Coronations That Went Wrong

The gold State coach was built in 1762 and used at every coronation since 1831.  Source

We watched King Charles III’s coronation along with the rest of the world, and parts of the parade we even watched from our own window. The marching troops rehearsed on our street for hours on Tuesday evening – even into the early hours of the next morning.

As far as I know, King Charles III’s ceremony went off without a hitch. However, some earlier coronations weren’t rehearsed as well and ended up with some “coronation gone wrong” moments. Let’s look at just a few of them…

William the Conqueror, the first sovereign to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. Source


The very first coronation at Westminster Abbey ended in rioting, fire and terror.

In December 1066 William the Conqueror had recently come from Normandy, and doing what he did best, he conquered England. William and his army were French speaking, so there was a bit of a language barrier and a lot of resentment from the English, many of whom didn’t like being conquered. This made for a tense atmosphere.

During William’s coronation ceremony on Christmas day, the bishop (also a French-speaking Norman) asked those in attendance, “Do you accept the new king by your free choice?” It was translated to English for the English nobles, then everyone shouted an affirmation that they did – because, of course, only those who supported William had been invited.

The French-speaking soldiers stationed outside heard those English voices shouting and thought there was a riot. Their response to this was to begin setting fire to the surrounding houses.

While chaos ensued outside, the coronation continued inside. The guests who had been celebrating their new king were unsettled by the smell of smoke and the commotion outside. Their instincts told them to get out of there. They jumped up and fled the Abbey, leaving the bishop and a few other officials inside with the King. Trembling with fear, the Bishop managed to rush through the rest of the ceremony and proclaim William (who was also shaking in his boots) as the new King.

George IV coronation portrait.  Source

 1821 – GEORGE IV

There was no fire at George IV’s coronation, but there was plenty of heat, an uninvited wife, and wax dripping from the ceiling.

George IV liked to spend money, and his coronation ceremony seemed like the perfect place to do so. It was an extravagant affair, and of course, he wanted to be the most glamorous one at his own party. He sent his tailor to France to study Napoleon’s coronation robe, and he insisted that his own be even bigger and better than the French Emperor’s.

His coronation took place on a warm day in July. That morning, after he was dressed, he gazed at himself in the mirror with pride. He was a bit overweight, but he considered himself quite dashing in his white suit with gold trim, his curly wig, and his heavy plumed hat. But the icing on the cake was his heavy, 27-foot long (8.2 m) red velvet robe (bigger and better than Napoleon’s).

George IV’s coronation robe and the 9 men to carry it.

In no time at all, he regretted not having his coronation in the winter. He was hot in all those heavy clothes. Sweat poured off him throughout the ceremony and he used at least 19 handkerchiefs to try to keep his forehead dry. He later remarked, “I would not endure again the sufferings of that day for another kingdom!”

Wife Troubles

The heat wasn’t George’s only problem on his big day. His estranged wife showed up and wanted to be part of the ceremony.

As we said, George liked to spend money, and, as a prince, he had run up a lot of debts. Caroline of Brunswick came with a big dowry, so he married her. But the couple couldn’t get along and were separated by the time of the coronation.

Queen Caroline being refused entry to the coronation.

He tried unsuccessfully to divorce his wife, who had moved to Italy, and swore she would not be crowned his queen. He didn’t invite her to his coronation, and he gave instructions that she should not be admitted to the coronation under any circumstances. Sure enough, she showed up on the big day. She tried to get in every door of the Abbey but was repeatedly refused and finally left uncrowned.

Dripping Wax

The coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall, which was lit by 28 large, candle-lined chandeliers. The pans hanging under them to collecting the dripping wax weren’t big enough, so hot wax began to drip down on the guests as they were feasting below.

Queen Victoria’s coronation portrait


Queen Victoria was 19 years old at the time of her coronation in 1838. Even though the first coronation at Westminster Abbey had taken place 772 years earlier, it seems that the idea of rehearsing them just hadn’t yet occurred to anyone. So at Victoria’s coronation, no one really knew what was supposed to happen.

The Ring Doesn’t Fit

The first problem was the ring – it just didn’t fit. The jewellers who made the ring thought it was meant to go on the Queen’s pinkie and made it to fit that finger. However, the Archbishop knew the ring was supposed to go on the ring finger and tried to put it there – but it just wouldn’t go.

He was surprised and confused. He knew that the ring was an important part of the ceremony, so he decided he would get it on her no matter what. He pushed and pushed and the Queen winced in pain but endured it as a monarch should. The Archbishop finally succeeded in forcing the pinky ring onto her ring finger.

What Victoria is thinking in her coronation painting

When Victoria got home, of course, she couldn’t get the tight ring off. She pulled, the servants pulled, they tried butter, soap, then they decided to soak her hand in iced water in order to shrink her finger. They finally succeeded, but not without a lot of pain for the young queen.

The clueless Archbishop also tried to hand Victoria the orb which she had already been given. An equally clueless Bishop told the queen the service was finished, and she could leave. She went into St. Edward’s Chapel only to be ushered back in to finish the ceremony.

A Lord Rolls Down the Stairs

After she had been crowned and all the necessary ceremonies had finally been carried out somewhat correctly, Victoria sat on her throne on a raised platform. Various people walked up the few steps to pay homage to the newly crowned queen. Lord Rolle wanted to pay his respects to the Monarch, but he was 82 and a bit unsteady.

As he slowly mounted the steps, he tripped and fell, and true to his name Lord Rolle rolled right down again. He was unhurt and stood up to cheers from the crowd. He steadied himself and started to have another go at the stairs, but Victoria took pity on him and stepped down to Lord Rolle’s level to save him the effort. Even with all the mishaps of her coronation day, Victoria later wrote in her diary, “I shall remember this day as the Proudest of my life!”

Westminster Abbey 1852

Thankfully, modern coronations are much better planned and rehearsed. Charles III is the 40th sovereign who has been crowned at Westminster Abbey, where all British coronations have taken place since 1066.

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Margo Lestz

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