Coronation excess: Napoleon, George IV, William IV

St Edward's Crown used in British coronation

St Edward’s crown used in coronation

You may already be fed up with coronation information and PR. However, my blog this week is not about next Saturday’s coronation of Charles III. It’s about earlier ones, specifically about the outrageously extravagant coronation of George IV on 19 July 1821.

Well, the long Regency is my period, isn’t it?

And although the Regency ended on the death of George III on 29th January 1820, the coronation had to be delayed from August 1820 because the new king wanted to deal with the “problem” of Caroline of Brunswick.

He didn’t succeed in divorcing her, but he did succeed in keeping her out of his coronation.
She died two weeks later, still Queen Consort, but never crowned.

Why was George IV’s coronation so extravagant?

Two basic reasons. First, the new king’s love of excess. Second, Napoleon.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon’s coronation in 1804 had been sumptuous. George IV intended that his should outshine Napoleon’s. George IV seems to have had a “thing” about Napoleon. Not surprising perhaps, given the fact that Napoleon ruled most of Europe during the Regency period. As Regent, Prinny apparently declared that he would “quite eclipse Napoleon”.Tsar Alexander I of Russia

The Regent also seems to have persuaded himself that he played a leading role in the Allied victory. That was certainly how he tried to portray himself during the grand (and premature) celebrations for Napoleon’s defeat, when the Allied sovereigns gathered in London in 1814. The people of the city cheered for Tsar Alexander (shown right), for the King of Prussia and especially for Marshall Blücher.
For the Regent? Er, no.

Napoleon vs George IV

Napoleon’s coronation took a bit of eclipsing. Here are two portraits: the standing one on the left is by Gérard; on the right is the famous portrait by Ingres. Both are, to my mind, rather chilling. Can you hold that stare? Would you tangle with that man?

Napoleon in Coronation Robes by Gerard           Napoleon-coronation

Compare Napoleon’s coronation portraits (above) with George IV’s (below) by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Obviously, there are differences. One holds symbolic sceptres, the other holds nothing but is gesturing towards the crown on the table alongside. Napoleon’s crown doesn’t figure in his portraits. He wears a laurel wreath instead. (More on crowns later.)

But look at what they’re both wearing. Especially the collar(s). Napoleon wears one, the great collar of the Légion d’Honneur. George IV trumps that by wearing four chivalric collars: the Golden Fleece, Royal Guelphic, Bath and Garter. Unlike Napoleon, who wears a floor-length satin robe, George IV wears nothing so effeminate. He shows off his manly legs in silk tights, Tudor style. (Lawrence may, just possibly, have slimmed those tree-trunk legs a touch?)

And then there were the robes

There’s a definite resemblance in relation to the robes which may be because George IV sent his tailor to Paris to study Napoleon’s coronation robe.

Napoleon wore a coronation mantle of crimson velvet lined with ermine. It was embroidered with golden bees, in order to hark back to the Merovingian kings of France. The bees had been found in the tomb of Childeric I and became Napoleon’s symbol in place of the fleur de lys, as discussed in my earlier blog. The mantle weighed at least 80 pounds and had to be carried by four people.

George IV, coronation mantle carried by 9 men

George IV exceeded that. (Did I mention excess?) His mantle of embroidered red velvet was 27 feet long and was carried by nine people, eight sons of peers plus the Master of the Robes. And, as decreed by the king, the retainers were all dressed in costumes from the Tudor and Stuart periods. Do they look silly? You decide.

A large portion of the total coronation cost went on costumes, robes and uniforms, though that didn’t include dress for peers who had to buy their own. So not only did the peers’ sons look silly (in my opinion); they also had to pay for the privilege.

Crowns go on for ever, no?

St Edawrd's crown in 1685We tend to assume that crowns, like St Edward’s crown shown earlier, have always been there and have always been used. Not so. St Edward’s crown dates from the Restoration. We have a contemporary engraving of how it looked in 1685 for the coronation of James II.

British monarchs were not crowned with St Edward’s crown between the coronation of William III in 1689 and that of George V in 1911. And those precious stones only became a permanent part of the crown in 1911 (when Geogre V instituted a lot of ceremonial that has continued and is now assumed to be ancient tradition). Before 1911, precious stones were always hired to decorate the crown for the ceremony and removed afterwards.

In the 200 years when St Edward’s crown wasn’t used, monarchs either used other crowns or they had a new crown specially made. Guess which George IV did?

