The coronation of Mindaugas is viewed as the birth of the Lithuanian state, however we rarely consider whether we really understand what the title of king meant in the Europe of the time and who could legitimately pursue it.
The King Mindaugas monument in Vilnius
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

"King" is not just a word that any powerful warlord could make use of, it is a title from the Holy Bible, defined by specific requirements in the Christian world and carrying a deep sacral meaning. It is a judicial concept which was perhaps not even fully understood by the first Lithuanian leader to seek the crown, even if he understood its political value, Lietuvos Žinios paper reported.

What the concept of monarchy meant in medieval Europe and what symbols accompanied it was discussed with Vilnius University historian dr. Tomas Čelkys.

- The age long question: Mindaugas prior to christening – a king or not?

No. King is a title that can only legitimately be granted by the pope. A king has to be Christian, it cannot be otherwise. This title entered our culture and its concept appeared through the Holy Bible, from Jewish kings. The term itself once entered the Greek language, then Latin and finally reached us.

A king is a sacral, sacred individual who is bequeathed royal symbols. A person cannot declare themselves king, they are declared one and the title's insignias are also granted. Equally when these insignias – the crown, the sceptre and such are taken away, so is the title.

As Augustine of Hippo formulated in the V age, earth is the reflection of the heavenly kingdom. The Pagan Mindaugas was not a king to the medieval community which held great meaning in ritual because he was not declared as such and did not receive the relevant insignias, he was not a member of Christian Europe's royal "family". All kings are the "children" of the pope and "brothers".

- The views of Christian Europeans is clear, but what was he viewed as by Lithuanians? First among equals? Liege?

Likely a warlord. A liege is an abstract concept describing an individual who had to be paid taxes and who held certain exclusive rights as warlord. In the case of Mindaugas it matters the most that his family was dominant at the time and he was the senior among the dukes. However this was only a step, a stage toward becoming king. Of course those around him held him in regard. With Vytautas who became Christian, reverted, became Christian again, was also held in regard by kings from other countries – his power led to this.

Similarly Lithuanians held Mindaugas' power in regard. It is inaccurate to call him a Grand Duke, it is inaccurate because he was the senior. It was also different from the concept of warlord. The latter describes an individual who could gather an army, but it would dissipate after his death and there was no-one to replace him. Mindaugas was above this because he had strong support from his family. In the case of his death his family could announce a successor. As such the army would not disband.

- So Mindaugas was the sole liege of a just "moulded" country. Why did he need the title of king, seen only as a formality to pagans?

Likely he expected that the title would make his country viewed as Christian, reducing the military pressure on Lithuania. Upon becoming king he became formally equal to European leaders. Furthermore this was not only in the interest of Mindaugas, but also the Teutonic Order. Finally it was new concepts unfamiliar to Lithuanians, new terminology, which someone had to help Mindaugas understand. Just look, Algirdas styled himself basileus, though he unlikely understood what the title meant. But he know that this is what the emperor in Constantinople called himself and wanted to be "equal" and is respectively viewed as such.

- So even the Lithuanian leaders likely were not fully cognisant of the symbol of royalty. We cannot claim that we understand it well even today. Coronation, as you mentioned is an important ritual. Do we know, for example, what royal insignias were granted to Mindaugas by the representatives of the pope? What were the symbols of royalty?

We know that he received an open type arch crown because only those were suited to kings in the XIV age. From the stamp we know he sat on a bench, not a throne. We cannot imagine a king without a throne nowadays, however at the time the throne was likely a sacral symbol and did not have to be a "big chair". Frankish kings believed that beneath the king's throne, bench or similar symbol there was a power which entered the individual sitting on it.

The most important attribute is the crown. It is believed that this symbol arrived from Greece where they used laurel wreaths. Later crowns were forged from metals and finally from precious metals. Typically a crown was not handed down to successors, a new king was forged a new crown. We also know of "swap" crowns. For example a king accompanying an army to battle would place a cheaper and simpler crown upon his helmet, but the symbolic value of it was no lesser.

Furthermore a crown was understood as a ring – a shape associated with perfection in almost all cultures. During the middle ages we often have pictures of "shining" crowns, often with halos around them. This also symbolised the sacrality of the symbol.

- Nowadays we always imagine a king with a sceptre. Was this attribute mandatory during all times?

One of the most important early insignias and the predecessor of the sceptre is the sword. The sword is a symbol of justice. During a coronation the king was granted a sword under which he enacted justice. During Merovingian France, the king held the royal sword with himself at all times, demonstrating that he has nothing other than the sword of Charlemagne.

