“L’Évêque du dehors”: The French King as Bishop in the Use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles and of the Holy Sepulcher (1)

This post will explore the ways in which the liturgical use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles, especially under Louis XIV, embodied a conception of sacred kingship not usually associated with the Sun King. It will show how the priestly power and authority of the King was both expressed and confirmed through a series of liturgical and para-liturgical ceremonies that began with his coronation and regularly punctuated his life at court. Then it will show how Gallican theologians articulated a theology of sacred kingship they believed the king to hold based on the royal anointing ceremony. Finally, it will discuss the remarkable survival of some of these royals honors in the present use of the Holy Sepulcher, where to this day the Consul General receives, several times a year, many of the honors formerly reserved to the King of France, and try to account for the origin and longevity of this practice.

louis xvi 1
Illumination showing Louis XIV praying in the chapel of Versailles (Heures de Louis le Grand, 1693, BnF MS. Lat. 9477, f. Bv.

The popular image of the Sun King Louis XVI and his court at Versailles tends to exaggerate his character as a secular state-building absolute monarch, one who exchanged traditional legitimizing symbols of Christian rule for those of classical mythology. A first glance at the Sun King’s artistic legacy in Versailles and elsewhere lends credibility to this story.

Royal Chapel (apollo)
Ceiling of the Salon of Apollo, Versailles

However, a closer look at life in the court at Versailles reveals another picture. From his morning prayers and daily Mass, to his close collaboration with his bishops in the government of the French Church, the life of the French monarch was a carefully choreographed set of liturgical and paraliturgical ceremonies that aimed to express the king’s role as a sacred, Davidic King, and to accentuate his quasi-episcopal rule over the Gallican Church. According to Alexandre Maral, chief conservator at Versailles, who has written extensively on the life of Louis XIV, these ceremonies “were intended to manifest the priestly character the king held in virtue of his anointing, and therefore to assimilate the King to the priest who celebrated at the altar.”[1]

In the Middle Ages, as a result of the close tie that was felt to exist between kingship and priesthood, the emperor and monarchs of Europe had enjoyed special honors in the liturgies of their realms. This ranged from commemoration alongside the popes and saints in the Roman Canon,[2] to special collects, the Laudes regiae, and the exercise of functions usually reserved to sacred ministers, such as the emperor’s role in Christmas Mass at Rome, where he had the right of proclaiming the Gospel Exiit a Caesare Augusto. Roman ceremonial books have long contained special instructions for the celebration of Mass in the presence of a monarch or prince of the blood.

The French kings and their theologians, conscious of France’s special role as Eldest Daughter of the Church, obtained many privileges for the royal chapel and developed unique liturgical customs that often went beyond the limited honors conceded to princes in contemporary Roman ceremonial books. In fact, the ceremonial honors given to the King during masses in the royal chapel—performed in the Roman Rite since the court adopted that ritual in the 16th century—were not dissimilar to what was foreseen in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum for a bishop assisting at Mass outside his diocese.

Part I: The Royal Mass in the Chapel of Versailles

Though its origin and development is little understood, we do know that the Royal Chapel cultivated a use all of its own, one that retained many particularities even after it adopted the Roman liturgy in the 16th century, before any other French diocese.

The customs of the Royal Chapel are recorded in French ceremonial books of the period, such as the Coutumier général pour la chapelle royale du château de Versailles (edited by the Vincentians who staffed the chapel), the Cérémonial historique of Abbé Chuperelle (Rouen, Archives départementales de la Seine-Maritime), the Recueil de relations des cérémonies de la cour de France by the master of ceremonies Desgranges (Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine) and the Office du premier clerc de Chapelle (ibid.).[3]

