emperor with the addition of the crown that had become customary in the Eastern Empire. The accounts of the coronation differ. Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer, gives the impression that Charlemagne was unwilling to be crowned. This is unlikely. What angered Charlemagne was the method of coronation. The bestowal of the crown by the pope indicated that the crown came through the mediation of the pope. Eastern emperors crowned themselves to show that their authority came directly from God. Charlemagne believed that God directly bestowed his authority as well. One thousand years later, to avoid any ambiguity, Napoleon brought Pope Pius VII to Paris for his coronation as Emperor of the French. Napoleon took the crown from the hands of the pope, crowned himself and then crowned his empress.

The Ceremony

In Christendom, the combination of Roman, Germanic and Christian symbols was exemplified in the ritual of coronation. The roles of Church and State were acted out in the ceremony through words, vestments, and instruments. 

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Before the ceremony, the monarch informs the people of her accession and intent to be crowned. This notification gives those who might challenge the legitimacy or rights of the monarch to be heard — at their peril.

The ceremony takes place in a church. Traditions developed in most countries linking the coronation ceremony to a particular church. In England the traditional coronation church is Westminster Abbey. In France it is the cathedral of Rheims. The monarch proceeds with great pomp and ceremony from the royal residence to the church of coronation.

The coronation ceremony takes place within a Mass. As the Queen processes into the abbey, the choir sings a traditional entrance hymn, Psalm 122.  She is escorted by the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London, the second and third-ranking clergymen of the Church of England. She proceeds through a “rood screen” into the choir area that has been arranged as the site for the coronation ceremony. The elaborate rood screen separates the area of the abbey reserved for the monks from that allowed to other clergy and laity. It is so-called because it is toped with a cross, “rood” in old English.

The choir area is filled with the “Lords Spiritual,” the bishops of the church and the “Lords Temporal,” the peers of the realm. As the Queen enters the choir, choristers greet her with the words “Vivat Regina,” “Long live the Queen.” This first acclamation recalls the acclamation given to a newly chosen Roman emperor.

Before proceeding further, the Queen presents a Bible and a Chalice to be used in the celebration of the Mass. From the very beginning the civil and religious are interchanged.

The Recognition

The monarch is presented, in this instance as “undoubted Queen,” to the assembled people, in this case the Lords Spiritual (bishops) and the Lords Temporal (peers). Their acclamation recognizes her as such. The acclamation is a reflection of the Roman acclamation as well as the Germanic recognition of the birthright of the legitimate heir to the throne. The presentation by the Archbishop of Canterbury indicates the Church’s role in this recognition.

The Oath

A Christian monarch was not an “absolute” ruler. He was required to rule in accord with the laws of God and of the state. In fact, monarchs could be deposed based on accusations that they had betrayed their oath and obligation to rule with justice and according to the laws of God. In the English coronation oath, the monarch promises to maintain the current post-Reformation relationship of church and state.

In Roman Catholic ceremonies, the monarch would be required to promise to protect the Church and respect its rights as guaranteed in law. When Charles V was crowned as King of the Romans in Aachen in 1520, he too took an oath, responding “I will” to the questions asked by the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne.

The taking of the oath upon assuming office by presidents of republics is the sole surviving element of this ritual. In the United States, the new president customarily concludes the oath with the words “So help me, God,” but this is not required by the constitution.

At this point the “Communion Service,” which in a Roman Catholic ceremony would be a Mass, begins. Like episcopal and priestly ordination, the coronation takes place within Mass.

The Anointing

After the creed, the monarch is vested in a simple white linen robe similar to an albIt covers the jewel-encrusted coronation dress. The hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, “Come, Holy Spirit,” is sung. This hymn is sung in ordination rites for priests and bishops just before the anointing. The connection to the Kings of Israel and their divine power is made very clear in the prayerUnder a canopy she is anointed on the hands, breast and head. The oil is poured from an ampule shaped like an eagle. As she is anointed the choir sings a selection from I Kings recalling the anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet. The act of Anointing is not filmed.

The Vesting and Presentation of Swords

The vestments appear similar to those of a bishop. This is no accident. What we perceive as exclusively ecclesiastical vestments originated in secular society. Western or Latin bishops and priests wear vestments derived from the street dress of Romans of the early Christian era. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic bishops wear vestments derived from the court dress of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.

The Queen is vested with a robe similar to a dalmatic and girded with a golden cincture.

Swords are symbols of power and of justice. The sword is used to inflict various forms of punishment, including capital punishment. Swords are presented to the Queen and in the prayer she is told to distribute justice equally and to “protect the holy church of God. In a ceremony of priestly or episcopal ordination, the chalice and the crosier, or pastoral staff, and ring would be presented.


