The comical coronation of King George IV

In July 1821, George IV was crowned as king of the United Kingdom at Westminster Abbey. The event was a riot of glitzy kitsch with no expense spared that went some way to establishing the model for the modern coronation. But it was a comical – or rather tragicomic – day that saw George’s own queen barred from the event while he sweated inside under the weight of extravagant robes of his own design.

Meanwhile, the streets of London saw both celebration and civil unrest.

No expense was spared for this royal event. King George IV spent twenty times more than his father’s coronation had cost. My calculation allowing for inflation was that he splashed out £25million in today’s money. Though half the cost was covered by reparations imposed on France which had been defeated six years earlier in the wars against its emperor Napoleon. George viewed himself as the conqueror of France and his coronation was a kind of victory lap.

I’ve gathered many of the following details about the coronation and events around it from contemporary newspaper accounts.

A feast of bling at the coronation of King George

The coronation crown was the largest item of royal bling ever created. It included a staggering 12,314 diamonds! After the coronation, George IV pressured parliament into buying the massive bauble but MPs and Lords said no. Gradually stripped of its jewels over the years, the unloved crown went on a curious journey ending up at the Museum of London in the 20th century, then Asprey the jewellers, then the Sultan of Brunei, and finally into the Royal Collection which has placed its forlorn remnant in the Tower of London.

But George didn’t have just one crown fashioned for his coronation. Another item of stunning headwear made for the event was the Diamond Diadem, which has been worn by queens and queens consort at coronations ever since. Most famously, it was worn by the late Elizabeth II when she modelled for the iconic stamps we knew and used for decades in this country to send our mail. Here it is pictured below (article continues after this image).

At George’s coronation, all the nobility were ordered to have special clothes tailored copying Tudor and Stuart designs. This was English history cosplay on a grand scale. The king’s own coronation robe was 27 feet long and needed to be carried by nine pages. It was later sent to the waxwork museum Madame Tussauds. During the proceedings, George perspired profusely under his ridiculously rich and heavy attire.

King George’s queen excluded from the coronation

The Times newspaper noted the George IV’s coronation followed the structure of his father’s crowning sixty years later but there were huge differences. For a start, King George III was crowned alongside his wife as queen. In stark contrast, George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline was excluded from the coronation. She was reduced to banging on the doors of the abbey which were slammed in her face and at one point, guards stuck their bayonets under the queen’s chin to make the point she wasn’t welcome. Broken by this humiliating ordeal, Queen Caroline died three weeks later!

There were riots by supporters of the queen in London which meant that whereas the coronation of George III required 3,000 troops to maintain order – the enthronement of his son saw 20,000 troops on the streets. Having failed to be crowned alongside her husband, Queen Caroline petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to have her own coronation a week later while the abbey was still suitably decorated. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

A wave of national apathy for the coronation of King George

On 28 July 1821, The Morning Chronicle took stock of the coronation that had happened just ten days before. It mocked the “court journals” that had drooled over this “pompous” ceremony without pointing out “the perfect apathy with which it has been regarded by the great body of the people of England”. The newspaper remarked that so indifferent were the masses that it would be a topic of study for future historians.

What The Morning Chronicle believed it was witnessing was something stirring deep in the national soul – against the monarchy:

“Superficial observers may think temporary causes sufficient to account for it; but an indifference so marked and universal – so entire a want of sympathy on the part of the people with those observances, which in the hands of their feudal tyrants were at once the instruments of gratification and delusion, can only be fairly ascribed to causes of a more general and permanent operation.”

Instead of inspiring awe, the pomp and pageantry had many wondering gloomily how much it was going to cost. The newspaper was concerned that after a century of reining in royal power, King George was showing signs of old-style absolutist monarchy and his ministers, who should have been able to control him, had allowed this grandiose coronation to take place.

“The truth is that the whole thing is out of date and the attempt at transferring the forms of chivalry to the cold realities of a modern court produces all the effects of a ‘travesti’.”

This newspaper assumed a much bigger figure for the true cost of the coronation than the one I gave above from other sources. It estimated half a million pounds which at today’s value is an eye watering £53.7 million. The Morning Chronicle believed that downscaling the coronation to a simple oath taking would have saved the Treasury what it lost in revenue from the recent abolition of the Agricultural Horse Tax.

