Although coronations might seem like wonderfully grand affairs, there have been numerous times in history when the crowning ceremony turned into a runaway circus. Here are five times when British coronations went more than slightly awry.
1. A Truly Wild Celebration
If only the revelers could have sounded just a little more cheerful, or perhaps used their indoor voices. When William the Conqueror was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1066 on Christmas Day, his reign was ushered in with a welcome worthy of a ferocious warrior. While a crowning for Christmas might sound very poetic, it turned out to be distinctly unpleasant for everyone involved.
Taking the crown should have been a great moment for William, whose French-speaking Norman warriors had conquered the local English population (known as the Saxons). Although there was discontent among the locals about being occupied and governed by foreigners, the English needed a king—and William wanted to rule. The coronation was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Things seemed to start off well enough. Two bishops read the rites in both English and French. Then, during the ceremony, the joyful congregation combined their voices in a roar of shouts hailing the king. Peace had come at last! Or not.
The Norman soldiers standing guard outside the abbey heard the uproar and didn’t think it sounded very nice. All they heard was what sounded like English and French people shouting at each other all the sudden. Treachery! Seizing the initiative and presuming their fellow Normans would duke things out in the abbey, William’s loyal soldiers wasted no time in dashing through the streets and setting fire to every house they could reach.
As smoke wafted into the abbey, the atmosphere started to seem a little less happy for the attendees inside. According to historian Orderic Vitalis, “people who had been rejoicing in the church were thrown into confusion.” As soon as everyone realized the Normans were running around outside burning things, the congregation fled as fast as they could.
William, known for his iron disposition, reportedly appeared startled—the famous warrior king literally started shaking in his boots. But despite his alarm he waited to ensure he was indeed a king before evacuating the premises. A shivering flock of clergy huddled around the altar and managed to finish crowning him in a hurry.
As people outside rioted, panicked, and ran to and fro, some enterprising characters started robbing the burning houses “hoping to grab loot for themselves,” according to Vitalis. Some of those characters were probably Normans, and it wasn’t a good look for William’s troops. If the Normans believed the English had tried to pull a fast one in the church, the English believed the uncouth Normans had waited till everyone was distracted with crowning the king to start pillaging houses.
The coronation did nothing to further friendly relations—so William, opting to be feared rather than loved, started building the Tower of London immediately afterwards to cement his control over the population.
2. No Sitting Still
Didn’t his mother teach him how to behave in public? One might ask that question when reflecting on the fidgety coronation of King John in May 1199. John, who according to some sources was “one of the very worst English kings,” was the same infamously greedy king who appears in legends of Robin Hood. Irritating everybody and taxing everything he could think of, he succeeded in alienating his own barons, which resulted in the creation of the Magna Carta to limit his power.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that John’s reign kicked off with a rollicking bad start when he was crowned. The new king is said to have conducted himself with “unseemly levity”—an elegant medieval term for giggling and misbehaving—during his coronation ceremony. Unable to sit still, the barely crowned king decided he’d had enough of the pomp and left early—presumably leaving a crowd of horrified nobles staring after him, wondering what they were in for. A portent of future events, certainly.
Ironically the crown that John had so rudely spurned in the church would have the last laugh—when it literally slipped away from him as he attempted to cross a river in East Anglia appropriately known as “the Wash.” John was trying to escape from some of his outraged barons who were rebelling against him as he crossed the river. He went in too deep and his treasures, along with his royal crown, went floating away never to be seen again.
Afterwards John fell into a deep depression and caught a fever. Eating nothing much else beside peaches and cider, he died one year after the crown had escaped him in October 1216, “unlamented” by his people and destined to become a popular villain in stories.
3. Royal Germaphobia
The coronation of Queen Mary I on October 1, 1553 was marked by an unusual sibling rivalry. A formidable character who became known as “Bloody Mary,” the new queen was the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and had inherited the strong temperament of both parents. Mary’s coronation was a historic first as it was the first time that a queen would debut as a female ruler.
Everything was all set for Mary to shine. She would appear in radiant gowns of purple velvet and be adorned with gold and pearls. She would float magnificently down the River Thames in a fleet of decorated boats amid trumpets, pageantry and fanfare. Mary’s courtiers were doing their best to make her big day one to remember.
