The nineteenth century witnessed three coronations: George IV in 1821, William IV in 1831 and Victoria in 1838.
On May 6th, 2023, we will celebrate the coronation of a new king, Charles III. Preparations for this event have been underway for many months. This is a far cry from Norwich in September 1831, on the day before William IV’s coronation, no celebrations had been planned by the Corporation.
And it wasn’t as if a coronation was a new experience! Ten years earlier in 1821, Great Britain had welcomed George IV to the throne and Norwich had built a triumphal arch in the Market Square to mark the event.
Watercolour of Triumphal arch built in Norwich for coronation of George IV 1821 (NRO, ETN 3/5/1)
Both George IV and William IV were the sons of George III. As George’s youngest son, William had led a varied life. He joined the navy at 13, rising to the rank of Admiral in 1811. He had a mistress by whom he had 10 illegitimate children. In 1818, to secure the succession, he married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen but sadly no heirs survived and William’s niece, Queen Victoria came to the throne on his death in 1837.
Unlike our present king who has had life-long training for the role, William IV never thought he would rule. William IV, at the age of 64, was the oldest king to accede to the throne and that record was taken from him by our present King Charles who acceded in September 2022 at the age of 73.
Besides age, there are other similarities between the two coronations of Charles III and William IV.
Charles III is proposing a more slimmed-down, modern affair. Having led a comparatively ordinary life, William IV was against displays of pomp and limited the cost of the coronation to £30,000. In 1821, ten years earlier, the coronation of his brother, George IV, had cost £240,000.
Just as Charles is reputedly abandoning silk breeches and hose under his robes, William also relaxed rules on dress for the coronation. The invitations to the ‘Right Trusty and Well-beloved’ gentry required attendance at the event; the dress code was also prescribed.
Part of Lord Suffield’s invitation to William IV’s coronation, 1831 (NRO, GTN 5/9/66)
The invitation shows that under the formal robes, attendees were asked to wear court dress – the everyday dress of the royal drawing room.
Dress requirements for William and Adelaide’s coronation 1831 (NRO, GTN 5/9/66)
An invitation requiring the attendance of Lord Walsingham at George IV’s coronation is also in the archive. At first glance it seems identical but closer inspection shows that required ‘underhabits’ were very different. For William, satin pants and silk hose were out, as were swords in scabbards!
Dress requirements for George IV’s coronation 1821 in Lord Walsingham’s invitation (NRO, WLS LII/26, 427×6)
But what was going on in the City of Norwich?
The Norwich Mercury reported that on the day before the coronation, besides the cathedral service and a dinner for the gentry, nothing was organised for the citizens. On August 25th , 1831, the Minutes of the Mayor’s Court Book say that ‘divine service’ is planned at the cathedral and that the Mayor was requested to call a special assembly for Tuesday next (30th August) to make further arrangements (NRO, NCR 16a/44). The Mercury blamed disunity in the Corporation and, according to the Norfolk Chronicle, nothing was ever authoritatively announced.
However, the citizens did not wait for permission to dispel the gloom.
On Wednesday 7th September 1831, the citizens, took it upon themselves to light up and decorate their buildings, all the citizens with the noted exception of Quaker households. The ‘din of preparation was heard throughout the chief marts of business and traffic’. Transparencies of crowns, the regnal initials W & A, and lamps appeared on large buildings. Gurney’s bank displayed Britannia seated on a globe with the words ‘Peace and Hope’ underneath. The Mercury reported ‘even the houses of the poorest weavers were decked with flowers and greens and illuminated’. Flags were hung from the steeples.
After much uncertainty, on the day itself, a spectacle of dignitaries processed from the Guildhall to the cathedral at 11.45 am. Fourteen carriages of aldermen led the procession of officials in the full Guild Day paraphernalia, complete with Snap and the Whifflers as a treat for ‘the humbler orders’. After the service, chiming church bells stirred the spirits and a ‘feu de joie’ was delivered from the carbines of the Dragoons.
At St Andrew’s Hall, a dinner costing 8 shillings a head and attracting 200 gentlemen was held. The Hall was decorated with laurels and an orchestra played. After the meal, tables were cleared, and a picture of William IV appeared. The toasting started. The list of 29 toasts, are to be found in the Archive. The health of the King was proposed that he reign over a ‘free and united people’.
A list of toasts made at the coronation dinner at St Andrew’s Hall (NRO, MC 2576/9, 984×2)
The poor were not forgotten. The papers reported a dinner for the poor men of the Great Hospital at the Rose and Crown. A sheep was roasted by the landlord of the Rising Sun, Julian Place, for the poor of the neighbourhood. S Mills, a dyer of St Edmunds, gave his men a dinner of roast beef, plum pudding and plenty of strong ale, a menu shared by others in the workhouse and Infirmary.
On the morning of the coronation, the citizens had built a bonfire in the Market Square. It was made of wood and straw and the base was twenty yards in diameter with 3 barrels of tar on top. At 8 pm the mayor set it alight. Flames leapt to the height of St Peter’s steeple. Fire and sparks made it appear like a volcano, the light eclipsing the illumination of candle-lit buildings.
‘The whole population was abroad’, remarked the Mercury. Even though ‘not fewer than 10,000 females in small parties, without any male protector’ were abroad, there was not the slightest annoyance or offence offered to anyone.
According to the Norfolk Chronicle, the celebrations initiated by the citizens themselves were a demonstration of loyalty and public feeling. They really did credit to the city.
We will wait with to see whether those of Charles III will be as remarkable!
Written by Dinah Read, NRO Research Blogger
The Norfolk Chronicle 3rd & 10th September 1831
The Norwich Mercury 10th September 1831
(Both available at the Norfolk Heritage Centre)