From pageantry to controversy: a brief history of state visits

US President Donald Trump is making an official state visit to the UK this week, which will include a state banquet and ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But who was the first American leader to make a state visit to Britain? Which two monarchs wrestled one another during a state visit? And how has Queen Elizabeth II welcomed world leaders in the past? Dr Carolyn Harris takes a closer look at the pomp and history of the state visit to Britain, and those of British monarchs abroad…

The first state visit by American President George W Bush in 2003 was highly controversial, attracting protesters opposed to the involvement of the United States and Britain in the Iraq War. Here the president is pictured with the Queen in 2008. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

On 24 May 1357, King John II ‘the Good’ of France arrived in London on a white horse, accompanied by King Edward III’s eldest son, Edward ‘the Black Prince’. According to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the royal party “crossed London Bridge and entered the city, and at about nine o’clock in the morning they turned towards Westminster; there such a multitude milled around them to see the spectacle, that due to the press of the crowd, they were unable to reach the Palace until gone midday.”

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The triumphal entry was followed by a royal reception at the Palace of Westminster. During his time in London, the king of France resided at the Savoy Palace on the Strand, which was guarded by a detachment of 18 marines from Edward III’s own royal barge. Edward III spent vast sums on ostentatious gifts for the French king including diamond and ruby rings, and lavish entertainments such as a tournament that all knights in Europe were welcome to attend, regardless of their allegiances. When John returned to France, the two kings exchanged parting gifts to demonstrate their “brotherly” affection.

What does a state visit look like today?

John II’s arrival in England during the 14th century shares some characteristics with a modern state visit today. A state visit to the United Kingdom (by a foreign head of state invited by the British government) begins with a formal greeting from the Queen and senior government officials, and inspection of the guard of honour, followed by a carriage procession to Buckingham Palace accompanied by the Sovereign’s Escort from the Household Cavalry. The Queen and the visiting head of state travel in the lead carriage and the procession attracts large crowds. Upon arrival at the palace, state visitors are shown to the Belgian suite, the suite of guest rooms named for Queen Victoria’s uncle, King Leopold I of the Belgians. There is a welcome lunch and an exchange of gifts and decorations. In the evening, there is a full state banquet served on King George IV’s gold and silver tableware, with formal speeches that celebrate the relationship between Britain and the nation honoured by the state visit.

The ensuing days of a modern state visit consist of meetings with the British Prime Minister and other government officials, visits to the financial sector and sometimes a university. The state visitors host a return banquet, usually at the country’s embassy, to recognize the Queen’s hospitality. In the past, the Queen has also hosted musical evenings for state visitors such as a gala performance at the Royal Opera House or a musical theatre performance at Windsor Castle.  The public pageantry surrounding the arrival and reception of the visiting Head of State differentiates the state visit from personal, working, or even official visits by a foreign leader.

In contrast to today’s state visits, however, John II was not visiting England of his own free will in 1357. England and France had been at war for 20 years at the time that John II arrived in London, a conflict that would eventually become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Edward III had not invited John II to pay a state visit; instead, Edward the Black Prince had captured the French king at the battle of Poitiers and brought him to England as a prisoner where he would remain until his ransom was paid in 1360. Yet the code of chivalry, as well as the self-interest of individual monarchs who might also find themselves in a similar situation, ensured that a captive monarch was well treated and received some of the honours now associated with a state visit.

Edward the Black Prince had captured the French king Jean II at the battle of Poitiers, depicted here. (Photo by: Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)
Edward the Black Prince had captured the French king Jean II at the battle of Poitiers, depicted here. (Photo by: Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)

This protocol changed over time. By the 15th century, Edward III’s grandson Henry IV made a clear distinction between a foreign monarch who resided in England as a prisoner and a foreign monarch who visited his realm voluntarily on a diplomatic mission. The 11-year-old future King James I of Scotland was captured at sea by English pirates in 1406 and presented to Henry IV as a hostage. During his 18 years in England, James was well educated and attended by noblemen, but he was confined to the Tower of London, and then Windsor Castle; he did not possess the regalia of office and was portrayed as subordinate to the English king on court occasions.

