Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Coronation of Arthur and Guenevere in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Wace's Romande Brut, and Lawman's Brut

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Coronation of Arthur and Guenevere in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Wace's Romande Brut, and Lawman's Brut

Article excerpt

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, Wace's Roman de Brut and Lawman's Brut recount the successes and failures of the early British monarchs, with the reign of King Arthur as the centrepiece of each of these narratives. In these three texts the crowning of Arthur (Geoffrey's Arturus) and Guenevere (or Ganhumara, as Geoffrey names her) at the plenary court held in Caerleon represents the apex of Arthur's power and glory. A careful analysis of this scene in the Historia reveals Geoffrey's political purpose in telling Arthur's story plus Geoffrey's subtie skill in his portrayal of Guenevere. A study of the same scene in the Roman de Brut and the Brut reveals shifts in purpose and audience in the portrayals of both setting and character, and raises the question of whether Lawman, at least, regarded this event as a coronation or a crown-wearing.

At the time when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia, kings were sometimes crowned more than once. As David Carpenter observes, "Nearly all the Norman and Angevin kings, moreover, enjoyed more than one coronation (or what chroniclers called coronations), quite apart, under the Normans, from more regular festal crown-wearings".2 The ceremony held at Caerleon described in Geoffrey's Historia may therefore be intended as a second coronation. Certainly, this passage is longer and includes more detailed descriptions than most of the major events in the Historia, painting a memorable picture of theatrical opulence, and leaving the reader in no doubt that Arthur is the preeminent monarch of his time. Was this whole scene the result of Geoffrey's inventive imagination, or was it, perhaps, based in part on an actual historical coronation or crown-wearing?

To address this question, both the history and the nature of the medieval coronation ritual must be examined. W.J. Passingham, while discussing Anglo-Saxon coronations, traces coronation rituals in all Christian countries back to Old Testament accounts of the anointing and crowning of kings, although he notes that a number of pre-Christian customs persisted in British coronation rituals.3 Passingham stresses that the anointing with holy oil was considered the most important part of the ceremony, explaining that -

By virtue of the unction received the sovereign became even as a priest. A king anointed became a person set apart from the rest of humanity, a being endowed with authority both spiritual and material.4

Robert Murray, also reviewing early coronation ceremonies,5 points out that the coronation ritual "shares a priestly as well as a military character ... the priestly character predominates in it", adding that the older name for it was "the hallowing or sacring of the sovereign".6 He notes several very early medieval coronation rituals in the British Isles and on the Continent that included either the laying on of hands or, more often, anointing with holy oil, or sometimes both. Also, during most medieval coronation rituals, both Continental and British, the king would promise to defend the Church. Murray adds that the coronation ritual is "modelled on the same lines as the consecration of a bishop" with the heart of each of these rituals being "the consecration and anointing, followed by the delivery of ornaments".7 In fact, both the consecration of a bishop and the coronation of a king in the later medieval period were held on the same day as one of the great Church festivals. It is here that a potential confusion arises between the rituals of coronation and crown wearing, for the latter were also held on the great festivals.

Percy Schramm explains that the occasions for the king to appear in public wearing his crown were limited and that only an ecclesiastic was ever allowed to place the crown on the king's head. He adds that in France and in England there was a ritual that had been derived from the inaugural coronation ceremony which was adopted for these crown wearings and which did not give the king a new status or any new power but did "exhibit him anew, in the language of symbolism then understood, as the manifest ruler of his people. …

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