In the long run the sword was replaced with a sceptre or more accurately a stave. This symbol coming from the East, a shepherd's staff, displayed that its holder is a shepherd of his people. In the early period this staff could reach up to two metres and appeared very impressive considering that people were much smaller than nowadays. We can see something similar when we look at the pope's staff.

The royal staff was usually topped with the imagery of tree branches. This symbolised the tree of life, as if the king's body was the tree and his crown the wreath of the tree. Later the sceptre's top had a "hand of justice" placed on it. By touching with the hand on the end of the staff, the king symbolically performed the "touch of justice".

- Another element we associate with kings nowadays is the apple of government. What does it mean?

The symbol of the apple is later than the crown and sceptre. Initially it was exceptionally an imperial symbol of authority – an apple crowned with a cross was the symbol of the world. As such the emperor that holds it was as if the ruler of the Christian world.

In the long term, from around the end of the XIV age, the apple of authority can be seen in the hands of kings. Why did it happen then? There are two reasons. Firstly territorial states with specific borders appeared. This meant that a certain territory was untouchable and in the XIV age even the emperor could not meddle much in the matters of kingdoms.

Lawmen in Bologna formulated the claim that in a certain state-territory, every king is its emperor. As such we found the apples in the hands of kings – "small emperors".

- The king's countenance and their portrayal also had a symbolic meaning? Was there a "protocol" to it? Who formed the "image" of the king?

We can hearken back to an interesting case – only kings and their closest relatives could have long hair. This as a regalia, an exclusive right. The looks of the earthly king had to remind his subordinates of the king of all – Jesus, who is portrayed as long haired even now.

Associations with Christ were very important. Based on a semi-legendary tale, Vytautas the Great was portrayed as crucified in the decorations of one hall in Trakai Castle. This is also a symbol of royalty.

The king's looks, their clothing, bearing and all other related elements were important to not only the subordinates, but also other countries. Based on sources, on the eve of the Vorskla battle, Vytautas hosted Tatar emissaries sitting in a fanciful throne under a canopy, dressed in his most impressive clothing and having been "very stern" himself. While not even the fact of this reception itself is truly confirmed, it allows to understand the conceptualisation of the lord's image.

There are also descriptions how Vytautas would enter a city which show that he obviously did not view himself as a common man – he would have musicians marching ahead, members of the clergy would meet him with sacred paintings and relics, Vytautas himself would ride on a horse, he would sometimes be handed keys and such.

By the way this shows that while Vytautas was not a king, he understood the symbolic meaning of the title and ritual far better than Mindaugas who received a crown.

- How would coronations be held?

We have no sources of what Mindaugas' coronation was like. We can think that it must have been as similar to the European standard rituals as possible because the requirements were viewed very seriously.

It is a little researched question, however we know that Lithuanian grand dukes were "raised". This was written by Simonas Daukantas, Vytautas was actually literally raised up. For some time such a ritual was laughed at, however it was done in Europe as well.

For example German kings would be raised and placed on an altar at the end of the coronation ceremony. The same action would be done during the coronations of Hungarian kings. It is believed that this is a ritual from barbarian times – German warriors would raise their newly elected warlord on their shield.

Overall in Europe this ceremony is called enthroning, not crowning. Placing on the throne because only then is an individual truly made a king.

Let us recall that royalty was held to be a sacred matter and the ceremonies related to it were very important and public. For example the future king on the day of enthroning would be woken up very early, clerics would sit them on a chair a number of times asking if they wish to be king. It may not look serious to us because of course they want to be king, however at the time it was an important symbolic ritual.

No less important is the dressing of the future king. Their naked body was lathered in sacred oils in nine places and dressed in special clothing, similar to contemporary priest dress such as the dalmatic. The opening for the head in the dalmatic would have to be perfectly round, symbolising perfection. The dress itself had to be made from a single piece of cloth, also symbolising perfection.

Through this clothing and the rituals of dressing the king would be granted the magical power of these symbols. This is why we have many mentions that royal clothing had one or another power, could cause miracles.

Finally when the new monarch completed these rituals, they would be handed the sceptre and apple and they would be placed in a throne. The final action would be the public announcement of it. Relatives, nobles and emissaries from other countries would bow before them, admitting the king's authority.

We do not know if Mindaugas' ceremony was like this because the performance of it accurately would require a whole army of people. However no doubt it was attempted to ensure Mindaugas' coronation accurately reflected European ceremonial standards as much as was possible in our lands and conditions here.

