This Week in History: Liber Regalis, The Little Device, and English Coronations

This week I’ve gotten to write about a lot of royal history! Perhaps my favorite topic that underlies a lot of these events is the study of royal ceremonial – especially coronations. I LOVE getting to look at all of the intended and interpreted connotations of each and every little known aspect of these ceremonies, which were meant to be talked about and thought about for generations to come. The #OnThisDay which inspired this post, specifically, was the one about Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559.

Image of a post from Mastodon

So, what on earth is Liber Regalis? The Little Device? What do they have to do with coronations?
Honestly? Pretty much everything! The Liber Regalis is a manuscript that is now owned by and housed in Westminster Abbey (which makes complete and utter sense). Liber Regalis translates from Latin as “royal book” which is a truthful and succinct description of its contents.
The Liber Regalis contains in it the ‘script’ for coronations in England – the order (ordo) of the prayers, the step-by-step of the ritual used to crown a new monarch to make it super official that they’re the one in charge. The divinely appointed person – the one that God chose – was the one that got to enjoy their triumphant coronation.
Typically in England, the monarch was a man – but not always, and the inspiration of this post was one of those outliers. Elizabeth I was England’s second virgin queen and second woman king. She’d borrowed much from her sister Mary’s image-building and coronation 5 years earlier (even the golden robes she’s wearing in the portrait above!). Mary’s coronation was England’s first for a ruling queen – and because she saw herself as no less a rightful ruler than her brother before her, she followed the same coronation procedure as had the men in preceding generations.

The Liber Regalis and Little Device worked together to try and provide guidance in any foreseeable coronation combination – a king alone, a queen (consort) alone, and a king and queen together. When the Liber Regalis was developed in the late 14th century (likely for Anne of Bohemia, consort of Richard II), the authors did not conceive of a woman ruling in her own right (the only time in English history that had come close to happening was the potential rule of Matilda, daughter of Henry I. Her rule had been usurped by her cousin, Stephen), and so did not write a set of instructions on how to crown one.

It was up to Mary to decide exactly how she wanted to be crowned – and she largely followed the procedure as laid out and followed by her brother and father and grandfather before her.

Typically, a coronation celebration begins with the procession to the Abbey ahead of the ceremony itself, where the monarch presents herself to her people, decked out in the best clothes and jewels she can muster. Mary wore crimson (along with her sister Elizabeth) in her procession, changed to a white gown for the anointing in the church, and then purple for her recessional to her coronation banquet. Elizabeth followed this same pattern for her own coronation.

In the coronation itself, the monarch is both anointed and invested. What this means is that they are dabbed with holy oil or chrism at various points on their body – for a king, that meant hands, breast, shoulders, elbows, and head. So, that’s what Mary did.
After the anointing, the monarch is then given objects which represent various parts of their kingly authority – spurs, sword, scepter, orb, and then crowns. The spurs symbolize knighthood and are a key part of investiture for knights. The sword demonstrates a king’s martial authority – life and death and justice – over their realm. The scepter (with a dove) symbolizes a monarch’s role in the spiritual lives of their people. The orb literally is taken to mean the Christian world (it has a cross up top) and the power of the monarch to rule it. She was then given a ring – symbolizing her marriage to her realm.
Mary was crowned with three different crowns in succession, either in imitation of her brother or her cousin (Charles V). These three crowns – one an ancient one, one commissioned by her father, and then one purpose made for her, symbolized her connection to both the legacy of her brother, father, and the empire of her cousin. Mary’s England wasn’t just and island set apart from the rest of Europe by dint of the Channel – it had aspirations of empire, going back to Mary’s grandfather, Henry VII. By appropriating the triple crowns, her coronation was in line with that of a papal investiture, coronation of the Emperor, as well as that of her brother.
And the Liber Regalis goes into all of this, in detail.
If you’re interested in reading it, I’d suggest looking at its adaptation for James VI/I for his coronation in 1604. James’ is slightly different in that it was England’s first coronation for over forty years and the Church was very different in James’ day than it was in Elizabeth’s (technically Elizabeth’s ceremony was done under the same Catholic authority as Mary’s), but the text is made to have been performed in English.
I’d also suggest anything by Alice Hunt – especially the Drama of Coronation.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This Week in History: Liber Regalis, The Little Device, and English Coronations by courtney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.