Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Story of the Sainte Ampoule

Sad years were they for kings and potentates in France—now a century ago—when the cup of civilization was turned upside-down and the dregs rose to the top. For once in the history of mankind the anarchist was lord—and a frightful use he made of his privileges. Not only living kings were at a discount, but the very bones of kings were scattered to the winds, and the sacred oil, the "Sainte Ampoule," which for many centuries had been used at the coronation of the kings of France, became an object of detestation, and was treated with the same lack of ceremony and consideration as the royal family itself.

Thereby hangs a tale. But before telling what desecration came to the Sainte Ampoule through the impious hands of the new lords of France, it may be well to trace briefly the earlier history of this precious oil. Christianity came to France when Clovis, its first king, was baptized. And although we cannot say much for the Christian virtues of the worthy king Clovis, we are given to understand that Heaven smiled on his conversion, for the story goes that a dove came down from the realm of the blessed, bearing a small vial of holy oil, which was placed in the hands of St. Remy to be used in anointing the king at his coronation. Afterwards the saint placed this vial in his own tomb, where it was after many years discovered by miracle. It is true, St. Remy tells us none of this. Our authority for it is Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, who flourished four centuries after Clovis and his converter had been gathered to their fathers. But as Hincmar defied those who doubted the story of the dove and the vial to prove the contrary, and produced a vial of oil from the saint's tomb in further proof of his statement, no reasonable person—at that day—could longer deny it, though the first mention of it is by a chronicler who lived a century and a half after the saint.

From the days of Hincmar forward the monarchs of France, at their coronation, were anointed with this holy oil. And as the dove was said to have descended at Rheims, and St. Remy was buried there, this became the city of the coronation. An order of knighthood was founded to take part in the coronation,—the "Knights of the Sainte Ampoule,"—but the worthy incumbents held their office for a day only,—that of the crowning of the king. They were created for that purpose, received the precious vial from the archbishop, and after the ceremony returned it to that high dignitary of the church and saw it restored to its abiding-place. This done, they ceased to exist as knights of the holy oil, the order dying while the king lived.

But these short-lived chevaliers made the most of their opportunity, and crowded all the splendor and dignity into their one day that it would well bear. The sacred vial was kept in the abbey of St. Remy, and from that place to the cathedral they moved in a stately procession that almost threw the cortege of the king into the shade. The Grand Prior of St. Remy bore the vial, in its case or shrine, which hung from his neck by a golden chain. He rode always on a white horse, being covered by a magnificent canopy, upheld by the knights of the Sainte Ampoule. The cathedral reached, the prior placed the vial in the hands of the archbishop, who pledged himself by a solemn oath to restore it at the end of the ceremony. And to make this doubly sure a number of barons were given to the knights as hostages, the restoration of the vial to be their ransom. The ceremony over, back to the abbey they went, through streets adorned with rich tapestries, and surrounded by throngs of admiring lookers-on, to whom the vial was of as much interest as the king's crown.

For many centuries this honor came at intervals to the city of Rheims, and the St. Remy vial figured as an indispensable element of every kingly coronation. It figured thus in the mission of Joan of Arc, whose purpose was to drive the English from Orleans and open the way to Rheims, that the new king might be crowned with the old ceremony. The holy oil continued to play a leading part in the coronation of the kings until the reign of Louis XVI. Then came the Revolution, that mighty overturner of all things sacred and time-honored, and a new chapter was written in the story of the Sainte Ampoule. It is this chapter which we have now to give.

The Revolution had gone on, desecrating things sacred and beheading things royal, through years of terror, and now had arrived the 6th of October, 1793, a day fatal in the history of the holy oil. On that day Citizen Rhul, one of the new sovereigns of France, entered the room of Philippe Hourelle, chief marguillier of the Cathedral of Rheims, and demanded of him the vial of coronation oil of which he had charge. Horror seized Monsieur Philippe; but Master Rhul was imperative, and the guillotine stood in the near perspective. There was nothing to do but to obey.

"It is not in my care," declared the trembling Philippe. "It is in the keeping of the curé, Monsieur Seraine. I will instantly apply to him for it."

"And make haste," said Citizen Rhul. "Bring pomatum and all," thus irreverently designating the age-thickened oil.

