Friday, 25 May 2012

River of dreams

The Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant promises to be a truly magnificent spectacle. Historian David Starkey recalls the extraordinary importance of the Thames – and the remarkable regal celebrations it has hosted

Written by David Starkey

From dragons belching fire and smoke, to choirs of singing virgins, royal pageants have always been as mad as they are magnificent. Always elaborate and hugely expensive, what they have all had in common is a crowd-pleasing purpose, whether commemorating a birth or a death, a marriage or a coronation. Monarchy is very much about public relations.

Henry VII was the first sovereign to understand fully the importance of pageantry and to favour the Thames as a grand stage guaranteeing maximum publicity – and so launched an enduring relationship between Britain’s royal families and the world’s most famous river. But it wasn’t his idea.

From the mid-1400s until the late 19th century, the Thames was England’s ‘grandest thoroughfare’, at theheart of everything. Every north-south street ended at the river, every major building, including palaces, was built on it.

Twice as wide as it is now, this huge, lazy river wandered between its natural banks, spilling out as the tide came in and the water rose. It was essential to everyday life. This was at a time when road travel was slow and uncomfortable, the royal family, livery companies or trade associations, and the wealthy, owned barges to transport them up and downstream, while the public hired a licensed, waterman-operated ‘taxi’.

The river played a crucial role for trade and finance, too, and it was the City of London that pioneered its use as a stage with the Lord Mayor’s Day procession. From around 1453, on 29 October, the newly elected mayor was rowed in a flotilla of gilded barges – huge, heavy row boats manned by up to 18 or more oarsmen – from near St Paul’s to Westminster, where he was sworn in at the Court of the Exchequer. Soon it became an annual event on the grandest of scales, as depicted in the star exhibit of this new exhibition – Royal River: Power, Pageantry & The Thames – Canaletto’s wonderful painting, The Thames On Lord Mayor’s Day.

Starkey-02-590Left: Royal coat of arms of King William III. Right: David Starkey

It is cited as an inspiration for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on 3 June and has been loaned from the Lobkowicz Collections in Prague. This is the ‰ rst time the masterpiece has been allowed to leave the country since it was delivered in 1752 to Prince Lobkowicz, who had commissioned it, direct from the artist’s studio in London.

It’s a sublime painting, and looking at it is like stepping back in time into a world now gone, but which was once as lively and vigorous as anything today. In those days the Thames was a bustling, working river. You can see dozens of boats, details of every little dock and landing stage for warehouses, people doing their everyday work, as well as breaking o’ to watch the procession.

Life in 18th-century London was like 20th-century New York, the place where all the money was, where you had to go if you wanted to make it – the Canaletto captures perfectly the pomp and grandeur attached to the pageant. Of course, before the Reformation in the 16th century, the whole world was a kind of religious pageant, with innumerable processions and festivals, with the Crown and Church closely interwoven. But it was the city’s expertise at putting on a show that the monarchy drew on, especially for that grandest of pageants, a coronation for a queen.

A king ascended the throne by hereditary right, the rituals governing his coronation well established. But a queen was made, invented by marriage – the first female succession was not until the 16th century. There was greater need to show her off , to gain the people’s approval, and a pageant was the way to do it.

So it was for Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, in 1486. The Wars of the Roses were over, Elizabeth had given birth to Prince Arthur, and her coronation was designed to say, look, we’ve got a new dynasty that descends from both York and Lancaster; the wounds of the past are knitted up.

For such a pageant, of course the crowds came running. They may not have had Facebook or Twitter to spread the news but they had word of mouth – until well into the 17th century, London was just that square mile teeming with people – and they had print. Advance planning would give the game away, too, as enormous quantities of precious fabrics, furs and tapestries would be ordered. Everything would be gilded, and silk banners, heavily embroidered with gold, were hung everywhere. The cost was enormous: money spent decorating the barges alone was vast, some £1,000 just for one, the equivalent of £1m today.

Other crowd-pleasing provisions would include making sure the city’s fountains ran with wine. In other words, much like our own Jubilee, everybody knew about it, making it one big boozy holiday.

Starkey-03-590Greenwich Hospital From The North Bank Of The Thames, Canaletto, 1750-52. Inset: Figurehead of the royal yacht, Royal Charlotte [Queen Charlotte], 1824

Our aim with the exhibition, which also marks the 75th anniversary of the National Maritime Museum, is to evoke the sights, sounds and even smells of half a millennium of royal river pageantry. It includes nearly 400 objects, many of which have never been on public display before. We have the oldest-known copy of Handel’s Water Music; Anne Boleyn’s music book; rarely seen uniforms; an elaborate silver microscope made for George III, and the 16th-century Pearl Sword, which, to this day, the monarch must touch upon entering the City of London. We also have the electric warmer for Queen Mary’s curling tongs on the Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert III in 1910-11, as well as its magnificent stern carvings.

There’s a stuffed swan, too. Until the beginning of the 19th century, the bird represented a valuable meat and, not surprisingly, the younger swan was preferred. Unfortunately, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, died while eating a cygnet at the coronation banquet of her grandson, Henry VIII.

There’s also Dirk Stoop’s detailed etching of my favourite, and probably the greatest, pageant of them all, Aqua Triumphalis, or Triumphant Waterway, celebrating the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II in 1662.

Just like nowadays, the spectators would be as interested in who was there as they were in the pageant itself. Samuel Pepys gave us a wonderful description. Although he couldn’t see the king and queen, ‘just was an awful lot of ships’ he told us, he could see the king’s mistress, Barbara Villiers, below him and he watched her every move. When a young army officer chatted her up, she took his felt hat from his head and put it on hers.

The main show may have been designed for the new queen, but the mistress was also saying, ‘Look at me, I’m the beautiful one’.

Royal River: Power, Pageantry & The Thames, guest-curated by David Starkey and sponsored by Barclays, until 9 September, 2012, is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich: 020-8312 6608,

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