Phew. We made it guys. The Coronation is over.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been exciting, it’s been different. I even went to a super secret midnight rehearsal of the Coronation procession in the early hours of Wednesday morning, which was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
But, I have to say, it’s a bit of a relief that it’s over and London can go back to normal.
And I’m sure that’s a sentiment shared by many of the 6,500 service men and women who took part in the procession, the clergy of Westminster Abbey, emergency service personnel, and probably even the King himself.
It went more or less to plan and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
That’s not, however, something you can say for all of our Coronations. Just a few examples: Richard I’s Coronation in 1189 was apparently full of bad omens – a bat swooped around his throne and the Abbey bells started ringing without warning. In 1308, at the Coronation of Edward II, a knight was crushed to death in the heaving crowd (although that didn’t dampen spirits enough to stop the guests at the feast afterwards from getting through 1,000 casks of wine!). And apparently, in 1661, there was even a small earthquake during the Coronation of Charles I, which was said to “affright all in the neighbourhood”! Yeah, fair enough!
And so, just before the Coronation fatigue properly sets in, I have one more piece of Coronation content for you. Coronations gone wrong!
Of course, we have to start with the first ever Coronation to be held at Westminster Abbey: William the Conqueror.
William the Conqueror triggered a riot
Right, to understand William the Conqueror’s Coronation, you have to imagine the context of the time. It’s 1066. William was the new and foreign King who’d come over from Normandy and won the throne at the Battle of Hastings. His position was not yet very secure and he needed to be accepted by his new people.
In fact, William was so determined to have his Coronation in Westminster Abbey, solidifying his right to the throne in the church his predecessor had constructed, that the nave was still being built when he had his Coronation there on Christmas Day 1066.
You get the idea. Tensions were high and people were expecting trouble…
So William was in the Abbey, being crowned in a jubilant celebration and the congregation were cheering and clamouring for their new King. As you would expect at a Coronation. Outside the Abbey, however, the Norman soldiers heard the commotion and believed their King was in danger. Who knows what the sneaky, backstabbing English had planned?? They leapt into action, attacking people and setting fire to the surrounding buildings. Valiantly defending their King against… his own rejoicing subjects.
The congregation fled the Abbey as smoke flooded the building, but William the Conqueror did not move. The Coronation continued… with just William the Conqueror and the clergy alone in the church.
Richard II fell asleep
Now, this one is less of a disaster and more just really, really adorable. Little Richard II was just 10 years old when he became King and the last place most 10 years old want to be is church. Even when the reason you’re at church is because it’s your own Coronation.
He was even too young to wear his own crown. It was so heavy that the Earl of March had to step in to keep it on his head.
On 15th July 1377, the day before his Coronation, King Richard took part in a grand procession through the streets of London. He rode on horseback through crowds of people from the Tower of London to Westminster Hall – the first ever Coronation procession.
And then the following day, he had to sit through a Coronation service lasting hours. It was a busy couple of days! Unsurprising that the young Richard proceeded to fall asleep.
There are several accounts which describe Richard as so exhausted by the events of the day that he had to be carried from Westminster Abbey by Sir Simon Burley, either on Burley’s shoulders or in his arms… during which Richard also lost one of his shoes.
An inconvenience for most of us, but a little bit more awkward if the shoe in question is part of the sacred Coronation regalia and had apparently once been worn by St. Edmund… oops. One chronicler, Adam Usk, even claimed that the loss of said shoe foretold the onset of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. What a cheery chap.
James II was plagued with bad omens
It doesn’t mark the start of a promising reign when your crown almost falls off the moment it’s put on your head. That was one of the fateful omens described from the Coronation of James II in April 1685. Another bad sign came almost simultaneously when, supposedly, just as the crown touched the King’s head, the Royal Standard flying at the Tower of London was shredded by the wind.
Some believed the Coronation was marred by bad luck because the service didn’t happen as tradition dictated. The official Coronation service at the Abbey was held on 23rd April 1685, but actually most of the important stuff had already happened the day before. James II was a Catholic in what was now a Protestant country, so he’d had his own Catholic service the day before his official Coronation. And it was in that private service, in the chapel at Whitehall Palace, that he was first crowned and anointed. His Coronation at the Abbey was also the only Coronation not to include a Communion service and thus no anointing, considered to be the most sacred part of the entire ceremony.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, James’ reign has not gone down in history as particularly triumphant and he was removed from the throne in favour of Queen Mary and King William just three years later…
George III couldn’t control his guests
George III’s Coronation in 1761 didn’t get off to a great start. Already, immediately after the King arrived, there was a long delay after it was realised that no one had thought to organise chairs for the King or Queen. They were also missing the Sword of State (so they had to borrow one from the Lord Mayor of London – always helps having a friend with a spare sword), and there was no canopy (which was meant to be carried above the King and Queen as they processed through the Abbey), so one had to be improvised.
