Beast from the East or Song of Solomon? The Coronation of King Henry V, 9 April 1413

While many coronations have been unlucky weather-wise, it is Henry V’s coronation that has gone down in history for its appalling weather. Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, reflects

No series of blogs to mark the coronation of TM King Charles III and Queen Camilla would be complete without some comment on the weather – it is, after all, an English, as well as a British, coronation. Indeed, the weather is often the first thing anyone recalls when asked about their memories of a particular royal occasion – the downpours during the Diamond Jubilee river pageant were a case in point, as, indeed, were the rains that marred the coronation of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, conditions that have been described as ‘an atrocious day in the middle of a lengthy spell of atrocious weather’.

One coronation that has gone down in history for its appalling weather conditions is that of King Henry V in 1413. The circumstances, were arguably, less than promising. Where in the modern day coronations and other royal celebrations are generally scheduled for the early summer months of May and June, when there is an expectation of favourable weather (albeit with mixed results, as in 1953 and 2012), King Henry IV had died in the third week of March, and in view of the as yet shaky claim of the Lancastrian dynasty, it was decided to hold the coronation sooner, rather than later, on 9 April.

What this foreshadowed, should have been clear to anyone familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer’s near contemporary Canterbury Tales, which of course open with a reference to April showers. Yet, before too long after the event, a narrative emerged that suggested that the weather on the day in question had in fact seen completely unseasonal snowfall.    

This story seems to have originated with the St. Albans chronicler Thomas Walsingham, notable for his colourful account of events. In his account of Henry’s coronation he noted that

‘there was a great fall of snow on this day. Everybody was surprised by the severity of the weather. Some people connected the climatic harshness with the fate that awaited them at the hands of the new king, suggesting that he too would be a man of cold deeds and severe in his management of the kingdom, while others who knew of a gentler side to the king took the unseasonable weather as the best of omens, suggesting that he would cause to fall upon the land snowstorms which would freeze vice and allow the fair fruits of virtue to spring up, so that his subjects would truthfully be able to say of him “Winter is now past, the rains are over and gone”.’

(Chronica Maiora ed. Preest)

By the reign of Elizabeth I this version of events, which so conveniently matched the verse from the Song of Songs quoted by Walsingham at the end of his passage, had become canonical. Probably copying Walsingham, Robert Redman, the author of the late 16th-century Vita Henrici Quinti likewise noted the different interpretations placed on the weather conditions, but refused to give details. He was, however, clear that ‘There is nobody, who does not know what powerful storms and tempests arose on that day when the king was consecrated and his head encircled with the crown.’ (Memorials of Henry the Fifth, ed. Cole)   

To the present day, the attractive story of the snowstorm of April 1413 finds its place in the literature. Even Henry V’s principal modern biographer regarded Walsingham’s narrative as ‘more than a literary device’, although he was more concerned with the popular sentiments that the chronicler conveyed than the actual weather on the day (C. Allmand, Henry V, 63-4).

In London, however, where men were perhaps best placed to know what the weather had been like on coronation day, they told a different story. An English chronicle of the first half of the fifteenth century recorded that it had been ‘a ful trobly wet day’. This chronicler knew what he was about: his next observation following his terse one-sentence notice of the king’s coronation ‘with michel ryalte’ was that on 1 September in the same year it had hailed strongly.

It seems that the author of this chronicle was familiar with one of London’s principal tourist attractions, a tablet displayed in St. Paul’s cathedral above the tomb of Bishop Roger Niger which recorded, among other historical events, the dates and places of the coronations of the kings of England.

This tablet was also known to another Londoner, John Cok, a former goldsmith who in the later part of his life became a brother of St. Bartholomew’s hospital in Smithfield. Cok copied some of the information on the tablet, including the dates of the coronations, into the hospital’s cartulary. But he also added extra information, and in the case of Henry V’s coronation he was keen to record his own part in this historic occasion.

‘In the year 1413 on the 9th day of April, which day was Passion Sunday and an extremely rainy day,’ Cok wrote, ‘was the coronation of Henry V at Westminster, at which coronation I, Brother John Cok, who have written up this summary of the Kings for the refreshing of [their] memory, was present and saw it.’

(E.C. Roger, ‘Blakber’d Treasure’)

This version of the coronation day weather of 1413 was passed down through other London chronicles, and in the latter part of the 15th century the draper Robert Fabyan was also clear that Passion Sunday 1413 had been ‘a day of excedyng rayne’ (New Chronicles of England and France ed. Ellis).

Eye-witnesses to Henry V’s coronation, or those who probably got their information from such, then knew only of rain, and not of snow. It is of course possible that on 9 April 1413 there was indeed a snow storm at St. Albans, but on balance it seems more likely that it was the verse from the song of songs quoted by Walsingham that had suggested these weather conditions to the learned chronicler. What seems clear is that the experience of those watching the outdoor processions in an age without umbrellas was less than pleasant. Let us hope that those attending the coronation of 2023 fare better!


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