Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Thanksgiving of George III

Whilst out walking recently in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire I came across this monument. It was originally built in 1781 by Thomas Bruce Earl of Ailesbury out of gratitude to his uncle who not only left him his estates but also procured for him the Barony of Tottenham. Later, in 1789, Thomas added a second inscription to the column. This one reads:

"In commemoration of a signal instance of heaven’s protecting providence over these kingdoms in the year 1789 by restoring to perfect Health from a long and afflicting disorder their excellent and belov'd sovereign George III this tablet was inspired by Thomas Bruce Earl of Ailesbury."

I hadn't come across such a public display of thanksgiving before but then Thomas Bruce had a great deal to be thankful for. It was George III who, apparently unsolicited, conferred upon him the earldom and who also visited Tottenham Park in 1784 and 1789. Once I had come across one instance of public thanksgiving for the recovery of George III I was curious to see if there were more and found some fascinating instances of celebration.

On the 26th February 1789 the King's physicians issued a bulletin announcing his recovery from his "malady." With the benefit of modern diagnosis we now know this to be porphyria, from which George III did not truly recover, but at the time his apparent restoration to health was a cause of great rejoicing, especially amongst the conservative political faction. It was decided that public thanksgiving should focus on St George's Day, 23rd April 1789. On that night the Bank of England and the surrounding buildings were lit up with 12 000 lamps. There were "transparencies" - paintings lit from behind - including a triumphant Britannia in her chariot.

There was also a host of celebratory fetes and balls and a brisk trade in commemorative items. A particularly popular item was "restoration gloves." The Spanish Ambassador commissioned a special dinner service from the famous Sèvres porcelain works in France to mark the occasion. The service is decorated with delicate gilded and enamelled borders, profile portraits of George III and the crowned letter 'G' encircled by a laurel wreath. Most pieces are inscribed with one of a number of different mottos written in a mixture of English, French, Spanish and Latin. The inscriptions include "Huzzah the King is Well", "Bless the King, The Patron of Arts", "God Save the King" and "The Best of Husbands". A few spelling mistakes or language mix-ups, such as The Exemple of Virtue and The Best of Fraters [sic], may be the result of hasty workmanship to meet the deadline for the gala that the Spanish had planned. Two thousand invitations were issued to the gala, which was held in the Rotunda of the Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea, and reputedly cost £12,000. The entertainment involved a display of dancing by Spanish children, a fire-works extravaganza, moving transparencies, a lottery with 600 prizes and supper served in oriental-style tents. Queen Charlotte, accompanied by her daughters, was the principal guest, and the Sèvres service was used at her table. The tea and coffee sets from the service, now in the Royal Collection, are thought to have been presented to Queen Charlotte the day after the festivities.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I really enjoy your various illuminating historical looks at this and that, Nicola. I knew, of course, about King George's porphyria but I had not realized how much rejoicing there was when he 'recovered'.

I particularly liked the 'Huzzah the King is Well' comment which has a certain period charm. I wonder when people stopped saying 'Huzzah'?

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