George III’s sixty year reign began when his grandfather, George II, died at Kensington Palace in 1760. However, he wasn’t crowned King until Tuesday, 22 September 1761 – by which time he had a Queen to share the ceremony with.
Just two weeks after arriving in England and marrying George, Charlotte was on display once more. The hot sun that had blessed her wedding was still burning bright and she had yet more heavy robes to drag through the day.
Above is the Allan Ramsay portrait of George III in his coronation robes. It is one of the few portraits of George dressed in regal splendour – later pictures reflect his humble tastes, showing him in his Windsor uniform or a red jacket frogged in gold lace. The robes are currently on display at Kensington Palace, and I had the good fortune to see them for myself. One can only imagine how young George, still only 23, felt wearing them for his big moment. When writing God Save the King, I used the Ramsay portrait as inspiration for Charlotte’s love of George. When we see portraits of the older, portly man with bulging blue eyes and a long nose, we often forget that George was a handsome young Prince. Joshua Reynolds painted a portrait of him as Prince of Wales in 1759 which shows a dashing young man, hand on hip, staring at the artist with confidence. However, the Ramsay portrait appeals to me more, because I think it catches an important expression in George’s face. He is serene and noble, gazing out across his reign as if seeing he has a lot of work to do, but feeling capable and sure of himself. In the long years of political turmoil and illness ahead, it must have been an expression Charlotte remembered fondly and longed to see return to her husband’s features.
Charlotte was also painted by Ramsay, albeit with a less flattering brush. Her face betrays just how young she is – and the wide mouth and pointed noise which the public would criticise as “ugly”. Personally, I like the fact that Charlotte wasn’t the typical “beautiful” Queen. We see a gauche, vulnerable girl who we can relate to. You can practically feel her fatigue as she tries to hold up her costume, described as “a stiffened bodied robe, embroidered. Gold tissue petticoat, diamond stomacher, purple velvet sleeves. Diamonds, pearls as big as cherries, girdle. Purple velvet surcoat and mantle with ermine and lace, purple velvet cap.” To all this finery was added a sweet little crown George had given her for a wedding present, a mother of pearl fan and a set of “coronation locks”. It was tradition for Queens to be crowned with long curls flowing around their shoulders. Although Charlotte had perfectly lovely hair, it seems that on this occasion, fake extensions were brought in to add to its lustre.
Charlotte was the last English Queen to take part in a true coronation procession. She walked along a railed platform, carpeted in blue, from Westminster Hall to the west door of the Abbey. As maids dressed in blue and white sprinkled her path with herbs and rosebuds, she glided along with her seven train-bearers holding her steady. Above her head was a canopy of gold cloth. which tinkled when the breeze caught the silver bells tied to its corners. It must have been a magnificent sight.
When at last the King and Queen ducked out of the autumn sunlight into the cool splendour of Westminster abbey, a chorus rose up to meet their ears. Fifes, kettle drums, the organ and the constant chant of “Vivat Georgius Rex! Vivat Regina Charlotta!” This enthusiasm was to wane a little as the ceremony dragged by – it is reported that some people took to eating cold chicken and ham, quite drowning out the words with the clatter of their cutlery. However, Charlotte and George were to take their vows seriously for the rest of their lives. George in particular was dogged by the oath he made to uphold the Protestant religion. As the years went by and Catholic emancipation became expedient, he would find his conscience severely tested.
In a rather lovely piece of showmanship, Westminster Hall – where the coronation banquet was to take place – was kept in complete darkness until the Queen arrived. As she walked through the door, a single candle flared up against the black background. The light ran along a string, all the way around the hall, igniting wick after wick until a thousand candles illuminated the gold plates and exquisite court costumes. The hot, dripping wax was later to cause much inconvenience as it “rained down fire” upon the spectators’ heads.
The rest of the banquet was less stately. George and Charlotte, always criticised for their plain tastes, ate “like farmers”. Hungry guests in the galleries dangled down baskets, and even knotted garters, to catch a share of the 300 dishes on offer. The great tradition of the King’s Champion – where a man in armour rides a horse into the hall, throws down a gauntlet, and challenges anyone to dispute the King’s right to rule – turned into a farce. The horse was supposed to back out of the King’s presence like any trained courtier, but he forgot his manners. He advanced towards George rear first, rather ruining the effect of the crimson, gold and ostrich feathers that had been designed to give him and his rider much aplomb.
Another gaffe occurred when a large jewel fell out of George’s crown. In later years, people were to speculate that this was an omen – they thought the large jewel represented America, which would be lost in George’s reign.
You have to feel for poor George as the day descended into dignified chaos. The young King had only just set out upon his long career, but already shadows were looming – even his coronation didn’t seem to go his way. It is sad to reflect that one of his last appearances in public was at his Golden Jubilee where, confused and over-excited, he was a shadow of the man once crowned beside Charlotte.
This Saturday marks the 251st anniversary of George and Charlotte’s coronation and I hope to release the print edition of God Save the King on this day. A few unexpected hiccups with typesetting have slowed me down so I do apologise if it isn’t ready quite on time – but hopefully it will be! The Purcell household are working round the clock Due to these delays, the Kindle edition will be along a little later, probably late next week. I sincerely hope you will think it worth the wait.