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The History of the Coronation of James II

Emily Handlin

Francis Sandford (1630-1694), The history of the coronation of ... James II ... and of his royal consort Queen Mary: solemnized in the Collegiate church of St. Peter in the city of Westminster, on Thursday the 23 of April ... 1685. With an exact account of the several preparations in order thereunto ... By his Majesties especial command. By Francis Sandford ..London: In the Savoy: printed by T. Newcomb, 1687

The History of the Coronation of the Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Monarch James II... chronicles the pomp and circumstance surrounding the coronation of James II in 1685. The work includes extensive descriptions of the preparations for the coronation, the coronation ceremony itself, and festivities that followed, which included a fireworks display (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: “A representation of the Fireworks upon the River of the Thams, over against Whitehall, at their Majesties Coronation April 1685.”

Indeed, the book claimsto be a permanent, unalterable and factual “history” of the festivities. Yet, The History of the Coronation was published in 1687, two years after the coronation took place. Although his ascension to the throne was uncontested, by the time the book appeared, James II had become unpopular with Parliament and the public alike. Printed during a period of political turmoil, The History of the Coronation is less an authoritative history than an attempt to recuperate James' reputation and solidify his threatened sovereign power. It stands, therefore, as a reminder that Festival Books, far from being objective records of important events, are, above all, political documents.

James II took the throne after the death of his brother Charles II in 1685. Directly after his accession, James, Britain's first Catholic monarch, instituted a series of acts and decrees allowing Roman Catholics to hold military and public offices. When members of parliament objected, James ordered parliament prorogued. Other controversial measures, such as raising a standing army, further alarmed James' once-loyal subjects and the now-disbanded parliament. The Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, which negated the laws punishing Catholic and Protestant dissenters, proved to be the final straw. In 1688, James' son-in-law William of Orange invaded England with his army. James fled to France, thereby abdicating the throne to William and Mary, James' Protestant daughter in what would come to be called the Glorious Revolution.

Therefore, as Sandford, the main author of The History of The Coronation, was preparing the book for publication, James was rapidly falling from favor. By the time the book was published, James was on the brink of being deposed. Yet, the text emphasizes James' magnanimity and the fact that, at the time of his coronation, he had the full support of the nobility. Both the chapter dedicated to the preparations for the ceremonies and the description of the ceremony itself contains long lists of the nobles who petitioned—both successfully and unsuccessfully—either to participate in the ceremony or to have the honor of contributing gifts ranging from fine tapestries to food that would be used and consumed during the festivities. As well as emphasizing the grandeur of the occasion, these lists would have served as a record of allegiance: attending the coronation was tantamount to a declaration of loyalty.

The text also reprints the royal summons to the coronation, but notes that as “several peers and peeresses could not, without great prejudice, attend at the said coronation, his majesty was graciously pleased to grant them his royal dispensations” (Sandford, 18). Underneath, Sandford reprints James' note forgiving the peers and peeresses for their absence. Assumedly, the cause of the peers and peeresses' “great prejudice” was James' Catholicism: the ritual of enthronement, held in Westminster Abbey and founded on the rites of the Church of England, had been altered to reflect the new monarch's religious beliefs. This oblique reference to James' Catholicism, as well as the emphasis on his magnanimity, can be read as allusions to James' tolerationist policies—the policies which would eventually lead to his forced abdication of the throne.

As the text of The History details the crowds in attendance at James' coronation festivities, so too do the engravings picturing the enthronement ceremony and the coronation banquet focus not on the King and Queen, but on the crowds of onlookers. In the image depicting James' coronation, although momentous occasion taking place is dwarfed by the cavernous architectural space (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2: “A Perspective of Westminster abby from the High Altar to the West end Shewing the manner of His Majesties Crowning.”

On either side, the galleries stretching down the length of the hall are filled with the assembled multitude. The Coronation Banquet for James II and Mary of Modena was held, according to a centuries-old tradition, in Westminster Hall, which shares a wall with the Houses of Parliament (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3: “A Prospect of the Inside of Westminster Hall, Shewing how the King and Queen with the Nobility and Others did Sit at Dinner on the day of the Coronation, 23 April 1685. With the manner of Serving the First Course of Hot Meat to their Majesties Table.”

Because James had disbanded the parliament by the time this book was published, the site pictured in the engraving would have had very different resonance for the book's readers. In the engraving of the banquet, the long tables that flank the room also frame the central procession of devotees as they bear the first course to the King. Both the engraving itself and the book's following pages, which contain detailed diagrams of the tables keyed detailed lists of every dish served at the banquet, underscore the lavishness of the festivities (Figure 4).

Figure 3
Figure 4: "A Ground Plott of Westminster Hall, Shewing the Position and Dimensions of the Severall Tables, Seats, Cupboards, Galleries, &s, on the day of their Majesties Coronation 23 April 1685." [Image courtesy of British Library.]

Yet, as in the image of the crowning ceremony, the main subject of this engraving is the packed crowds in the galleries straining to watch the King and assembled notables below. In both engravings, then, the reader is presented with an image of neither the king nor the queen, but of the King's loyal subjects celebrating their beloved monarch's accession to the throne.

The afterlife of The History is a fitting coda to the work. After the Glorious Revolution, Sandford, who had staked his entire fortune on the work, was left with a surplus of the very expensive volumes and a dwindling audience for them. In some surviving editions an additional plate depicting the coronation of William and Mary—which took place in 1689—has been inserted, perhaps suggesting a last-ditch effort by Sandford to increase the book's marketability. The attempt failed; Sandford died in a debtor's prison in 1694.


Lowman, R. An exact narrative and description of the wonderfull and stupendious fire-works in honour of Their Majesties coronations: and for the high entertainment of Their Majesties, the nobility, and City of London, made on the Thames, and perform'd to the admiration and amazement of the spectators, on April the 24, 1685. (London: N. Thompson ..., 1685).

Miller, John. James II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

British Library. “Treasures in Full: Renaissance Festival Books”