State Barges – a brief introduction

/ State Barges – a brief introduction

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Before coaches arrived, royal or state processions in London went by water. Earlier progresses had been on horseback, but the river Thames offered an alternative. The love of pageantry grew with the Tudors. Processions by barge from the City of London up to Westminster or down to Greenwich, became part of the pattern of city life. It was a direct route and was pleasanter when open sewers ran in the plague infested streets and people could be crushed against the walls.

Royal residences were on the Thames, as were the town houses of much of the nobility whose gardens stretched down to their own landing stairs. Even with the advent of coaches during the reign of Elizabeth I, the river still provided a more comfortable way of travelling than springless carriages on roads with no proper surface for the next three centuries.

The city livery companies, established by charter in the thirteenth century, were powerful forces in the government of London. Civic pride asserted itself in various forms of pageantry and public display. The earliest exhibition in which the city guilds took part was in 1298, when Edward I returned from his victory over the Scots.

Then in 1399 at the coronation of Henry IV when the fountains ran with wine and 6,000 horsemen accompanied the King as he passed through the city. It was usual for each company to join the mayor and sheriffs both on Lord Mayor’s Day and when they were summoned to attend at royal processions on such occasions as the reception of distinguished visitors from the continent. These they were required to meet ‘at Gravesend, in their formalities, and so to attend them to London in their barges if they came by water, and if by land then they were ordered to meet them on Blackheath’.

Except for the brief period of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Thames pageantry continued along the river for centuries, peaking in its pageantry with the Stuarts then gradually declining until the age of the carriage (and better roads) and the River itself became the open sewer by the middle of the nineteenth century.

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