It’s also not really true that bad luck comes in threes, because then later in the service, the Bishop of Salisbury gave a 15 minute sermon which basically no one in the nave could hear…
So they just began to have lunch, getting out cold meat and pies and drinking wine. Let the party begin! The nave of the Abbey was filled with the sounds of clattering knives and forks, eating, and laughing. Facilities had even been set up in the Abbey where guests could buy refreshments, like chocolate, cold meats, and wine! Talk about asking for trouble…
And, my favourite detail: when Queen Charlotte tried to visit her “retiring-chamber” (basically her toilet), specially prepared for her in the St. Edward’s Chapel, she discovered it already occupied by the Duke of Newcastle, “perk’d up & in the very act upon the anointed velvet closestool”! He’d taken it upon himself to be the first to christen the royal toilet!
Understandably, after the service, the King complained to Thomas Howard, Earl of Effingham, who’d been in charge of the Coronation’s organisation. The Earl expressed his sincerest apologies and promised that nothing like that would happen at the next Coronation (at which point George III would be dead)… The King apparently found this so funny that he asked the Effingham to say it more than once. All’s well that ends well, I guess!
George IV banned his wife
George IV’s Coronation was certainly one for the books. It took place on 19th July 1821 and has gone down in history as one of the most expensive we’ve ever had.
It cost a staggering £238,000 (over £17 million today). In contrast, his father’s Coronation had cost only £70,000.
George IV had a new crown made containing over 12,000 diamonds, and a new Coronation robe (it was a copy of Napoleon’s, but his, of course, had to be bigger and longer), and he was decked out in so much fur and finery that he needed no less than nineteen handkerchiefs to mop up all the sweat pouring from his brow.
One of the mishaps of George’s Coronation was they lost his copy of the Coronation Oath… a pretty integral part of the Coronation, particularly considering it’s a genuine legal document, so the King had to sign the Archbishop of Canterbury’s copy instead.
George IV also had quite a rocky relationship with his wife to say the least. George had wanted to marry the widowed Catholic Maria Fitzherbert, but this was against the rules for a future King of England. He’d married her anyway, but without royal permission, so the union was declared null and void and George was forced to marry his first cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick instead. There was an instant resentment between the pair and by George’s Coronation in 1821, they were estranged.
Despite this, Caroline still had a right to be crowned Queen Consort alongside her husband. She arrived at the Abbey in all of her fabulous robes, tried to enter, but was asked by the commander of the guard to present her ticket. She replied that the Queen did not need a ticket, but was turned away. She also tried at another entry near Poets’ Corner, but was once again denied entry. George IV had given instructions that she should not be admitted under any circumstances. He’d even hired famous boxers, like Tom Cribb and Bill Richmond to act as bouncers at the doors and at one point the Lord Chamberlain ordered the door to be slammed in her face. Caroline tried every possible door into the Abbey before she finally gave up.
Victoria just couldn’t catch a break
Victoria’s Coronation in 1838 was a textbook case of a disastrous Coronation and mainly suffered from a lack of rehearsal. As they say, fail to prepare and prepare to fail…!
It was an extraordinarily long service. Imagine, Charles III’s Coronation lasted just two hours, but still drove little Prince Louis to counting out loud out of boredom. Watch the Coronation and just after Charles is crowned, you’ll see Louis quite clearly mouthing “four… five…” before the camera cuts away – who knows what number he reached?? In contrast, Victoria’s Coronation lasted five hours. The service also had to be paused at one point so that the clergy could debate which finger the Coronation ring was meant to go on.
That was only just the beginning of the drama with the Coronation ring. When sizing the ring in the lead up to the Coronation, the powers that be had measured the wrong finger. They’d measured Victoria’s little finger, rather than the fourth finger of the right hand, which is where the ring was supposed to go.
Now, if you know anything about the British, it is that we love tradition, sometimes to the detriment of reason. The ring was going on Victoria’s finger whether she wanted it to or not. So the tiny ring was rammed onto her fourth finger.
Victoria recorded in her journal after the Coronation (although I’m amazed she could still write), “I had the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which I at last did with great pain.”
That’s not all though. During the homage, elderly Lord Rolle fell down the steps and Victoria rushed to meet him so he wouldn’t try to ascend the steps again, and then a poorly prepared bishop notified the Queen that the Coronation had finished early and she could go. The Coronation was not in fact finished and they had to call Victoria back to her seat to complete the service.
And last but not least, there was also a kerfuffle with the medals.
For Charles III’s Coronation, about 4,000 people will be presented with the Coronation Medal, mostly in thanks to those who ensured the smooth running of the Coronation. They did the same at Victoria’s, except that the Treasurer of the Household just decided to lob the Coronation Medals into the crowd, which triggered a scramble of people trying to get their hands on one.
(Although I should say, in fairness to him, it wasn’t the first time this had been done at a Coronation.)
Overall, the event was such a disaster that after the Coronation a special committee of historians was tasked with creating a more regimented set of instructions for future monarchs to follow!
And you can argue it was pretty successful because we haven’t had a Coronation quite like it since!
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William the Conqueror
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