In contrast, when the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos visited England in 1400–1401 to request support against the Ottoman Empire, Henry IV greeted the visiting sovereign at Blackheath and escorted the emperor and his household of 40 retainers to Eltham Palace where Henry held his Christmas court that year. The sovereigns exchanged gifts, and there were numerous feasts, hunting parties and a tournament hosted in the emperor’s honour. Henry IV even organised a Christmas concert to entertain his Byzantine visitors, including mummers [actors] and carol singers from London. The language barrier between the Greek-speaking Byzantine sovereign and his English hosts impeded diplomatic endeavours, however, and Manuel wrote to a friend: “the difference in language… did not allow us to converse, as we had wished, with really good men who were extremely anxious to show us favour.” Manuel did not receive substantial assistance from England for his military endeavours. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

Lavish tournaments, banquets – and wrestling

Visits between European heads of state became a little more frequent during the Tudor period and the pageantry associated with these occasions increased further. Henry VIII famously met with King Francis I of France in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold at Balinghem, between the French town of Ardres and English-controlled Calais. The sovereigns entertained each other with lavish tournaments and banquets. The two monarchs swore eternal friendship and had a seemingly amicable wrestling match where Francis defeated Henry with a Breton technique that left the King of England sprawled on his back. The Venetian ambassador, however, observed that “these two Sovereigns are not at peace, they hate each other cordially” and the Anglo-French alliance was short lived.

Henry VIII also entertained Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a nephew of his first wife Catherine of Aragon, in 1520 and 1522. While the 1520 meeting lasted only a few days as Henry was on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the 1522 meeting was closer to a state visit with weeks of jousting, feasting and court entertainments, a formal exchange of gifts and religious services where the regalia of both monarchs was on display.

A tapestry depicts the meeting of King Henry VIII and King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold
A tapestry depicts the meeting of King Henry VIII and King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The two monarchs swore eternal friendship and had a seemingly amicable wrestling match. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, monarchs and their heirs began to travel more extensively around Europe, foreshadowing the rise of the grand tour as a rite of passage for the aristocracy. These royal visitors often travelled incognito under assumed names to avoid the protocol of a state visit and devote more time to sightseeing and comparatively informal meetings with other European sovereigns. The meetings between sovereigns at this time therefore bore more resemblance to a modern working visit or private visit than a full state visit, but there were still some ceremonial touches. In 1698, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia visited London as part of the Russian Great Embassy. Although Peter travelled incognito under the name ‘Mikhailov’, William III arranged for a formal welcome and gun salute and invited the tsar to a reception at Kensington Palace where he met the heiress presumptive to the throne, the future Queen Anne. William also assumed responsibility for Peter’s expenses while in England, including reimbursing the diarist Sir John Evelyn £350 for the damages caused by Peter the Great and his household during their stay at Evelyn’s residence, Sayes Court.

Full pomp and ceremonial was restored for the first modern state visits to the United Kingdom. These included Tsar Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia from 6–22 June 1814, as well as the Allied sovereigns’ visit to England in advance of the Congress of Vienna (where they helped to negotiate a new balance of power in Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars). The Prince Regent, the future King George IV, hosted a lavish series of events for the state visitors: they received a guard of honour; a series of formal banquets and entertainments; honorary degrees from Oxford; and the Order of the Garter [the most senior order of chivalry in Britain]. London was celebrating the end of decades of war with France and the visitors were the focus of widespread public acclaim. Although the Prince Regent found Alexander to be arrogant and condescending, the festivities created lasting bonds between Britain and the visiting sovereigns. When the future Queen Victoria was born in 1819, Alexander I asked to become her godfather and the baby was given the first name Alexandrina in addition to her mother’s name, Victoria.

An interior view of the Guildhall, City of London, depicting a banquet that was held in honour of the visiting Tsar Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia. (Photo by Guildhall Library& Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
An interior view of the Guildhall, City of London, depicting a banquet that was held in honour of the visiting Tsar Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia. (Photo by Guildhall Library& Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Queen Victoria made official visits to France and hosted Emperor Napoleon III for a state visit at Windsor Castle in 1855, but she preferred more informal arrangements for sovereigns closely related to herself. While Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was content to make a personal visit to Balmoral Castle in 1896 with his wife Alexandra (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter) and their baby daughter Olga as part of his coronation tour, Kaiser Wilhelm II objected to being treated simply as the queen’s grandson behind palace doors instead of a fellow sovereign as he was honoured in public. The Kaiser received a full state visit during the reign of his uncle Edward VII in 1907 but relations with Britain soured after the Daily Telegraph published the Kaiser’s emotional outbursts about British foreign policy from that same year, including: “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares. What has come over you that are so completely given over to suspicions quite unworthy of a great nation.” The Kaiser continued to be convinced that his British relatives were plotting against him until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Queen Victoria pictured with members of her family. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (third from left, back row) objected to being treated simply as the queen’s grandson behind palace doors, instead of a fellow sovereign. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Victoria pictured with members of her family. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (third from left, back row) objected to being treated simply as the queen’s grandson behind palace doors, instead of a fellow sovereign. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

