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Charles II's Coronation Procession

Date: 24 April 2023

Author: Alden Gregory

The 'Glorious' Procession of the last King Charles from the Tower of London

As the country prepares for the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, our Curator of Historic Buildings, Alden Gregory, takes a look at the coronation of the last King Charles to sit on the throne and the last coronation in which the Tower of London played a starring role.

I have often stood on Tower Hill trying to imagine the scenes that took place there on 22 April 1661, for the coronation of King Charles II. That great swathe of open ground between the Tower of London and the City of London – a place synonymous with executions where the scaffold watched ominously over that morning’s proceedings – filled with men, women, and horses all in their finery. The febrile atmosphere, both tense and excited, cut through with the barked orders of the Officers of Arms, the jangle of horse harness, and the rehearsing of drums and trumpets.

A new King, Charles II, was to be crowned at Westminster Abbey the next day and, following the tradition established by his predecessor Richard II and maintained by almost every monarch since, he had chosen to stage a grand coronation procession through London to the Abbey.

Image: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Coronation Traditions and the Right to Rule

The traditions of the coronation bestow a sense of legitimacy on the new reign and publicly and triumphantly confirm the monarch’s right to rule. For Charles, who had only recently restored the monarchy following two decades during which the country had witnessed civil war, the execution of his father Charles I, and a long period in which Oliver Cromwell had ruled as Lord Protector, that legitimacy and his right to rule had been hard won. By adopting the old traditions, Charles was saying to his people that business as usual had been restored.

Portrait of Charles II by John Michael Wright

A Tower Fit for a King…?

In the days before the procession, proclamations had been printed and distributed to the participants. As tradition demanded the Tower of London was to be the starting point for the procession, but the organisers had concerns about its capacity. It had been over 30 years since the Tower had last hosted a coronation procession and things had changed. The old royal palace at its centre had become ruinous and its buildings either pulled down or converted to storage, and new warehouses and workshops had begun to spring up in response to the Tower’s increasingly industrial and military functions.

To prevent the disorder of overcrowding, only the highest ranked nobility, courtiers, and their servants would be permitted entry into the Tower; the rest – many hundreds in number – were to assemble with their horses on Tower Hill by 8 o’clock in the morning, there to be organised into processional order by the Officers of Arms. The proclamation further insisted that no "unruly or striking Horse" was to be ridden in the procession. The organisers were keen that nothing should go wrong; for a coronation to confer the right sense of legitimacy on the new monarch it must go without a hitch.

Image: Sir John Robinson, Lieutenant of the Tower, with whom Charles II shared breakfast in the King's House before his coronation procession. © Royal Armouries

Three-quarter length, facing half-left, wearing a buff-coat with embroidered sleeves under a breast plate and crimson sash, with a gold-hilted small-sword and silver knobbed stick. The White Tower is seen in the background and on a table are to be seen the robes and chain of office of the Lord Mayor of London. Inscribed in the upper Right Hand corner '[Isaac Pennington] London. Urb. Prefectus.'

As the procession was being assembled on Tower Hill, King Charles was making his way to the Tower by royal barge from his palace at Whitehall. Breaking with one tradition, Charles had not spent the night before his procession in the Tower, there no longer being suitable royal apartments in which he could stay.

Instead, the King arrived at the Tower early in the morning – by 7 o’clock – and took his breakfast with the Lieutenant, Sir John Robinson, in the King’s House. There, perhaps pausing in front of the life-like portrait bust of his grandfather King James I that graces the Council Chamber, he may have reflected on his Stuart ancestry and on the right it conveyed on him to rule, as he prepared himself for the enormity of the days ahead.

By 10 o'clock he was ready and, accompanied by his nobility, he rode out of the Tower to join the assembled company on Tower Hill and take his place in the procession. The sun was shining as they snaked their way into the City through Aldgate. There they found the streets lined with cheering crowds, the shops and houses hung with bright tapestries and carpets, and the fountains flowing with wine.

Image: The bust of Charles II's grandfather King James I, in the King’s House at the Tower of London. See this object in high-definition on Google Arts & Culture.

Carved stone portrait bust of James VI and I (1566-1625), 1608, attributed to Maximilian Colt.

'So glorious was the show with gold and silver…'

Samuel Pepys, who was watching the procession from an upper window of a house on Cornhill, recorded in his diary that it was, ‘impossible to relate the glory of this day, expressed in the clothes of them that rid, and their horses and horses [sic] clothes”. 

Despite being sustained by wine and cake, and occasionally distracted by women in the crowd, the experience of watching the procession was overwhelming for Pepys. “So glorious was the show with gold and silver”, he wrote, “that we were not able to look at it, our eyes at last being so much overcome with it”. 

The Banqueting House is the only remaining complete building of Whitehall Palace, the sovereign's principal residence from 1530 until 1698 when it was destroyed by fire. Designed by Inigo Jones for King James I and completed in 1622, the Banqueting House was originally built for occasions of state, plays and masques. The Banqueting House later became the scene of King Charles I's execution, which took place on 30 January 1649.

Arrival at the Banqueting House

It took the procession five hours to complete its journey through the City, passing beneath a series of elaborate triumphal arches, and pausing to listen to speeches, before it arrived at its conclusion outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. For those who took part it must also have been an overwhelming and exhausting experience, and many must have been relieved that it had come to an end.

For Charles, the end of the procession held its own significance, and another moment to reflect on the significance of the mantle he had taken on, for it ended on the spot where his father, Charles I, had been executed 12 years earlier.

The procession came to an end in another sense too, for this was the last time that a coronation procession would leave the Tower of London. Charles II’s successor, James II, exactly 24 years later chose not to process from the Tower, ending a centuries-old tradition and forever changing the relationship between the Tower and the monarch.

Alden Gregory
Curator of Historic Buildings, Tower of London and Whitehall Banqueting House

Image: The Banqueting House, where Charles II completed his coronation procession in 1661. © Historic Royal Palaces

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