Next the Queen is vested with a stole, originally a symbol of civil authority and today a symbol of priestly power, and the “robe royal,”  similar to a copeTo all appearances, at this point she is vested like a contemporary bishop. It is little wonder that many theologians of the period considered coronation to be a sacrament. It has all of the external elements, including anointing and vesting.

The orb, symbol of the world under Christ, is presented.

The ring is placed on her finger, symbolizing her wedding with the kingdom. This ring is called the “Wedding Ring of England.” Similarly, in the ceremony of episcopal ordination or consecration, the ring symbolizes the bishop’s marriage to his diocese.

The scepters or rods, symbol of royal power to judge and to discipline, are presentedto the Queen. The resemblance to the presentation of a bishop with the crosier, or pastoral staff, is clear The ancient use of such instruments as symbols of power dates back to the pharaohs

The Crowning


The crown symbolizes royal authority. Crowns were used to symbolize the royal authority of kings in Egypt, Persia and other nations. In these nations, the crown symbolized not only the conferral of royal power, but also the identification of the monarch as the living incarnation of a particular god. In Christian ceremonies, and in tradition dating from this time, the monarch rules, not as god, but Dei Gratia, “by the grace of God.” The crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, the so-called “Crown of Charlemagne,” was constructed to allow it to be set over a miter, symbolizing a combination of kingly and priestly authority. The seventeenth century crown of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, effectively combined the crown and the miter. The imperial Crown - Tsar of Russia bears a clear resemblance to the early Byzantine crowns and the crowns of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic bishops also imitate these Byzantine models.


The coronation crown is “St. Edward’s Crown” and is worn only on this occasion. Later in the ceremony, the Queen will wear the Imperial State Crown, the crown worn throughout her reign on state occasions.

For more than a millennium, popes were crowned as well. In 1978, Pope John Paul I refused the coronation ceremony and was installed in a simplified ceremony marking the inauguration of his service as Supreme Pastor of the Church. His predecessors, among them Boniface VIII,  Innocent III, John XXIII, and Paul VI wore a variety of crowns. Paul VI was the last pope to be crowned and later donated his crown to the poor of the world. It currently is on display in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

Before crowning the Queen, the archbishop blesses the crown. The archbishop then blesses the Queen with a prayer that indicates the divine origin of her power:

The climax of the ceremony then occurs as the archbishop crowns the Queen.  

The peers of the realm, the “Lords Temporal” immediately place their coronetson their heads. Representatives of the peers then pass by the crowned Queen. Each peer wears a coronet that indicates his rank: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron. Before the French Revolution, European society was organized according to a strict hierarchy of rank, civil and ecclesiastical. This hierarchy was seen by some writers to parallel the ‘heavenly hierarchy’ of the angels. Thus, the “City of Man” reflected the “City of God.”

The act of coronation that we have witnessed can be interpreted in many ways. Does the monarch receive divine authority from God through the mediation of the Church or does the monarch rule by direct commission from God? A gospel book illustrates the belief of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (1002-1024) that his power comes directly from God. Emperors and kings also claimed the authority to invest bishops with the regalia signifying their episcopal office. These claims set off a long struggle with the papacy. On the other hand many Church leaders maintained that a ruler received legitimacy only through their intervention, as successive Archbishops of Mainz demonstrated in art they commissioned.

The Enthroning

The monarch is “lifted up” to her throne by the bishops and the lords. Both church and state are the foundations of her power. In this moment, the two “Powers” act in unison. However, as she is enthroned, the prayer indicates the role of the Church in the ceremony:

The Homage

The first to pay homage is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here the ambiguity of the relationship is evident. The archbishop has anointed her, has placed the crown on her head, has assisted in “lifting her up” to her throne. Now he pays homage to the Queen. Of course, in post-Reformation England, his subservient position is clear, but it was not always so.

The manner in which homage is offered is significant. The bishops and the lords place their hands in the Queen’s as they promise obedience. It is exactly the same ceremony as the Promise of Obedience in priestly and diaconal ordination ceremonies. In both instances, the ceremony is based on the public act of fealty of a vassal to a feudal lord.

The rubrics and the words of this ceremony clearly indicate the subjection of the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal to the monarch.

The Mass continues. We see only the Offertory. In 1953, the Anointing, the Eucharist and the Communion were considered so sacred that it was considered to be an invasion of the sacred realm, and of the private realms of the participants, to photograph them. At the end of the Eucharist, the Queen removes her royal coronation robes and, wearing her velvet and ermine train, recesses from the abbey.

This ceremony has shown us the sacramental and the symbolic. Society is one. There is no distinction between the religious and the civil aspects of society. They are inextricably intertwined.

The ceremony can be reviewed through the eyes of participants.