George IV’s crown

By London : Tower Hamlets – Tower of London, Crown by Lewis Clarke, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Yup, George IV had a special crown made. Complete with its precious stones, it is on the table on the left in the coronation portrait by Lawrence, shown above.

The frame still exists (right) and can be seen in the Tower of London.

For the ceremony, the frame was covered in diamonds, hired at vast cost. The frame was designed to be almost invisible and to be shimmering with diamonds. That’s not all that obvious in the Lawrence portrait. There, the crown was important, of course, but the figure of George IV had to dominate.

However, we can see the extent of the crownly bling in a contemporary picture of the Dean of Westminster, carrying the specially-made crown. If you look at the image below, you’ll find it’s difficult to make out anything but diamonds. You really can’t see the frame.Dean of Westminster carrying crown at George IV's coronation

So, in that sense, it fulfilled the design brief precisely, don’t you think?

Not just a crown: a diadem as well

Queen Victoria wearing George IV diademQueen Elizabeth II in coronation robes and wearing the George IV diademGeorge IV also had a diadem made as a crown-like hatband for the cap of maintenance he wore on the way to the Abbey. You will probably recognise it.

Queen Victoria is wearing it in the portrait shown left. Queen Elizabeth II also wore it often, especially for the State Opening of Parliament.

For the record, the diadem was made by Rundell & Bridge at a cost (then) of £8,216 including £800 for the hire of the diamonds. It is said that the stones were never returned…
(To be fair, the Royal Collection Trust suggests that the gems were discreetly purchased from Rundell & Bridge later. I wonder if that’s true?)

In today’s money, we’re talking upwards of three-quarters of a million pounds for the diadem, without its diamonds, though its value, as part of the Royal collection and with all its historic connections, will be much more.

How much does a coronation cost?

Taken altogether, the coronation of George IV reputedly cost £238,000 (equivalent to about £22 million in today’s money). Almost half—over £111,000—went on jewels and plate. And quite a lot of the plate, including cutlery and silver platters, was nicked by spectators at the end of the banquet, though the gold coronation plates were saved by the action of the deputy Lord Great Chamberlain.

gold coinsNapoleon’s coronation is reputed to have cost 8.5 million francs. How did that compare with George IV’s? The British Government granted £100,000 towards George IV’s coronation. The balance came from French reparations (under the 1815 Treaty of Paris) of 100 million French francs. Converted via gold, 100 million francs was about £4.6 million in 1815 so there was a fair bit left over to pay the Government’s war debts 😉

Using the 1804 conversion via gold, Napoleon’s coronation cost about £350.000. In 1821, when George IV was spending £238,000 on his, Napoleon’s 8.5 million francs would have been worth around £335.000, still comfortably more than George’s.

Shame, eh? Not outshining Napoleon after all. (Except for the fact that Napoleon was already dead by the time George IV was crowned.)

Napoleon’s crown and crowning

George IV was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a religious ceremony. In Napoleon’s case, it was also (partly) a religious ceremony and Pope Pius VII was present, but he did not crown Napoleon. Napoleon did that for himself, possibly to symbolise that he was self-made. He also crowned his Empress, Josephine, as shown in the painting earlier in this blog. No doubt about where the power lay.

Crown of Napoleon

By David Liuzzo, Attribution, Link

Napoleon’s crown wasn’t on his head for long. He soon resumed the laurel wreath that is shown in both the coronation portraits. But there did have to be a crown.

Since he didn’t want to hark back to the Bourbons, deposed by the Revolution, Napoleon had his crown specially made, in medieval style, in an attempt to link back to the age of Charlemagne. He even called it the Crown of Charlemagne though that ancient crown had been destroyed in the Revolution.

You will see that Napoleon’s crown is considerably less blingy than George IV’s. It’s gold, set with shell cameos and carved carnelians. No shimmering diamonds.

Crown of Louis XV of France

By CSvBibra – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0, Link


Although Napoleon did not use an existing royal crown, there was one available to him. It’s shown here.

It is the crown used at the coronation of Louis XV in 1722, though the “jewels” in this image are glass, because the French Republic sold off the original jewels in 1885. This crown, complete with glass jewels, is on view in the Louvre Museum.

Where does William IV fit in?