FIND OUT MORE: The chaotic funeral of King George III

Crowds leave the coronation of King George for baser amusements

Once King George IV’s procession had entered Westminster Abbey, most of those outside departed hastily for Green Park according to The Observer newspaper. The reason being that a certain Mr Green was to ascend in a large hot air balloon as a stunt to celebrate the coronation. Watching this daredevil act of bravery enthralled the crowd more than the crowning of the king. There was some concern as Mr Green ascended until he was entirely lost from view eventually managing to descend again near South Mimms in the county of Essex.

At sunset, an estimated half a million people descended on Hyde Park to watch a firework display. This included an “illuminated transparency” of King George IV drawn in a carriage by “milk white horses”. According to one account, whole oxen and sheep were roasted in Hyde Park to feed the multitude.

I live close to an area of south London still called Vauxhall. Before the Victorians stuck a railway line through it, this was a centre of public entertainment. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens saw the city’s glitterati rubbing shoulders with politicians, entertainers, thieves, prostitutes, and thrill seekers attracted by a night of entertainments. For the king’s coronation, Vauxhall witnessed a huge masked ball.

The Morning Chronicle newspaper listed what visitors could expect to experience. Ramo Samee was a celebrity magician from India whose act included fire eating, sword swallowing, and a curious trick that involved swallowing beads followed by a string and then regurgitating a strung necklace. The equally renowned Mr Wilson would perform on the tightrope. A performance of Italian marionettes called the Fantoccini and a Chinese shadow puppet show called the Ombres Chinoises would also feature that evening.

DISCOVER: Worse royal funeral ever!

Ten years later, King George IV breathed his last – one of the least mourned monarchs to ever sit on the throne. It was up to Queen Victoria to bring some dignity and respect back to an institution that could very easily have not survived the 19th or early 20th century.

Has royal tradition been largely invented?

This week just gone saw the death of Queen Elizabeth II who has been a constant in my life as somebody born and raised in the United Kingdom. It’s an event that’s had a justifiably big impact. But in the hours and days that have followed, I’ve watched with a quizzical eye some of the allegedly ancient traditions unfold. Normally involving men in strange costumes yelling proclamations around the country. But to what extent has much of this royal tradition been invented?

In other words, is it all as old as they’d like you to believe?

Well, it may come as a shock to both Britons and royal watchers around the world to know that some of these venerable traditions really aren’t that old. Unless you regard fifty, one hundred and even two hundred years as incredibly ancient. In fact, a great deal of the pomp has grown with the development of mass media and the public appetite for spectacle.

The monarchy has also been deployed during volatile political periods in the 19th and 20th century to curb radical and even revolutionary currents stirring within the British population. In an excellent book – The Invention of Tradition – edited by the late Eric Hobsbawm, things you may have regarded as both eternal and true like Scottish tartan were breezily demolished. The book showed how royal glitz has been an effective distraction from growing social unrest.

DISCOVER: Royal weddings – tragic and comic

The book also examined how royal ‘tradition’ was extended to the Indian Raj and colonial Africa to foster deference and the idea of an empire upon which the sun would never set. For example, the British took the idea of the ‘durbar’, a traditional royal feudal gathering in India, and turned it into the Imperial Durbar. Three grand processional events held by the British in 1877, 1903, and 1911. At the third one, King George V oversaw the proceedings in person as Emperor of India (a title invented in Queen Victoria’s reign and scrapped in the 1940s after Indian independence).

So let’s look at some other traditions around the monarch that may not be quite as old as if often claimed:

The State Opening of Parliament: The website for Parliament claims this ceremony is 500 years old. But then it lets the cat out of the bag admitting that in its ‘modern’ form – ie, what you see on TV – it’s only existed since 1852 when Queen Victoria established the route to be taken and much of the ritual. Indeed, in the early part of Victoria’s reign, a state opening would have been impossible because the Houses of Parliament had burned down and were being rebuilt.

The Honours system: If you think the honours system with the OBE, MBE, and CBE dates back centuries, I’ve got bad news for you. It celebrated its centenary in 2017 having been introduced in the closing years of the First World War and the same year as the Russian Revolution.

The national anthem: While the music and words to the national anthem, do date back to the mid-18th century, the anthem only started to be used in earnest at royal occasions from the mid-19th century. It wasn’t even played at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.

