“L’Évêque du dehors”: The French King as Bishop in the Use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles and of the Holy Sepulcher (2)

The sins of common men are wont to have small consequences, but those of the king entrain the salvation or ruin of thousands. He is the source of liberty and servitude, poverty and riches, honors and degradation, peace and war, life and death, the good or evil condition of the provinces […]. The same knot that ties a bishop to his residence obliges a king to the care of his affairs, and I can say that the obligation is so much the greater in the latter case, as the one must shepherd only one diocese, but the other the entire realm.[1]

(Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte, 1647)

“Finally my son we must consider the good of our subjects much more than our own. They are like a part of ourselves: we the head of the body and they the members.”

(Louis XIV, Memoirs, 1661)

Royal Honors 2
The dove of the Holy Spirit brings the Holy Ampulla to Saint Remigius, in a manuscript of Jacob van MaerlantSpieghel HistoriaelWest Flandersc. 1335-55

The honors accorded to the French King at Masses in the use of the Royal Chapel were meant to express and legitimate his special, quasi-episcopal role in the Gallican Church. This role began at the King’s sacre, or consecration, celebrated in tandem with his coronation.

Several myths tell of the sacre’s origin. According to the Legend of the Holy Ampulla, the Holy Spirit once miraculously supplied a vial of chrism to St. Remigius, saintly bishop of Rheims, during the baptism of Clovis, first King of the Franks. This glass vial, called the Holy Ampulla, was preserved and used for all subsequent royal coronations, until it was destroyed by Revolutionaries in 1793.

The original Holy Ampulla in its relic receptacle

The fact that the first French King received his sacred oil directly from heaven, rather than through the mediation of the Pope, was a not-so-subtle assertion of his superiority to Roman ecclesiastical jurisdiction, a superiority French monarchs always jealously guarded as part of the Gallican privileges.

louis xvi 13
Carolingian ivory relief showing the Baptism of Clovis by St. Remigius, and the Holy Spirit descending with the Holy Ampulla

Other kings were anointed on the arms, shoulders, and chest. The French king was anointed on the head and palms of his hands, very similarly to the ceremony for the consecration of a bishop.[2] Also of note is that during the coronation mass—and only then—the king communicated under both species, a privilege given at that time only to bishops and priests.

According to a sacramental theology worked out by French theologians meditating on the anointing that took place in the French coronation rite, the anointing the king received gave him a more than an ordinary share in Holy Orders. In itself this was not exceptional, since the Holy Roman Emperor, like the Byzantine Emperor before him, wore the stole and dalmatic of their diaconal rank and took corresponding liturgical roles. The French king went further and took on honors usually reserved to the episcopal grade, as we saw in Part 1.

Guillaume du Peyrat, in his L’histoire ecclésiastique de la cour de France (1645) explains the king’s sacral character:

Albeit the kings of France be not priests like the kings of the pagans, because the state of king and priest are different and separate among Christians–and Holy Writ teaches us that Uzziah, King of Judah, joined in to offer incense and do what was the proper office of a priest, was stricken by Our Lord with leprosy of the hand and cast from the temple—yet they participate in the priesthood and are not purely laymen. […] In witness to this fact they wear, at their consecration, under the royal mantle, the dalmatic, which is the dress of deacons. […] They are anointed like priests, just as Saul and David, the first and second kings of Israel, were anointed by Samuel’s hand at God’s command. […] They confer, by full right, the innumerable prebends and ecclesiastical benefices and perform miracles in their lifetime by curing those suffering from scrofula, all of which shews that they are not purely laymen, but that, participating in the priesthood, they have certain particular graces from God which even the most regular of priests do not.[3]

So the signs of the king’s quasi-priestly nature are:

1) Priestly anointing;

2) Wearing the dalmatic;

3) Government of Church, conferral of prebends; and

4) The power to heal scrofula.

Louis XIV in 1648, at the age of ten, in the robes of the royal sacre. His outsize dalmatic, adorned with fleurs-de-lys, is visible under his mantle.

Medieval monarchs often looked to King David as the type of a good king. The French monarchy did so as well. In David they found the model of the divinely appointed, solemnly anointed sacred King, exercising pastoral care over the whole people of God entrusted to them, governing with justice and sanctity and divine legitimacy. Alongside Charlemagne and Louis IX, David featured prominently in the Royal Chapel and the Palace at Versailles.

louis xvi 2
King David Playing the Harp, Domenica Zampieri, 1619

The King exercised his quasi-priestly divine mission by his government, in concert with the bishops, of the church of France. Most importantly, through hard-won privileges conceded by Rome over centuries, the French monarch had the right to administer over one thousand ecclesiastical benefices–i.e., to name candidates for bishoprics, abbeys, canonries, etc–in the realm.