- Which oldest enthronement of a Lithuanian leader is known of to us?

It would likely be the enthronement of Žygimantas Kęstutaitis in 1432. We know this ceremony was performed in the cathedral, the enthronement was done and he was handed a sword sent by the Polish kings and it was presented by Zbignev Olesnicki. In 1492 during the enthronement of Aleksandras, he was handed a sword which later sources named the Sword of Vytautas, while his crown was called Gediminas' hat.

We have truly little such accounts because the only source that informs of it is chronicles. There are later sources, but it can very well be that the documents presented in them are simply fantasies.

- Mindaugas had to be conscious of at least the political meaning of the title of king. Did his subordinates understand the importance of this symbol and concede he is the chief lord?

It is likely that the other dukes, perhaps not all, viewed Mindaugas as a "neighbour". Powerful, influential, but still similar to them and a rival. This is also illustrated in written sources, where up to the rule of Traidenis there are still references to tribal-family lands that had their own dukes. For example the lands of Šiauliai were ruled by the brothers Bulioniai, sometimes called Buliai.

Lands vanished from sources at the end of the XIII age and this shows that their rules, perhaps at the time of Mindaugas' or perhaps Traidenis' rule had to choose – submit to a higher lord and continue on or vanish with their lands and flee Lithuania. Those who would not submit were not spared, as Edvardas Gudavičius puts it – it was a bloody process. Only this way could sparsely populated lands be unified.

Mindaugas' views of the title of king and the responsibilities relatd to it are illustrated by the example that when he established a diocese, Mindaugas handed Bishop Andrius lands in Samogitia. The latter was to receive a tithe, but how would he receive it if the king does not gather the tax and claims that his task was to "write off" the land, while everything else is up to the bishop?

Andrius called upon the Teutonic Knights for this. For a long time historiography viewed this as a military operation by the Teutons against the Samogitians, however it would be more accurate to state that Bishop Andrius simply took to armed force to ensure his legitimate rule was upheld. Meanwhile Mindaugas' stance is fairly "informal" – I gave you land, as for how you live there – take care of yourself. In his view his royal majesty did not have to do anything more. By the way, in documents it was him who wrote off the lands to Andrius, but there is no mention of taxes. Considering that our fairly barbaric society had little thinking of judicial subtleties, it is unlikely Mindaugas himself looked into such differences much.

- Mindaugas could not be held a king prior to christening. As such when he turned from the Catholic Church, he automatically lost his title of king, the status of a legitimate ruler and everything that symbolised his sacral rule?

A non-Christian could not be king and that's it. Apostasy (the relinquishing of faith) was worse in the views of the time than not accepting christening. That says it all.

We can fantasise all we want that Lithuania was a kingdom nevertheless and its rulers – kings, but the fact stands: in a judicial view, even if that of a medieval and archaic Europe, Mindaugas, who turned from the Church, could not legitimately be held as a king. Such were the rules and judicial logics.

In European states, take England, it would be a very valued matter because monarchy still has its sacral symbolism. At the same time we refuse our kings as if foreign.

Take the example of Gediminas. While he was inclined to title himself the king of Lithuania, in the seal he is portrayed not with a crown on his head, but holding one in his hand, that is to say not as a real king. In other words he was already sufficiently educated or informed to understand these concepts and their meaning.

The view we keep hearing today is paradoxical – we want to celebrate our pagan past, but use the title of kings based on the law of Christian Europe. One could not call themselves king just because they wanted, no matter how powerful the person, just as an empire is not called such due to its size.

- We unilaterally accept Mindaugas as king of Lithuania, but only him. Later Polish kings were also rulers of Lithuania. Were they our kings or not?

For some reason most are inclined to ignore we were in one state – why are those kings "not ours", they were after all the very top? Yes, formally Lithuania was not a kingdom, however the ultimate authority to both states was the king. For example King Alexander is buried with us, but it is not valued by our public, that there is a king lying in the catacombs of the Cathedral. Completely unvalued. In European states, say England, this would be very important because monarchy still retains an even sacral symbolism.

Furthermore, speaking of Alexander, we know little and take little interest in the remaining relic of his authority – the sword placed in his grave, it remains. We refuse one of the true royal symbols of our statehood. It is unlikely we have any other more valuable piece of regalia.

It is the same paradox – we really want to be a kingdom, but we refuse certain signs of it. This shows that up to now we need to put effort into truly understanding the concept of monarchy and its meanings.

History

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