So what will I be doing today? It’s not every week that you get to watch a coronation. The last time I saw the monarch being installed was June 2, 1953, when I was four – and back then everything, including my life, was in black and white. The television that showed the young Queen Elizabeth struggling to remain upright under the weight of the Imperial State Crown had a 12-inch screen and was perched on the stage of our local Presbyterian church just outside Belfast.
But not only will I be watching the ceremony, in colour, after an interval of more than 70 years, I will be doing so in France, which hasn’t had a king since the Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Bonaparte, deposed in 1870 after being taken hostage by the Prussians. And let’s face it, he owed everything to his uncle, a former Corsican nationalist who converted to the revolutionary cause at around the time his pal Robespierre was leading the call for the execution of Louis XVI.
Lacking a king of their own (and there has never been a sovereign queen), the French, it seems to me, feel a certain void in their national life. Yes, they claim allegiance to the Revolution (liberté, égalité, fraternité and all that), ghastly and blood-soaked though it was. But, as we have seen in recent days, the Élysée is no substitute for Versailles and the list of presidents, even just of the Fifth Republic, fails to compete in the public mind with the roll-call of the Bourbons and, before them, a slew of dynasties dating all the way back to Charles the Bald, nephew of Charlemagne, recognised as king of the Franks in 843.
In the UK, only a very few French kings stand out. There was Louis VII, a wily operator, most of whose reign was taken up with holding off England’s land-hungry Henry II. Louis IX, whose rule lasted from 1226 to 1270 ought to be much better known to the British. An inveterate crusader, only was he declared a saint by Pope Boniface VIII, but he introduced the first fully-functioning system of justice in France, banning trials by ordeals and introducing the presumption of innocence in criminal procedures. His patronage of the arts was important in the development of the gothic style in architecture, while his negotiating skill secured the restoration to France of most of what were formerly English possessions.
In England, Edward III is remembered as the king who bested France at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Henry V was gloried, not least by Shakespeare, for his prowess at Agincourt in 1415. But how many on the northern side of the Channel could name the French king whose cannon demolished the English Army at the Battle of Castillon, in 1453, effectively bringing the Hundred Years War to an end in France’s favour? It was Charles VII remembered as Charles le Victorieux, whose endorsement of Joan of Arc – later executed by the English – as his spiritual and military guide – proved to be a masterstroke.
Of the many French kings in the more than one thousand years between 843 and 1870, the next to rate a mention in Albion’s annals is, of course, Louis XIV, the Roi du Soleil, whose military skills and boundless ambition made him the master of Europe, reigning for longer in the continent’s history than any other monarch, not excluding our own dear-departed Elizabeth II, until his death in 1715. The son of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, of Three Musketeers fame, Louis was the moving force behind the extraordinary and vainglorious Palace of Versailles, from the throne room of which Emmanuel Macron hectored the assembled deputies and senators of France after being elected President in 2017.
The last of the Bourbons, Louis XVI, was a sad and desperate figure, not unlike his Stuart counterpart Charles I. Both could have made peace with their enemies. Both misjudged the ardour of their Republican opponents. Both lost their heads, in Louis’s case along with that of his wife, Marie Antoniette. The couple’s death brought to an end the true age of kings and queens in France. Those who followed, after the immense interregnum of Bonaparte – were either fag-end monarchs (Louis XVIII and Charles X) or else politicians temporarily elevated by their Napoleonic connections, discarded when they failed to live up to the hype .
Today, if we leave the several residual Pretenders out of it, France has definitively given up on crowns and coronations, but looks back with a mixture of pride and bewilderment on the 52 individuals over eleven centuries who once bore the title.
Today, as the Paris papers all make plain, the big news is the coronation of Charles III and his queen, Camilla, the former Mrs Parker Bowles. It will be argued by most of the pundits that it is all a nonsense, bearing no relation to the needs and mores of the twenty-first century. At the same time, every minute of the investiture will be scrutinised and assessed as if it might reflect an ancient wisdom for which the French themselves still secretly and unconsciously yearn. And look! Who is that sitting close to the front in Westminster Abbey? Why, it is President Macron, paying his respects to the new king. Not for him the sound of trumpets. For him, rather, a casserolade of pots and pans as his fellow citizens let him know exactly what they think of him six years into his second term as their elected leader. Uneasy, some might say, lies the head of state of a land that lacks a throne.
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