But there was a slight problem—actually, more than a few problems, which should not have been much to fuss about but seemed enormously critical to Mary. She didn’t want to touch, or at least be seen touching, any materials that had been used by her brother Edward VI who had been crowned there previously. She believed her sibling had contaminated everything that had come into contact with him—ostensibly because he was Protestant, but maybe also because he was her brother.
So as to avoid catching any of Edward’s “cooties,” Mary had a fresh batch of oil made for her anointing. She did not want to sit on the Coronation Chair which she alleged had been “polluted” by her brother. The Pope kindly sent her a new one, which promptly disappeared from history afterwards. She would not put on the same royal robe as he had worn, either—although she agreed to carry the same orb as she walked in the procession. For whatever reason the orb did not seem so infectious to her.
4. The Coronation Crasher
Although many royal couples in history have had distinctly unhappy marriages, perhaps none of them played out so publicly on a coronation day as when King George IV ascended to the throne on July 19, 1821.
George had been unhappily married to his first cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. The unhappiness was mutual from the start as the pair had “disliked each other on sight.” They managed to have one daughter before parting. Both led separate lives and took other lovers. George tried to divorce Caroline to no avail.
When George’s coronation day came, he wanted to make it a day the nation would remember—in fact, he wanted to upstage the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte, which would be no easy feat. When George arrived at the abbey, he made an electrifying appearance. He was all decked out in an enormous wig with bouncing curls, a feathered hat and robes that didn’t fit very well. He had even had a new crown made, too, just for him—it sparkled with 12,000 diamonds and was sure to wow everybody.
George was all set to bedazzle the crowds when Caroline arrived to spoil everything. Despite having more or less nothing to do with her husband, she wanted to be crowned, too—as Queen Consort. Needless to say, George wasn’t having it, and commanded the guards to fend off his wife so that she could not enter the church.
Caroline proved a crafty and determined opponent. Screaming, “I am the Queen of England!” as loudly as possible, she attempted to break into the abbey at every possible entry point. A guard reportedly brandished a sword at her to chase her away. After finding it impossible to get past the guards, Caroline was forced to break off the siege. Caroline’s rebellious antics might have cost her her life. She mysteriously fell ill on the day of the coronation and never recovered, dying on August 7 after claiming she had been poisoned.
5. No Rehearsal
If Queen Victoria was one of the greatest British monarchs, she also had one of the most painful and arduous coronation ceremonies. The whole thing lasted five hours—probably because hardly anybody seemed to know what they were doing. Despite Victoria’s dignified behavior, everybody else seemed to have forgotten theirs at home. Her train bearers tripped over their own dresses.
The ceremony screeched to a halt after the clergy and others started arguing about which finger the royal coronation ring was supposed to go on. Traditionally the ring had gone on the monarch’s fourth finger since time immemorial—but some bumbling jewelers had made it into a pinky ring instead.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had no patience for pinky rings. They simply weren’t done. Tiny or not, that ring was going to be jammed onto Victoria’s fourth finger if it was the last thing he did. In what must have been an awkward scene resembling one of Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to squeeze an ill-fitting glass slipper into place, the archbishop wrestled the ring onto Victoria’s hand. She reportedly had an extraordinary amount of pain getting the ring off afterwards and had to soak her hand in cold water later.
Other baffled bishops added to the fray. One handed Victoria the orb at the wrong time. Another assumed the ceremony was over because he had accidentally flipped two pages ahead in his service book and dismissed Victoria. She left, only to come speeding back again when everyone realized that the service wasn’t supposed to be over.
One of the highlights of the event was when a certain elderly peer, Lord Rolle, attempted to clamber up the steps to pay homage to Queen Victoria. Then in his 80s, Rolle became entangled in his ceremonial robes and ended up literally rolling down the steps, much to the queen’s dismay. He made a valiant second attempt to get up the steps but Victoria thankfully met him halfway. The incident inspired mockery, especially due to Rolle’s last name; it was memorialized in a painting as well as in a humorous rhyme called “the Roliad.”
Those misadventures might have seemed enough for one coronation—but it was not quite over. Finally crowned after much exhaustion, the queen retired to the inner sanctum of one of the abbey chapels to change and unexpectedly discovered some royal peers there snacking on wine and sandwiches. She was not amused.