‘A noble sight’: the Prince’s Chamber and Royal Lyings in State in the Eighteenth Century

In the latest post for the Georgian Lords, we are delighted to welcome a guest blog from Dr Rachel Wilson, Research Fellow for the Leverhulme Trust funded Sheridan Project at the University of Leeds, who considers the ceremonial uses of the Prince’s Chamber in the old Palace of Westminster, the venue for lyings in state throughout the eighteenth century

For the majority of the eighteenth century, the Prince’s Chamber (also known as the Old Robing Room) adjoining the House of Lords was the setting for almost the last ritual a member of the royal family would take part in before their burial; their lying in state. Between the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and Prince Henry, duke of Cumberland in 1790, over a dozen royals were brought to this room and their sealed coffins publicly displayed before being interred in Westminster Abbey. Some are well known to history, such as George II (d. 1760) and his consort, Queen Caroline (d. 1737). Others are less familiar, including Princess Caroline (d. 1757), Princess Elizabeth (d. 1759), Prince Frederick (d. 1765), Prince Edward, duke of York (d. 1767) and Princess Louisa (d. 1768).

The exact space in which they and others lay was demolished in 1823, however its exterior appearance and location within the Palace of Westminster may be seen in contemporary prints and maps.

John Roque, 1746 map detail, Palace of Westminster, Wikipedia

[Detail of John Roque’s 1746 map, via Wikipedia]

Writing in the 1830s Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton recorded that its foundations dated to the time of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), but ‘the superstructure, from the style of its lancet windows, &c. was generally assigned to the reign of Henry Third [r. 1216-1272]’. Others noted that it was handsomely designed and originally boasted ‘five beautiful windows on the South side, three on the Eastern, and probably as many on the western side’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, xciii, part 2, p. 99).

John Thomas Smith, Antiquities of the city of Westminster, p. 38 detail

[J.T. Smith, Antiquities of the City of Westminster (1807), via archive.org]

The Chamber was relatively small at only ‘about 45 feet long by 20 feet wide’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, xciii, part 2, p. 99) and for that reason may seem a surprising venue for royal lyings in state, however its diminutive size was advantageous in an era when comparatively quiet, low-key royal funerals were preferred, while its proximity to the Abbey allowed funeral processions to be kept similarly modest (Schaich, pp 436-7).

Despite the brevity of a royal lying in state (which lasted only a day), considerable efforts were made to ensure that the Prince’s Chamber was suitably decorated for the occasion and the corpse was attended and protected by a cluster of high-ranking servants and guards. A lump sum of £6,458.8.6 paid by the Treasury to tradesman William Barnsley after Queen Anne’s demise gives some indication of the expense and arrangements. Among other things it covered the cost of:

purple-ingrain cloth for a canopy of state set up in the Prince’s chamber for the body to be deposited under and to cover 12 high stands; fine purple-ingrain cloth to cover the floor of the said Chamber at Westminster; superfine black cloth to cover an armchair, and two backed chairs for the Chief Mourner and her two supporters two large stools for the two Duchesses that supported the Chief Mourner’s train, 16 stools and two benches for the Assistants etc. of the late Queen’s Bedchamber (Calendar of Treasury Books, vol. 29, 1714-15).

The Chamber looked much the same during the lying in state of George II and was, according to Horace Walpole, ‘absolutely a noble sight’ being ‘hung with purple, and a quantity of silver lamps, the coffin under a canopy of purple velvet, and six vast chandeliers of silver on high stands’. The emphasis on purple (the colour of monarchy) denoted Anne and George’s position at the pinnacle of the royal establishment and more minor members of the family were usually mourned with black furnishings only, though Queen Caroline’s coffin was draped in crimson (Read’s Weekly Journal, 17 December 1737). One detailed description of the lying in state of a lesser royal is the official Ceremonial issued before the funeral of Princess Amelia in 1786. It decreed that she be:

placed a little before the Canopy; the Room being hung, and floored with Black, and lighted with Wax Candles; and on each Side of the Canopy are to be placed five high Stands, with large Wax Tapers. At the Head of the Coffin is to be an Elbow Chair for the Chief Mourner, and another Chair on each Side for her Two Supporters. On either Side of the Corpse, close to the Wall, are to be five Stools, placed for the Ten Assistants; and below them, two Forms for the Ladies of the Bedchamber. The Coffin to be covered with a Sheet, and black Velvet Pall adorned with eight Escutcheons; and, on the Head of the Coffin, the Princess’s Coronet, upon a black Velvet Cushion (Ceremonial for the private interment of her late royal highness, Princess Amelia-Sophia-Eleanora … (London, 1786)).

As a comparison between Anne, George and Amelia’s send-offs show, the lying in state of a sovereign was a considerably more impressive sight than that of an elderly Princess, with more servants and wax tapers on display and the body beneath the canopy rather than positioned in front of it. Nevertheless, the opportunity to view the coffin of even a lower ranking royal could prove a popular attraction, albeit one which the Prince’s Chamber was ill-equipped to handle. Its spatial limitations and the short time the body lay there meant that it was not always possible to accommodate all those who wished to attend and in September 1790 gaining access to view the duke of Cumberland’s coffin was reportedly ‘very difficult’, with ‘multitudes’ of people queuing around the building ‘without any hopes of admission’ (Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 29 September 1790).

As the eighteenth century came to an end so too did the practice of using the Prince’s Chamber for royal lyings in state. This change was precipitated by the death of Prince William, duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh in 1805, who directed in his will that his remains be buried in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor where his infant daughter had been interred in 1775 (Range, p. 213). Perhaps in recognition of the fact that Westminster Abbey was also running out of space (Range, p. 214) future burials then followed suit, with the Chapel and later the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore becoming the most common places for royals to be laid to rest. With interments now taking place outside of London the Chamber was an impractical site to keep the deceased before their funerals and various royal residences and even the Chapel itself soon became the favoured locations. This pattern was not to last, however, and more modern times have witnessed a return to Westminster, though not to the current incarnation of the Prince’s Chamber which dates to the reign of Queen Victoria. Instead it is the much older and grander Westminster Hall in which senior members of the royal family now repose, and it is there that we may expect future lyings in state to take place.



Further Reading:

Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton, The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (London, 1836). The quote given above is from p. 421.

Matthias Range, British royal and state funerals: music and ceremonial since Elizabeth I (Woodbridge, 2016).

Michael Schaich, ‘The Funerals of the British Monarchy’ in Schaich (ed.), Monarchy and Religion: the Transformation of Royal Culture in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Oxford, 2007), pp 421-50.

Correspondence of Horace Walpole with George Montagu (3 vols, London, 1837). The letter quoted above is Horace Walpole to George Montagu, 13 Nov. 1760 and is taken from volume 2, p. 48.


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