Monday, May 21, 2007

The Crowning of a Queen

Thursday, the 28th of June, 1838, dawned early for the young Queen. She was awakened at 4.00 by the sound of guns in the Park and dozed fitfully until 7.00. Outside the palace and all the way to the Abbey, people crowded up Constitution Hill watching the soldiers and listening to the bands playing.

By 8.00 the streets were thick with people and platforms had been erected on which, for a fee of 2s 6d one could stand to see the procession. Some, like Charles Dickens, rented rooms in houses overlooking the route in order to get a good view of the momentous event. By the time the Queen passed, on her way to the Abbey, there were between 300 and 400 thousand spectators lining the route. The large numbers may have been increased by the fact that for the first time the new railroads contributed to the massive influx of those coming to London for the day's events. According to Charles Greville, "the railroads [were] loaded with arrivng multitudes."

At 10.00 the Royal Procession set out from Buckingham Palace. Even the weather seemed to cooperate to make this a brilliant event. The Queen noted in her journal that "it was a fine day, and the crowds of people exceeded what I have ever seen; ... [they] were assembled in every spot to witness the procession." The crowd was so great that she "was alarmed at times for fear that the people would be crushed and squeezed on account of the tremendous rush and pressure." An hour and a half after setting out, the procession reached the Abbey where Victoria was greeted by deafening cheers.

Harriet Martineau was fortunate enough to have a seat in the back row of the Abbey gallery where she had "a pillar to lean against, and a nice corner for ... [her] shawl and bag of sandwiches." She had also had the foresight to take a book to read while waiting. Like many of the others who attended the ceremony or lined the streets, she was up early, waking at 2.30 in the morning and beginning her preparations an hour later. The Abbey opened at 5.00 in the morning and people were already waiting to enter.

Despite the great solemnity of the occasion there were moments of humour. The Bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby, who stood near the Queen during the ceremony, seemed to have little idea of what was going on and was, the words of Lord Melbourne, "remarkably maladroit." Things were so confused, and the clergy seemed to have such a poor grasp of what was happening, that at one point the Queen turned to John Thynne, the Sub-Deacon at the Abbey, and asked "Pray tell me what I am to do for they don't know." And clearly this was the case when the ruby ring, which had been made for her little finger, was forced, by the Archbishop, onto the wrong finger. "The consequence" of this was that she had "the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which ... at last she did with great pain."

Following the crowning of the Queen the peers paid homage to the Monarch. It was, according to Martineau, "as pretty a sight as any; trains of peers touching her crown, and ... kissing her hand." In the middle of all of this pomp and ceremony, the 82 years old Lord Rolle came forward to pay his homage. Rolle was a large man, but unsteady on his feet, and was supported by peers on each side. As Victoria described it in her journal, "in attempting to ascend the steps [he] fell and rolled quite down, but was not the least hurt." He tried to ascend the steps again, at which Victoria, according to the ever-observant Harriet Martineau, "rose, leaned forward, and held out her hand to the old man, dispensing with his touching the crown." John Martin's 1839 painting of the scene can be found by clicking here.

As the homage ended, drums were beaten and trumpets sounded and the crowd shouted:

God Save Queen Victoria
God Save Queen Victoria
May the Queen live forever

Medals of gold and silver were thrown to the crowd leading to an undignified scramble for the momentos. The Queen, with her Ladies, Train-bearers and the Peers bearing the Regalia repaired to St Edward's Chapel where Lord Melbourne commented that it "was more unlike a Chapel than anything he had ever seen; for what was called an Alter was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc., etc." While they waited, the Archbishop of Canterbury came in to give Victoria the Orb, which she had already received and he left "confused and puzzled."

On the eve of the Coronation there were fireworks in Hyde and Green Parks, and in the four days following, a great fair with theatres, ballon ascents, food stalls and dance floors up to 500 feet in length was held in Hyde Park. On the second day of the festivities, the Queen visited the park. The Coronation festivities were finally brought to an end on 9 July when the Queen reviewed 5,000 troops in Hyde Park.

The festivities were not limited to London. At Leamington there was a procession, a dinner for the poor, a public dinner and displays of fireworks. At Coventry churches and chapels held services and an ox and sheep were roasted to be distributed to the poor. There was music and fireworks as well. At Stratford-upon-Avon there were entertainments for the poor and a ball at the Town-hall in the evening. Children from the Sunday schools were fed in many places and at Redditch were presented with coronation medals. Balls and dinners were held around the country as well as special meals for the poor. Even in the gaols and the poor-houses there were celebrations. The prisoners in Horsham Gaol were treated to a roast or boiled beef dinner with plum pudding and a pot of ale or porter and the Board of Guardians of the Strand Union ordered that inmates of the two workhouses of the Union should be provided with a meal of baked beef, plum pudding and a pint of porter.

Views of the Coronation were mixed. Most people would seem to have concurred with Harriet Martineau for whom "it was a wonderful day; and one which I am glad to have witnessed." But there were those who felt differently. Charles Greville, the political diarist, was among those who took a dimmer view of the proceedings, noting that "it is very curious, but uncommonly tiresome, and the sooner it is over the better."

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