The Splashy Thames

Watching from afar, the highlight of this past weekend’s Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign for me was the spectacular 1000-boat flotilla, floating theater on the Thames.  All the “color” commentary, on the television and in print, referred to the precedent of Charles II’s 1662 river pageant, organized to celebrate his marriage to the Portuguese royal princess Catherine of Braganza. The historical narratives of this particular pageant do indeed describe a spectacle.  The very detailed diarist John Evelyn wrote: “His Majesty and the Queen came in an antique-shaped open vessel, covered with a canopy of cloth of gold, made in the form of a cupola, supported by high Corinthian pillars, wreathed with flowers, festoons and garlands” and his contemporary Samuel Pepys observed that you could not see the water, as there were so many barges and boats.  But for visual inspiration, Canelleto’s panoramic painting The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day (1746) cannot be beat.  It is in the permanent collection of the Lobkowicz Collection of the Czech Republic, and was loaned to the National Maritime Museum in Britain for its timely exhibition Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames, on view until September. A mural was reproduced on the side of the London Bridge tube station to advertise the exhibition.

The Lord Mayor’s river pageants seem to precede those of royalty, but the Tudor and Stuart monarchs definitely used the river as the backdrop for their public displays of royal majesty, including coronations and funerals. They were experts at this sort of thing:  a procession, was great, but a floating procession, even better. Anne Boleyn had a coronation flotilla as well as one that accompanied her to her execution; river pageants also marked the beginning of her daughter Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 and its end in 1603. There was a three-day river pageant, including a staged fight by several ocean-going vessels, in May of 1610 to celebrate King James I’s proclamation of his eldest son Henry Frederick as the Prince of Wales. The pageant for King Charles II and his new queen Catherine in August of 1662 consisted of barges representing the twelve livery companies (guilds) of London as well as masques on the water; Catherine’s court painter, Dirk Stoop, captured the event for all posterity in an engraving entitled Aqua Triumphalis.

Dirk Stoop, Aqua Triumphalis, 1662. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before the industrial revolution and intensive urbanization generated a “great stink” emanating from the river, the Thames continued to be the setting for municipal and national celebrations, while simultaneously serving as the “highway” that it had always been.  I think that the seventeenth-century map below illustrates this last function very well.  I couldn’t resist the pageantry of the Lord Mayor’s barge gliding by Windsor Castle in the 1813 aquatint, and then there is an image of perhaps the last national Thames pageant before the twentieth century, Lord Nelson’s grand maritime funeral procession in 1806, by Daniel Turner.

London. Part of the County of Middlesex, 1662 Lithograph, Crace Collection of Maps of London, British Library; The City of London State Barge Passing up the Thames by Windsor Castle, 1813 Aquatint, British Library; Daniel Turner, The Procession of Barges attending Lord Nelson’s Funeral, 1806, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

The last Diamond Jubilee, that of Queen Victoria in 1897, seems to have featured only a terra firma procession; perhaps the Thames was still too stinky, though it had been several decades since the installation of London’s sewage system. “Henry VIII” made an appearance on the river upon the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of his reign in 2009, and then there was the smiling Queen Elizabeth II on the water this past weekend.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession passing over the Thames in 1897; “King Henry” in 2009; and the Spirit of Chartwell bearing the royal family down the river this past weekend.


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