Reims is the city in which the kings of France were not only crowned, but anointed with oil, for over a thousand years. In an elaborate ceremony at the cathedral of Reims, the newly crowned king was anointed on seven parts of his body: the crown of the head, the chest , the right shoulder, the left shoulder, the right elbow, the left elbow, both palms. The queen was also anointed, sometimes at the same time and place, sometimes later in Paris. The present Cathedral, above, was built to replace an earlier basilica, destroyed by fire in 1210. It was first used in 1241, but not completed until sometime in the 14th century.
The first historically known anointing was that of Pepin the Short, the son of Charles Martel and father of Charlemagne. This took place in 752, but not in Reims. The first to take place there was of Louis I (“the Pious”), the son of Charlemagne, in 816.
However, legend takes the ampule of sacred oil back to the baptism of Clovis on Christmas day 496. Clovis, or Chlodowech, was the first king of King of the Franks, that is ruling all the united Frankish tribes. He accepted orthodox Christianity, rejecting Arianism, and accepted baptism into the Church. He was baptized by Remigius, “Apostle to the Franks” (Saint Rémi), who was bishop of Reims.
The baptism is a well-attributed historical event, but legend has it that the ampule which held the anointing oil was carried brought from heaven by a dove on the day of Clovis’ baptism. This ampule was kept–at least there was an ampule that was kept for centuries, containing a mixture of oil and perfume.
On the day of the anointing, a tiny amount of this was mixed into a quantity of oil for the anointing. The ampule was destroyed during the French Revolution, but it is said someone preserved some of the original oil, which later was kept in a new ampule and was able to be used for the few anointings that took place following the Revolution.
In the days following the coronation and anointing, it was customary for the newly crowned king to travel to Corbeny, a few miles to the north, where he would visit a kind of hospital for a malady know as scrofula. There, it is said, the king would heal the sufferers by laying on his hands.
We learned all this after visiting the cathedral at Reims one day, a few minutes to the south of the town of Roucy, where we were staying, and the next day passing through Corbeny, now just a little town a few miles up the road from Roucy. This place is dripping with historic–and spiritual significance.
The most famous of these events would have to be when Joan of Arc brought the future Charles VII to his coronation and anointing at Reims on July 17, 1429–so in this very cathedral!–and this with the help and the army of the Count of Roucy. And Charles and Joan would pretty much have had to travel through Roucy, to go on the king’s healing mission to Corbeny, as it lies at about the halfway point between them.