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.

The London of the The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

Gruesome body of a saint on display!

The Catholic church has always enjoyed displaying the body of this and that saint – or parts of their body – for the reverence of pilgrims. Walking around London the other day – before the Coronavirus lockdown – I found one saint I’d not encountered before. His 17th century body is in pieces – for a grim reason!

Body of a 17th century saint on display in London

In the Catholic cathedral of Westminster in London I chanced upon the weirdest saint’s relic I’ve seen in a while. It’s the dismembered body of a 17th century saint who was executed in a very gruesome way then stitched back together again!

John Southworth (pictured above) was born in 1592 to what was described as a “recusant” Catholic family. That means a family paying fines in order to keep practising their Catholic faith, which was now no longer the religion of England.

Under the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, England had transformed from being a Roman Catholic country to adopting the new Protestant faith.

It had been a stormy period of change. The English monarchs had made themselves head of the church and overthrown the authority of the pope. Anybody still obeying Rome could face a traitor’s death.

Being a Catholic priest resulted in being branded or even executed. Undeterred, Southworth decided to become a priest and trained in France before returning to England.

The body of this saint ends up in four parts!

He faced spells of imprisonment over the years. Eventually, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Southworth was sentenced to death. This took the form of being hanged, drawn and quartered. To be more precise, his body was dragged through the streets. Then he was hanged but brought down while still alive.

Then his manhood was cut off, his intestines pulled out, his heart brought forth and finally, Southworth was chopped into four bits. The idea was that these dismembered body parts would be displayed in different places to warn others not to commit the same crime.

Spain acquires the body of this English saint

The Spanish Ambassador to London, a Catholic, bought the whole body – dismembered – for the princely sum of 40 guineas. He then had it embalmed and sewn back together. It ended up in a lead coffin at the English College in Douai, France where Southworth had trained to be a priest.

FIND OUT MORE: A story of heresy and murder in Spain

In the 1920s, as the college faced having to move because of a new housing development, it was decided to send the bones to the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster in London. This isn’t Westminster Abbey by the way.

That was originally a Catholic monastery in the Middle Ages but had become a Protestant abbey after the Tudors and the Reformation. The Catholic Cathedral was build in the 19th century and you can visit it near Victoria tube station.

If you do visit the cathedral, you’ll see the rather ghoulish spectacle of John Southworth’s dismembered body in a priest’s garment, gloves, shoes and a mask. Underneath all this is presumably a broken skeleton by now.

Royal Weddings – tragic and comic events

Today saw the wedding of Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle and the run up wasn’t without incident and scandal. But that was nothing compared to the bizarre events that have hit royal weddings in the past.

Royal wedding ends with a dead king

Take for example, King Harthacnut. He was a Viking who ruled England between 1040 and 1042. He succeeded his equally warlike brother Harold the First, often referred to as “Harefoot”.

Harthacnut was rather upset about the way his brother had executed a rebel called Alfred Atheling and so had Harold Harefoot’s body dug up, beheaded in public and then chucked in a marsh.

Harthacnut was in his early twenties and fighting to control his kingdom in England and in Denmark from rebellious nobles and rival kings. To relax from all this, he attended the wedding of a friend Tovi the Proud in Lambeth. Unfortunately, Harthacnut drank way too much and the king of England, aged only 23 or 24, had a stroke and died.

George IV turns up drunk to his royal wedding

Fast forward eight centuries… George IV, who ruled England between 1820 and 1830, was certainly no paragon of virtue before and after becoming king. A hopeless gambler and womaniser with a gargantuan appetite. But eventually, his parents demanded that the 32-year old prince get hitched…to his first cousin Caroline. This was not as unacceptable as it is today.

George had never met Caroline and wasn’t too keen on the match. So he did what any gentleman in this predicament would do – he got completely drunk. He was so legless in fact that his friends had to prop him up throughout the ceremony.

Throughout the wedding service, George eyed up his mistress Lady Jersey and hardly paid any attention to Caroline. Then when they got to Brighton for their honeymoon, he passed out in front of the bedroom fireplace. However, when he regained consciousness in the morning, George did the decent thing and a baby was born nine months later.