The Thames triumphant: royal parties on London’s grandest street

Robert J Blyth reveals why the royal family has long loved to throw lavish parties on "London's grandest street"

Members of the royal family on board the royal barge 'Spirit of Chartwell'. (Rota/Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On Sunday 3 June 2012, the celebrations of the Queen’s diamond jubilee will culminate in a spectacular pageant on the Thames. Hundreds of vessels will take part in a massive procession, journeying down the river from Hammersmith to Greenwich.

Ranging from a new royal barge and the little ships of Dunkirk to steamboats and a host of pleasure craft, the pageant is designed to embody symbols of nation and Commonwealth to mark this most historic occasion.

Only once before in British history has a monarch achieved such an anniversary and that was Queen Victoria 115 years ago. But why will Britain celebrate the jubilee with a flotilla on the river rather than the more familiar marching bands, horse-drawn carriages and parade along the Mall?

The answer lies, in part, with the long royal association with, and use of, the Thames. By the Tudor period, the Thames was the most convenient means of communication between a series of major riverside residences: Windsor, Hampton Court, Richmond, Westminster, Whitehall and Greenwich. It was also London’s grandest ‘street’, providing a majestic processional route for great royal, state and civic occasions. This was a role that none of the capital’s narrow, crowded and rather mean highways could fulfil.

During the reign of Henry VIII, the river witnessed a series of highly symbolic river processions. Three days before her coronation on 1 June 1533, Anne Boleyn left Greenwich Palace by barge in a fantastical river procession with an accompanying theatrical pageant organised around the theme of St George. A small barge led the parade carrying a mechanical dragon, which “pranced about furiously, twisting its tail and belching out wildfire”. Henry commanded the lord mayor and the livery companies of the City of London to attend. Thomas Cramner, archbishop of Canterbury, reported that their barges were “decked after the most gorgeous and sumptuous manner”, flying colourful flags and pennants.

Guns saluted and musicians played as the heavily pregnant Anne, dressed in virginal white, was conveyed to the Tower of London in her “rich barge among her nobles”. At the Tower she was met by Henry, who, in a very public display of affection, kissed his new bride. Anne later travelled to Westminster Abbey by road, while Henry went by river through his capital.

Divisive issue

These processions were, of course, stage-managed events allowing the public to demonstrate its loyalty to the king. But the coronation was not a straightforward affair. The annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was a highly divisive issue and Anne was far from popular. The pageantry was, therefore, designed to lend legitimacy to the king’s controversial new wife.

The use of the broad and open expanse of the river allowed the maximum number of people to witness the event, and the involvement of the City of London and the nobility added further authority. Controversial marriages also posed difficulties for the Stuart monarchs. Once more, river processions provided an answer.

Catherine of Braganza, queen consort to Charles II, had twin ‘disadvantages’: she was foreign and a Roman Catholic. After her marriage to Charles in Portsmouth, she too made a grand state entry into London. Her ‘Aqua Triumphalis’, a truly monumental pageant, was held on the Thames between Hampton Court and Whitehall on 23 August 1662. The writer John Evelyn was on the river:

“I was spectator of the most magnificent triumph that ever floated on the Thames, considering the innumerable boates and vessells, dress’d and adorn’d with all imaginable pomp, but above all the thrones, arches, pageants, and other representations, stately barges of the Lord Maior and Companies, with various inventions, musiq and peales of ordnance from both ye vessells and the shore going to meete and conduct the Queene from Hampton Court to White-hall, at the first time of her coming to towne.”

Samuel Pepys, who could not get a boat despite offering eight shillings, watched from the Banqueting House at Whitehall. He recorded in his diary that “the King and Queene [were] in a barge under a Canopy with 10,000 barges and boats I think, for we could see no water for them”. But the real focus of Pepys’s attention appears to have been Lady Castlemayne: “I glutted myself with looking on her.”

Perhaps one of the strangest royal river processions took place on 4 April 1865, when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, travelled down the Thames from Westminster to Crossness, then in north Kent. His purpose was the opening of the Crossness sewage pumping station, a major component of Joseph Bazalgette’s massive scheme to improve London’s sanitation.

The event was attended by numerous influential guests, including the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London.

The Prince of Wales officially switched on the four great sewage pumping engines, each of which was named after a member of the royal family: Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra. Having declared open this “perfect shrine of machinery”, the prince and the assembled dignitaries sat down to lunch in one of the outbuildings.

The Victorian Thames was, however, very different from the pleasant river that played host to earlier spectacles.

It was now urban, industrial, polluted and much altered by new bridges and the embankments. Consequently, its ceremonial use ebbed away.

But one constant connecting late medieval London to the mid-Victorian metropolis was the Lord Mayor’s Day procession, which took place on the Thames from 1453 until 1856. Each autumn, the newly elected mayor travelled, in a gilded barge accompanied by the great livery companies, from the City of London to be sworn in at the Exchequer Court in Westminster. This annual pageant was a symbolic display of the city’s allegiance to the crown. It was also a boisterous demonstration of wealth and commercial power.

This piece of theatre was captured most famously by Canaletto, whose paintings of the occasion show that it was both a solemn affair and a popular celebration. And it is Canaletto’s extraordinary depictions that have inspired this year’s royal river pageant. This summer, the Thames will return triumphantly to the centre of national life as the stage for the climax of the diamond jubilee, regaining once more its rightful and historic place as London’s grandest street.

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Dr Robert J Blyth is curator of imperial and maritime history at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich