Thursday, July 14, 2016

"The tax which Greatness pays for its station": celebrating the Royal Birthday in 1790s Britain

by Jacqueline Reiter

The pattern of high society life in 1790s Britain was dictated by the sittings of Parliament, which called all the nobility and gentry to London in January and sent them back to their country estates when it rose in the summer. Two other significant events in Georgian Britain, however, also helped set the court calendar for the upper classes: the official birthdays of the King and Queen.

St James's Palace (Pyne's Royal Residences, 1819) (Wikimedia Commons)

George III's birthday was 4 June. His consort, Queen Charlotte, was born on 19 May, but because this was so close to her husband's birthday she celebrated it officially on 18 January. The Queen's Birthday thus opened the calendar of Court events, and the King's closed it. In between there were weekly levees (for the gentlemen, usually on Wednesdays) and drawing-rooms (mixed company, usually on Thursdays), but the Birthdays were the biggest draw.

George III in Windsor uniform, by C.W. Hunneman (Wikimedia Commons)

The Birthdays were not, of course, celebrated only by the Court. They were official public holidays, and celebrated nationwide with bell-ringing and patriotic sermons. In London, the royal standard was hoisted all over town (including on the ships lying in the Thames) and at noon the guns at Green Park and the Tower fired a royal salute of 21 guns. At six, the London mail companies ran a parade of new coaches in St James's Street while the royals watched. In 1796 this parade consisted of eighteen coaches, "each drawn by four beautiful blood horses, decorated with ribbons".[1]

At night the city was illuminated with candles and "transparencies", or coloured devices. The theatres, clubs and trades operating "by royal appointment" led the way, but some private residences also lit up in celebration.

The biggest spectacle of the day, however, was the official Drawing-Room held at St James's Palace. This was undoubtedly the place to be, and the aristocracy turned out in numbers twice each year to show off their wealth and status with swanky new coaches and extravagant Court dress. Spectators lined the streets as double lines of vehicles dropped off their hugely overdressed occupants outside the Palace from noon onwards.

Like all late Georgian Court events, the Royal Birthdays were governed by very strict etiquette. As such, although they provided an interesting diversion for the hoi polloi, they were not very comfortable to take part in. "A Court day is a day of pennance [sic], upon which royalty and rank pay the tax of their station" – a tax which was "frequently ... paid with an aching heart as well as a head-ache".[2]

Princess Augusta's Birthday gown in June 1799, from here

Dress and behaviour were strictly regulated, and Court fashion was stuck in a fossilised rut. Ladies had to wear large hoops and mantua gowns long after these fashions had been abandoned elsewhere (this continued even after the fashionable waistline had crept up to empire length towards the end of the 1790s, with ridiculous results). Gentlemen wore outdated long coats, either heavily-embroidered suits, plain "Windsor dress" (blue coat, red collar, gold lace), or military or naval uniform: the knights of the various Orders also wore their collars. 

Men's Court dress, ca. 1800 (LACMA)

Every year the newspapers described the gowns, but with increasingly obvious distaste:

The newspapers have been in the habit for some years past to detail ... the dresses made up for the Ladies; though year by year it is a repetition of the same unintelligible gibberish. It eternally consists of a satin or velvet train, and an embroidered petticoat, which glitter with half a dozen ornaments of tassels and fringe, flowers and foil, gold and silver, through as many insipid columns. The etiquette of Court demanding the obsolete hoop in the Ladies' dress, and the standing collar in the Gentlemen's, there is no scope for the exercise of either fancy or taste ... All of [this] is extremely useful to the Court milliners, and interesting to no human creature besides.[3]

Embroidery on a Court coat, showing sequins and gold thread (LACMA)

The drawing-room began each year at noon with a procession of royal coaches up the Mall from the Queen's House (modern Buckingham Palace). The royal family retired to their apartments to dress, after which the Queen would give a small-scale drawing-room in her own levee rooms. The reason for this was because formal introductions could not take place at the Birthday, and only those who had been formally introduced could attend the official celebrations. Young debutantes, newly-married couples, aristocrats in possession of a new title, freshly-appointed ambassadors, and people returning from trips abroad all had to be officially presented before the birthday "Great Circle" began. 

Queen's Levee Rooms (Pyne's Royal Residences, 1819) (Wikimedia)

At half past one the Poet Laureate read either the Ode to the New Year (at the Queen's Birthday) or the Birthday Ode (for the King). From 1790 the Laureate was Henry Pye, more distinguished for his political loyalty than for the quality of his writing. At two (or occasionally half past), the King and Queen entered the Grand Council Chamber. The company present – normally several hundred people (in 1790 the World named 250 gentlemen and 180 women, excluding, no doubt, several unrecognised faces and latecomers) – would have fought their way "with the utmost exertions" up the grand staircase and struggled in their swords and wide-hooped finery to pack themselves into the long, narrow state room.[4]

Drawing-Room in the Great Council Chamber (Wikimedia)


Once the royals entered, the company formed themselves into a circle as best they could while the King and Queen went round in opposite directions, making informal and probably highly stressful small-talk with their subjects. Nobody was allowed to sit or turn their back on the Royal presence. Three hours of standing in uncomfortable shoes later, the King and Queen returned to their apartments and the nobility fought their way out again.

Their ordeal was not yet over, for an official Ball was held at eight or nine. Everyone wore the same clothes they had worn at the Drawing-Room, and (like every other aspect of the day) the dancing was strictly controlled. The royal children opened the Ball with a series of minuets – the Birthday Balls were the only places these were still danced by the end of the century. These went on for an hour and a half. At about eleven the first of two "country dances" began. Balls rarely went on past midnight, and must have been very formal, and tedious, affairs.