In short, we can rightly point an accusing finger at the Victorians whose love of kitsch – and frankly rather camp – takes on medieval history and ritual are well recognised. They created much of the royal ‘tradition’ that we believe dates back countless centuries.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth – a lifelong presence

For those of us in our 50s and 60s – Queen Elizabeth the Second has been a constant presence throughout our lives. I’m no great monarchist but this familiar figure bowing out is a very unsettling moment. It reminds us of losing those close to us in recent years – including both my parents. We’ve essentially watched the Queen going through the same health travails as she relinquishes her grasp on life.

As a pupil at an infants and then junior school in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Queen was omnipresent. She’d already been on the throne for two decades by the start of the 70s. And her status as the head of state sitting at the pinnacle of the social order was beyond question.

The coins and notes we got as pocket money bore her young head with a laureate crown and after 1971 – when our currency went decimal – an updated image appeared as she advanced into her 40s. There were still coins with the heads of her father and grandfather – George VI and George V – in circulation, but they seemed very remote figures.

In the school assembly hall, we faced the 1955 portrait of the Queen painted by Pietro Annigoni with the monarch draped in the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter and a strangely desolate landscape behind her. While the Queen gazed serenely down, we sung our morning hymns and intoned the Our Father to the head of the Church of England. Deference was still a big thing in the 1970s.

Queen Elizabeth meets punk rock

The late 1970s saw both a surge in monarchism and the first outburst of counter-cultural opposition. In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the nation was enjoined to organise street parties and other events. Whereas subsequent jubilees – Golden, Diamond, and Platinum – seemed to be over in a fortnight, the 1977 jubilee went on for months. And it was very much a Commonwealth wide affair with the Queen touring Australia and New Zealand while Prince Charles visited Canada.

But a year before, punk rock had exploded into our lives. It’s hard to explain now what an impact The Sex Pistols and that whole musical genre had on our generation in a country that was sagging under the weight of economic crisis, post-Empire malaise, and rising unemployment. The Pistols released the raucous and irreverent single God Save The Queen which looking back now was less an attack on the Queen as a person and more a rejection of deference and suffocating paternalism.

But there was no wave of Republicanism crashing through the land. As a political activist in the 1980s, I was opposed to the monarchy but the main target of my socialist ire was capitalism. The Queen was simply the ceremonial icing on a cake of class oppression. I moved on from radical activism but just in time for the Queen to experience what she termed an “annus horribilis” in her Ruby Jubilee year of 1992.

Queen Elizabeth and her terrible year

That jubilee was noticeably low-profile. We were in the throes of endless scandal and rumour surrounding Sarah, Duchess of York – better known as “Fergie” – and of course Diana, Princess of Wales. Divorce, separation, racy photos, and compromising recording of secret conversations gave the tabloids a field day with the Royal Family. And then a big chunk of Windsor Castle burned down.

Compared to the 1970s, the monarchy in the 1980s and 1990s slid from revered institution to soap opera. Culminating in the death of Princess Diana in Paris. This event was an eye opener for me as somebody who wasn’t an arch-monarchist, along with most of my friends. It revealed a large and hyper-emotional constituency of royal admirers whose grief went far beyond anything most people I knew were experiencing. And the target of their anger over Diana’s demise was the Queen.

Shrill and shouty demands came for Her Majesty to show her feelings more publicly. I’ll admit that for the first time in my life, I actually felt genuine sympathy for the Queen. She was essentially being harangued into displaying the correct feelings by a tranche of the population in thrall to therapists. And she buckled, giving a televised address to mollify the population.

DISCOVER: Why did Queen Elizabeth the First never marry?

A kinder century for Queen Elizabeth

The 21st century has seen the Queen’s stature rise as the public view of democratically elected politicians and other professions has nosedived. But as ever, there’s a contradictory trend. Younger people – if social attitudes surveys are to be believed – just don’t feel the affinity to the monarchy that’s still widespread in my generation.

In addition, the discourse about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and empire has fuelled a growing hostility in the Commonwealth. The last anachronistic ties binding former colonies to Britain are unwinding rapidly. It’s become the conventional wisdom to state that after Queen Elizabeth – the remnants of empire will evaporate. She is, after all, the last link to the Empire.

So, it’s been a journey that millions feel they’ve been on. Queen Elizabeth evolved into the nation’s collective mother figure – even though she has remained throughout a remote and even slightly ethereal figure. This constant in our lives is now disappearing. How our view of the monarchy will change is a big question.