American leaders’ visits to Britain

Nineteenth-century American presidents were not expected to travel outside the United States during their time in office. Instead, meetings between British royalty and American presidents took place on American soil following royal visits to Canada. Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, met with President James Buchanan in 1860 following his tour of British North America (now Canada), setting precedents for future royal visits to the United States. In his capacity as King of Canada, King George VI met with President Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park, New York, in 1939 – just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The end of the First World War brought American President Woodrow Wilson to the United Kingdom on an official visit in 1918 prior to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. In common with the state visits of 1814, the British public was in a celebratory mood at the end of a long period of war and Wilson received a warm welcome. Formal state visits to the United Kingdom by American presidents, however – which include a greater degree of ceremony than official visits and may only be extended to heads of state – did not take place before the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Elizabeth II and state visits

Queen Elizabeth II has met all the American presidents in office during her reign, from Harry Truman to Donald Trump (with the exception of Lyndon Johnson, who fell ill just before a planned visit to Britain for Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965).

The state visit by American President George W Bush in 2003 was highly controversial, attracting protesters opposed to the involvement of the United States and Britain in the Iraq War. President Barack Obama made a state visit in 2011 where he addressed a joint session of parliament and developed a warm rapport with multiple generations of the royal family that continues to the present day.

President Barack Obama's warm rapport with multiple generations of the royal family continues to the present day. (Photo by Lewis Whyld - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama’s warm rapport with multiple generations of the royal family continues to the present day. (Photo by Lewis Whyld – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II’s reign began with a state visit by a European royal couple who were closely related to the Queen and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. From 28 June to 1 July 1954, the Queen hosted King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden and his wife, Queen Louise (Lady Louise Mountbatten before her marriage). The Swedish royal visit was the first of more than 110 state visits to the United Kingdom by foreign leaders over the course of the Queen’s reign so far.

Like the state visit of George W Bush in 2003, some of these state visits have been highly controversial and attracted protesters. Second World War veterans silently protested state visits honouring Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1971 and his son Emperor Akihito in 1998, because of the mistreatment of British prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps. The Queen limited private interactions with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena during their controversial state visit in 1978. The Chinese Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping in 2005 and 2015 respectively attracted both pro-democracy and human rights demonstrators and pro-China counter demonstrations. Protestors shouted: “Shame on you” at King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2007.

While the protocol remains the same for all state visits, the public response and lasting impact for relations with the United Kingdom varies widely.

Second World War veterans silently protested the state visit honouring Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1971. (Photo by Les Lee and Terry Disney/Daily Express/Getty Images)
Second World War veterans silently protested the state visit honouring Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1971. (Photo by Les Lee and Terry Disney/Daily Express/Getty Images)

How have state visits changed during the Queen’s reign?

The long reign of Queen Elizabeth II has introduced a number of innovations to the centuries old customs governing visits to the United Kingdom by foreign leaders. The first was the increased visibility of official visits – distinct from state visits – for Commonwealth prime ministers. The Queen is the first monarch to be crowned queen of individual realms in a Commonwealth of equal nations. Only foreign heads of state receive the formal protocol associated with a state visit, but official visits by individual Commonwealth prime ministers during Elizabeth II’s reign include a greater degree of public recognition. The official visits to the United Kingdom by Commonwealth Heads of Government not only include meeting with the monarch and senior politicians but occasionally addressing parliament as well. The official visit format has also been used for certain foreign heads of state. American President Ronald Reagan made an official visit to Windsor Castle in 1982, which included a formal banquet hosted by the Queen.

Queen Elizabeth II riding in the grounds of Windsor Castle with US President Ronald Reagan, 1982. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II riding in the grounds of Windsor Castle with US President Ronald Reagan, 1982. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)

The Queen has also made changes to the protocol associated with state visits to allow for more engagement with the country represented by the visit. At the beginning of the Queen’s reign, guests were seated at state banquets in order of precedence, which limited engagement between the royal family and their visitors. The royal family are now seated amidst their guests to allow for more conversations with the visiting delegations. The Queen also displays historical artefacts in the Buckingham Palace picture gallery that highlight the history of the relationship between Britain and the country honoured by the state visit. The 2019 state visit by President Donald Trump will follow this pattern, focusing on the historic relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Dr Carolyn Harris is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada; Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.