He doesn’t, not really. At least, not in the business of excess. George IV’s brother William was a bluff sailor, given to foul language, but reputedly very kind. According to the historian Roy Strong, William had “an inbred dislike of ceremonial” and would have preferred no coronation at all. Persuaded that he had to have one, he dispensed with many of the ceremonials used at the coronation of George IV. For example, the herb-strewers:

Herb strewers at coronation of George IVHe also dispensed with the coronation banquet that had, under George IV, included the King’s Champion riding through Westminster Hall (shown below) and throwing down the gauntlet three times. (There is an amusing story around the identity of the Champion. You can read it at the end of Louise Allen’s blog about George IV’s coronation, complete with print and detailed description of the immense coronation procession.)

Coronation banquet for George IV with King's Champion in Westminster Hall

All the banquet guests were male. Ladies watched from the gallery but received no food or drink!

William IV, by refusing to repeat his older brother’s extravagance, ended up with a total coronation bill of £30,000 (in 1831) compared with George IV’s £238,000, ten years earlier. And William set a trend. When Queen Victoria was crowned seven years later, the budget was a mere £70,000. Excess was out. Here’s William IV in a portrait by Beechey. That’s St Edward’s crown on the table on the right of the picture. No knee breeches either 😉

William IV coronation portrait by Beechey

Coronation info?

If, after getting this far—phew!—you want more information about coronations and related topics, there’s a useful section of the Westminster Abbey website where you can find out all about the coronation objects and history, and much, much more. It includes information about the (hopefully not excessively expensive) coronation next Saturday. Have fun.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


12 thoughts on “Coronation excess: Napoleon, George IV, William IV

  1. Sophie

    Absolutely gripping, Joanna. Gosh, the Prince Regent was a shocker. My heart goes out to those 9 sons of peers in their puffy thigh-high shorts and scratchy ruffs. Enough to scar a lad for life, I’d say.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Made me laugh, Sophie, though you’re probably right. OTOH they probably also thought it was a great honour to be chosen, no? [shakes head]

    1. Joanna Post author

      Well, yes and no. He had those 10 children with the actress, Mrs Jordan, and they were a contented couple for years. Mrs Jordan got the boot in 1814 and died in 1816, though the children were OK. Most Fitzclarences married well. When Princess Charlotte died, William sped off to Germany (along with the other royal brothers) to find a suitable German wife so he could breed legitimate heirs. (To inherit the throne of Hanover, the wife had to be German and the heir had to be male.) And then poor Queen Adelaide (who was also a good egg, I think) had five children but none survived. Hence Queen Victoria (who could not inherit Hanover which went to her uncle).

      1. Liz

        They don’t teach you that kind of stuff at school, do they? Was it his father who wouldn’t give any of his offspring permission to marry?

        1. Joanna Post author

          Two of George III’s brothers had married ladies the king deemed inappropriate. So he instituted the Royal Marriages Act 1772 to ensure the royal family married only with his approval. The Duke of York (son #2) married with his father’s permission but had no children. George’s sixth son (Augustus) married without permission in 1793 but it was annulled the following year. Augustus continued to live with his wife and they had 2 children but the king would never accept the marriage so eventually the couple separated. Augustus didn’t remarry till after his wife’s death. Most of the other surviving children did marry, but not until the Regency (so with Prinny’s permission instead of their father’s).

          George III was particularly keen to keep his 3 eldest daughters with him, hence unmarried. The eldest daughter was given a dynastic marriage to a widowed German Duke with 4 children (but not until she was 31). The next two were kept at home. One (Elizabeth) married a German Landgrave during the Regency at the age of 48, probably to get away from the restrictions of the court in London. The other (Augusta Sophia) may have been privately married to Sir Brent Spencer but no record of it seems to exist. For the daughters in particular, life seems to have been circumscribed, stifling and probably unhappy.

  2. Sarah

    Fascinating and informative post, Joanna, thank you. Prinny really did like to put on a show, didn’t he? I am sure he did not look quite so regal as his portrait, either!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think (though it’s difficult to be sure) that the painters flattered his size. Remember that extraordinary portrait of him in Scottish kilt and pink tights? Makes me cringe whenever I see it and I’m sure he was actually much fatter than the portrait shows him to be.

    1. Joanna Post author

      My problem, Yvonne, is that once I go down the research rabbit hole, I get stuck in the warren for hours. But if you enjoyed my ramblings, I’m really glad. Thanks for the comment.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I loved your lessons to be learned, Louise. Much recommended for history lovers. It’s the kind of thing they don’t teach you at school, as Liz said.

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