Throughout British history the River Thames has played a vital role as a highway and it has witnessed many river pageants, fairs and celebrations. It connected royal palaces and pleasure gardens and was itself a focus of entertainment and merrymaking. In 1662 there was a famous “Aqua Triumphalis” when the Lord Mayor and the City of London entertained King Charles II and his bride Catherine of Braganza with a display of 10 000 ships. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary 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”, with “musiq and peals of ordnance from both ye vessels and the shore”.
During the 18th century the Thames, London's "grandest street," featured in a number of paintings of great events such as the annual Lord Mayor's Procession. In 1806 it was packed with boats when Lord Nelson's body was taken from Greenwich to lie in state at Whitehall and in 1814 the frozen Thames hosted a celebration of a different sort, the Great Frost Fair. One of the other events depicted on canvas is the departure of King George IV for Scotland in 1822 showing the Royal Yacht surrounded by Thames barges and steamers at Greenwich, with a crowd cheering him on his journey.
The 19th century saw several big pageants on the Thames. In 1817 the Strand Bridge at Waterloo was opened by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Wellington, attended by a grand military cavalcade. New London Bridge was opened in 1831. There was a flotilla on the river and a grand banquet in a pavilion on the bridge itself. One commentator wrote: "every part of the river's bold and extensive sweep was crowded with vessels laden as heavily as possible with spectators." All the boats were decorated with rainbow colours.
A splendid exhibition at the National Maritime Museum called "Royal River" gives a taste of Royal river pageants through the last 500 years and a wonderful slideshow on the BBC website also gives a flavour of the many different pageants on the Thames throughout history and the type of boats taking part.