The evidence of his Memoirs suggests that Louis XIV in particular took this role very seriously.[4]

The King appointed clerics to benefices, not from his writing desk, but from his prie-Dieu in the Royal Chapel, and customarily on the same five days of the year when he received communion. On these days, the King received communion at a first Mass and then heard another Mass in thanksgiving. Immediately after this Mass, in which he received all the “episcopal” honors described above, he proceeded to assign clergy their benefices.

Once a bishop had received the bull of canonical institution from Rome, he had to relay these to the king’s Grand Almoner, who read them in advance “to see that there was no clause that prejudiced the king’s rights or the liberties of the Gallican Church, and if so to inform the king, who in this case differs the oath of fidelity until the bulls have been modified.”[5]

The only complete description of the oath-taking ceremony is found in the Histoire ecclésiastique de la cour by Du Peyrat:

Once the bishop has communicated his bulls, he goes the next day to the king’s Mass, dressed in his mozzetta and rochet. The chaplain who says the Mass having said the Gospel, he puts it into the hands of one of the clercs of the Chapel…who carries it to the new bishop, making the usual reverences before the altar and before the king. The bishop rises and makes similar reverences before the altar and His Majesty, then receives the Gospel and, kneeling down before the king, offers the Gospel to His Majesty to kiss.[6]

The text of the oath of fidelity that became standard at Versailles was:

I swear on the most holy and sacred Name of God and promise Your Majesty that I shall be as long as I shall live a faithful subject and servant, that I shall procure his service and the good of his State with all my power, and that I will render to counsel, design, or enterprise in prejudice of the same, and if I become aware of anything, I will tell Your Majesty. So help me God and the Holy Gospels that I touch.[7]

Similarly, the King awarded cardinals with their red hat, first assuring that they had not taken any oaths of loyalty to the pope that prejudiced his interests.

louis xvi 4
Engraving of Filippo Antonio Gualterio, papal nuntio to France, being granted the cardinal’s hat by King Louis XIV, in the Royal Chapel of Versailles, 1706.

Besides the appointment of over a thousand benefices, the King also took an interest in regulating Church discipline. Usually hesitant to intervene directly in matters of Church discipline, at times the King felt it necessary to take matters into his own hands. In some cases his policies could even seem anti-clerical or pre-Josephist, such as a 1667 law (drafted but never executed) to limit religious vows.[8]

Even if his interventions paled in comparison to the savage policies of Emperor Joseph II, his pretensions to episcopal oversight were real.

The liturgical (and many other paraliturgical) rituals analyzed in the excellent work of Alexandre Maral present the King as a sort of quasi-bishop of the realm, a sacred Davidic King intimately associated with the priesthood of Christ in the pastoral care of the Christian flock. These rites in turn had practical expression in the King’s government of the Gallican Church.

The third and final part of this essay will turn to the use of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where some last vestiges of these unique customs of the Royal Chapel may still be found in the honors given to the French Consul and representatives of other Catholic governments, even so long after the unfortunate demise of the French monarchy and its privileges.


Alexandre Maral, Le Roi Soleil et Dieu: Essai sur la religion de Louis XIV, Paris: Perrin, 2012 (Roi-Soleil).

–––La Chapelle Royale de Versailles sous Louis XIV: Cérémonial, liturgie et musique, Brussels: Mardaga, 2010 (Versailles).



[1] Les péchés d’hommes se terminent souvent à de petites conséquences, mais ceaux de roi embrassent le salut ou la ruine de millions d’hommes. C’est de lui que vient la liberté, la servitude, la pauvreté, la richesse, la grandeur, la bassesse, la paix, la guerre, la vie, la mort, le bien ou le mal des provinces […]. Le même noeud qui lie un évêque à sa résidence oblige un roi aux soins de ses affaires et je puis dire que l’obligation est plus grande de ce côté-là, d’autant que l’un n’est pasteur que d’un diocèse, mais l’autre d’un royaume entier. (Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte, 1647; cited in Roi-Soleil, 147).

[2] Roi-Soleil, 53.

[3] Encores que les roys de France ne soient pas prestres comme les roys des payens, pour ce que les dignitez de roy et de prestre sont diverses et séprarées entre les chrestiens – et les saintes Lettres nous enseignent qu’Ozias, roy de Juda, s’estant meslé d’encenser et faire ce qui estoit de l’office de prestre, fut frappé de ladrerie de la main de Nostre-Seigneur et chassé du temple -, si est-ce qu’ils participent à la prestrise et ne sont pas purs laïques. […] Et en tesmoignage de ce ils portent à leur sacre, sous le manteau royal, la dalmatique, qui est l’habit des diacres […] Ils sont oincts comme les prestres, tout ainsi que Saül et David, premier et second roys d’Israël, furent oincts, par le commandement de Dieu, de la main de Samuel […] Ils confèrent de plein droit l’infinité de prébendes et de dignitez ecclésiastiques et font des miracles de leur vivant par la guérison des malades des escrouelles, qui monstrent bien qu’ils ne sont pas purs laïques, mais que, participans à la prestrise, ils ont des grâces particulières de Dieu, que mesme les plus réformez prestres n’ont pas. (Guillaume du Peyrat, L’histoire ecclésiastique de la cour de France (1645), in Versailles, 282).

