8 Ways Queen Victoria’s Coronation Was a Flop
Queen Victoria’s coronation took place on June 28, 1838, with great fanfare. In some ways, it was a smashing success—particularly the parade that followed the ceremony, attended by some 400,000 people. “The enthusiasm, affection, and loyalty were really touching, and I shall ever remember this day as the Proudest of my life!” the 19-year-old queen wrote in her diary.
But the celebration didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Here are eight memorable gaffes from the big day.
1. A lack of rehearsal caused confusion.
On the advice of her prime minister, William Lamb (a.k.a. Lord Melbourne), Queen Victoria visited Westminster Abbey the night before her coronation to get the lay of the land. “I’m very glad I went to the Abbey, as I shall now know exactly where I’m to go, and be,” she wrote in her diary.
But she still had to rely on cues from the other participants, most of whom had very obviously not practiced enough (or at all). “The different actors in the ceremonial were very imperfect in their parts, and had neglected to rehearse them … and consequently there was a continual difficulty and embarrassment, and the Queen never knew what she was to do next,” attendee Charles Greville wrote. Future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli also reported that the participants “were always in doubt as to what came next, and you saw the want of rehearsal.”
Victoria herself echoed these criticisms. “The Bishop of Durham … was, as Lord Melbourne told me, remarkably maladroit, and never could tell me what was to take place,” she complained. At one moment, the Archbishop of Canterbury entered St. Edward’s Chapel intending to hand her the Sovereign’s Orb—only to realize that she was already holding it. Victoria wrote that “he (as usual) was so confused and puzzled and knew nothing, and—went away.”
2. The train-bearers stumbled down the aisle.
A handful of ladies-in-waiting carried the queen’s ample train down the aisle—a task made harder by the fact that they had to navigate their own trains, too. Lady Wilhelmina Stanhope recalled that “our little trains were serious annoyances, for it was impossible to avoid treading upon them. We ought never to have had them; and there certainly should have been some previous rehearsing, for we carried the Queen’s train very jerkily and badly, never keeping step properly; and it must have been very difficult for her to walk, as she did, evenly and steadily, and with much grace and dignity, the whole length of the Abbey.”
3. An altar became a snack bar.
The ceremony lasted roughly five hours, which is a long time to go without food or drink. Fortunately, both were available in St. Edward’s Chapel, a room off the main church that served as a holding area of sorts during the coronation. The refreshments weren’t some discreet spread set up in the back of the chapel; the altar itself doubled as a snack table. As Victoria rather disapprovingly described in her diary, “what was called an Altar was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc.”
4. A bishop nearly skipped a whole section of the service.
According to one clergyman, who jotted down the incident in his program, the Bishop of Bath and Wells flipped two pages of the program at once and accidentally declared the service complete. Victoria had already withdrawn to St. Edward’s Chapel by the time the mistake was caught, and had to be brought back into the abbey to finish the proceedings.
5. Victoria’s coronation ring was painfully small.
British tradition dictates that the Archbishop of Canterbury place the coronation ring on the monarch’s fourth finger, i.e. the ring finger. But Victoria’s royal goldsmiths mistakenly interpreted “fourth finger” to mean “pinky finger” and sized her ring to fit that one instead. Though Victoria tried to have the Archbishop put it on her pinky during the ceremony, he insisted on forcing it onto the correct digit, “and the consequence was that I had the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which I at last did with great pain,” Victoria wrote. According to Greville, she finally succeeded in removing it by soaking her finger in ice water.
6. Lorde Rolle went rolling.
Baron John Rolle’s birth year is a little unclear, but he was definitely in his eighties at Victoria’s coronation—so it was to everyone’s alarm when he took a tumble while climbing the stairs inside the abbey.
“It turned me very sick,” attendee Harriet Martineau wrote. “The large infirm old man was held up by two Peers, and had nearly reached the royal footstool when he slipped through the hands of his supporters, and rolled over and over down the steps, lying at the bottom coiled up in his robes.”
Thankfully, Rolle was unharmed, and Victoria earned plaudits for coming to his aid. The incident even prompted a pretty funny rumor to filter through the ranks of international tourists. As Martineau recounted, “A foreigner in London gravely reported to his own countrymen, what he entirely believed on the word of a wag, that the Lords Rolle held their title on the condition of performing the feat at every coronation.”
7. The soundtrack was strange.
Music director Sir George Smart tried to pull double duty as the ceremony’s organist and conductor, which basically meant there wasn’t much conducting going on. The Spectator called the coronation music “a libel on the present state of the art in this country,” and The Musical World lambasted many individual elements with relish.
Smart “appears to have neither invention, memory, or artistical skill, and how any one, whether amateur or professor, can write without one at least of these attributes, we are at a loss to conceive,” The Music World’s critics wrote. “We blush for him and for the degradation of our great Protestant school of ecclesiastical music.” The eight oboe players, meanwhile, “were unanimous in a sturdy determination to play most villainously out of tune,” and one piano piece was “in no style that ever existed under the sun … a conductor would feel ashamed of directing such emphatic inanity.” In short, “There was nobody (in power) who appeared to know what was and what was not a decent score, and consequently the most ludicrous absurdities were at times enacted.”
8. The coronation medals gave rise to a ruckus.
Toward the end of the ceremony, Lord Surrey, Treasurer of the Household, passed out coronation medals among the crowd. According to Greville, the party favors were “thrown about by Lord Surrey, everybody scrambling with all their might and main to get them, and none more vigorously than the Maids of Honor.”
Lady Wilhelmina also called it “a most desperate scramble,” describing Surrey as “nearly torn to pieces in the universal excitement.” His “temper was entirely gone” and he “looked as red and voluble as a turkey-cock,” she wrote. But she probably would have disagreed with Greville’s assessment of the Maids’ behavior: Wilhelmina alleged that it was the pages who were “particularly active,” some amassing as many as a dozen medals.