Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Burdens of a King

The coronation of the sixteenth Louis was preceded by discussion. There were some who agreed with Turgot in his desire to have the ceremony within the church of Notre Dame in Paris, but the clergy were indignant at this proposal to break through tradition and save 50,000,000 francs (2,000,000). Except the heretic, Henri IV, every King of France from Clovis, of warlike memory, to Louis XV, embodiment of the luxury of a later age, had bent to receive the crown within the cathedral of the ancient town of Rheims, whither angel hands had brought the sacred phial from heaven for the anointing of Clovis and his most Christian successors. There were a few drops of oil in the Sainte Ampoule still. It would have grieved Louis that they should not fall on him for he looked upon the rite as one of true religion.

Mercy, the Austrian ambassador, would have had Marie Antoinette crowned too. This was without doubt the ambition of Maria Theresa. The Queen herself was indifferent, preferring to be the spectator of her husband's honour. She made vast preparations for the day, and Turgot estimated the price of her transference to Rheims at little below two millions sterling.

The peasants laboured through the early spring of 1775 to repair the road from Versailles for the royal passage. La Corvée, or forced labour of this kind, was one of the grievances they cherished. Called from their own fields in the sowing time, they knew that they would have no harvest to reap and could claim no recompense for work demanded as a feudal right by the King, their overlord. It was unpleasant for the wealthy, on their way to the great fetes, to see bodies of exhausted men lying by the roadside where they died, if they could not manage to crawl further. It was annoying to be pestered by abject prayers for alms from labourers plodding homeward to their distant cottages. Couriers passed these with contempt as they galloped between the towns to carry orders for the Queen's reception. A suite of apart meats had been built for her at Rheims, a town accustomed chiefly to welcoming ecclesiastics. Wagons rolled from Versailles, containing hangings, tapestries and mirrors, gilt furniture for her rooms, and plate and linen for her table. Their own famine seemed harder to the peasants who caught glimpses of the splendour of Court life thus forced upon their notice. That it might not prevent the Queen from wearing the lofty head-dress that she favoured, a new coach had to be built, eighteen feet in height. Very sumptuous it looked with cushions of satin and gold, painted panels and fine carving. But it seemed to drive over and crush men's very bodies when so many fell at their work and the price of bread was rising steadily throughout the kingdom.

On the 5th of June the King left Versailles and, halting at Compiegne, was able to reach Rheims within the four days. The keys of the city were handed to him on a golden salver as he entered. Bells pealed and cannon boomed in token of rejoicing.

At the great door of the cathedral Louis stepped down awkwardly enough and fell on his knees to kiss the copy of the gospel which was handed to him. He brought a gift to the altar and placed it there with his own hands—a beautifully ornamented golden cup which glittered bravely when he came that same evening to the service. The Queen drove into Rheims by moonlight, loving the glamour of the summer dusk and the distinction of a separate journey.

Crowds assembled early on the 10th of June, knowing that the Cathedral would be a spectacle gorgeous enough to be remembered for a life-time. The ecclesiastical peers were familiar to Rheims, but that day they surpassed themselves in gorgeousness of colour and majestic bearing. Red and violet, gold and silver, crosses and chains and mitres—the pomp of the great Catholic Church was displayed magnificently at the coronation of this most Catholic ruler. They stood on the right of the altar while the temporal peers were on the left, clad in mantles of state that vied with the brilliant uniforms worn by the soldiers. There were ladies in court dress, wearing pearls and diamonds—the stones that the Queen chose for her own adornment. Lofty plumes waved from their heads and lace and velvet gowns were envied by the wives of the simple citizens. "Louis XVI, whom God hath given them for King" did not leave the sacristy at the expected moment. Dignitaries of the Church knocked at the door which should have opened promptly, that they might lead him to the altar. When the King came forth there was disappointment in the hearts of those who had formed their ideal of a King in Louis XIV, the Grand Monarch of his day, or in Louis XV, the model of personal beauty.

Seven times the Archbishop poured from the sacred phial some drops of that most precious ointment. Seven times he cried "Vivat rex in aeternum"  before he handed the sceptre to the King, who was already burdened in the heat of the June day by velvet boots and velvet cloak and the ecclesiastical vestment known as the "dalmatique."  Pages were in his train to relieve him of some part of the weight, but as the King advanced to the altar his steps dragged heavily and even the solemn music did not appear to raise his spirits. The crown had cost 20,000,000 francs (£800,000) and was made in the form of a jewelled cap which fitted rather closely. "It tires me," the King exclaimed, and made as if to reject it on a sudden peevish impulse. A shudder ran through those among the crowd who remembered the words of Henri III, the most unfortunate of kings. "It pricks me," he had said, and later met his death by violence.

But joyous shouts and the flourish of trumpets banished the dark fears that attended the actual coronation. Thousands of birds chirped gaily as they received their freedom, having been kept till then within cages hung in the cathedral. The old liberties of France were symbolized and the heralds cried "Noel et largesse!"  in honour of the ancient customs, as they scattered medals. The great fete was held in the hall where every predecessor of Louis XVI looked down in stone to witness the celebrations held in honour of another Capet.

The mayor of Rheims attended upon the King the next day to present the privileges of the city—"Our wine, our pears, our hearts," he said, "are at your Majesty's disposal." Grand-master of the Order of Saint-Esprit, Louis touched three thousand subjects, anxious to be rid of dangerous maladies. Some power of healing was thought to be given to him now, and he had the happy gift of freeing men from debts. The prison doors were opened, and all were glad except the creditors.

A grand cavalcade to the Abbaye of Saint Remi and the Fete Dieu  concluded the ceremonies of the coronation. The royal party set out for Compiegne, leaving Rheims to resume its quiet grey aspect. There was a fine ball, and the Queen wrote very gaily to her mother of the welcome of the people. She was delighted with the acclamations of the crowd acknowledging her royal carriage. Certainly they could not think Marie Antoinette a subject for derision as they did the King whose return home was inglorious. Coarse epithets saluted him and the Comte de Provence, for they both inherited the corpulence of their father.

Very shortly after these events the wife of Artois gave birth to a son, and Marie Antoinette had to congratulate her rival. It was a bitter disappointment that no male heir had been born to Louis VI, and this child was to succeed to the throne of France, unless the "Austrian" should have a son.