Oldest Daughter of the Church

The American in Paris of Traditionalist bent will, in addition to the usual sights, doubtless seek out the Traditional Mass at such churches as the SSPX’s Saint Nicolas-du-Chardonnet or else Versailles’ Notre Dame des Armees. After Mass, he will then notice a number of vendors of newspapers and magazines, mostly young. Some may — much to the Yankee visitor’s surprise — be sympathetic to the late Marshal Petain. Others having such names as Rivarol, Action Française, Alliance Royale, Alternative, Les Epees, Lecture et Tradition, Reconquete, and Present may be among the titles sold. If one has sufficient French to read them, he will discern that they vary among themselves in many things; but two commonalties will jump out. The first is the adulation of France herself; we Americans can understand that, since we have our own “exceptionalism;” but the French variety is rooted in their longer history, in their unique “civilisation,” and in the Catholic Faith. The other is that many of these journals are Royalist.

Now for the American, it is often a shock to realise that there remain adherents of the French Monarchy today. After all, depending on how you want to look at it, the Monarchy was overthrown in 1792. Or 1830. Or 1848. Or 1870. The collapse of the latest alternative to our own government, the Confederacy, was only five years earlier than that last date, and despite the hopes of such folk as the League of the South and other Neo-Confederates, that lost cause appears entirely lost. It is entirely foreign to our experience that a political view so long out of power could have any relevance today.

Nevertheless, if one goes on the Chartres Pilgrimage, finds himself in Paris in January at one of the Masses commemorating Louis XVI, strays into such Paris places as the bookshop Duquesne-Diffusion, or finds himself in the provinces at spots like the Historial of the Vendee, he will realise that not only is French Royalism not dead, it can be fairly youthful. Seeing a band of youth carrying various historical, monarchist, and religious flags while singing royalist songs is a powerful reminder of this.

Young though royalists may be, they are also divided — between the Legitimists and the Orleanists. The former rally behind Louis XX, the Duke of Anjou. Groups supporting his claim to the throne include the Institut Maison de Bourbon, the Union des Cercles Legitmistes de France, Memorial de France, and Vive le Roi. For the latter, the rightful heir to the throne is Louis’ distant cousin, Henry VII, the Count of Paris, and the latter’s son, the Duke of Vendome. In their corner stand Action Française, Nouvelle Action Royaliste, and Restauration Nationale. In addition, the Orleans branch retains some properties in France, administered by the Fondation Saint Louis and including most notably the Chateau of Amboise and the Royal Chapel at Dreux. The division between the two branches of the royal family is partly genealogical (after the death of Henry V, the Count of Chambord, it was debatable whether his rights reverted to his Spanish cousins or to the descendants of Louis Philippe, who was responsible for Henry being denied the throne in 1830) and partly ideological. Some Royalists, however, such as the Alliance Royale and Unite Capetienne prefer to work for restoration first, without worrying about the dynastic issue. Bonapartists are very few; there are a remnant interested in politics, but for the most part it is a matter of remembrance.

But why all of this fuss over a throne that has been overturned for so long? Why bother with a crown that has so little hope of recovery? In a sentence, because the Crown of France is bound up with the history of both Church and State in France, and traditionally, all three were held as sacred. Indeed, despite many dark chapters, the French Monarchy and the nation it created are incomprehensible without the Church.

Properly speaking, Christian French history begins with the Apostolic Age, when a boatful of Jesus’ early disciples, bringing with them the body of St. Anne, arrived in Provence. These scattered over the local countryside, and their shrines and stories are manifold. From this beachhead, the Faith swiftly spread to the cities of Gaul, and then the countryside. Ss. Irenaeus, Martin of Tours, Lupus, Germanus, Saturninus, Genevieve, Dionysus, and many others — through martyrdom and or preaching — brought the old Roman province into the fold of Christendom.

But even as they did so, the old edifice of Empire was tottering. As the Roman Legions withdrew from Britain, leaving that province open to Germanic attack and settlement, many Britons came to the relative safety of Gaul, founding “Little Britain,” or what we know as Brittany. A Celtic island on the continent, as with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, it produced its own tribes of saints. Moreover, the Arthurian legend sprouted its own local variants.

For the rest of Gaul, as with the entirety of the Western half of the Empire, Germanic tribes usurped the power of the Emperors. But where most of these invaders were Arians, the Franks who conquered northern Gaul were pagans, as was their King, Clovis. But his Queen, St. Clotilde, a Burgundian Princess, was instrumental in his conversion and baptism at the hands of St. Remigius at the Church of Our Lady at Reims on Christmas Day, 496. The Saint crowned and anointed the King as a Christian Sovereign, the latter with chrism brought from Heaven by the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. The vessel in which this chrism was brought is called “La Sainte Ampoule.” This act is considered at once the foundation of both the French nation and the French Monarchy. Since Clovis was the first of the Germanic princes to accept Catholicism, he and his successors were called were called “Oldest Son” (and France herself, “Oldest Daughter”) of the Church — for all that the Kings of Edessa, Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, and of course Constantine had accepted the Faith earlier. From that occurrence also arose the tradition of crowning the Kings of France at Reims cathedral. This was the beginning of the “sacred” character of the French Monarchy.

Indeed, if Clovis’ descendants, the Merovingians, produced several saintly kings and queens — Ss. Guntram, Sigebert III, Dagobert II, Radegonde (the community of nuns she founded still exists), and Bathilde, among many others. But they left a bit to be desired as political figures, and in time came to be dominated by an official, the “Mayor of the Palace” — an office which came to be practically hereditary in the Carolingian family. In 752, the then head of the family, Pepin the Short — partly in return for defending the Papacy against the Lombards — was given permission by Pope St. Zachary to replace the last Merovingian, Childeric III, on the Frankish throne.

