Fit for a Queen

On the last hurrah of Queen Victoria and the British empire.

By Simon Heffer

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

H.M. the Queen, by Sir William Nicholson, 1899. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).


As the nineteenth century neared its end, so too did the greatest British life of all. Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in June 1897, just after her seventy-eighth birthday. Few could recall Britain before Victoria, so epic had been her reign. She had emerged from her deep unpopularity of the 1870s and early 1880s to become the sentimental incarnation not just of the British nineteenth century, when it had finally achieved greatness as the world’s leading power, but of the whole British past.

A great pageant was set for June 22, when the Queen would make a progress to St. Paul’s Cathedral. A committee chaired by the Prince of Wales and including Regy Brett, the future Lord Esher—whose instinct for the pompous was as fine as his organizational skills—had been planning the event in meticulous detail since March. Brett was charged with arranging an opera gala (which the Queen would not attend); for her carriage to stop on the procession so a child could be presented to her; for various loyal addresses to be declaimed; and for the Munshi—the Queen’s Indian secretary, adored by her but hated by her household and family—to have three tickets for the best stand. For weeks beforehand newspapers teemed with advertisements offering to rent out rooms, or rather views, along the route, with the cost of places ranging from two guineas to around £20 each, depending on position and whether or not one was under cover. Entrepreneurs threw in luncheon for those wishing to extend the party. The Princess of Wales launched a £25,000 appeal to provide a substantial meal for each of London’s destitute. Clerkenwell had an astonishing 40,000 of them; Bethnal Green 14,500 and Shoreditch and Hackney 10,000 each, but such unfortunates as these also lived cheek ​by jowl with the well‑to‑do: Westminster had 4,500 and Kensington 5,000 to 6,000—figures that show not merely the extent of poverty at that time within the principal city of the British Empire, but also how impossible it was for the ruling class to remain unaware of the fact. At a shilling a head it would cost £15,000 to feed the estimated 300,000 indigent in the capital alone. Ultimately Thomas Lipton, the tea merchant, covered that part of the cost the Princess of Wales’ fund fell short of.

When the Jubilee hymn was sung in St. Paul’s Cathedral, an electric signal was sent around the world so at that precise moment people in Australia and elsewhere would know to sing it too. The Times devoted thousands of words and acres of newsprint to cataloguing to the minute every planned movement of every contingent of soldiers and sailors. When, the week before the great pageant, the Queen and her court traveled from Balmoral to Windsor, a guard of honor saw off her fifteen-coach, double-engined train. When the Queen reached the palace, her vast European family awaited her and showered her with diamonds. At dinner for the family, foreign potentates, and ambassadors that evening—she sat between the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Prince of Naples—the Queen wore, as she described in her journal, “a dress of which the whole front was embroidered in gold, which had been specially worked in India, diamonds in my cap, and a diamond necklace.”

A band played in the ballroom while she was pushed around in her wheelchair—she could not stand for long—to greet her guests. So that the splendor could be taken to the people a force of 2,400 officers and men marched from the City of London on the Saturday before the Jubilee pageant, parading through the East End to Bethnal Green and Victoria Park and back. The event also ensured that the city’s lowest classes would be impressed by the power and glory of their nation, would identify with it, and have their patriotism stirred.

On June 22, Jubilee Day, the sun shone. The Queen, escorted by Life Guards and officers of Indian regiments, drove from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul’s through what the Times called “a storm of acclamation.” It was “a military and royal procession of unparalleled grandeur…the pageant as a whole was of wonderful splendor and variety, and not to be matched by any of which history holds the record.” Sixteen carriages of foreign and native royalties and dignitaries preceded the Queen’s state carriage, “drawn by the cream-color horses, which were gorgeous in their new harness…ridden by postilions, with red-coated running footmen at their sides.” The royal dukes, led by the Prince of Wales, accompanied the carriage, uniformed and on horseback, while “guns boomed in Hyde Park [and] the bells clanged from St. Paul’s…round by Hyde Park Corner into Piccadilly and past the great houses, the stream of gold and scarlet flowed like a sunlit river.” In the carriage next to the Queen’s was her daughter Vicky, the Dowager Kaiserin. She could not ride with the Queen because “her rank of empress prevented her sitting with her back to the horses.”

In the sea of color—the lavishly decorated and flag-draped palaces of St. James’ Street and Piccadilly, the vast array of uniforms, the finery of princesses and ambassadresses, what the Queen termed “festoons of flowers across the road and many loyal inscriptions,” and a crowd in its finest clothes—the small figure of the Queen stood out, in her customary “black silk dress trimmed with white lace and a bonnet to match,” clutching a parasol. For three hours, from 10:45 to 1:45, the Queen’s procession wound its way around London, with stops outside St. Paul’s and at the Mansion House before going over London Bridge and through the Borough and Southwark to Westminster Bridge.

The approach to St. Paul’s was lavishly decorated. “The obelisks in Ludgate Circus were draped in purple and gold cloth, with embossed shields and palms. In Ludgate Hill the columns were surmounted by relief banners of elephants, through whose trunks the line of garlands passed. These elephants…were decked with purple and gold trappings, and were mounted on a base of Oriental design,” the Times reported. The beasts indicated it was not merely a nation but an empire whose glories were celebrated. The next day the Duke of Argyll wrote to the Queen: “No sovereign since the fall of Rome could muster subjects from so many and so distant countries all over the world.”