The chapel was an anomaly of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. While technically subordinate to the local parish in the town of Versailles (where the King went for Easter, for baptisms and other important occasions), the many privileges granted to the king’s Grand Almoner went far toward making the chapel a sort of “royal diocese” and an enclave of the Roman rite. The Grand Almoner assumed many of the prerogatives of an ordinary: granting dispensations, giving permissions to ecclesiastics to marry officers of the court without going through their parishes, signing all provisions of benefices, etc., essentially administering a “diocese without borders, which followed the King wherever he went.”[4]

Henry III, at the advice of the Jesuits, had ordered the Royal Chapel to employ the Roman Missal in 1580.[5] Henceforth the Roman liturgy was observed there according to the ceremonial found especially in the Manuel des cérémonies Romaines, but with many modifications of its own.

louis xvi 6
Jacques Rigaud, Réception des chevaliers de l’ordre du Saint‑Esprit dans la chapelle de Versailles lors de la grande promotion du 3e juin 1724 (engraving)

Description of the Royal Low and High Mass

Louis XIV’s custom at the beginning of his reign was to hear a Low Mass every day at about noon,[6] but after the court definitively moved to Versailles in 1682, daily Mass was fixed to 10 in the morning. The king assisted either from the height of the royal tribune or from a prie-Dieu placed in the choir amidst the stalls of the clergy. On the five days when he was, by ancient custom, to receive Communion—called bons jours[7]—the first Low Mass, said with no musical accompaniment, was succeeded by a second Mass of thanksgiving, also bereft of music.[8]

On certain designated jours solennels,[9] a Solemn Mass was celebrated by the Grand Almoner or the Vincentians who ran the Chapel, and the King betook himself to his chapel in procession, surrounded by prominent members of his court.

In the course of a royal Mass, the King was given certain liturgical honors. These honors can be classified according as they were of a non-priestly or a priestly character, and whether they were foreseen in the Roman ceremonial books or exceeding what was there foreseen. In the former categories, there were, for example, the usual reverences and incensations given to monarchs or princes, plus several more. In the latter categories, the most interesting, three rites are significant: the kissing of the Gospel Book, the King’s communion, and the kissing of the corporal.

As Maral points out, many of these ceremonies closely resemble, with several notable exceptions, the actions provided in the Caeremoniale episcoporum for a Mass in the presence of a cardinal, metropolitan archbishop, or diocesan bishop: “With respect to Roman liturgical norms, in the course of the Mass the King of France was treated, with only a few exceptions, as a bishop assisting at Mass outside his ecclesiastical jurisdiction.”[10]

We will present each of these honors, noting where they depart from contemporary Roman ceremonial.


1) Blessing with Holy Water and Solemn Reception

During a sung Mass, the celebrant –or the priest assistant in a pontifical Mass—carried holy water to the king at the beginning of the ceremony, reminiscent of the solemn reception of a bishop in the Roman rite.[11]

A closely related ceremony was the Solemn Reception upon the King’s return to Versailles. As Maral explains:

Another rite, likewise an integral part of the ‘paraliturgy’ practiced in the royal chapel, manifested the episcopal character of the sovereign. Described by the Coutumier général de la chapelle royale de Versailles, the ceremony performed by the Lazarists when the king was welcomed in his return to Versailles finds its liturgical equivalent in the Roman ceremony of the reception by his clergy of the diocesan bishop on a pastoral visit. Vested in surplice, they received him at the door of the church and gave him holy water.[12]

2) Reverences and Incensations

Maral lists the ten profound reverences due to the king during the course of a royal Mass in the chapel of Versailles. Some of these reverences are foreseen by the Manuel des cérémonies Romaines (pp. 172-174), duly followed in the chapel, but not all:

Throughout the course of the Mass, the celebrant had to make no less than ten profound reverences—from the chest—in the direction of the sovereign, whether the latter was present in the nave or in the royal tribune: first when it arrived at the base of the steps of the high altar, before beginning the prayers at the foot of the altar; the second time before the Dominus vobiscum of the Collect; the third before the Dominus vobiscum before the reading or chant of the Gospel; the fifth before the Dominus vobiscum of the Offertory; the sixth before that of the Postcommunion; the seventh before the Dominus vobiscum preceding the Ite, missa est or Benedicamus Domino; the eighth between the Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus and the final blessing; the ninth before the Dominus vobiscum preceding the reading of the Last Gospel; and the last before leaving the sanctuary for the sacristy.[13]

