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Royal River Pageant: Six Hundred Years of Royal Ceremony… And a Hijack?

One of the many royal pageants at the Thames.
The Queen's Diamond Jubilee river pageant in 2012 was steep in pomp, splendor and tradition. This tradition started in the 15th century, but Englishmen had wait for two centuries more to see the most glorious of its kind.

In 1660, the monarchy was restored and Charles II was proclaimed as king. He married Catherine of Braganza, who arrived in the English shores with a substantial dowry--£333,000 in cash and the valuable foreign colonies of Tangiers and Bombay. However, Queen Catherine refused to convert to the Anglican faith, and so she could not be crowned. Instead, the king decided to hold a grandiose river pageant in August 1662 to give her a warm welcome, as well as inaugurate her as Queen of England.
Catherine of Braganza

Homage Fit for a Queen

The royal couple left Hampton Court early in the morning, riding a fleet of floating thrones.

Diarist John Evelyn wrote: “His Majesty and the Queen came in an antique-shaped open vessel, covered with a . . . canopy of cloth of gold, made in the form of a cupola, supported by high Corinthian pillars, wreathed with flowers, festoons and garlands.”

Trails of ostrich feathers appeared from the corners of the canopy, crowning the center, while heavy gold fringe gilded the edges.

The Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London welcomed the royal fleet with a  barge larger and grander than the king’s own, followed by 12 barges representing the city’s 12 guilds, which were the actual power behind the government capital. Each barge held a dumb show, with actors and actresses impersonating saints, virtues, or mythological figures.  As the royal flotilla rowed downstream, the floats were held in long line in the center of the river. Three other pageants were held during the intervals, featuring elaborate speeches delivered by allegorical figures: Isis (the principal tributary of the Thames) at Chelsea; Father Thames himself between Vauxhall and Lambeth, and Thetis or The Ocean at Whitehall.

King Charles II
Classical allusions filled the speeches, with the printed text even featured footnotes: “not to inform knowing persons, but to help such as are unacquainted with poetical authors and history.”

To make the event not too pompous, two comic interludes were also staged to provide a touch of entertainment, featuring choruses from watermen and seamen who sang catchy songs in demotic accents; performed acrobatic turns and thee’d and thou’d the King to assure him of the loyalty of the common folk.

The Scene-Stealer

What supposed to be a celebration of the queen’s arrival was nearly ruined by the king’s mistress. Not to be outdone or sidestepped by a foreigner, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, mounted a pageant of her own. She appeared at Whitehall in fashionable déshabillée, bareheaded while her magnificent hair raised in the on-shore breeze. After catching everyone’s attention, she started her own performance that ran the gamut from power and maternal love to compassion and raw sexuality.

Barbara Villers, Countess of Castlemaine,
with her infant son  with King Charles II
While snubbing her ennobled but cuckolded husband, she displayed her first child, fathered by the King himself. She came to the rescue of her poor child, who was injured after a viewing platform collapsed. She allowed herself to be chatted up by a handsome young man. As a final blow, she took the young man’s hat and put it on her head to protect her hair against the rising wind.

The river pageant was entitled Aqua Triumphalis (‘The Triumphal Waterway’). But it was Barbara who had triumphed, all because of her beauty, flair and supreme ability to make fools of men.


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