William Fraser’s Annandale Family Book of the Johnstones, Earls and Marquises of Annandale, contains an absolutely fascinating letter written by Mary Hope to her father, the naval hero and British politician, Sir William Johnstone Hope. Mary's letter provides a vivid account of every detail of the coronation itself and, more interestingly perhaps, of her own experiences behind the scenes. The result is an often witty commentary of the gaffes, the drama and the glamour – let alone the sheer physical endurance of attending such an event.
The longest day
Mary’s day started early on the Coronation Day. She was roused at midnight by ‘bells ringing, guns firing, carriages rolling, and every outrageous noise that could indicate London gone mad’. She dressed and breakfasted on mutton chops at 2:30am, before setting off down the Strand to Somerset House. And while the morning was beautiful and ‘our silver shone most brightly under the rising sun’, upon arrival Mary’s party had to navigate through ‘hundreds of lounging, half-sleeping soldiers, who, not being yet on active duty, looked like the dead and dying after some great conflict, having been there from 11 the night before’. But then the first of many calamities struck. Amongst the throngs of people, Mary got separated from her party. ‘There was no time for faints or fits, so I made for the first opening. I found myself on the steps of the throne’! Mary thought herself lucky that she had been in the throne room before and could extricate herself quickly so that ‘his Majesty might not think I intended to personify the queen’. But given the King’s low regard for his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, it is highly doubtful that he would have minded in the least. But more on that later ....
By 5am Mary had made it into Westminster Abbey – but had to wait another 5 hours before the procession actually began. Finally, at 11 the trumpets announced the entrance of the procession, with the peers accompanied by various 'very ugly' ladies, and the king (who was by this stage in his life very obese) dressed from head to toe in gold, with a train so heavy that it had to be carried on the shoulders of pages. The king was met, however, with a rapturous reception of such enthusiasm that it threatened to overwhelm the proceedings.
The first casualties
Indeed, so rapturous was the entrance of ‘the king and the burst of the Hallelujah Chorus, with the vast magnificence and sublimity of the whole scene’, that ‘one gentleman dropped down in palsy, and another in a fit, of which he actually died before he could be carried out. His screams and that of his wife were dreadfull indeed.’
When the lords went up to give their homages to the king, Mary Hope was able to record the most stunning of the costumes on display.
“You really cannot fancy a fairy scene of such splendour, with a bright sun shining on it, and to look up the hall at that moment when the Royal Band played God Save the King, coronets, plumes, hats, handkerchiefs, all flying in the air and a loud echoed blessing from every mouth on the king's head.”
The Queen's English
The greatest scandal of the day, however, came when Queen Caroline, the king's estranged wife, tried to enter Westminster Abbey in an effort to assert her place as the king's consort. Caroline was no longer living in England, and the king would have preferred to have divorced her, but for the threat of scandal that might arise because of his own mistresses. The queen actually managed to get as far as a few steps inside the Abbey, before she was forcefully asked to leave. The queen's fury was clear, and 'her language and swearing were so dreadfull [the men present] could not repeat it'. Meanwhile, the queen was roundly heckled by the crowd, who chanted 'go to Como, go to Como', while 200 of her 'friends' managed to cause enough of a scene that a soldier was stabbed in the thigh during the scuffling. This unpopularity was a reversal for just few years before, when the queen's esteem with the public had vastly outstretched that of her husband. It is hard not to see some connection between the rough treatment the queen received at the Abbey and her falling ill that night, which began a rapid decline that lead to her death a few weeks later on 7 August.
For Mary Hope, meanwhile, more patience and extreme fortitude was required while the king took a two hour rest after the coronation before embarking on the great celebration banquet in Westminster Hall. It was not until 7pm when the author finally managed to grab a glass of champagne 'to keep soul and body together' - the first thing she had tasted since 2am, 17 hours before.
The Coronation Dinner
If the Queen's outrageous display at the doors of Westminster Abbey had not been enough, further unplanned excitement happened at regular points during the monumental feast. Certainly, today's royal occasions tend to be planned and executed with a military precision that seldom sees even the smallest errors made. By contrast, the coronation dinner was something of a comedy of errors. To commence the banquet, Lords Wellington, Anglesea and Howard rode their horses into the hall to announce dinner, with about 30 pensioners following behind bearing the golden dishes of meat. The Lords were then supposed to retreat their horses backwards and exit the hall – which was a disaster just waiting to happen. And so it was. Lord Howard, 'in a great fright' and 'swearing like a trooper', pulled his horse back in such a way that 'its ample tail nearly swept some of the gentleman pensioners off the land of the living'. Having avoided the threat of finding a horse on their plate, the diners finally readied themselves to eat – only to find that Lord Anglesea, thinking that his duties finished when dinner was on the table, had clocked off for the night. ‘So a herald was sent to say his Majesty could not dine till he came and took the [plate] covers off. ‘ And since he couldn’t walk with his riding gear on, Anglesea had to be greatly supported by others when he re-entered the hall to complete his duties – to the great of amusement of the guests. Until, that is, in amongst all the drama, it was discovered that nobody had remembered to provide any spoons. Since the king wished only to eat soup, his displeasure at finding himself without eating implements was not without notice.
At 9:30pm, nineteen and a half hours after her coronation day began, Mary finally began her journey home. She had traveled to Westminster by boat, and now she and her aristocratic company had to clamber over the hundreds of sleeping soldiers who filled the streets, exhausted after 30 hours on duty. Once home, Mary still had the energy to go out again to watch some fireworks, before finally going to bed, whereupon she slept for 15 hours. But Mary's journey home was easy compared to many of the wealthiest nobles of Great Britain. Mary estimated 2000 ladies and gentlemen were forced to use the benches of the House of Lords as a temporary bunkhouse, while 500 carriages and their horses were stuck in a traffic jam to Hyde Park Corner. Frederic Hope and a Miss Kinnaird had to sleep in the open air, using Frederic's robe to cover themselves, and his cocked hat as a pillow.
Hardly any assassination attempts
And with that scene of nobles sleeping rough on the streets of London, Mary Hope brings her account to an end ... but then remembers another small, insignificant detail that she adds almost as a postscript.
“I forgot an incident that caused much commotion at the banquet. Glengarry, in full Highland garb, [got] into the peeresses box and [exclaimed] 'he was defrauded of his rights in the refusal of some title', drew from his belt a pistol and pointed it at the king! The horror it caused you cannot imagine”.
Glengarry was immediately 'pinioned' by constables and his gun was found to be unloaded, but one cannot imagine such a scene being viewed as an afterthought at any modern coronation. But Sir Walter Scott was ‘enchanted with the whole scene, and is the only one who can describe it’ [Scott in fact used Glengarry as the basis of Fergus Mac-Ivor, a wild clan chieftan, in Waverley]. More surprising still, Glengarry (or Colonel Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, to give him his full title) was viewed with 'mild amusement' by the king in later years, despite the fact that the clan chief made a habit of scandalous, flamboyant and unauthorized appearances at royal events, particularly during the king's famous visit to Scotland in 1822.
Is media and the scrutiny of the public eye to blame for society’s expectation of perfection on occasions such as this? It is a shame if it is – because I for one would far rather witness an event such as George IV’s coronation than a carefully scripted and sanitized event devoid of any humanity, human error and all the hilarity that that brings. Today's press would undoubtedly view George IV's coronation as a public relations disaster by any measure. By contrast, in 1821 is was seen as a complete success – disasters, foul-ups and appalling security lapses notwithstanding.
[Public domain images of George IV's coronation and George IV in 1821 via Wikipedia.]