As for incensations, the king was incensed with three double swings immediately after the celebrant, and before any cardinals, bishops, and other clerics present.

louis xvi 3
Antoine Pezey, Louis XIV receiving the oath of the Marquis de Dangeau, Grand Master of the united Orders of Our Lady of Mt Carmel and St Lazarus, in Versailles (1695)


Others honors, however, went further, exhibiting gestures usually reserved for priests, as Maral explains:

In the midst of these royal ceremonies, a certain number of rites, practices, and ceremonial actions pertained directly to the king in his sacral character. Although beyond the rite of anointing there does not exist a ceremony that expressly claims or acknowledges the king as evêque du dehors, the whole ensemble of liturgical actions and ceremonial reserves a particular treatment for the king and might be regarded as following from his anointing.[14]

3) Kisses

a) The Gospel Book

Like the bishop in a Roman Pontifical Mass, the King kissed the Gospel book from his prie-Dieu. After the Gospel had been read or chanted by the celebrant or deacon and kissed by the celebrant, the missal was covered with the chalice veil and given to the King’s episcopal chaplain (Grand Almoner) who presented it to the King, saying Haec sunt verba sancta, to which the King responded Credo et confiteor. The king kissed the book, which was then carried directly to the altar, i.e., with no one else kissing it.

Maral argues that this ritual associates the king to the celebrating priest in two ways. First, it mirrors the priest’s own action, who, in several French uses, including the Parisian,[15] kissed the Gospel-book after it had been presented to him by the subdeacon with the same dialogue as above (in the Roman rite, the subdeacon stays silent and the celebrant says Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta). Significantly, the Roman ceremonial of the time indicates that if such a ceremony is to take place the assisting monarch or prince is forbidden to kiss the same book as the celebrant![16] This is another case of the Royal Chapel deliberately neglecting the bounds set by Roman rubrics. Secondly, the presence of the chalice veil associates the King intimately with the priestly sacrifice that begins with the Offertory directly after the Gospel.

Maral’s assertion should be qualified, however, since kissing of the Gospel book is not in itself, of course, a priestly prerogative, nor restricted only to the French King. In former times, the Gospel was offered, after the reading, for the veneration of all the faithful, as still observed in the Ethiopian and other rites. By the 18th century it had long been reserved (like communion under both species) to the clergy, save that anointed kings (and queens), and certain unanointed ones who were generally able to petition for this right.

louis xvi 4
Louis XIV bestows the cardinal’s biretta on Filippo Antonio Gualterio, the papal nuntio

b) The Pax-brede 

Additionally, after the Agnus Dei, the pax-brede was first kissed by the celebrant, then carried to the king for kissing, after which it was brought straight back to the altar.[17]

c) The Corporal

Immediately after a sung Mass, before the celebrant leaves the altar, he brings the corporal directly to the king and queen to kiss, an action which “intimately associated the king to the sacrifice that had just been renewed upon the altar.”[18] 

4) Communion

The King’s communion was an intricate ceremony and a visually striking affair:

