The Coronation of Isabeau, Queen of France

Queen Isabella’s entry into Paris. Illuminated miniature from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, BL Harley 4379.

King Charles VI of France married Isabeau of Bavaria on July 20, 1385. She already had given birth to two children, one of which died after two months and another daughter who would die shortly before her coronation. She was pregnant with her daughter Isabella when it was decided she would be crowned Queen. She would be the first Queen to be crowned separate from the King.

Charles had just released himself from the guardianship and regency of his uncles eleven months before and this ceremony was meant to be an introduction to his kingdom of this new phase of his reign. A Joyeuse Entrée into Paris was planned in conjunction with the crowning and this was to take place the day before the actual coronation. The king commissioned Blanche of Navarre, King Philip VI of Valois’ widow to design the coronation ceremony and the joyful entry. Blanche consulted the ancient texts, most specifically the “Chronicle of Saint-Denis” but was unable to find everything needed for the occasion. So the king, Blanche and the king’s advisors invented some of the aspects of the ceremony.

On August 22, 1389, Isabeau followed the ancient route of the kings which went from the Porte Saint-Denis to the heart of Paris, terminating at Notre-Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité. Along the route, the streets were draped with embellished tapestries and silk. Even the street was lined with fine fabric.

Isabeau sat in an uncovered litter, dressed in a silk dress dotted with golden fleurs-de-lis. With her hair down and flowing over her shoulders, she wore on her head a golden crown embellished with sparkling jewels. The royal account books confirm this crown was made by the Parisian goldsmith Jean du Vivier and it was adorned with ninety-three diamonds, hundreds of pearls, sapphires and balais (light and pink) rubies. Isabeau was the center of attention in this dazzling outfit.

In the procession she was accompanied by the most important princes and ladies of the court. At the head was the king’s brother Louis of Touraine and Louis, Duke of Bourbon. John, Duke of Berry and Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy were in the center and at the back were Pierre of Navarre, Count of Mortain and the queen’s brother William of Bavaria, Count of Ostrevant. The women included Louis of Touraine’s wife Valentina Visconti, the Duchess of Berry (Joan of Boulogne), Duchess of Burgundy (Margaret of Flanders) and the Duchess of Bar (Marie of France). The king did not attend the ceremony. He stayed at the Palais de la Cité awaiting Isabeau’s arrival later in the evening.

The ladies were dressed in lavish costumes embroidered with cloth of gold and rode in highly decorated litters escorted by knights and lords dressed in fine robes and decked with many jewels. The Duke of Burgundy wore a velvet doublet embroidered with forty sheep and forty swans, each with a pearl bell around the neck. The procession traveled along the Rue St. Denis leading to the Châtelet and the Grand Pont over the river Seine.

Isabeau was greeted along the route of the procession by the provost of merchants Jean Jouvenel and the burghers of Paris garbed in green liveries on one side. There were twelve hundred people, along with the members of the royal hôtel who were dressed in red lined up to form the guard of honor on the other side. As part of Paris’ homage to the queen, many tableau vivants and mystères were performed at the city gates and in various public places.

Three of these performed sketches were devoted to themes of the monarch. The first represented the King of Justice and was staged in front of the Châtelet. A stag was attacked by an eagle and a lion and the stag was saved by twelve virgins. The second was the King of War and appeared in front of the Trinité Hospital. This king waged war against infidels. A battle was depicted between the Christians, led by King Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart, and the Muslims led by Saladin. The third was the Nurturing King who was celebrated before the fountain of Ponceau. Young girls served wine flowing from the fountain to the Parisians in golden cups as a symbol of the prosperity the sovereign granted the kingdom.

Miniature from Froissart’s Chronicles, showing entertainers and acrobats at Isabeau’s coronation

Two other sketches were devoted to the Queen. The first occurred at the Porte Saint-Denis Gate under a backdrop of a starry sky and Isabel’s coat of arms and a blazing sun which represented King Charles’ motto. As angelic musicians played, the Virgin Mary, carrying the infant Christ, welcomed the Queen of France to the gates of heaven. The next occurred as Isabeau crossed the Grand Pont to Notre-Dame where there was a castle on a platform with the Holy Trinity surrounded by angelic musicians. As the queen entered, an angel descended by mechanical means and came through an opening of blue taffeta hangings with golden fleurs-de-lis that covered the bridge and placed a golden, bejeweled crown on her head.

“Lady of the lilied gown
Queen you are of Paris town,
Of France all this fair countrie:
Now back to paradise go we.”

By now it was evening. After this simulated crowning, the piece de resistance was performed. A cord had been placed from the tower of the cathedral to the roof of the highest house on the Pont St. Michel. An acrobat went down the cord singing with two lighted candles in his hands. All the symbolism of these sketches is mystical and is associated with the Virgin Mary and Esther and other heroines from the Bible. There were many suggestions during the procession of a parallel between the Virgin Mary’s assumption and Isabeau’s entry into Paris.

The next day, the Bishop of Paris welcomed Isabeau to Notre-Dame Cathedral. This time she was dressed in a royal robe and a cloak lined with ermine and covered with fleur-de-lis with a jeweled crown on her head. Isabeau proceeded down the aisle of the cathedral with the Dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Touraine (Louis of Orleans) and Bourbon, the queen’s ladies, the archbishop and the clergy, all singing high and clearly in praise of the Virgin Mary. After Isabeau ascended the altar she knelt and prayed. She then offered to the treasury of Notre-Dame four cloths of gold and the crown the angels had placed on her head the day before.

The queen’s coronation deviated from the king’s in several ways. She does not receive his spiritual attributes, she does not wear the pontifical robe and is not anointed with the ointment from the holy ampoule. Her anointment is only on two spots on her body, her chest and her head where the king is anointed on nine areas. She receives the secular symbols of power: the ring, the scepter of justice and the crown but not the grand scepter decorated with the fleur-de-lis.

The return of the procession after the coronation was lighted by five hundred torches. This was followed by a great banquet. The king and queen sat at a table with only prelates and eight ladies. The king was dressed in a scarlet surcoat trimmed with ermine. The hall was so crowded and hot that the pregnant queen was overcome by the heat and nearly fainted. The Dame de Coucy actually did faint. A table was overturned by the crowd. Windows were broken to let air into the hall. The queen and some of her ladies eventually retired to their chambers.

The coronation and presentations were meant to impress the king’s people. There were many more days of spectacle, tournaments and jousting. The king spent nearly fifteen thousand livres parisi on the events, a considerable sum. Two and a half months later, Isabeau gave birth to her daughter Isabella who would eventually marry and become the Queen of England.

Further reading: “Queenship in Medieval France, 1300-1500” by Murielle Gaude-Ferragu, translated by Angela Krieger, “The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria” by Tracy Adams, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” by Barbara Tuchman

Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews

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