Queen Victoria (1819-1901) reigned over Great Britain for 63 years. Her time on the throne was not only long, but it was beset with a number of embarrassments for the monarch. Anyone who witnessed her coronation might have predicted this, in light of how incredibly-long and hopelessly-botched the regal ceremony turned out to be.
The coronation of the young queen took place on June 28, 1838. In her journal, Victoria wrote, “I shall remember this day as the proudest of my life.” She had good reason to remember the day — much of which did nothing to instill a sense of pride in the monarchy.
The ceremony itself lasted more than five hours. When she was not required to be at the main altar, Victoria made a couple of retreats to St. Edward’s chapel and changed her clothes twice during the service. She was not amused by the condition of her changing facilities. Writing in her journal, she noted, “I then again descended from the Throne, and then repaired with all the Peers bearing the Regalia, my Ladies and Train-bearers, to St Edward’s Chapel, as it is called; but which, as Lord Melbourne said, was more unlike a Chapel than anything he had ever seen; for, what was called an Altar was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine etc.”
While the actual placing of the crown on Victoria’s head seemed to go fine, other aspects of the ceremony were less than perfect. When the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to put the Coronation Ring on the queen’s finger, he put it on the wrong one. The ring was the right size for her pinky, but the Archbishop forced it onto her fourth finger. Later, Victoria had to soak her hand in ice water to reduce the swelling enough to remove the ring.
The Bishop of Durham had one job, and that was to give the Queen the ceremonial orb. He did this, but at the wrong moment.
The biggest mistake — and one that had the potential to undermine her entire reign — was committed by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. He accidentally turned over two pages of the Order of Service at the same time, overlooking a crucial part of the ritual. This, fortunately was discovered, but only after the queen already departed. She had to be called back so they could get it right.
It is traditional for the peers of the realm to come before the newly-crowned sovereign and pledge their loyalty. One of the peers, Lord John Rolle, is the one who created one of the most-lasting memories for witnesses of the ceremony. At 88 years of age, he was understandably frail, but he insisted upon climbing the steps to the Throne so he could fulfill his duties. He no sooner started up the steps when he took a bit of a tumble. He fell over and rolled down the steps. His pride was bruised, but he had no physical injuries.
Charles Greville, a diarist of the time, records the queen’s reaction to Rolle’s tumble:
“[The Queen’s] first impulse was to rise, and when afterwards he came again to do homage she said, ‘May I not get up and meet him?’ and then rose from the throne and advanced down one or two of the steps to prevent his coming up, an act of graciousness and kindness which made a great sensation. It is, in fact, the remarkable union of naiveite, kindness, nature, good-nature, with propriety and dignity, which makes her so admirable and so endearing to those around her.”
While the queen was kind, others were not. Lord Rolle found himself not only the subject of a painting by John Martin the next year which depicted the event, but also included in a poem by the humorist poet, Richard Harris Barham:
Then the trumpets braying, and the organ playing,
And the sweet trombones, with their silver tones;
But Lord Rolle was rolling; — t’was mighty consoling
To think his Lordship did not break his bones!
Victoria’s coronation was such a debacle, that court strategists decided to develop an official order of service for future coronations. Victoria, of course, did not live to see the new-and-improved coronations, but we suspect she would not have been amused if something wasn’t done to prevent a repeat of the experience.
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