Queen Victoria’s reign of 63 years was, until February 2017, the longest ever rule by a British monarch (now Queen Elizabeth II holds that honor).
Yet however successful and glorious Victoria’s time on the throne might have been, her coronation was beset by disaster.
When she was born, she stood fifth in line to the throne and an unlikely contender. However, her father along with his brothers and their heirs all died before William IV did on June 20, 1837, leaving Victoria as the next monarch.
Victoria was 18-years-old at the time but it is reported that she conducted herself very regally and calmly.
Despite being just 4ft 11 (not quite one and a half meters), she still managed to be seen and heard at the meeting of her privy council — even if she had to be seated on a raised platform to do it.
Her coronation was held on June 28, 1838, almost a year later. Victoria kept a journal and wrote on her coronation day: “I shall remember this day as the proudest of my life.” As it turned out, she had great cause to be proud since she managed to get through five hours of bungling and mistakes with the grace and patience of a true queen.
Victoria’s journey to Westminster Abbey was witnessed by an astonishing number of people, since the opening of the railways made it easier for people to reach London.
Since the ceremony was so long, the queen changed her outfit twice. When not required before the main altar, Victoria and others would retreat into St Edward’s chapel. She noted in her journal afterwards just how appalled she was to find it in such a state:
“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.”
Part of any coronation involves the placing of the crown on the monarch’s head. While this seemed to go without any mishap, problems arose when the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to put the Coronation Ring on the queen’s finger. The ring was sized for Victoria’s pinky finger but the Archbishop tried to force it onto her fourth finger.
According to Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian, poor Victoria really struggled to get the ring off after the ceremony and was forced to soak her hand in ice-water to try and reduce the swelling.
The Bishop of Durham apparently didn’t do much better since he gave her the ceremonial orb at the wrong moment.
But the clergyman to make the gravest mistake had to be the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who accidentally turned over two pages of the Order of Service at once. Unfortunately, it was quite a crucial bit that he missed out, forcing him to call Victoria back so that he could do it again properly.
As part of the ceremony, peers of the realm were expected to come before the queen and pay their respects. Lord John Rolle was the largest landowner in Devon at the time and was 88 years old.
As he started to ascend the steps toward the new queen, he not only fell over but rolled down the steps. Luckily, despite his infirmity, he was unhurt. He got himself up and started up the stairs again, determined to do his duty.
Charles Greville, a diarist of the time, wrote of Victoria’s astonishing act of kindness upon seeing Rolle fall down:
“[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.”
Victoria might have been gracious, but others were not so kind-hearted. Poor 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 humourist poet, Richard Harris Barham.
In Mr Barney Maguire’s Account of the Coronation, Barham penned the following verse:
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!
According to historian Roy Strong, Victoria’s coronation was the last in a long line of botched ceremonies, since the Victorians subsequently put together a programme that has been used ever since.
With Victoria on the throne for 63 years, they certainly had a lot of time to plan the next one properly.