The coronation of Queen Victoria took place on 28 June 1838, just over a year after she succeeded to the throne at the age of 18. The procession to and from the ceremony at Westminster Abbey was witnessed by unprecedentedly huge crowds, as the new railways made it easier for an estimated 400,000 to come to London from the rest of the country.
The ceremony cost £79,000 (£6.41 million as of 2015), which exceeded the £30,000 (£2.46 million as of 2015) spent on that of her uncle and predecessor, William IV, in 1831 but was far less than the £240,000 (£18.5 million as of 2015) for the grandiose coronation of his brother George IV in 1821. William IV’s coronation had established much of what remains today the pageantry of the event, which had previously involved ceremonies in Westminster Hall (now attached to the Houses of Parliament) before a procession on foot across the road to the Abbey. This form was replaced with a procession through the streets with the new monarch in the Gold State Coach or Coronation Coach, dating to 1762 and still used in coronations, with many other coaches and a cavalry escort.
The procession by coach of 1831 was again adopted in 1838, and has been followed in all subsequent coronations. The road route was extended to allow for more spectators, taking a nearly circular route from the Queen’s new home at the just-completed Buckingham Palace via Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly, St James’s Street, Pall Mall, Charing Cross and Whitehall. The budget stressed the procession and there was no coronation banquet; according to The Gentleman’s Magazine it was the longest coronation procession since that of Charles II in 1660. The weather was fine and the day was generally considered a great success by the press and wider public, though those inside the Abbey witnessed a good deal of mishaps and confusion, and there was Radical opposition, especially in northern England.
According to the historian Roy Strong, “the ceremony of 1838 was the last of the botched coronations”, before Victorian historians put together a programme more typical of medieval coronations, and which has been used since that of Edward VII in 1902. The picturesque ritual of the Queen’s Champion riding through Westminster Hall in full armour and issuing his challenge was omitted and has never been revived; the Champion, Henry Dymoke, was made a baronet instead. There was very little rehearsal, although the Queen was persuaded by Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, to visit the Abbey the evening before. Several of the congregation reported that, in the words of Benjamin Disraeli, those with parts to play “were always in doubt as to what came next, and you saw the want of rehearsal”.
As was usual, special seating galleries had been erected to accommodate guests, and the music came from an orchestra of 80 players, a total of 157 singers, and the various military bands in the processions to and from the Abbey.
The whole coronation service lasted five hours and involved two changes of dress for the Queen. At points in the service when they were not needed at the Coronation Theatre (composed of the pavement fronting the main altar and the crossing), the royal party retreated to “St. Edward’s Chapel, as it is called; but which as Ld Melbourne said, was more unlike a Chapel, than anything he had ever seen, for what was called an altar, was covered with plates of sandwiches, bottles of wine, &c.”
One accident that turned to the advantage of the Queen is described in her journal: “Poor old Ld Rolls [actually Lord Rolle], who is 82, & dreadfully infirm, fell, in attempting to ascend the steps, — rolled right down, but was not the least hurt. When he attempted again to ascend the steps, I advanced to the edge, in order to prevent another fall”.
The quality of the coronation music did nothing to dispel the lacklustre impression of the ceremony. The music was directed by Sir George Smart, who attempted to conduct and play the organ simultaneously; the result was less than effective. Smart’s fanfares for the State Trumpeters were described as “a strange medley of odd combinations” by one journalist. Smart had tried to improve the quality of the choir by hiring professional soloists; he spent in all £1,500 including his own fee of £300; in contrast, the budget for the much more elaborate music at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 was £1,000.
Thomas Attwood had been working on a new coronation anthem but had died three months before the event and it was never completed. The elderly Master of the King’s Musick, Franz Cramer, contributed nothing; leading The Spectator to complain that Cramer had been allowed “to proclaim to the world his inability to discharge the first, and the most grateful duty of his office — the composition of a Coronation Anthem”. Although William Knyvett had written an anthem; This is the Day that the Lord hath made, there was a great reliance on the music of George Frederick Handel; no less than four of his pieces, including the famous Hallelujah chorus —the only time that it has been sung at a British coronation.
