Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 June 2021
On 20 February 1547 a nine-year-old boy was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey. Like all kings before him, stretching back to Edgar in 973, Edward VI took the coronation oath administered by the archbishop of Canterbury. But this was no ordinary king and no ordinary archbishop. Immediately after the ‘new Josiah’ took the oath, Archbishop Cranmer addressed his sovereign in the following terms:
We, your majesty's clergy, do humbly conceive that this promise reacheth not at your highness’ sword, spiritual or temporal, or in the least at your highness’ swaying the sceptre of this your dominion… The solemn rites of coronation have their ends and utility, yet neither direct force or necessity… Your majesty is God’s vice-gerent and Christ's vicar within your own dominions… You are to reward virtue, to revenge sin, to justify the innocent, to relieve the poor, to procure peace, to repress violence, and to execute justice throughout your realms… Yet I openly declare before the living God, and before these nobles of the land, that I have no commission to denounce your majesty deprived, if your highness miss in part, or in whole, of these performances, much less to draw up indentures between God and your majesty, or to say you forfeit your crown…
Had such a stark, maximalist statement of the inviolability of royal power been invoked at a medieval coronation it is possible to imagine that there would have been uproar in the abbey. Such claims were not unknown, of course, in medieval political discourse, though their extension to cover the crown's relations with church was something truly novel: Richard II, for instance, would have been entirely comfortable with the sentiments of Cranmer's speech, while in the reign of Henry VI there were those around the court saying that the king was above the law. Richard's view of kingship, however, was overthrown in 1399 and the articles put forward by the Cade rebels in 1450 openly scoffed at claims that ‘the king may brake [the law] as often as he likes without discussion’, saying that ‘the contrary is true, otherwise he would not have sworn at his coronation to keep it’.
Neither would a medieval audience have accepted with such seeming equanimity the blatant altering of the coronation oath itself that occurred at Edward VI's coronation.