190 years ago today, our most extravagant and self-indulgent monarch, George IV, celebrated his coronation. He was determined that it should be more lavish, more spectacular than Napoleon’s Imperial coronation of 1804. Such were the preparations, it took a full 18 months to organise following his accession and cost £243,000, funded from the public purse and French war reparations. A massive amount at the time, equivalent to around £20 million today. Apart from Nelson’s funeral, the public had not witnessed a public spectacle on this scale; George III’s coronation, some 60 years previous, had been an extremely modest affair by comparison. So the great throng in the streets of Westminster lapped it up: bread and circuses.
The Prince Regent, as he had been for some 10 years from 1811, had waited many decades for this moment. His outfit included a red velvet robe with gold embroidery trimmed with ermine; a 27 foot long train supported by page boys whom he instructed to stretch it out wide so that the public could see the embroidery; a lavish brown wig; and a black Spanish hat adorned with ostrich feathers and a heron’s plume. George eschewed the traditional St Edward’s Crown and instead commissioned one of his own which was decorated with rented jewels. He lobbied Parliament for three years to purchase it outright but to no avail: they all had to go back. It was here too that the Royal Sceptre was re-designed to include the Hope Diamond, obtained from France after the Revolution.
The procession travelled from Westminster Hall to the Abbey on a specially-built, raised, covered walkway. It included every high officer of state in all their finery: bearers of the crown, sceptre, orb and sword of state; bishops; peers; barons of the Cinque Ports; dignitaries from the City of London bedecked in their robes and paraphernalia of office. It was a hot day, the service itself took an age and the corpulent King soon began to suffer under the weight of his robes, barely managing not to faint entirely. Cue the famous incident of his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, making an appearance. She was pointedly persona non grata at the celebration, but turned up anyway and created a great scene at the doors of the Abbey. Anticipating this, George had hired prize fighters – fully costumed for the occasion – to act as bouncers specifically to keep her out. (One of my favourite George IV stories is that on Napolean’s death, he was told “Sir, your enemy is dead”. To which he supposedly replied: “What, my wife has died?” She in fact died three months afterwards).
Following the coronation ceremony, the nation’s finest returned to Westminster Hall for a lavish banquet. The majority, seated in galleries, had to watch, mouths watering, as the lucky 300 diners tucked in. The banquet was kicked off with the last enactment of an archaic ceremony whereby the king’s Champion, in this case Henry Dymoke, rode into the hall on horseback and challenged anybody to deny the king’s his rights. To avoid mishap, a trained horse – used to crowds – was borrowed from Astley’s Circus. The fare included soups, venison, veal, mutton, beef, braised ham, savoury pies, geese, braised capon, lobster, crayfish, cold roast fowl and cold lamb, dishes of jellies and creams, all garnished from hundreds of sauce boats of lobster sauce, butter sauce and mint. Having no doubt consumed his fair share of this lot, the exhausted king retired to Carlton House, forced to take an anti-climactic route through the slums of Westminster due to a carriage accident blocking the arranged passage. His best days already behind him, the ageing George only had illness, obesity and political squabbling to look forward to.
Acknowledgements must be made to detailed account here.