On the days that the king receives communion, he dons a cloak with the cordon of the Order [of the Holy Spirit] on top of his cloak. Two huissiers [i.e. ushers] walk before him with their maces. The grand master [of the Order of the Holy Spirit] and the master of ceremonies must always be present and walk before the king. The king goes to Mass at noon, preceded by the captain of the Cent-Suisses[19] and followed immediately by the captain of the garde du corps. The king kneels on his prie-Dieu, and his confessor at his right, perpendicular to the prie-Dieu. The almoners station themselves between the prie-Dieu and the altar to the right of the king, and the bishops and priests without duties put themselves in the same place to the king’s left. I think the master of the Chapel stations himself the first at his left. After the Gospel, the King kisses the book, which is presented to him by the most senior bishop in attendance. Before the Offertory, a clerc of the chapel brings a gold vermeil bowl covered with a chalice veil, and a little box with several hosts. The clerk of the chapel gives it to the King’s first almoner, and then both of them try them by eating one of the hosts, which they make all the others touch. Then they present [the remaining hosts] to the king, who chooses one for his communion. They put the bread chosen by the king back into the little box wherein they had all been brought to him, and then it is taken to him who is saying the Mass, usually the grand almoner or, in his absence, the first almoner.

At the time for communion, a folding table is placed in front of the altar, and upon it the communion cloth is extended. The king gets up from his prie-Dieu, preceded by his huissiers holding their maces, the grand master, the master of ceremonies, the captain of the Cent-Suisses, and followed by the captain of his garde. He kneels in front of the folding table, and the two ends of the communion cloth closer to the altar are held by two almoners. The two ends closer to the king are held by two princes of the blood, if there be some present, or by the two most senior dukes present, in the absence of princes of the blood. After the king communed, the bishop who gave him communion gives him water in a sort of chalice: the king drinks some of it, and then wipes his mouth with a napkin given to him by a prince of the blood or the first maître d’hôtel. The king returns to his prie-Dieu and hears the rest of the Mass there, and usually another [Mass] thereafter. [20]

Maral claims, perhaps too strongly, that the ceremony following the royal communion, in which the king rinses his mouth from a chalice-like vessel, would recall communion under two species, a striking event in a time when this practice was reserved (with only extremely rare exceptions, such as the Greek Mass at St. Denis) for the celebrant alone. The king himself only received under both species on the day of his anointing.

louis xvi 5
fancy people

5) Pontifical Honors

As in the communion, some customs at Versailles went so far as to mimic honors reserved to the Roman Pontiff. According to the Journal de Dangeau, “the bishops had to wear a mantellette over the rochet when in the presence of the King, as it was customary to do in the presence of the pope or his legate, the mantellette being a sign of their subordination.”[21]

Likewise, Maral points out, “the expression ‘to hold chapel,’ (tenir chapelle) employed with respect to the King, ordinarily applied to a bishop or pope assisting at a solemn office without celebrating.”

6) Others

The use of the chapel foresaw other, less dramatic, but equally eloquent evidence of the king’s episcopal prerogatives, as M. Maral explains:

In ways that might seem secondary, other customs in force in the Chapel show similarities to those surrounding a bishop. For example, the color of the rug under the king’s feet in times of mourning was violet, not black. As attested in an engraved plan of the Chapel of Versailles, the royal prie-Dieu was placed between the two rows of stalls, in other words within the liturgical choir, a place reserved in principle to clerics.[22]

It would exceed the scope of this essay to describe all the ways that these liturgical honors carried over into the court ceremonial outside the chapel. But, to adduce some evocative ones, it was prohibited to turn one’s back to a portrait of the king and to sit down in his chambers, and the king’s mourning dress was violent, like a bishop’s, rather than black[23].


This brief review of the regular honors offered to the king should suffice to demonstrate that they were highly significant departures from contemporary Roman practice that associated the royal person intimately with the celebrating priest and generally treated the King as the ritual equivalent of a bishop celebrating outside his diocese.

There are one or two notable exceptions to this conclusion. In the Royal Chapel, contrary to what is foreseen in the Roman books, there was no genuflection given during Masses and offices to a prince of the blood or a sovereign. Likewise, in the pontifical Mass of a bishop in his diocese, the Gospel Book is brought first to the bishop to kiss, and then to the celebrant; but in the Royal Chapel the celebrant kissed the Gospel first. The triple incensing with two swings of both the king and the celebrant corresponds to what the rubrics provide for a bishop assisting at Mass outside his diocese. As noted above, some of the honors discussed were unique to the Royal Chapel, but others were shared with other sovereigns.

The next section will show that these honors were informed by a Gallican conception of sacred kingship and a view of the king’s quasi-episcopal role in the Church of France.

louis xvi 7


[1] “[…] tendaient à manifester le caractère sacerdotal que le souverain tenait de son sacre, et à rapprocher par consequant le roi du prêtre qui celebrait à l’autel. Trois rites sont ainsi concernés, le baisement de l’evangile, la communion du roi, et le baisemont du corporal” (Versailles, 254).

[2] This commemoration Pro rege nostro was not included in the Canon in the Tridentine Missal. King Philip II of Spain asked for and obtained an indult for the Spanish clergy to continue including the King’s name in the Canon, and for the collect Et famulos tuos (naming the King) to be said after the Collect, Secret, & Postcommunion under a single conclusion at every Mass in his realm, even on solemn feasts. In France, no one asked for such an indult. Instead, the Parlement of Paris issued an order in 1580 forbidding any French printer to publish the Roman Missal (Tridentine) without including the Pro rege nostro in the Canon (See Gueranger, Institutions liturgiques, vol. 1, ch. 15).

[3] See Alexandre Maral, Le Roi Soleil et Dieu: Essai sur la religion de Louis XIV, Paris, Perrin, (2012), 90.

[4] Le Roi Soleil, 148.

[5] See Institutions liturgiques, vol. 1, ch. 15.

[6] In 1665, he obtained an indult from the Archbishop of Paris to delay Mass as late as 1 in the afternoon.

[7] On the Vigil of Christmas, Holy Saturday, the Vigil of Pentecost, the Vigil of All Saints, and either the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception.

[8] This imitates the papal custom of hearing a Low Mass in thanksgiving after Communion, celebrated by the chaplain who had just served the papal Mass.

[9] On the feasts of the Circumcision (1 January), the Purification (2 February), Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, the Assumption (15 August), the Nativity of Our Lady (8 September), All Saints (1 November), the Immaculate Conception (8 December), and Christmas (25 December).

[10] Le Roi-Soleil 96.

[11] Pontificale Romanum lib. III, “Ordo ad recipiendum prelatem vel legatum”

[12] See Le Roi Soleil, 94; and La Chapelle Royale de Versailles sous Louis XIV: Cérémonial, liturgie et musique, Brussels: Mardaga, 2010, 284.

[13] Le Roi Soleil, 90-91.

[14] “Au sein des cérémonies royales, un certain nombre de rites, d’usages et de gestes cérémoniels concernent directement le roi dans sa definition sacrale. Si, en dehors du sacre, il n’existe pas de cérémonie proprement dite pour affirmer ou reconnaître le roi comme évêque du dehors, tout un ensemble d’actions liturgiques ou cérémonielles lui reservent un traitement particulier et peuvent être rapprochées du sacre” (Versailles, 281).

[15] Missale Parisiense (1762), “Ritus in Missa servandus” VI.

[16] Caeremoniale episcoporum XXIX, 9: Liber Evangelii, celebrante Episcopo, nulli, etiam magno Principi, aut Prælato, Missæ presenti, datur osculandus post lectum Evangelium; sed si adesset aliquis maximus Princeps, vel S. R. E. Cardinalis, cui liber Evangelii osculandus, porrigendus esset, non utique liber Evangelii, quo utitur Episcopus, sed alius liber consimilis illi porrigatur.. Manuel, pg. 174: “With regard to a Prince, if it is the custom to give him the Gospel book, he must be presented with one other than that of the celebrant, who must in this case always kiss his own.” (“Pour ce qui est d’un Prince, si c’est la coûtume de lui donner à baiser le Livre des evangiles, on doit lui en presenter un autre que celui du Celebrant, lequel en ce cas doit toûjour baiser le sien.”) The King of Spain, for instance, obediently followed this stipulation.

