IT WAS a magnificent spectacle on the river in 1662. On Saturday 23 August, Samuel Pepys records in his diary that King Charles II brought his new Queen, Catherine of Braganza, to London in a celebratory flotilla that almost paved the surface of the Thames: “Anon come the King and Queen in a barge under a canopy with 10,000 barges and boats, I think, for we could see no water for them, nor discern the King nor Queen.”
Celebrations like the weekend’s Jubilee are sometimes dismissed by historians as “invented traditions.” But as the pageant of 1662 demonstrates, that’s hardly the whole story. It’s true that much of the royal ceremonial we follow today dates from the 1870s or later. The historian David Cannadine writes, for instance, that the Silver Jubilee for George V in 1935 had “no exact precedent”. Yet Britain remains a nation with a deep well of history and continuity. That we have stitched the old together in new ways still shows respect for the past – we invoke tradition even as we look to the future.
In fact, the weekend’s ceremonial processions of the monarch through our twenty-first century capital show not just our long history as a nation, but also the peculiarly British character of our constitutional monarchy, and the limits of its power. While the monarch might seem to be at the centre of the show, the reality is far more complex. Processions permit citizens to publicly demonstrate their consent to a monarch’s rule.
Compare Sunday’s flotilla of little boats to the statist, militarist choreography with which a totalitarian state like North Korea celebrates great occasions. It is instead spontaneous, emergent and individual acts of celebration that characterised the Jubilee: lines of people who chose to salute their Queen personally.
And on Tuesday, with the Queen’s journey from St Paul’s to Mansion House, we saw a reaffirmation of the British crown’s relationship to the City – one in which the crown has needed the City’s acceptance as much as the City has valued the crown’s patronage. The chief executive of English Heritage Simon Thurley points out in a 2010 Gresham College lecture that Charles I twice promised that he would process in ceremony into the City of London, only to cancel – and that his high-handed attitude to the City helped to hasten his fall. In the words of a bitter Royalist in 1643, “If posterity shall ask who would have pulled the crown from the king’s head… it was the rebellious, bloody City of London.” By contrast, the Restoration brought with it a fresh awareness of the City’s value. At Charles II’s coronation procession, he passed through a triumphal arch painted with images of the Royal Exchange.
In a royal procession, it is not the monarch’s power but her legitimacy that is on display. This weekend, City and citizens reaffirmed their acceptance of Elizabeth II’s 60 years of service.