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.
Thank you for this, Nicola, a super post. We tend to dismiss rivers these days, I think, but in the past they were vital to getting around the country - it wasn't until the end of the 18th century that roads improved sufficiently to be effective for transport, and then of course the railways had a great impact on travel.
Thanks, Sarah. Yes I love the role than rivers played in transport and communication as well as ceremonially. The great rivers of the country must have looked very busy and vivid in the days of sail.
Thank you for a most interesting blog, Nicola. It was good to see Luke Clennell's 'The Fair on the Thames' print of the 1814 Frost Fair. I chose it for the cover of my 'Frost Fair' because I liked the way that so much is happening wherever you look: swings for the children, a drummer drumming, skating, printing presses and so on.
I later learnt that, for a time, Clennell worked for the great wood-engraver Thomas Bewick. I do love it when things link up!
I love that Clennell print too! All the pictures of the Frost Fair are so vivid and full of action.
This year's river pageant just didn't do it for me. Wet/cold/and boring. Enjoyed seeing the royals though. What a trooper our dear Queen is.
I think I would have preferred Charles II's pageant to this year's, but it was still a magnificent sight! Such a shame about the weather though ...
Christina, I would have loved to have seen Charles II's pageant too! (Someone did point out to me that it might have been raining that day too and the painters took artistic licence!I wonder what the written records say.) It was a great pity about the weather. I didn't find the pageant itself boring, Fenella, just the commentary, which was pretty poor IMO. With some more historical information thrown in I think it could have been very interesting.
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