[17] Manuel, pg. 75-76.

[18] Le Roi Soleil, 91.

[19] The King’s Swiss Guard.

[20] “…depuis le prie-Dieu jusques à l’autel à droit, et les évesques et abbez sans charges se mettent dans le mesme espace à gauche. Je crois que le maistre de la Chapelle se doit mettre le premier à gauche. Après l’évangile, le roy baise le livre, qui luy est présenté par le plus ancien évesque qui s’y trouve. Devant l’offertoire, un clerc de Chapelle aporte un bassin de vermeil doré, couvert du voile du calice, et une petite boeste où sont plusieurs hosties. Le clerc de Chapelle les donne au premier des aumosniers du roy: ils en font tous deux l’essay en mangeant un des pains qui doit servir d’hostie, qu’ils font toucher à tous les autres. On présent ces pains au roy, lequel en choisit un pour communier. On remet ce pain que le roy a choisy dans la petite boeste, dans laquelle on les avoit tous apportez, et on le porte ainsy à celui qui dit la messe, lequel est ordinairement le grand aumosnier ou à son deffaut le premier aumosnier. Dans le temps de la communion, on apporte devant l’autel un siège pliant, sur lequel on estend la nappe de communion. Le roy se lève de son prie-Dieu, est précédé par des huissiers portant leurs masses, du grand maistre et du maistre des cérémonies, et du capitaine des Cent-Suisses, suivy de son capitaine des gardes. Il s’agenouille devant le siège pliant, deux aumosniers qui tiennent les deux bouts de la nappe du costé de l’autel. Les deux bouts du costé du roy sont tenus par deux princes du sang, s’il s’y en trouve, ou par les plus anciens ducs présents, s’il ne se trouve point de princes du sang. Après que le roy a communié, l’évesque qui l’a communié luy présente de l’eau (sic) dans une espèce de calice: il en prend un peu, et ensuitte s’essuye la bouche avec une serviette donnée par un prince du sang ou par le premier maistre d’Hostel. Le roy retourne à son prie-Dieu, y entend le rest de la messe, et ordinairement une autre après” (Versailles, 257 – 258).

[21] Versailles, 285.

[22] “En des domains qui semblent secondaires, d’autres usages en vigeur a la chapelle permettent de dresser des rapprochements avec ceux qui entourent un evêque. Ainsi, la couleur du tapis de pied du roi en temps de deuil était le violet, non le noir. Comme l’atteste un plan gravé de la chapelle de Versailles, le prie-Dieu royal était placé entre les deux ranges de stalles, c’est à dire dans le choeur liturgique, lieu en principe reservé aux clercs” (Versailles, 283).

[23] See Le Roi Soleil, pp. 92-94.

6 thoughts on ““L’Évêque du dehors”: The French King as Bishop in the Use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles and of the Holy Sepulcher (1)

  1. You say “Maral claims, perhaps too strongly, that the ceremony following the royal communion, in which the king rinses his mouth from a chalice-like vessel, would recall communion under two species, “, I agree; Maral’s claim shows no awareness of the wider tradition, still embodied in the Tridentine instruction in the Ritus Celebrandi Missam Section X no. 6 in the last sentence which, I think, says that a server follows the priest giving Communion to the faithful, with a vessel containing water and wine mixed, with which the faithful purify their mouths and then wipe them on a cloth. I understand that this provision was generally ignored, or misunderstood (perhaps I have misunderstood)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Regarding the bon jours, am I to read this as he only received communion five times a year? I know in centuries past one received communion far less than today. Hopefully someone can clarify.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you are exactly right. Royal communion (like lay communion in general) was already a rare event by the time of St Louis IX, who only received communion six times a year, adding Candlemas to the five days of Louis XIV.


  3. Thank you Notkerus! It definitely gives one pause when you compare to today, where nearly everyone receives Communion at every Mass, whether they are in a state of grace or not.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s