Sunday 3 June 2012

Royal River Pageants by Eve Edwards

Today we should be treated to one of those very British moments: the Diamond Jubilee River Thames Pageant.  I'm guessing you are probably not even reading this blog post on the day as you will either be tackling the challenging logistics of finding a spot of the riverbank to view the spectacle or watching the whole thing from the comfort of your sofa.

Or perhaps you are reading this from somewhere else in the world and wondering what all the fuss is about. In the UK we are celebrating a whole year (yes, an entire year of flag waving) for the Queen's sixty years on the throne.  I suppose the party began with the royal wedding last year and has carried on to peak with the maximum viewing opportunity of the Thames pageant with the Queen heading a flotilla of over a thousand boats.  Queen Elizabeth II has certainly done us proud, not seriously stumbling over the decades, which is no doubt why she is still head of state for sixteen countries worldwide.  Inherited monarchy maybe a strange system for a democracy but I am not one to quarrel with the results.

Rainbow Portrait - a rather flattering likeness!
As a History Girl, my thoughts went to that earlier Elizabeth who also recognised the importance of pageantry.  You could argue the heart of Good Queen Bess' power was her grasp on her image.  A natural publicist, I think she was unmatched until the modern age of celebrity worship.  There was much more to the Tudor monarch, of course, than the Lilliputian stars who are nothing but image, yet the handling and moulding of their public reception is scarily similar - from the airbrushed portraits to the carefully staged public appearances.  And though I don't remember Bess entering any talent competitions, surviving her sister's reign was a little like a macabre version 'I'm a Protestant, get me out of here'.

A trip up and down the Thames was a necessity for Elizabeth I as the river connected many of her key royal residences - Windsor, Hampton Court, Richmond, Westminster, Greenwich.  The court would move often as a matter of convenience - when the *cough* conveniences were full, they upped and left for the next palace, leaving the cleaning out to the servants left behind (something I discovered when researching The Queen's Lady). There were other reasons too, of course, but I rather like this very practical one of the Queen running away from the blocked loos.

Windsor Castle
I had fun describing one of Elizabeth's ceremonial arrivals at Windsor for my first book: The Other Countess.  She didn't quite travel with a thousand boats but she was accompanied by yeoman of the guard, serjeants-at-arms and gentleman pensioners, ladies of the bedchamber and maids of honour musicians, two dwarf ladies, jesters and whichever politician or favourite she ordered to accompany her.  I have my hero calculating how much the display cost as it is largely from the accounts that we know the details of her household.  In similarly cash-strapped times, our present queen seems to have taken a leaf from her predecessor's book.  The original Bess expected her ministers to fund the 'civil service' such as it was often out of their own purse and pay for the honour of putting her up on her royal progresses.  I note that the pageant today is paid for by private funds.

Like our present queen, Bess also knew how to dress for practical impact.  I have been reading in The Week (an excellent news digest magazine)how the Queen chooses solid bright colours (like the yellow above) so she can be seen easily.  Shoes are worn in by attendants so the long hours on her feet don't result in blisters (and I think we can allow her one or two foibles like this at her age - I am amazed she still does so much meeting-and-greeting).  Bess demanded her ladies wore white or black so she could shine like a jewel in their midst.  I don't know about shoes but she was extremely demanding, losing her temper if they tried to rival her.  She boxed the ears of one noble lady for her presumptuous clothes and banished her from court.  Thankfully Queen Elizabeth II is far more tactful with her subjects.

There's a fun timeline of other Thames pageants here and an exhibition in at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, on the subject if you can get there.


catdownunder said...

It is always interesting to see how "Bess" is portrayed in history. Her temper is usually mentioned.
Queen Elizabeth II is not often (at least in my reading) mentioned in books but I think she might be portrayed rather differently!

adele said...

Thanks for this, Eve.Fascinating stuff and I will enjoy the Pageant whatever the weather. Hope she can manage to keep nice and warm on that river!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks indeed! And I've also got in mind Cleopatra on the Cydnus:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.

Could it be an Elizabethan river pageant Shakespeare had in mind?

Penny Dolan said...

A posts most suitable for the day and the weekend.

After wearing new shoes for a couple of special and important events, I have every sympathy with Her Maj for getting others to wear your shoes in for you. How practical - and a gentler thought than the earlier Liz's over-flowing loos.