Her carriage, drawn by eight cream horses in gold-plated and Morocco harness, pulled up outside St. Paul’s amid a “deep, thrilling, prolonged ‘hurrah!’ ” and “the merry peal of the cathedral’s bells.” The Queen was not equal to walking to the chancel, so five hundred choristers complemented the remarkable scene and sang a Te Deum on the steps of the building. The vast crowd sang “God Save the Queen,” after which the Archbishop of Canterbury, “departing from the prescriptions of etiquette, called for three cheers for the Queen, and had an enthusiastic response from the entire assembly.” As the procession moved on to the Mansion House, where the Lady Mayoress presented the Queen with a silver basket of orchids, the Times’ reporter noted that “never in the long course of its history did the City look gayer or more picturesque than yesterday.”

The Passing of a Great Queen, by William Lionel Wyllie, 1901.

Such pomp was next witnessed when the Queen was buried on February 2, 1901; she had died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on January 22. A show such as never before seen at a monarch’s obsequies was felt to be obligatory. The Victorian cult of death had full expression as the presiding spirit of the British nineteenth century went to her grave. Lady Battersea, wife of a Liberal politician and property developer, described the atmosphere: “Black, mourning London, black, mourning England, black, mourning empire…the emptiness of the great city without the feeling of the Queen’s living presence in her empire, and the sensation of universal change haunted me more than any other sensations.”

The obsequies were marked, as the Times’ correspondent observed, by “every circumstance of public ceremonial…in accordance with the wishes of the Queen.” She had wanted her funeral to project the grandeur of her realm and empire.

As the Queen’s mortal remains sailed from the Isle of Wight to Gosport “a thunder of cannon…seemed unending.” A “mighty fleet” lined up to salute her along the eight miles of the crossing, stretching, it seemed, “into infinity,” “emblems and instruments alike of her empire and dominion.” Foreign ships lined up too in salute, including some from the navy of her grandson the kaiser, in whose arms she had died. The coffin was borne through London “in solemn pomp…followed by a train of mourners, royal and representative, of unprecedented volume and splendor…significant of the vast extent of the empire.” The service was “of unexampled dignity and beauty.” At Osborne, in London, and at Windsor, the army and navy were in massed formations. Military bands played somber marches by Chopin and Beethoven, and pipe bands played laments. The State Crown and a smaller crown lay on cushions at either end of the coffin, with two orbs and a scepter.

A train brought the coffin from Gosport to Victoria, whence it processed to Paddington via the Mall, St. James’, Piccadilly, and Marble Arch. Around 32,000 soldiers lined the route. When the coffin reached the funeral train it was placed on an “imposing catafalque” in a carriage “draped in purple and ornamented with white satin rosettes…broad purple stripes divided the walls into panels, crowned with a purple garland and held by white rosettes and ribbons.” Life Guardsmen in shining helmets and scarlet cloaks massed below the castle, punctuating the sea of black. There were judges in full-bottomed wigs and robes, heralds in playing-card costumes and Garter knights in robes and decorations.

Only once did the ceremony threaten to come unstuck. A horse pulling the gun carriage carrying the Queen’s coffin reared and could not be brought under control. The procession stopped; King Edward VII, the kaiser, and the Duke of Connaught, walking behind the gun carriage, waited for calm. In the end all the horses were removed, and bluejackets from the naval guard of honor moved in, picked up the harnesses, and used them to pull the carriage. A new tradition was born. As the Times put it: “The honor of drawing the carriage bearing the coffin of the Queen who held sway over the greatest navy the world has ever seen had, by a rare accident, fallen to the representatives of the service which holds so large a part in the affections of all who own the British name.” The procession was deemed “the most memorable spectacle in the lives of all who had beheld it.”

By the time of the coronation of the new King, postponed from June to August 1902 because of his falling ill to appendicitis, the public were not only used to massive displays of pomp but expected them, and expected the world to be watching. The King was devoted to pageantry and show, and this essential part of the tone of Edwardian Britain took its lead from him. So aware was he of the value of ceremony that, for the first time since Prince Albert’s death, he revived the State Procession to open parliament. “The state coach was exhumed and done up, and the famous cream-colored horses from Hanover were exercised and drilled to get them into condition,” wrote Sir Lionel Cust, Surveyor and Keeper of the King’s Pictures, and a Gentleman Usher. He took part in several such occasions and said that “each time I felt the same thrill as we entered the House of Lords with its massed robes and uniforms, and the bevies of ladies in diamonds and Court dresses in the galleries above.” The spectacle was awesome, and deliberately so, projecting majesty and imperial power: but Cust found the ride to and from Westminster from Buckingham Palace in an antique coach so boring—the seats were set so far back one could not easily see out of the window—that he and his fellow courtiers played a rubber of bridge en route.


From The Age of Decadence: A History of Britain: 1880–1914 by Simon Heffer, published by Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2021 by Simon Heffer. All rights reserved.