Royal celebrations in the Georgian period were renowned for their mixture of stately formality and farcical mix-ups. In the third of our series on 18th-century coronations, we turn to that of George III in the late summer of 1761, which proved no exception, as Dr Robin Eagles points out.
Shortly after 10 pm on 22 September 1761 the doors of Westminster Hall were flung open so the crowds waiting outside could pour in and snaffle what was left of the coronation banquet. Just as had happened at the previous coronation in 1727, pretty much everything was up for grabs and anything not screwed to the floor was liable to be carried off. By then all the principal participants had withdrawn, no doubt exhausted, after their long 12-hour day.
It had all begun in relatively modest fashion when George III and Queen Charlotte, whom he had met and married just a few days before, were carried to Westminster Hall from St James’s Palace in sedan chairs ‘like ordinary citizens going to the theatre’ [Brooke]. Here the normality of their day ended as the complex choreography of the coronation ceremonial began. They were met with a host of officials who proceeded to clothe them in their coronation regalia and prepare them for the long procession that would wind its way from the Hall to Westminster Abbey. Peers were always jealous of insisting on their hereditary right of fulfilling roles at events such as this. Two of the lucky ones were the earl of Sussex, who carried the golden spurs, while the earl of Lincoln brandished ‘Curtana’, the deliberately blunted sword of mercy.
It was not until around noon that the procession was finally ready to make its way to the Abbey, led by Honor Battiscombe, the king’s herb woman, accompanied by her ladies, strewing sweet herbs. Fearing the traditionally terrible British weather would intervene, the raised walkway that had been constructed between the two venues had been covered with shipping canvas, but when it turned out nice for a change, this was removed. Normally, the walk between the Hall and Abbey would take around two minutes but such were the numbers of those involved that it was an hour and a half before the king and queen finally arrived in church.
In all the kerfuffle some mistakes were made. The sword of state had been left behind at St James’s, so a substitute had to be found for the procession while someone dashed back to retrieve it. By the time the king had arrived in the Abbey, it had been found and deposited on the altar.
In the Abbey, several of the bishops, who had been allocated space in the Jerusalem Chamber to don their vestments, took prominent roles in what happened next. Bishops Keene of Chester and Ashburnham of Chichester sang the litany; Robert Hay Drummond of Salisbury (soon to be promoted to York) preached the sermon. The king listened to the address wearing a crimson velvet cap edged with ermine, flanked by his traditional supporters, the bishops of Durham and Bath and Wells. At half past three, over six hours after George had first arrived in Westminster, he was crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury, using the crown that had been fashioned for his great-grandfather George I in 1714, not ‘St Edward’s Crown’, which had been created at the Restoration for Charles II. The moment of crowning was the cue for a signal to be given for guns to be fired off in the park and at the Tower of London.
By the time the participants began making their way back to Westminster Hall for the coronation banquet it was evening. Those who had secured places in the Hall to watch the feasting were made to sit in darkness until the king’s party arrived. The whole place was then illuminated with thousands of candles as the banquet got underway. Catering for such a large number meant that temporary kitchens had had to be erected in Cotton Gardens [TNA, WORK 36/68/64]. The first dish to be served was Grout (Grøt): a sort of spiced porridge garnished with currants and toast, and before the next course was served there was the traditional interval with the hereditary king’s champion riding into the Hall, in full armour, to challenge anyone who questioned George’s right to the throne.
George III’s coronation was a red-letter day for many more than those immediately involved in the ceremony as it provided an opportunity for numbers of people to make money. There were official galleries in both the Abbey and Hall, but those lucky enough to own property along the processional route also cashed in. The best seats in the Abbey were sold for 10 guineas each, but at least one house was said to have been let for more than £1,000 for the day.
William Hogarth also exploited the event, producing a satirical print displaying ‘The Five Orders of Perriwigs as they were worn at the late Coronation measured Architectonically’.
As well as a commercial opportunity, it was also, of course, an excuse for an almighty party. According to Horace Walpole, ‘All the vines of Bordeaux, and all the fumes of Irish brains cannot make a town so drunk as a regal wedding and coronation’. He commented on the excited atmosphere in London:
Oh! The buzz, the prattle, the crowds, the noise, the hurry
and how Palace Yard was the:
liveliest spectacle in the world
It was not just in London that the day was celebrated. In Dublin there was a magnificent firework display on St Stephen’s Green along with ‘such drinking and ringing of bells, and roaring of cannon and small arms’ that one witness still had a headache two days later. [PRONI, T3019/4193]
The holiday spirit outlasted the day of the coronation itself and the following day the duke of Devonshire was inundated with requests for tickets to a ball, believed to be happening that night. Walpole was bemused that people wanted to keep partying as they had:
set up a night and a day, and yet wanted to see a dance
If people were keen to keep dancing for days afterwards, other aspects of the ceremonial long outlasted the event. It was not until the following year that Allan Ramsey completed his formal coronation portrait of the king, which was to prove extremely popular, spawning dozens of copies distributed around the country.
For another participant the corollary was not so happy. The recently promoted Earl Talbot had taken a prominent role as Lord Steward and one of his functions had been to attend the banquet on horseback. For this, he had trained his horse carefully so that it would back away from the king without showing him its rump. Unfortunately for Talbot things did not quite work out, and the horse instead backed into the hall offering the king an unrestricted view of its rear. It made Talbot a laughingstock and the journalist MP John Wilkes could not resist joining in. He derided Talbot for his performance in an edition of the North Briton and in return was challenged by Talbot to a duel. They met at Bagshot, where they exchanged shots without either being hurt. Even so, it was Wilkes who was the one to emerge triumphant, while the press lampooned Talbot as a coward.
For many, the coronation of George III was a joyous and entertaining pageant. Talbot probably preferred to forget all about it.
John Brooke, King George III (1972)
Richard Thomson, A Faithful Account of the Processions and Ceremonies observed in the coronation of the kings and queens of England… (1820)