The History of France begins with a marvellous story. On 25 December 496, the streets of Reims are packed with a joyful crowd awaiting an extraordinary procession. The Franc Chief, Clovis, who has decided to convert to christianism, has to go, in great pomp, surrounded by the principal prelates of Gaul, from the former Palace of the Roman Governor, situated near the Basee Gate – porta Basilica – to the baptistery where Remi, Bishop of the little city, awaits him.
All of the streets are decorated. Gregoire de Tours tells us that
“the squares were shaded by coloured hangings and the churches hung with white curtains”.
As for the pool where the new Christian was to be, according to the rite, plunged three times, it was splendidly decorated. The chronicler tells us, as well, that perfumes had been poured around and that odorous candles were burning, in such a way
“that all the people were impregnated with a divine odour and that God was filling the spectators with such grace that they thought that they had been transported amongst the perfumes of Paradise”.
Along the streets, while waiting for the procession, well-informed people are saying that this baptism is the consequence of a vow that Clovis had made during a battle. For a long time, Clotilde – daughter of the Burgond King Chilperic -, whom he had married in 493, had been begging him to abandon the cult of the gods Wotan, Ziu and Freia, to convert to the religion of the Christ; but the Franc had been hesitating. However, a few months earlier, while he was fighting against the Alamans, luck seemed to be against him and he had addressed the heavens like this:
“God of Clotilde, You whom my wife affirms to be the son of the living God, if you give me victory over these enemies, I will believe in You and will have myself baptized!”
Immediately after this prayer, the Alamans had fled in great disorder. A miraculous victory for which Clovis rejoiced because it assured him the whole of northern Gaul with uncontested authority over the Gallo-Romans and the Germanic Francs…
The Remois, who are waiting and chatting near the Cathedral built by Saint Nicaise ninety-seven years earlier, are suddenly silent. A buzzing of religious chants is announcing the arrival of the cortege which soon arrives on the square. At its head is the Remois clergy preceded by a cross-bearer, then come Remi, who had instructed the King in christian dogmas, and different Bishops whose mitres, croziers and amethyst rings amaze the good people. Monks and clerics follow, singing hymns of glory. Finally, Clovis appears, alone, dressed in the white robe of catechumens. Behind him walk two young women whose ravishing names – Alborflede and Lantechilde – have been circulating through public rumour. They are his sisters. They too are to receive baptism, along with the three thousand warriors at the back of the cortege, three thousand Francs with enormous moustaches hanging on their virginal tunics, who are advancing and trying to look meditative.
The ceremony is therefore going to last all day and the little people display intense jubilation about it. Not that they are particularly fond of religious spectacles, but because they guess that there will be rejoicings attached to this one. The arrival of this crowd of new converts into the Church’s bosom is, in fact, going to be accompanied by feasts and drunkenness, these excesses being absolved in advance by their pious pretext.
When the cross-bearer arrives in front of the baptistery, the cortege stops. Remi then gives a sign to Clovis who walks with a firm step towards the pool, his long hair undone. With no hesitation, he enters the icy water, and the Bishop of Reims pronounces this sentence which would traverse the centuries:
“Bow your head gently, proud Sicambre! Worship that which you have burnt, burn that which you have worshipped!…”
After which, the King having confessed his faith in God All-Powerful and in the Trinity, Remi plunges his head into the water three times, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Clovis leaves the pool, met by a priest who covers him in a big towel and rubs him down with respect. Dried, the King goes into a neighbouring room to dress in a new linen tunic. He re-appears immediately afterwards.
The public, let into the bapistery, then gets ready to watch the second part of the ceremony: Confirmation. The ritual is known: the Bishop is going to anoint the newly baptized man’s forehead with holy oil; a few psalms will be sung and all will be finished. The drinking and feasting awaited by the little people could then begin.
This is when a prodigious event takes place, related by Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, in the IXth Century in his Vie de saint Remi, and which is still being recounted, more than one thousand three hundred years later.
Here are the facts such as he reports them:
“As Remi and Clovis were arriving at the baptistery, the cleric who was carrying the oil was stopped by the crowd, so that he was unable to get to the baptismal font. Therefore, at this font blessed by divine will, the holy oil was lacking. And as the crowd of people was preventing anyone from either entering or leaving the church, the holy pontiff, raising his eyes and hands to heaven, tacitly started to pray and shed tears. And suddenly, a dove whiter than snow brought in its beak a little phial full of holy oil, the suave odour of which, much superior to that of the incense and the candles, struck all who were present. The holy pontiff having taken this little phial, the dove disappeared.”
Immediately, Remi, completely untroubled by this marvel, proceeds to anoint Clovis with the holy oil that has been miraculously brought, before a crowd that must have been astounded…
After the ceremony, the holy phial – as its name will be from then on – was piously carried by Remi to a safe place. Later, it would be placed inside a dove of gold. Those who saw it tell us that it was in slightly opaque glass or crystal, that its size was that of an average fig, that its neck had a whiteish colour, that its stopper was made of red taffeta, and that the oil that it contained exhaled the most exquisite perfume. Some chroniclers, like Froissart in his Description of the Coronation of Charles VI, even affirm that the oil came back all on its own after each royal unction, and that its volume consequently never diminished. The Historian Dom Guillaume, in the XVIIth Century, assures us that a “famous doctor” whose name he unfortunately does not give us, believed that “this celestial balm had been made by the hands of angels”.
So, Clovis’ baptism is marked with a divine sign. And this sign would be used by the Kings of France for more than a thousand years for political ends. In fact, the celestial origin of the holy phial would raise France to the rank of eldest daughter of the Church, suggest the idea of a ceremony for the taking of power being integrated into the religious liturgy: Coronation; make this Coronation a true initiation capable of transforming the sovereign into a King-Priest and a Healer King – who could cure the King’s Evil, for example – in other words, give a sacred character to the royal function…
A marvellous adventure which would make all the sovereigns of the world jealous and lead the English Kings to “invent” a holy phial – Saint Thomas a Becket’s – so as to found their monarchy on bases just as solid as that of the French…
This holy phial, now a “divine sign”, was used during the Coronation of almost all of France’s Kings up until the Revolution. But on 16 Vendemiaire year II (7 October 1793), the Conventionnel Ruhl broke it with a hammer on the steps of Louis XV’s statue, in the middle of the Place Royale in Reims.
However, the holy phial did not disappear completely. A few pieces of debris containing a bit of balm were collected by Abbot Seraine, Curate of Saint-Remi. This balm, mixed with other blessed oils, was locked up in a new reliquary and was used for the Coronation of Charles X. All that is left of the oil used at Clovis’ baptism is still part of the Reims Cathedral’s treasure today…
To be continued.