Today (April 22) in London History – A Royal Grand Finale

The last ever pre-coronation “procession” from the Tower of London took place on April 22, 1661. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


My god, they knew how to tie one on 350 years ago. Knew how to party.

I’m thinking about the coronation of Charles II in the Spring of 1661.

Now maybe it was rather more extravagant than your average coronation because it was the Restoration. The Puritans had been running the show for getting on for two decades. And they were killjoys. They closed the theatres down. They closed Christmas down. They were sober and upright and severe and stern. Party animals they weren’t.

Well, finally their day ended. The hard man of the interregnum – the supremely capable Oliver Cromwell – died. His son Richard succeeded him as the Lord Protector – that was his title. But Richard wasn’t the man his father was. He only lasted nine months. His father’s worries about his son’s capabilities and inclinations went back a long way. Just a few years before dad had written to Richard’s father-in-law about his son-in-law, Cromwell’s weak-willed son, Richard.

Nor was his son a pimply-faced, hormone-stoked teenager at the time. He was in his 30s. Here’s what his dad said to his father-in-law.

“I would have him mind and understand business, read a little history, study the mathematics and cosmography: these are good, with subordination to the things of God. Better than idleness, or mere outward worldly contents. These fit for public services, for which a man is born.”

Well, dad had the measure of his boy. 

Richard’s protectorate was a flash in the pan. He was a national figure of fun. People mocked him.

He was nicknamed Queen Dick and Tumbledown Dick.

And his unsteady hand on the tiller of the state did for the inter-regnum, did for the Protestant era.

The country had had enough. It wanted its monarchy back. It wanted good times again. And it got ‘em. Embodied in the person of Charles II. Not for nothing was he known as “the Merry Monarch.” Nor for nothing was he also nicknamed Old Rowley. Old Rowley was the principal stallion in the royal mews and the king was named after him. Nobody’s quite sure how many mistresses Charles II had on the go or how many illegitimate children he had – the best estimate is seven mistresses and 13 illegitimate children – but what’s not in question is that by giving full vent to his urges he populated much of the British aristocracy. 

His most famous mistress was of course the Cockney flower girl and actress Nell Gwyn. The Barbara Windsor of 17th century England. His dying words were, “pray, let not poor Nelly starve.”

And a few years before that, when they finally uncoupled, he arranged for her to go on living in the very fine house in Pall Mall that he’d installed her in. It was conveniently close to the palace. There was just one catch. She was supposed to pay rent. She was furious. She went directly to him, she said, “your royal highness, how it can be conscionable that I, who have served under you so faithfully all these years should have to pay rent.” Charles saw the force of the argument. Nelly got the house rent-free.

Anyway, nearly two decades of Cromwell and the puritans – well, the country had had its fill of probity and severity and being strait-laced. It wanted some fun. It wanted to party again. Imagine New Orleans going 15 years without a Mardi Gras. Imagine what the first one would be like after that Sahara of glum times and killjoydom. Imagine – horrible thought – a 15-year-lockdown.

So, yes, it’s entirely likely that there was some – more than “some”, a lot – of pent up demand. Cromwell in his grave. Well, he wasn’t because in January of 1661 they’d exhumed his corpse from its tomb in Westminster Abbey – and hanged, drawn and quartered the remains. That tomb his final resting place. What a joke. It was little more than a waiting room. His skull was put on a pole, which was rammed into the top of the roof of Westminster Hall. It leered down on passersby for many. But that’s another story.  

Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. Everybody was ready to party.

So Charles II’s coronation was a three-day binge.

Maybe keep it in mind come the next coronation, which surely will be some time in the next five, six, seven years.

The actual coronation was on April 23rd. Completely appropriate that – needless to say – because April 23rd is St. George’s Day. St. George, the patron saint of England.

But I’m more interested in the two days that bookended coronation day.

The show got on the road – literally and figuratively on the road – on April 22nd.

Got on the road with the last event of its kind in the history of coronations in this country.

And what was that?

It was the last ever coronation procession from the Tower of London to Whitehall. That royal progress was a custom that had gone back nearly 300 years, to the time of Richard II. 

It probably originated in an uncrowned king’s desire to establish himself in a fortress. And a fortress the Tower of London certainly was. Out of the Tower they rode, along to Cornhill and then to Cheapside. And by St Paul’s and down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street. Along Fleet Street to the Strand. And from the Strand on to Whitehall. The monarch normally rode under a canopy borne by the barons of the Cinque Ports. You can see how that canopy would have framed the monarch, drawn the eye to him. Alas, there was no canopy this time. Charles didn’t have one. He had to make do without.

Never mind, it was an impressive sight all the same. Wigs and fur-lined gowns and capes and swords and halberds and buckled shoes and stockings and flaring garters of lace. Many in the procession on foot. The big hitters on richly caparisoned horses. Immediately of front of Charles II the Sergeants at Arms with the royal maces. Behind him, various and sundry Dukes. It was an absolute visual feast. Every Londoner who wasn’t bed-bound would have turned out to watch this, the parade of London parades.

And why was Charles II’s the last procession from the Tower? What we’d call the green stuff today. Charles II’s brother James II called time on the procession because of the expense it entailed.

Ok, that’s the lead-in bookend. The finale, the third-day bookend was the booze-up the day after the coronation.

Please excuse the vulgar expression but the plain fact of the matter is, it’s most accurate way of putting it,

They got completely shit-faced on the third day. It wasn’t a question of rising again on the third day. It was a question of falling over and rising being out of the question.

And you don’t need to take it from me. We have a contemporary account. I’m going to read it out. This is Samuel Pepys’s diary entry. Pepys had spent the day of Charles II’s coronation first in Westminster Abbey, where he watched the ceremony and then later he crossed over to Westminster Hall, where the coronation feast was held. After that – already tanked, needless to say – he staggered off to various informal celebrations with family and friends. Pepys was a man who could hold his drink. But even his robust constitution wasn’t equal to the strains imposed upon it by his intake that night and on into the morning,

Here’s the passage.

Ok, now a Today in London recommendation. And sure enough, I’m going to wrong-foot you. You’ll be thinking, “he’s going to recommend a trip to St. Olave’s Hart Street, where Pepys is buried. Well, it’s not a bad idea. But a better idea is Ann Jones’ Biscuits & Banquets Foodies’ London Walk or her Epicurean, Gourmets’ Foodies walk. Pepys plays a major role in both of those walks. And they’re just what you need when you’re locked in a death struggle with the mother of all hangovers. For example, Ann’s glorious story about the sturgeon Pepys served to somebody he was trying to impress. In the dish comes, down on the table it goes and, yup, sure enough, Pepys’s sees worms crawling out of the sturgeon. Just what he wanted to see. Well, you’ll have to go on Ann’s walk to find out how Sam dealt with that one. But when I asked her, “Ann, does Samuel Pepys figure in any of your foodies London Walks?” it was like throwing on a light switch: “For goodness sakes’ yes – all of them – he’s hugely important in the story of London and its food. And every single food story he regales us with is deliciously funny.” So there you go.

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