Not everyone was critical however, the Bishop of Rochester wrote that the music “was all that it was not in 1831. It was impressive and compelled all to realize that they were taking part in a religious service – not merely in a pageant”
The new queen wrote a very full account of the events in her journals, from which these extracts come (removing the mentions of her relations and others, which take up much of the account):
“At ¼ p. 4 I went with Lady Lansdowne, Ly Barham & Ld Conyngham & Col: Wemyss, to Westminster Abbey, where the Dss of Sutherland met me, to see all the preparations for tomorrow. The streets were full of people & there were preparations of all kinds. I was received at the Abbey by Ld Melbourne, the Duke of Norfolk, Sir William Woods & Sir Benjamin Stevenson, All the arrangements are splendidly & very conveniently carried out. Ld M. made me try the 2 Thrones, which was very fortunate, as they were both too low, Came home at 5, — great crowds in the streets, & all, so friendly. The preparations for fairs, balloons, &c – in the Parks quite changes the aspect of the place, & the Camps of the Artillery, with all their white tents, had a very pretty effect. I am very glad I went to the Abbey as I shall now know exactly where I am to go & what I have to do, &c.” …
“We [Lord Melbourne] spoke for a long time about the Coronation & all I had to do. I said I felt very agitated & as if something awful were going to happen to me tomorrow, at which he smiled Spoke of the Bishops, & the Bishop of Durham being so remarkably awkward. Ld M. said “He is very maladroit in all those things”, adding, in speaking of the Coronation, “Oh! you will like it, when you are there. I observed I was glad to think he would be near me, as then I always felt so much safer.” “I was awoke at 4 o’clock by the guns in the Park & could not get much sleep afterwards, on account of the noise of the people, Bands, &c. Got up at 7, feeling strong & well. The Park presented a curious spectacle, — crowds of people up Constitution Hill, — soldiers, Bands, &c.” … “It was a fine day, & the crowds of people exceeded what I have ever seen, being even much greater than when I went to the City. There were millions of my loyal subjects, assembled in every spot, to witness the Procession. Their good humour & excessive loyalty was everything. I really cannot say how proud I felt to be the Queen of such a nation. I was alarmed at times for fear the people would be crushed, in consequence of the tremendous rush & pressure. Reached the Abby a little after ½ p. 11, amidst deafening cheers. First went into a robing room, quite close to the entrance, where I met my 8 Train Bearers: Ly Caroline Lennox, Ly Adelaide Paget, Ly Mary Talbot, Ly Fanny Cowper, Ly Wilhelmina Stanhope, Ly Anne Fitzwilliam, Ly Mary Grimston & Lady Louisa Jenkinson, all dressed alike & beautifully, in white satin, & silver tissue, with wreaths of silver wheatears on the front of their hair & small ones of pink roses, round the plait, behind. There were also trimmings of pink roses on the dresser. …”
“Then followed all the various ceremonies, ending by the Crown being placed on my head, which I must own was the most beautiful impressive moment. All the Peers & Peeresses put on their coronets, at the same instant. My excellent Ld Melbourne, who stood very close to me throughout the whole ceremony was quite overcome at this moment, & gave me such a kind, & I may say, fatherly look. The shouts, which were very great, the drums, the trumpets, the firing of the guns, — all at the same moment, rendered the spectacle most imposing.”…
“The Archbishop had (most awkwardly) put the ring on the wrong finger, the consequence being that I had the greatest difficulty n taking it off again, which I at last succeeded in doing, but not without great pain. All my Train Bearers looked quite beautiful. At about ½ p. 4 I reentered the State Coach, the crown on my head & Sceptre & Orb in my hands, & we proceeded the same way as we came, the crowds, if possible, having become still greater. The demonstrations of enthusiasm affection, & loyalty were really touching & shall ever remember this day as the proudest in my life, I came home at a little after 6, really not feeling too tired. — At 8 we dined, besides we 13, my Uncle, sister, & brother Spëth & the German Gentlemen, — my excellent Ld Melbourne & Ld Surry dining”.
After dinner she watched the fireworks in Green Park, and did not breakfast until 11.30 the next day, when she visited the Coronation Fair in Hyde Park, with a large ball on 2 July.
The coronation attracted considerable criticism from opponents of the Whig government of both Tory and Radical views. The Tory objections, mostly made beforehand, were that the government’s plans to put much of the spending into the long public procession detracted from the traditional dignity of the ceremonies at Westminster, which would be “shorn of majesty by Benthamite utilitarianism”. The Radical left, including the Chartist movement, thought the whole occasion far too expensive; many opposed the continuation of the monarchy completely. For different reasons, both Tories and Radicals objected to the government’s effort to turn the day into a popular celebration, seen by as wide a public as possible.
Victoria was crowned with a new Imperial State Crown made for her by the Crown Jewellers Rundell and Bridge, with 3093 gems, including the Black Prince’s Ruby (actually a spinel), set on the front cross pattée; the cross at the top was set with a stone known as St. Edward’s Sapphire, a sapphire taken from the ring (or possibly coronet) of Edward the Confessor. As Edward VII was later to do, she had judged the usual St Edward’s Crown too heavy. The crown still exists, but has been stripped of its jewels; a new and lighter version was made in 1937 and has been worn by several monarchs in processions by coach. The George IV State Diadem was worn by the Queen in the returning procession.
Victoria’s coronation robes remain in the Royal Collection, and are kept at Kensington Palace with the other items in their collection of historic dress, though they are not normally on display, as her wedding dress has been. They are reported to be in excellent condition. Victoria wore them again in a portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1859, and on her Golden Jubilee in 1897. A marble statue showing her wearing them in 1838 was placed in Kensington Gardens near Kensington Palace