Saturday, 30 April 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

Nowadays, royal and ceremonial occasions are an opportunity for some pageantry and public celebration.

However, much of the ceremonial dates from pre-literate times, and had a specific purpose.

If there would be no written record of an event, or none that would be easily accessible, it was important that it was witnessed by as many people as possible, whether it was a coronation, a wedding, or a legal transaction such as a transfer of land.

Not all royal weddings have been public, however. It is not certain when and where Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn.

James, Duke of York, brother of Charles II, married Anne Hyde secretly in 1660. Her father Edward Hyde, later Earl of Clarendon, was so mortified by her presumption in marrying so far above her station (and so concerned that his enemies would believe that he had engineered the marriage) that he said

‘He would turn her out of the house, as a strumpet, to shift for herself, and would never see her again … he had much rather that his daughter should be the duke’s whore than his wife.’

Pageantry was a demonstration of power, to intimidate enemies and rivals. In 933, as he was preparing to launch an invasion of Scotland, King Athelstan held a court at Winchester attended by four Welsh princes, twelve earls and a large number of thegns.

The whole force moved north and just over a week later another court was held at Nottingham. The intention must have been to make the Scots aware that a powerful force was approaching. 

Keeping a lavish household with feasting and almsgiving was a way of displaying wealth and attracting followers. When carried to excess by a nobleman, it could be seen as a challenge to the king’s authority. In 1468 the Earl of Warwick 

‘Was always held in great favour by the commons of this land because of the exceedingly great household which he kept daily in every region wherever he stayed or passed the night. And when he came to London he held such a household that six oxen were eaten at a breakfast and every tavern was full of his meat; for anybody who had any acquaintance in his household could have as much boiled and roast meat as he could carry on a long dagger.’ 
Ultimately it did the earl no good, of course; he was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

Now, who is invited to major events and who is not can still carry some significance. There is still protocol governing precedence, dress and conduct. But in general, royal occasions are family events shared with the nation and Commonwealth.  


  1. Hi, thanks for this! My kids were bored by it all yesterday, saying, "Why does there have to be such a fuss? Why can't they just get married by themselves?"

    I tried to explain that it was because it's constitutionally very significant, but I think you've put it better here. When we get home this evening I'll show them this.

  2. Thanks. Everyone seemed to be blogging about the wedding yesterday, I was trying to find something a bit different to say.

    Having thought about it some more, I think there is a subtext, about the freedom and stability we enjoy in this country, which we tend to take for granted.

    How many places in the world do Very Very Important People drive around in open carriages rather than bullet proof limos? How many places would you get a million people coming out to celebrate something so spontaneously?

    When I was discussing the wedding on another forum yesterday, an American poster said she didn't think the Mall Movement could ever happen in the US, with so few police controlling such a large crowd and it all staying so good natured.

    So I think events like these do make a statement around the world about the society we live in, and that's one reason they're important.