"May I ask what you will do with it?" ventured Philippe.

"Grease the knife of the guillotine, mayhap, that it may the easier slip through your neck, if you waste any time in your errand."

As may be imagined, Philippe Hourelle lost no time in seeking the curé, and giving him his startling message. M. Seraine heard him with horror. Had the desecration of sans-culottisme proceeded so far as this? But an idea sprang to the quick wit of the curé.

"We can save some of it," he exclaimed.

A minute sufficed to extract a portion of the unguent-like substance. Then, with a sigh of regret, the curé handed the vial to Philippe, who, with another sigh of regret, delivered it to Citizen Rhul, who, without a sigh of regret, carried it to the front of the cathedral, and at the foot of the statue of Louis XV. hammered the vial to powder, and trod what remained of the precious ointment under foot until it was completely mingled with the mud of the street.

"So we put an end to princes and pomatum," said this irascible republican, with a laugh of triumph, as he ground the remnants of the vial under his irreverent heel.

Not quite an end to either, as it proved. The portion of the sacred oil which M. Seraine had saved was divided into two portions, one kept by himself, the other placed in the care of Philippe Hourelle, to be kept until the reign of anarchy should come to an end and a king reign again in France. And had Citizen Rhul dreamed of all that lay in the future every hair on his democratic head would have stood erect in horror and dismay.

In truth, not many years had passed before the age of princes came again to France, and a demand for St. Remy's vial arose, Napoleon was to be crowned emperor at Notre Dame. Little did this usurper of royalty care for the holy oil, but there were those around him with more reverence for the past, men who would have greatly liked to act as knights of the Sainte Ampoule. But the unguent was not forthcoming, and the emperor was crowned without its aid.

Then came the end of the imperial dynasty, and the return of the Bourbons. To them the precious ointment was an important essential of legitimate kingship. Could St. Remy's vial be found, or had it and its contents vanished in the whirlpool of the Revolution? That was to be learned. A worthy magistrate of Rheims, Monsieur de Chevrières, took in hand the task of discovery. He searched diligently but unsuccessfully, until one day, in the early months of 1819, when three gentlemen, sons of Philippe Hourelle, called upon him, and told the story which we have just transcribed. A portion of the holy oil of coronation, they declared, had been in their father's care, preserved and transmitted through M. Seraine's wit and promptitude. Their father was dead, but he had left it to his widow, who long kept it as a priceless treasure. They were interrupted at this point in their story by M. de Chevrières.

"This is fortunate," he exclaimed. "She must pass it over to me. Her name will become historic for her loyal spirit."

"I wish she could," said one of the visitors. "But, alas! it is lost. Our house was plundered during the invasion, and among other things taken was this precious relic. It is irretrievably gone."

That seemed to end the matter; but not so, there was more of the consecration oil in existence than could have been imagined. The visit of the Hourelles was followed after an interval by a call from a Judge Lecomte, who brought what he affirmed was a portion of the holy ointment which had been given him by the widow Hourelle. Unluckily, it was of microscopic dimensions, far from enough to impart the full flavor of kingship to his majesty Louis XVIII.

It seemed as if this worthy monarch of the Restoration would have to wear his crown without anointment, when, fortunately, a new and interesting item of news was made public. It was declared by a number of ecclesiastics that the curé, M. Seraine, had given only a part of the oil to Philippe Hourelle, and had himself kept the remainder. He had told them so, but, as it proved, not a man of them all knew what he had done with it. He had died, and the secret with him. Months passed away; spring vanished; summer came; then new tidings bloomed. A priest of Berry-au-Bac, M. Bouré by name, sought M. de Chevrières, and gladdened his heart with the announcement that the missing relic was in his possession, having been consigned to him by M. Seraine. It was rendered doubly precious by being wrapped in a portion of the winding sheet of the blessed St. Remy himself.

Nor was this all. Within a week another portion of the lost treasure was brought forward. It had been preserved in a manner almost miraculous. Its possessor was a gentleman named M. Champagne Provotian, who had the following interesting story to tell. He had, a quarter of a century before, in 1793, been standing near Citizen Rhul when that scion of the Revolution destroyed the vial of St. Remy, at the foot of the statue of Louis XV., in front of the Cathedral of Rheims. When he struck the vial he did so with such force that fragments of it flew right and left, some of them falling on the coat-sleeve of the young man beside him, M. Champagne. These he dexterously concealed from the iconoclastic citizen, took home, and preserved. He now produced them.

