The Gold State Coach, Royal Mews.
By Crochet.david(talk) own work, cc BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7395195
As we approach 6 May 2023, the coronation day of King Charles III, it is the perfect time to look back on coronations past and explore some of their Huguenot connections. On that date the ceremony will unfold according to rituals dating back centuries, albeit with certain modern touches in line with the future king’s wishes.
One of the prominent features of the procession to Westminster Abbey is the Gold State Coach. Made from gilt wood 261 years ago, it has been a magnificent sight at coronations, royal jubilees and other ceremonial events. It was designed by William Chambers for George III, who acceded to the throne on 25 October 1760 on the death of his grandfather, George II, and was intended to be ready for the coronation on 22 September 1761. However, although it was commissioned at a cost of £7,562 (£3.54m, $4.188m 2022), it was not completed until 1762. This was because the coachmaker, Samuel Butler of London, had to build it to the exacting requirements of the new king, who wanted it to be the most impressive coach ever seen in the kingdom, with no expense spared. Its decoration conveys the impression that the sovereign embodies Neptune, monarch of the seas, as well as Apollo, leader of the muses of artistic innovation. The huge coach is 7 metres long, 3.6 metres tall, weighs 4 tonnes, and needs eight horses to draw it. Owing to its weight and its great age, it is only ever used at a walking pace.
The state coach has been used at every coronation from that of George IV in 1821 to that of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953, but not all British monarchs were happy to ride in it. Queen Victoria found it uncomfortable and, following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, never again used it to travel to the opening of Parliament. Over the years the coach has been modernised to try to give some element of comfort to its passengers and it is intended that King Charles III and Queen Camilla will ride in it for their return to Buckingham Palace after their coronation, but that they will use the more comfortable Diamond Jubilee State Coach, built in Australia in 2014, for the journey to Westminster Abbey.
While by tradition the monarch is crowned with St Edward’s crown, the king will be permitted some choice in his attire: for example, he might choose to wear a military uniform. However, the robe of state, the long mantle worn over the monarch’s outfit for their entrance into Westminster Abbey is always newly made for the occasion and then re-used for the annual State Opening of Parliament. Elizabeth II’s robe of state was made of red velvet, gold embroidery and regal ermine with gold lace from Canada and, most importantly, fully lined with pure English silk satin. The silk was woven by Stephen Walters & Sons, a company founded by Huguenot weaver Joseph Walters in 1720 in Spitalfields, and later moved to Sudbury in Suffolk. Stephen Walters & Sons also received the commission for the new silk lining for the Gold State Coach, used in 1953 by the royal couple to travel to Westminster Abbey and for their return to Buckingham Palace.
Many items required for the coronation of the young queen in 1953 – from embroidered banners to robes and regalia – were the work of Toye, Kenning & Spencer, both directly and also working on behalf of other suppliers. The company had been founded in 1835 by a descendant of Huguenot silk weaver Guillaume Henri Toye, who had sought refuge on these shores in October 1685. In 1953 Toye, Kenning & Spencer produced embroidery using their own original gold and silver wire for the coronation robes, supplied by Ede & Ravenscroft; a seamstress pricked her finger, which bled onto the robe, so, as the story goes, an additional gold leaf was placed either side to cover the stain. The company also produced a last-minute order from the Ministry of Works for four large white banners only three months before the coronation.
In 1937, the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had given Toye, Kenning & Spencer a magnificent opportunity to utilise their workers’ considerable skills in the manufacture of highly valued, specialist craftwork. On that occasion, the company’s skilled staff worked day and night for six months producing banners, emblems, robes and insignia. The velvet cushions on which the royal crowns were carried into Westminster Abbey were made by women at Toye's in conjunction with the Royal School of Needlework.
There is a second Huguenot connection to the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Robert Riviere, the famous book-binder of Huguenot descent, had founded his company in 1829 and it continued to trade until 1939. One of the last commissions it undertook was the binding of the Bible and two Books of Common Prayer produced for the coronation in 1937. However, the specially-bound Bible was not actually used as it proved too heavy for the frail clergyman to hold, and on the day a plainer Bible was substituted.
The Huguenot connection with coronation robes goes back further. During his coronation on 22 June 1911, George V wore the imperial mantle or robe that had been worn by George IV at his coronation in 1821. This is one of five important robes worn by a monarch during the service, but unlike the robe of state it is purple, referencing Roman emperors. The imperial mantle, which had been perfectly preserved and kept in private hands since 1821, is a beautiful example of Spitalfields handloom work, which had been of Huguenot origin. The emblems of the three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland are skilfully woven into the fabric.
When King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were crowned on 26 June 1902, their robes of state were commissioned from George Dorée, whose Huguenot ancestors had originally settled in Spitalfields. George commenced his apprenticeship in weaving at an early age and wove his first half-yard (45.72 cm) of velvet when only 11 years old. In layman’s terms the coronation velvet was 30 yards (27.43 m) long and 20 inches (50.8 cm) wide, but a skilled weaver would describe it as being an 1850 thread, 60 wires, 180 shoots, and treble pole with a two-thread ground. It took Dorée five months to complete the weaving. Due to the intensity and precise nature of the work, other simpler tasks were interspersed with it. Some years later, a reporter from The Daily News interviewed Dorée at his home in Alma Road, East London, and his conclusion was ‘there must be a special organ, which biologists should investigate – the weaver’s eye’. The weavers’ houses of Alma Road and the surrounding streets all gave the false appearance of being large inside due to their double-fronted exteriors, but in fact the whole of their upper floors were set aside for the business of weaving, with their windows taking up the whole width of each house. Sadly, almost all of these houses had been demolished by the late 1960s.
After her husband’s death, Mrs Dorée presented to the London Museum, then housed at Kensington Palace, the special mahogany box in which her husband had placed samples of both coronation robes, together with a sample of an even longer robe he had woven for the Rajah of Jhalawar two years after the coronation commission. These samples were arranged over two rollers, creating a curve allowing the light to fall on them through the box’s glass lid, thus enhancing the view of the exquisite nature and colour of the velvet.
Charles III will be the first king of the United Kingdom to have his image on the Bank of England’s bank notes, due to go into circulation in 2024. As discussed in an earlier blog, his mother, the late Elizabeth II, was the first monarch whose image appeared on the notes, in 1960. Until recent times, the well-known Portal family business, of Huguenot origin, was responsible for producing the special paper employed for this, but UK notes are now made of a more durable material, namely polymer.
As we toast the new king, we remember Charles III’s own Huguenot descent, through Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Luneberg, wife of George I and daughter of the aristocratic Huguenot refugee Eleonore Desmier d’Olbreuse.
Huguenot Society Proceedings, 23, 5 (1908-81). Howard M. Nixon, ‘Some Huguenot Bookbinders’, pp. 327-9.
Huguenot Society Proceedings, 9, 3 (1910-11). Sir William Portal, M.A., F.S.A., Bart., ‘Presidential Address’, p. 272.
Huguenot Society Proceedings, 11, 3 (1916 -17). W. H. Manchée, ‘George Dorée, Citizen and Weaver of London’, pp. 419-22.
Huguenot Society Proceedings, 10, 2 (1912-13). W. H. Manchée, ‘Memories of Spitalfields’, p. 339.