George IV Coronation - Even the best-laid plans...
By the time his father died, George felt as if he had endured a lifetime of frustration. He was unhappy in love, unhappy with his dwindling bank account and by the time he finally ascended the throne, he was an aging, 58-year-old obese playboy. In his youth, George had certainly been one of the most gifted of his brothers, but his self-absorption made him the butt of ridicule and a national joke by the time he came to the throne in 1820. The old king, George III, blind and suffering from recurring madness, had spoken non-stop for fifty-eight consecutive hours, almost without drawing breath, and had died leaving his eldest son George to be the king and Britain turned its nose up in disgust.
George had always been an embarrassment for the British but he was about to excel himself as his coronation approached. His estranged wife Caroline had been in France making plans to return to Italy when she heard of her father-in-law’s death and the news stopped her in her tracks. Suddenly everything changed. Her husband, even though they’d been separated for the last 25 years, was now the king and since they were still officially married, she intended to take full advantage of her new improved status. With her head full of delicious thoughts, she sent news to England that she would be returning as soon as possible to attend George’s coronation as his Queen.
When the reply arrived, she was shocked. Instead of the expected greetings, she was told that the date of the coronation had not been set as yet but in any case, she was not welcome and not to bother attending the ceremony.
It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Gone were the visions of jewels adorning her hair. Gone were the dreams of attending glittering balls and parties, despite the fact that she had to share the excitement with her grossly overweight, obnoxious, philandering husband. Instead, she was being rudely pushed aside, as if she hadn't suffered enough already. Furious at the insult and unwilling to give up her rights without a fight, she was determined that she would return to Britain for the ceremony anyway.
Of course, George knew exactly what Caroline would do. They’d been at each other’s throats every day of their marriage and she’s gone against everything he’d said over the years, more out of perverseness than anything else. He’d put up with her public insults and he’d put up with her slurs over those years and he’d even tried unsuccessfully to divorce her. But it was all going to end. He’d been waiting for his coronation day for a very long time and he wasn’t about to let her spoil it for him. George informed his ministers that if she turned up, they were to get rid of her in any way possible, and then he continued happily with his plans for the exorbitant ceremony that he would make sure outshone Napoleon’s coronation.
After watching the pair at loggerheads over the years, the last thing Parliament wanted was a public fracas on the day of the coronation. As much as they disliked their future king, it would be a total disgrace for England if the world saw anything except a glittering occasion to welcome George as their monarch. Rather than run the risk, and with plenty of time up their sleeves, (the ceremony would not be scheduled until the next year), they offered Caroline an increased annuity of £50,000 if she simply stayed away. Caroline replied that she would be pressing ahead with plans to attend and once again, she was told not to. Still the advice fell on deaf ears.
Eighteen months after George III’s death, all plans were finalised and the coronation date was set for 19th July. During the wait, George kept himself busy. Costumes were selected for all the participants inspired by Tudor styles. His robe of crimson velvet costing £24,000 was commissioned with gold stars and ermine trim and a train stretching for 27 feet. He had rejected the traditional crown, St Edward’s crown, and commissioned a new one adorned with 12,314 rented diamonds at a cost of £6,525 - a rate of 10% of their actual value - allowing light to enter through the open back of the setting. He also acquired a large blue diamond in the possession of a diamond merchant, originally looted from the French crown jewels in 1792 that had turned up in England as a precut stone after the statute of limitations had run out in 1812. This diamond would become known as the Hope Diamond.
George was half an hour late to the ceremony due to a piece of clothing having torn while he tried to squeeze in but once that was fixed, the procession to Westminster Abbey proceeded. George’s herb woman and her six young attendants dressed in white strewed the way with herbs and flowers in accordance with centuries-old tradition that was a precaution against the Plague. Next came the officers of state with the crown, the orb, the sceptre and the sword of state. Then followed three bishops carrying respectively a paten, a chalice and a Bible. Next came George in his sumptuous robe wearing a brown wig with a black Spanish hat surmounted by sprays of ostrich feathers and a heron’s plume. Twenty-seven pages walked behind carrying the 27-foot long train embroidered in gold followed by the peers in their state robes and coronet marching in order of seniority. Waiting at the entry to the East Cloister was Caroline.
She had been warned not to attend. Twice, in fact. So when she was refused entry, she remained undaunted and moved to the West Cloister, only to be refused again. Still determined, she made her way to the entry via Westminster Hall, where many guests were gathered before the service began. She was greeted by prize fighters dressed as pages holding bayonets under her chin and the Lord Chamberlain slamming the doors in her face.
While Caroline fumed outside the abbey to the open stares of the guests, George was having his own problems. The day had turned hot and still and during the five-hour ceremony, dressed in his heavy robes and wig, George was physically distressed, almost to fainting, and had to be revived with sal volatile. Invigorated, George continued to the banquet gallery filled with guests competing with each other in their magnificent clothes, literally ablaze with diamonds.
That night as the revellers partied, Caroline fell ill. She took a large dose of milk of magnesia and a physician prescribed laudanum for the pain in her abdomen. You’ll remember that laudanum was a magic drug, mixed with everything imaginable from herbs, opium, distilled water, belladonna, whisky, gin and cayenne pepper and was being widely used as a general remedy to aid sleep, ease pain, curb menstrual cramps and flatulence, treat hysteria and insanity and help with ‘fatigue and depression’. Still the pain continued.
One month after the ceremony, Caroline was dead and rumours abounded that she had been poisoned. The upside for George was he was finally free.