For many centuries the Thames was the principle thoroughfare through London. The Thames estuary was also London’s main gateway to and from Europe, linking the capital city with the rest of the world. It was also the arrival and departure point for royalty who frequently intermarried with the royal households of Europe.
Throughout the centuries the Thames was also the setting for numerous ceremonial events, particularly royal occasions, such as arrivals, departures, visits, coronations, marriages, funerals, processions and pageantry. Sovereigns travelled on the Thames in elaborately decorated royal yachts, barges and shallops. This tradition was centuries old and even in 1214 King John travelled to the signing of Magna Carta, near Runnymede in a royal shallop. Royal processions on the Thames often involved music and royal celebrations such as coronations or weddings had displays of fireworks. In 1717 George I progressed in the royal barge along the Thames from Whitehall to Chelsea. George was accompanied by musicians in a city company barge, playing the 'Water Music' by Handel. City company barges were frequently used to accompany royal processions and the companies also processed on the river. Richly adorned, these barges were draped with different coloured awnings according to the ceremonial event, red for royal ceremonial and blue for civic celebrations. Wealthy and powerful individuals used their boats to display their status, by draping a tapestry carpet on the boat, ornate gilt carving or fine liveried crews.
The river offered the ideal backdrop for demonstrations of royal hegemony. Royal yachts and barges were not only conveyances, but also symbols of status and display. They were used to reinforce status and proclaim the monarch and his or her purpose to the nation. Passing amid the people, the yachts and barges displayed power and obvious splendour with their fluttering flags and banners, sounding trumpets and saluting canons. Positioned on deck the monarch could see his or her subjects and appear to be seen without being closely scrutinised. The images will show that depictions of royal movements on the river changed through the centuries and before the mid 18th century the imagery concentrated on the monarch rather than cheering crowds. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne artists, influenced by news reportage, increasingly included waving loyal supporters in their depictions of royal events on the river. There are numerous paintings and prints of Queen Victoria and her family on the Thames, arriving, launching ships, opening bridges, or departing for the Continent.