Today the river Thames is full of Thames clippers and speed boats. Some 350 years ago the river would have been even busier, with the Thames river taxi service taking Londoners from one stop on the river to another. On certain occasions the Thames would become the stage for spectacular pageants and processions celebrating the royal family.
On 23 August 1662, a river procession took place that was described as the “the most magnificent Triumph that certainly ever floted on the Thames”. This remarkable procession celebrated the arrival of Charles II’s new Queen, Catherine of Braganza, at Whitehall Palace. Built by Henry VIII and enlarged by his successors, Whitehall Palace was the largest palace in Europe spanning an area from Trafalgar Square to Big Ben.
Despite never having met the King, or speaking a word of English, Catherine had married Charles a few months earlier in Portsmouth. She and the King had been living at Hampton Court and it was now time to officially introduce the Queen to the people of London.
The royal couple arrived by boat from Hampton Court to Chelsea from where the Queen’s procession, known as the Aqua Triumphalis, began. With the Lord Mayor’s barge leading the way towards Whitehall, the barges moved along the Thames “to the sound of trumpets and other musick”. There were an estimated 10,000 barges on the river that day. The King and Queen were sat in “an antique-shaped open Vessel, covered with a State or Canopy of Cloth of Gold, made in form of a Cupola, supported with high Corinthian Pillars, wreathed with flowers, festoons, and Garlands”.
The Livery Companies had organised pageants for the royals to encounter on their way: the first at Chelsea, the second between Vauxhall and Lambeth, and the third at Whitehall. The Companies performed on boats anchored in the middle of the river and the pageants declared Catherine’s suitability as queen. Allegorical representations including Father Thames and Isis addressed the newlyweds with speeches and poems. At Whitehall the King and Queen came across Thetis, the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Rivers, being drawn by a sea chariot “made in the manner of a Scollop Schell, drawn with two Dolphins”.
Spectators watching alongside the river were awed by the sight of the procession. Samuel Pepys watched from the roof of a building at Whitehall. He remarked how there were so many barges that he could “see no water for them, nor discern the King or Queen”. Charles II’s mistress, Barbara Palmer or Lady Castlemaine, was also present in the audience. On the day of the new Queen’s arrival in England, Castlemaine had hung her underwear in the Privy Garden of Whitehall Palace as a sign of protest. Catherine’s entry into Whitehall must have been greeted with even less enthusiasm.
Despite the magnificence of her arrival, the Portuguese Queen’s time at Whitehall would prove difficult. She was unable to produce an heir to the throne and was forced to endure the humiliation caused by her husband’s countless affairs.
Destroyed in 1698, the Banqueting House is the only remaining building of Whitehall Palace. Historic Royal Palaces is bringing the lost palace to life again by digitally transforming Whitehall’s modern streets into the rooms, gardens, courtyards and passages of the once great Tudor and Stuart palace.