Here were three separate portions of the precious ointment. A commission was appointed to examine them. They were pronounced genuine, oil and glass alike. Enough had been saved to crown a king.

"There is nothing now to obstruct the coronation of your Majesty," said an officer of the court to Louis XVIII.

His majesty laughed incredulously. He was an unbeliever as regarded legend and a democrat as regarded ceremony, and gave the gentleman to understand that he was content to reign without being anointed.

"What shall be done with the ointment?" asked the disappointed official.

"Lock it up in the vestry and say no more about it," replied the king.

This was done, and the precious relics were restored to the tomb of St. Remy, whence they originally came; being placed there in a silver reliquary lined with white silk, and enclosed in a metal case, with three locks. And there they lay till 1825, when a new king came to the throne, in the person of Charles X.

Now, for the last time, the old ceremony was revived, the knights of the Sainte Ampoule being created, and their office duly performed. With such dignity as he could assume and such grandeur as he could display, Charles entered the choir of the cathedral and advanced to the grand altar, at whose foot he knelt. On rising, he was led to the centre of the sanctuary, and took his seat in a throne-like chair, placed there to receive him. In a semi-circle round him stood a richly-dressed group of nobles and courtiers.

Then came forward in stately procession the chevaliers of the Sainte Ampoule, bearing the minute remnants of that sacred oil which was claimed to have been first used in the anointing of Clovis, thirteen hundred years before. An imposing group of churchmen stood ready to receive the ointment, including three prelates, an archbishop, and two bishops. These dignitaries carried the precious relic to the high altar, consecrated it, and anointed the king with a solemn ceremony highly edifying to the observers, and greatly gratifying to the vanity of the new monarch.

It cannot be said that this ceremonious proceeding appealed to the people of France. It was the nineteenth century, and the Revolution lay between the new and the old age. All men of wit laughed at the pompous affair, and five years afterwards the people of Paris dispensed with Charles X. as their king, despite the flavor of coronation that hung about him. The dynasty of the Bourbons was at an end, and the knights of the Saint Ampoule had been created for the last time.

In conclusion, there is a story connected with the coronation ceremony which may be of interest. Legend or history tells us that at one time the English took the city of Rheims, plundered it, and, as part of their plunder, carried off the Saint Ampoule, which their desecrating hands had stolen from the tomb of St. Remy. The people of the suburb of Chène la Populeux pursued the invaders, fell upon them and recovered this precious treasure. From that time, in memory of their deed, the inhabitants of Chène claimed the right to walk in the procession of the Sainte Ampoule, and to fall heir to the horse ridden by the Grand Prior. This horse was furnished by the government, and was claimed by the prior as the property of the abbey, in recompense for his services. He denied the claim of the people of Chène, said that their story was a fable, and that at the best they were but low-born rogues. As a result of all this, hot blood existed between the rival claimants to the white horse of the coronation.

At the crowning of Louis XIV. the monks and the people of Chène came to blows, in support of their respective claims. The villagers pulled the prior from his horse, pummelled the monks who came to his aid, thrashed the knights out of every semblance of dignity, tore the canopy into shreds, and led off the white horse in triumph. Law followed blows; the cost of a dozen horses was wasted on the lawyers; in the end the monks won, and the people of Chène had to restore the four-footed prize to the prior.

At the subsequent coronations of Louis XV. and Louis XVI. they renewed their claim, and violence was again threatened. The trouble was overcome by special decrees, which prohibited the people of Chène from meddling with the claim of the prior. By the time of the coronation of Charles X., all such mediæval folly was at an end, and the stately old ceremony had become a matter of popular ridicule.

The story of the Sainte Ampoule is not without its interest in showing the growth of ideas. At the end of the ninth century, a bishop could gravely state, and a nation unquestionably accept his statement, that a dove had flown down from heaven bearing a vial of holy oil for the anointment of its kings. At the end of the nineteenth century the same nation has lost its last vestige of reverence for the "divinity which doth hedge a king," and has no longer any use for divinely-commissioned potentates or heaven-sent ointments.