Making a Right Royal Entry - French Style

We’ve all seen a cavalcade of black SVU’s escorted by police riding steeds of steel through our streets and known that tucked inside is a political leader or more likely a celebrity or sports star. They shield themselves from the crazy realities of fandom and protestors with bodyguards and grim faced entourages.

The contrast to Renaissance France is significant not only in the size and glamour of the entourage, but also in the underlying message imparted by the most important man in the kingdom – the king. France in the sixteenth century was a kingdom still divided by language, customs and allegiances. The French language as we know it today developed in the north and around the Ile de France, the province surrounding Paris. In the large Duchy of Brittany in the west Breton was the spoken language and the languid Occitan was the language of the south.

When King Francois I was crowned in 1515 as a vital 25 year old, he made it his policy to be seen by the people. His theory was sound. The people were much more likely to remain loyal to a king they could recognize – a king who rode amongst them. It was akin to a contract. Through their displays of devotion the people welcomed and supported the king as their absolute ruler, and the king in return promised protection and consideration. During this time and in the final reigns of the Valois kings the Royal Entry took on monumental proportions.

The Royal or Joyous Entry occurred when a king entered a town for the first time and the elaborate celebrations were often described and published to record the event. As a result a lot of information survives about this ancient custom. The format was essentially simple; the prominent townsmen met the king on the road outside their town. There was an exchange of oaths between monarch and citizens, music, cheering and church bells. The town then presented the king with a gift and the key to the city.

By the reign of King Francois I elaborate entertainments accompanied the Joyous Entry at a lavish cost to the townspeople. Using allegory and ancient and classical mythology, they staged scenes highlighting both the virtues of the king and the hopes of his people. In 1515 when the new king joined his army at Lyon, his entry included many different spectacles. First a ship pulled by a winged stag sailed up the River Saone with a cherub puffing wind into the sails with a bellow; the coat of arms of France and the king’s own emblem of a salamander flew from the masts. The symbolism was to glorify the king’s campaign into Italy.

The king passed under a triumphal arch erected outside the city gates that significantly proclaimed Lyon was a city that had never been ruled by a tyrant. In a tableau two ladies representing Lyon and Loyalty stood on either side of a grassy hill on which a salamander lay curled up and from which stood a tall lily with three flowers and two buds. Ladies adorned the flowers and represented Divine Grace and France and the buds showed the people’s hopes for a dauphin. In the tallest flower stood a man dressed as the king and above him two angels rested on clouds holding a golden crown.

Inside the city walls spaced apart were eight pillars each holding a sumptuously dressed girl holding up a letter of the king’s name in one hand and the symbol for one of the virtues that made up his name in the other.*

The queen also made entries into the main cities very separately to her husband. It was during the newly crowned Queen Eleanor’s entry into Paris that eyebrows were raised by the king’s behavior. He had taken a prominent balcony overlooking the proceedings and fondled his mistress for all to see. In the words of one of the ambassadors the king was seen: ‘devising with her for two long hours in the sight and face of all the people.’ The gossip from the king’s most unchivalrous behaviour ricocheted around Europe in scandalised letters.

Elaborate temporary structures were built to accommodate a royal entry. Triumphal arches, obelisks, columns, platforms and decorative scenes were carefully planned and erected in honor of a royal visit. When King Henri II entered Lyon a year after ascending the throne the Lyonnais even built a floating banqueting hall and ballroom in a classical style. Called Le Bucentaure, the ten meter structure was mounted on a warship and towed along the river.

King Henri II’s entry into Lyons was probably most remarkable for the deference shown to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. On his passage to Lyon the king was met in a forest by the goddess Diana and a band of nymphs. The king was symbolized by a lion on a black and white leash led by the goddess. The city of Lyon chose to emphasise the effect of love on Henri’s reign. It was also the first public occasion when Diane was represented as the goddess Diana and connected to the king. The queen entered later in the day as was customary, but the Spanish ambassador later reported: ‘It is indeed true that little could be seen when the queen made her entry, because night came on and the people say that, as she is not good looking, the king gave orders that her pageant should be kept back until a late hour so that her highness should pass unnoticed.’

Expensive and complex, the royal entry was a crucial contract of loyalty and protection, and a significant means for unifying the kingdom.

*Faith, Reason, Temperance (Atrampance), Nobility, Charity, Obedience, Justice and Wisdom (Sapience)

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© 2013 Emma Boling.