The Rising Tide

On May 10, 1774, sixty-four-year-old King Louis XV of France died, and though the country went into the requisite mourning for its king, many French people felt a sense of relief. He had ruled France for over fifty years. He left a country that was prosperous, the preeminent power in Europe, but things were changing—the expanding middle class craved power, the peasantry was restless, and people in general yearned for a new direction. And so it was with great hope and affection that the French people turned to their new ruler, King Louis XVI, the grandson of the deceased king, who was a mere twenty years old at the time. He and his young wife, Marie Antoinette, represented a new generation that would certainly revitalize the country and the monarchy itself.

The young king, however, did not share the optimism of his subjects. In fact, at moments he was on the verge of panic. Ever since he was a boy, he had dreaded the possibility that he might become king. Compared with his affable grandfather, Louis was quite shy around people; he was an awkward young man, always uncertain and fearful of making mistakes. He felt the august role of French king to be beyond his capacities. Now, having ascended the throne, he could no longer disguise his insecurities from the court and from the French people. But as he prepared for his coronation, to take place in the spring of 1775, Louis began to feel differently. He had decided to study the coronation ritual itself so that he could be prepared and not make mistakes; and what he learned actually filled him with the confidence that he desperately needed.

According to legend, a dove sent from the Holy Spirit had deposited some sacred oil that was kept at a church in the town of Reims and was used to anoint all kings of France from the ninth century on. Once anointed with this oil, the king was suddenly elevated above the ranks of mere mortals and imbued with a divine nature, becoming God’s lieutenant on earth. The ritual represented the marriage of the new king with the church and the French people. In his body and spirit, the king would now embody the entire populace, their two fates intertwined. And, sanctified by God, the king could depend on the Lord’s guidance and protection.

By the 1770s, many French people and progressive clergymen had come to see this ritual as a relic of a superstitious past. But Louis felt the opposite. To him, the ancientness of the rite was comforting. Believing in its significance would be the means to overcome his fears and doubts. He would be buoyed by a profound sense of mission, his divine nature made real by the anointment.

Louis decided to reenact this sacred ritual in its more original form. And he would go even further. At the palace of Versailles he noticed that many of the paintings and statues of Louis XIV associated him with Roman gods, a way to symbolically strengthen the image of the French monarchy as something ancient and unshakable. The new king decided he would surround himself with similar imagery for the public part of the coronation, overwhelming his subjects with the spectacle and the symbols he had chosen.

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