Today (28 June) marks the 175th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. Naturally this major national event was attended by members of both Houses of Parliament. Although it was members of the House of Lords who performed key roles in the ceremony, with peers paying homage to the new queen, MPs also had a privileged view of proceedings, with two of the three galleries above the altar being reserved for them. (The third gallery housed the trumpeters of the orchestra.)
On the morning of the coronation around 500 MPs assembled in the Commons chamber. One newspaper report recorded that
‘Some excellent scenes took place on the entrance of Members noted for carelessness in their dress on ordinary occasions, but who appeared upon this instance in splendid attire. Mr Fector and Mr Campbell, the former of whom wore a peach-coloured velvet Court dress, while the latter was attired in the plaid of his clan, were assailed with loud cries of Hear, hear, and as they advanced up the House, the assembly of the first gentlemen in the world stood up, and with one accord shouted their acclamation’.
John Fector was the House’s newest member, having been re-elected for Maidstone at a by-election less than two weeks earlier. After prayers, the Speaker announced that there would be a ballot to determine the order in which MPs would take their seats in the Abbey, and the names of counties were drawn from a glass by the Clerk of the House. The representatives of those counties and of the boroughs which lay within them then left the House in turn, the Irish county of Meath being the first to be drawn.
The need to dress appropriately meant that Fector’s fellow Conservative MP for Maidstone, Benjamin Disraeli, had initially decided against attending, writing to his sister that
‘I must give up on going to the coronation, as we go in state, and all the M.P.s. must be in court dresses or uniforms. As I have withstood making a costume of this kind for other purposes, I will not make one now, and console myself by the conviction that to get up very early (eight o’clock), to sit dressed like a flunky in the Abbey for seven or eight hours, and to listen to a sermon by the Bishop of London, can be no great enjoyment’.
However, Disraeli changed his mind, writing on 29 June that
‘I went to the coronation after all. I did not get a dress till 2.30 on the morning of the ceremony, but it fitted me very well. It turned out that I had a very fine leg, which I never knew before! The pageant within the Abbey was without exception the most splendid, various, and interesting affair at which I ever was present… I had one of the best seats in the Abbey, indeed our House had the best of everything… The Queen looked very well, and performed her part with great grace and completeness, which cannot in general be said of the other performers; they were always in doubt as to what came next, and you saw the want of rehearsal.’
He noted that the Duke of Wellington ‘was loudly cheered when he made his homage’, but was disdainful of the performance of the Whig Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, who ‘looked very awkward and uncouth, with his coronet cocked over his nose, his robes under his feet, and holding the great sword of state like a butcher’. Disraeli also commented on Fector’s ‘gorgeous dress’ and the fact that the Irish parliamentary leader, Daniel O’Connell, had bowed to convention and ‘looked very well’ in his court dress, although he was ‘hooted greatly… by the mob’. The Radical MP Joseph Hume refused to wear court dress, and was therefore prevented from sitting in the gallery reserved for MPs, but found a place elsewhere in the Abbey. A month later, motivated by his customary desire for retrenchment, Hume asked questions in the Commons about the expense of the coronation.
Also present at the coronation was another figure who, like Disraeli, would become a major political force during Queen Victoria’s reign: William Gladstone. The coronation took place on his sister Helen’s birthday. Unlike Disraeli’s gossipy account to his sister, Gladstone’s diary entry recorded tersely that ‘The service is noble. The sight magnificent’. After attending at the Abbey, he went to the Carlton Club to see the coronation procession, and then to Bath House to see the fireworks, before returning home at 1:30 a.m.
Disraeli and Gladstone were certainly not alone in enjoying the coronation festivities. It was thus perhaps hardly surprising that when the Commons met the following day at 4 p.m., it was found to be inquorate, and the Speaker duly adjourned the House.