[4] I can say in truth, I have very often resisted my inclination to grant this sort of favor to people for whom I would have done any other sort of good without seeing in them the ability or dedication of a true ecclesiastic. Who would believe, my son, that there be anything more important than our service and the tranquillity of our subjects? Nevertheless, the distribution of benefices, because of its inevitable consequences, is incomparably more important, as much as heaven is elevated above the earth. It is a rich and abundant harvest that comes back to us in every season of the year to fill with graces those who serve us or those whom we love. But there is perhaps no more delicate matter in the whole realm. Do not doubt that our conscience remains committed to this task, however much we may have granted too much to our inclinations or the memory of past services, or even to some usefulness to the State, in favor of incapable persons, or persons much more incapable than others over whom we might cast our eyes. Yet I do not wish, my son, to lead you to rigoristic opinions that are too removed from practice and also most often depart from truth. One of our ancestors, for fear of not being up to such a delicate obligation, voluntarily gave up the power of nomination to benefices. But who is to say that others would acquit themselves better than us? Or that wanting to do our duty too well would be to do it badly? God certainly does not intend, my son, that we chose the most worthy as He Himself would choose, for it is impossible for us. It is enough that we do it as men, and as well-intentioned men who do not forget anything lest they err. And so I daresay that we can be assured that He Himself does it through us. Neither is it true that those who serve us or are close to us have in this no advantage above others. Their advantage is to make us better know what they are worth, which is a great advantage for an enlightened prince, who believes much more in what he sees than in what comes to him through the report of others, which is always mixed with good or bad offices.

J’ai très souvent résisté à mon inclination, je le puis dire avec vérité, pour ne faire de cette nature de bien à des personnes à qui j’aurais fait avec plaisir du bien de toute autre sorte, ne remarquant pas en elles ou la capacité ou l’application d’un véritable ecclésiastique. Qui pourrait croire, mon fils, qu’il eût quelque chose de plus important que notre service et la tranquillité de nos sujets? Cependant la distribution des bénéfices, par la suite nécessaire qu’elle entraîne après elle, l’est sans comparaison davantage, et autant que le ciel est élevé au-dessus de la terre. C’est en apparence une riche et abondante moisson qui nous revient en toutes les saisons de l’année pour combler de grâces ceux qui nous servent ou ceux que nous aimons. Mais peut-être n’y a-t-il rien de plus épineux en toute la royauté, s’il est vrai, comme on n’en peut douter, que notre conscience demeure engagée, pour peu que nous donnions trop ou à notre penchant, ou au souvenir des services rendus, ou même à quelque utilité présente de l’État, en faveur de personnes incapables, ou beaucoup moins capables que d’autres sur qui nous pourrions jeter les yeux. Je ne veux pas toutefois, mon fils, vous porter à des opinions rigoureuses qui ne se réduisent presque jamais à la pratique et s’éloignent aussi le plus souvent de la vérité. Un de nos aïeux par la crainte de ne pouvoir bien répondre à une obligation si délicate, se dépouilla volontairement de la nomination aux bénéfices. Mais qui nous a dit si d’autres s’en acquiteront mieux que nous, et si ce ne serait pas mal faire notre devoir pour le vouloir trop bien faire? Dieu n’entend pas très assurément, mon fils, que nous fassions le choix du plus digne comme Il le pourrait faire lui-même, ce qui nous est impossible. C’est assez que nous le fassions en hommes, et en hommes bien intentionnés qui n’oublient rien pour ne se point tromper. Alors, j’ose le dire, nous pouvons nous assurer que c’est Lui-même qui le fait par nous. Il n’est point vrai non plus que ceux qui nous servent ou qui nous approchent n’aient en cela nul avantage au-dessus des autres: ils ont celui de nous faire mieux connaître ce qu’ils valent, grand sans doute auprès d’un prince éclairé, qui croit beaucoup plus à ce qu’il voit qu’à ce qui lui vient par le rapport d’autrui, toujours mêlé de bons ou de mauvais offices.

[5] Pour voir s’il n’y a point de clause qui préjudicie aux droits royaux et aux libertés de l’église gallicane, pour en advertir le roy, lequel en ce case diffère de recevoir le serment de fidélité jusqu’à ce que les bulles soient réformées. (Versailles, 265).

[6] II, LXV, p. 835-840.

[7] Transcription of the oath made by Humbert Ancelin, bishop of Tulle, taken 22 May 1681.

[8] See Roi-Soleil, 115 – 126.

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