By Peregrine Solly
This article was published in the December 2021 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
As a child I was told about a Richard Solly of Sandwich who was a canopy bearer at George III’s coronation. According to my father, things did not go well on the way to the Abbey and there was an argument among the canopy bearers about the route to take, with some of the bearers losing their tempers and going off in a different direction to the others. Apparently, the canopy got torn and the King was furious, banning the canopy bearers thereafter. Like many a good story, it was a mixture of fact and fiction.
In fact there was indeed a Richard Solly who was a canopy bearer at George III’s coronation; but although there was a fair amount of chaos, there was no great argument on the way to the Abbey; the canopy was not ripped by accident but was divided after the event among the canopy bearers for them to keep as a memento: and it was George IV, not George III, who lost his temper and banned the canopy bearers from continuing the tradition.
So my father’s story was half true. The role of the canopy bearers at George III coronation was not particularly auspicious. The rehearsal was a disaster with the over-weight and elderly canopy bearers dropping it on the King’s head. While the actual coronation seems to have gone without incident, the coronation banquet was marred by the canopy bearers arriving late and finding other members of the nobility sitting in their seats which caused an understandable row as this was one of their most cherished privileges.
Compared to the events at the next coronation, George IV’s in 1821, this was all quite uneventful. At this coronation everything went well on the way from Westminster Hall to the Abbey, but on the way back the King decided that he would walk in front of the canopy so that the crowds could see him. The canopy bearers sped up to catch the King thinking that it was their duty to cover him with the canopy, the King also sped up to avoid being covered. Soon the King was having to trot to stay in front of the canopy bearers and the whole procession turned into an unseemly race. According to some accounts the Barons then over-indulged at the banquet, angering the King still further.
Fortunately, the Sollys themselves were blameless in all this muddle. There were two Richard Sollys who were chosen to carry royal canopies: Richard Solly (1674-1731) sometimes called ‘the Elder’ who carried the canopy at George I’s coronation in 1714 and also at George II’s coronation in 1727; and his son, also Richard Solly (1703 -1789) ‘the Younger’, who carried Queen Charlotte’s canopy at George III’s coronation in 1761. This Richard was 57 years old and not in great health, so he excused himself from the disastrous rehearsal, but he did make it to the coronation. There were no Sollys involved in George IV’s coronation, so we did not share in the final fall from grace.
The custom of providing canopy bearers was one of the ancient privileges given to the Barons of the Cinque Ports as a reward for their support against the French. The special status accorded to the Ports dates from the time of Edward the Confessor; but their involvement with royal occasions seems to date from Richard I’s coronation in 1189 when four knights made a makeshift canopy and used their spears to hold it aloft. The first actual record of the canopy being used was Henry III’s coronation in 1236 when the Barons carried Queen Eleanor’s canopy. Queen Elisabeth I also permitted the Barons to attend the coronation banquet, entitling them to sit at a table on the right of the monarch, a considerable privilege.
At a coronation the King and Queen had their own canopies with four Barons to each corner pole; due to the weight of the canopy a total of sixteen Barons were required for the King alone and thirty-two if the Queen was present as the Barons needed to swop in. The number of Barons from individual Cinque Ports varied, with Sandwich required to send three or six who were elected from the freemen of the Ports. The tradition carried on until George IV’s coronation in 1821. This was the last occasion that the canopy was used to cover the monarch outside the Abbey as the next King, William IV, extended the processional route and introduced carriages, so there was no need for the canopy. However, the tradition survives, and a smaller canopy still covers the monarch’s throne in Westminster Abbey during the coronation. In 1902, at Edward VII’s coronation, the Barons of the Cinque Ports were invited to attend and given a new role; they process as far as the choir where they are given the banners of the monarch’s realms; a function that continues until today.
As a reward for their services, the Barons were given one of the silver staves from the canopy and the silver bell which was attached to it (these occasionally appear at auction). They were also given a piece of the canopy itself as previously mentioned. There is a section of George III’s canopy in the Guildhall in Sandwich; it looks as if it was woven for the occasion, so it is interesting that it was cut up and distributed among the Barons. Coronation mementos were meant to be shared equally among the Ports, but the system was often abused and the cause of regular arguments among them.
Researching what was just an amusing story from my childhood has turned out more much interesting and more historically significant than I expected. I have learnt about the often chaotic and haphazard nature of early coronations and how this reflected the declining influence of the Cinque Ports. I have also learnt a bit more about the Sollys in Sandwich in the eighteenth century and was pleased to find that they were not just mayors of Sandwich but also Barons of the Cinque Ports, with both honour at Court and a position in Parliament.
I was greatly helped in my research into the Hanoverian coronations as they were written up by historians at the time. The two most relevant records are William Boys’ Collections for an History of Sandwich in Kent published in 1792, and Thomas Mantell’s book Coronation ceremonies and customs relative to the Barons of the Cinque Ports which was published in 1820; both of which are available on-line.
I am also very grateful for the help of the Archivist at the Guildhall in Sandwich who was very helpful and allowed me to see the piece of George IV’s canopy that she holds in the Guildhall. The Guildhall Museum is excellent and well worth a visit; it even holds a rare copy of the Magna Carta.
Note 1: Barons of the Cinque Ports (originally Hastings, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Sandwich) were originally chosen from the freemen of the Ports, but later on were restricted to the mayors, jurats, and to the two members of the House of Commons elected by the Cinque Ports. Jurats are lay people in Guernsey and Jersey who act as ‘judges of fact’ rather than law, though they preside over land conveyances and liquor licensing. In Alderney, however, the jurats are judges of both fact and law (assisted by their learned clerk) in both civil and criminal matters. The right to the title of Baron is recognized in many old statutes, but I have not been able to work out how long a Baron was allowed to keep the title. I assume that the Barons who were chosen as MPs kept the title between elections, but I am not clear whether this also applied to Barons elected to carry canopies.
Note 2: It was clearly a great honour for the Ports to provide canopy bearers at the coronation, but it was not without its costs. Although the Crown picked up most of the costs, the Ports picked up some, principal among these were the uniforms that the canopy bearers wore. These were both madly ornate and wildly imaginative. According to Thomas Mantell, at George III’s coronation, the Barons decided to wear:
An Oxford Master of Art’s long sleeve gown, of scarlet cloth, faced with scarlet satin, with long slit sleeves, and a large cape of scarlet satin. A waistcoat of scarlet satin, lined with white, and a small square open cuff of white satin. Breeches of scarlet satin, with white satin knots at the knees. Stockings of scarlet silk. Shoes of black velvet, with scarlet satin heels, with tops of scarlet satin, and tied with white satin .knots. The wigs to be according to the Earl Marshall’s order. White stiff topped glazed gloves, bound with scarlet satin ribbon.
Caps of black velvet, like a scotch bonnet, only larger. Laced bosoms instead of neckcloths, and laced ruffles. Cross carved gilt swords, with white, satin scab- bards, and white satin belts, with gilt buckles, the same in fashion as those worn by the Knights of the Bath, to be worn over the waistcoat.