The gowns and suits were the most interesting features of the day, antiquated as they were. The newspapers had their favourites, and often waxed lyrical in describing the dress of the foppish Prince of Wales:

[the Prince was dressed in] a very superb garter blue silk coat and breeches, with a narrow pale blue silk stripe, most beautifully embroidered in front, and down all the seams with silver, gold, and stones, and handsomely variegated with silk flowers, white cuffs, and silk waistcoat, both very richly embroidered all over. The effect of this dress is beyond description grand.[5]

The Prince was usually diamond-studded from head to foot, including diamond epaulettes, diamond-encrusted Garter star and George, and a sword decorated with "upwards of 3000 diamonds".[6] Whenever he did not appear, he must have left an enormous sparkly hole in St James's. After the start of the war, the newspapers grew more critical of his spendthrift ways and his vicarious attempts to harness the military glory of others. In 1793 the Morning Chronicle panned the uniform he wore as honorary Colonel of the 10th Light Dragoons, "which the Ladies say but ill accords with the increasing rotundity of his figure".[7]

The rest of the royals were generally more restrained. The King and Queen had a tradition of wearing plain clothes on their own Birthdays (the Queen, for example, would leave off the diamonds, of which she was notoriously fond). On the King's birthday in 1791, however, Charlotte wore "a most beautiful and costly dress" with a hat of green silk trimmed with blonde and decorated with diamonds, a garter blue and silver train trimmed with silver fringe, and a white crepe petticoat embroidered all over with silver stars and spangles.[8] On the Queen's birthday in 1794 the King wore "a purple cloth coat, richly embroidered in gold, with a gold tissue waistcoat, covered with a very elegant embroidery".[9]

Court dress, ca. 1796, from the back, showing the train (N. von Heideloff, Gallery of Fashion vol. II, found here)

After the outbreak of war in 1793, the newspapers found little to say about men's court dress. Every year it was always the same: "The marking character of the dress for the day was, that the gentlemen were chiefly in military uniform".[10] In June 1799, the King preceded his birthday celebrations with a review of 8000 London volunteers in Hyde Park. The Morning Chronicle, a cynical chronicle of Court events at the best of times, damned the volunteers' military character with faint praise: "The corps in general conducted themselves with great propriety, and performed both their firing and their evolutions with precision, considering the short time they have been under drill. It would be too much to expect from corps, so constituted, all the minute regularity of regular troops."[11]

Military uniform ca. 1799 (LACMA)

Between 1793 and 1798, when the war was going badly, the economy suffered, and political unrest stalked the land, the Birthdays were thinly attended and the clothes more restrained. The Birthdays became an opportunity for the aristocracy to show their patriotism by "buying British": "We are happy to observe the great attention paid to the manufactories of the country, as the Spitalfields silks – fancy metal buttons – and shoes and buckles, were generally worn, which ... must give renewed vigour to trade, and bread to thousands".[12] Mostly, however, the war affected the rich by keeping them more on their country estates and forcing them to spend less on expensive outdated gowns: "These are not times for the indulgence of magnificent expence."[13]

In 1799, however, there was a resurgence of interest. The King's birthday celebrations that year, possibly because of the volunteer review that preceded it, was "one of the most splendid and brilliant Courts that has been witnessed for many years ... It would be impossible to enumerate the numbers who were present". It was a fitting close for a decade that had seen the British royal family endure so much political, social and private turbulence.


References

[1] True Briton, 6 June 1796
[2] Morning Chronicle, 5 June 1795, 20 January 1796
[3] Morning Chronicle, 20 January 1795
[4] Morning Chronicle, 5 June 1794
[5] World, 5 June 1790
[6] Morning Chronicle, 19 January 1791
[7] Morning Chronicle, 5 June 1793
[8] World, 6 June 1791
[9] Morning Chronicle, 19 January 1794
[10] Morning Chronicle, 20 January 1795
[11] Morning Chronicle, 5 June 1799
[12] Morning Chronicle, 19 January 1794
[13] Morning Chronicle, 20 January 1797
[14] Morning Chronicle, 5 June 1799

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Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, will be published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://thelatelord.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.

8 comments:

  1. Very interesting and the most complete description of the birthdays I have seen. I wonder if the Queen celebrated her birthday later-- say in February by the regency period as Parliament often didn't return until then. In 1804 Parliament did return by mid January and attended the Queen's birthday and later they all went to church on January 30th for King Charles the martyr, I don't see them back so soon for most of the regency. The women of the country were assumed to be interested in the gowns of the ladies- no matter what the editor of the newspaper thought. The descriptions were published in the ladies' magazines. The descriptions sound magnificent -- in reality most ladies must have looked silly despite the beautiful design and fabrics of their dresses. The regency court dress was silly. Why in the world didn't they leave the waistline alone for such costumes?

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    1. I'm planning a later post on 1800s and Regency-era Birthdays, as they changed a fair bit over the years. The last birthday the Queen celebrated publicly was in 1810 -- until that date it was always celebrated at pretty much that time. In 1811, obviously, the Regency Bill was under debate, and from 1812 the Queen celebrated her birthday privately. The King's birthday was still celebrated with ringing of bells, as far as I can see, but no drawing-room. The Prince Regent also celebrated his birthday (2 August) privately: when he became King, his official birthday was celebrated on 23 April.

      I have no idea about the waistlines -- the pictures look sillier and sillier as time goes on. Do you know of any extant examples of Birthday dress, by any chance? I didn't find any!

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    1. You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it! :)

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  3. I have only seen pictures in the magazines as to the birthday dress. One is of Caroline Princess of Wales. Candice Hern has some pictures of court dress on her web page. There is a book Gilded Butterflies that discusses court appearances, drawing rooms and birthdays from before Queen Charlotte to mid 20th century.

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    1. Thank you. I will have to check out that book.

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