Pepin in turn was succeeded by his son, Bl. Charlemagne, who in token of his victories was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope St. Leo III. This revival of the Western Empire was to affect the histories of France, Germany, Italy, and the rest of Europe until our own day. Charlemagne’s grandsons would divide his empire between them — this was the root of the division (and conflict) between France and the Holy Roman Empire that would last until 1756, poisoning Europe and eventually permitting the survival of Protestantism. But subsequent Kings of France and Holy Roman Emperors (both of whom would number Charlemagne as “Charles I” in their lists) would all regard themselves as successors of Charlemagne, and call their respective coronation swords “Joyeuse.” In token of this commonality, new Kings of France would send their predecessor’s funeral pall to Charlemagne’s Imperial Church at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) for a sort of proxy funeral.

As with the Merovingians, the Carolingian line’s energy gave out after a time; in France, they were replaced by the descendants of Hugh Capet (a Carolingian on his mother’s side) who succeeded to the French throne in 987. His son, Robert the Pious (r. 996-1031), was a great friend of the Church and composer of several liturgical hymns. He also confirmed the Abbey of St. Denis, north of Paris, as the burial place of French Kings.

But the great King of the House of Capet was undoubtedly St. Louis IX. Crusader (he led the Seventh and Eighth Crusades), builder, law-giver, and above all, saint, he was without doubt the most illustrious French King ever to reign — since his time the country’s sovereigns were ever called “Sons of St. Louis.” He prized above all things his baptism at the little church of Poissy, and brought the Crown of Thorns to Paris.

His descendants — most notably Philip the Fair — were not so great. The failure of the main line of the house of Capet brought the Crown to cousins, the House of Valois. Unfortunately, it also gave some claim to the Plantagenets of England, ushering in the Hundred Years War. Horrible as this time was, it led to the divine delivery of France via St. Joan of Arc, an event which underlined for the French the sacred nature of their Monarchy. “Most Christian King” was the style of address most preferred.

But the Valois would not enjoy peace for very long. The reign of Francis I was glittering in many ways; but his wars with Charles V and his alliance with the Turks boded poorly for the future of Christendom (although the Catholics in the Holy Land did benefit). More ominous for France in the immediate was the issue of the Huguenots — one that would end in civil war after Francis’ death. About the only thing most English-speakers know of that horrible and bloody struggle is the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. The cruelty and wanton destruction of so many of France’s holiest shrines (and slaughter of clerics) by the Protestants in that conflict remains virtually unknown, as does the bravery of their opponents in the Catholic League. When the smoke had cleared, the Valois were extinct, and the throne had passed to their Bourbon cousin, in the person of the convert, Henry IV.

To him and his successors were given the job of rebuilding a broken and bleeding France. Important governmental reforms were initiated; great palaces were built; and New France, Louisiana, the French West Indies, French India, the Mascarenes, and Senegal settled. But above all, the Church in France — albeit not without struggles like the Jansenist heresy and quarrels with the Holy See — was restored. Henry’s son, Louis XIII, married an extremely pious Habsburg princess, Anne of Austria, despaired after twenty years of marriage, of ever having a son. But he and his Queen made a vow to Our Lady that they would consecrate France to her Assumption if an heir was produced — and nine months later the future Louis XIV was born. The King kept his vow; so have his subjects ever since, and on August 15 every year processions in the Virgin’s honour are mounted at churches throughout France. Anne herself was a great friend of the Church, and the religious orders, shrines, parishes, and other religious institutions that are indebted to her largesse are innumerable.

She was also a benefactor of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, a semi-secret society of well- placed believers who operated behind and in front of the scenes to aid the Church in every imaginable way, from charity to fighting heresy to supporting foreign missions. But the organisation had its enemies, and in time they were able to prevail upon Louis XIV, after his mother died, to suppress the Company. Nevertheless, most of the good works its members did live on. Moreover, it was under Louis XIV that St. Margaret Mary Alacoque received the revelations about the Sacred Heart. In 1689, Our Lord instructed St. Margaret Mary to deliver a message to the King that he was to consecrate France to His Sacred Heart. This was not done; neither by Louis, nor his great-grandson and successor Louis XV (although the latter’s Queen, Marie Leszczyńska, his son, also called Louis, and his daughters all became zealous promoters of the devotion). It was left to the King’s grandson, Louis XVI, to consecrate the country from prison.

The Revolution did its best to tear the Faith from France, and it had a great deal of success. Napoleon Bonaparte — who could not decide between the incarnation of the Revolution or a traditional Emperor — both restored the Church in France and imprisoned two Popes, dying reconciled in exile. The martyred Louis XVI’s brother, Louis XVIII regained the throne of their fathers. Restoring the royal tombs at Saint Denis, and interring the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law there, he built the Chapelle Expiatoire in the spot where their corpses had been flung after guillotining. Not personally devout, he was succeeded in 1825 by his brother, Charles X, who was. The new King had a traditional coronation, but was driven from the throne by another revolution in 1830. He went into exile with his grandon, Henry VI, the Count de Chambord; their cousin, Louis Phillip had promised to hold the crown for the boy, but kept it for himself. He in turn would be driven out in 1848. The older line of the Bourbons are buried in a monastery in Slovenia.

Napoleon III was elected president in 1849, and made himself Emperor in 1852. Faced with the same dilemma as his uncle, he nevertheless restored a great deal of the state piety of the French Kings. Mass was said again in the chapel of the Upper House of Parliament in the Luxembourg Palace (the holy vessels are still preserved at Notre Dame), and at the Sainte Chapelle. But he was deposed after his defeat in 1870, and the increasingly anti-clerical Third Republic went to work effacing the Faith from public life — despite Leo XIII’s efforts with the Ralliement.

To be continued…