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Port of London Authority - Royalty on the River Thames

The Royal Nore
The PLA vessel 'Royal Nore', currently used as the Royal Barge

The recent announcement that Her Majesty the Queen is to lead the Thames Diamond Jubilee Procession – consisting of a flotilla of up to 1000 vessels and boats – on Sunday 3rd June, 2012, will provide both a spectacular celebratory event and a link with the river’s own remarkable history. 

The river Thames is the most important of the United Kingdom’s four ‘Royal Rivers’.  For over 2000 years, the Thames has been the lifeblood of a growing settlement, which built up around the port activities of the early riverside wharves and has evolved into the world class metropolis that we know today. For over 1000 years, monarchs and royalty have made their homes along the Thames and in London.  At different times, royal palaces were to be found along the Thames at Greenwich, Rotherhithe, the Tower, Bridewell, Whitehall, Westminster, Richmond, Hampton Court and Windsor – where the Queen still maintains a royal residence.

Since Tudor times, the Thames has provided a celebratory route for royal events and processions, including arrivals, departures, receptions, coronations, weddings and christenings.  King Henry VIII owned two royal barges – the Lyon and Greyhound – which served his riverside palaces, and were kept at the Royal Bargehouse, at Lambeth.  Later monarchs commissioned smaller barges and shallops, for ceremonial and pleasure use on the Thames.  One of these, Prince Frederick’s splendidly ornate and gilded Royal Barge of 1732, can be seen on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.


Royal barges and shallops were soon imitated by the Lord Mayor and the City Livery Companies.  In all, 68 Livery companies came to own, or hire, barges for ceremonial occasions. As well as having a presence at many royal related river events, the Livery Companies’ barges also attended the incoming Lord Mayor’s annual waterborne procession to Westminster.  Until 1856, when the Lord Mayor’s Thames processions ceased, royal and other river events were hugely popular and well attended.  Besides the ceremonial barges and shallops, these events were usually attended by thousands of spectators, many of whom took to the water in wherries, the traditional sharp ended rowing boats of the Thames watermen.  Artists such as Canaletto have left a record of a river which – on ceremonial occasions at least - equalled the splendour of Venice.

The Queen and Prince Philip on board PLA launch Nore, June 1953
The Queen and Prince Philip on board PLA launch 'Nore', June 1953
Traditionally used as the Royal Barge, 'Nore' was used on Coronation Day, 2 June 1953

Although regular major river ceremonial occasions ended in 1856, selective royal events were to continue.  The reign of our Queen has been especially notable for such events.  The earliest of these was the Royal River Pageant, held on 22nd July 1953, six weeks after the Coronation.  Organised by the Lord Mayor, and overseen by the Port of London Authority, around 150 vessels and floats participated.  The Queen attended in the Port of London Authority’s inspection launch, Nore, which functioned as the Royal Barge.  The Queen’s Silver Jubilee was also celebrated by a River Progress and Pageant, held on the 9th June 1977.  Over 140 vessels took part.  On that occasion, the Queen was embarked in the second of the PLA’s launches to be called Nore,  (renamed in recognition of her service, by Royal Command, Royal Nore) dressed for the occasion as the Royal Barge.  The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, in 2002, was also marked by a tribute event, timed to coincide with the regular Thames Festival.

Royal links with the Thames have also been continued with the Queen opening a number of new bridges and engineering works.  The new London Bridge was opened by the Queen, on the 11th March 1973.  On the 8th May 1984, the Queen opened the Thames Barrier, again attending in the Royal Nore.  At the end of October 1991, the Queen opened the new Dartford Crossing, which was named the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in her honour.  A far more modest Thames crossing – the Millennium Footbridge – was opened by Her Majesty in 2002.  On the 31st December 1999, the Queen travelled by water down to North Greenwich to open the Millennium Dome and launch the Millennium celebrations.

When officiating at waterborne events, the Queen is accompanied by her Royal Bargemaster and some of her 24 Royal Watermen, who are all skilled and experienced Thames watermen. The Royal Bargemaster and Royal Watermen still wear a special version of the traditional watermen’s costume, with a scarlet skirted coat, bearing the royal cipher on a front panel.  Today, the PLA’s launch, Royal Nore, usually performs the function of a Royal Barge when the Queen or other members of the Royal family go afloat.  As well as her Royal Watermen – which are one of the most ancient appointments in the Royal Household - the Queen also maintains another very historic link with the river through the Crown ownership of mute swans and the annual Thames Swan Upping Ceremony.

Besides all of these ceremonial occasions, the Queen has had a much wider involvement with the port and river.  As both a child and monarch, the Queen paid visits to the buildings and docks of the PLA.  The 1959 visit, of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, celebrated the PLA’s 50th Anniversary.  Part of the visit included a tour around the busy Royal Docks onboard the PLA’s inspection vessel St. Katharine.  The Queen and Royal family were also often embarked in the Royal Yacht Britannia when she came to the Thames.  On the 15th May 1954, the Queen and Royal Family returned in HMY Britannia to London, following a six month tour of the Commonwealth.  This marked the end of the vessel’s maiden voyage, and the yacht and the Queen received a rapturous welcome from thousands of the public and port workers, lining the riverbank.  In August 1990, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother embarked in HMY Britannia in the Pool of London, to celebrate her 90th birthday.  In 1994, the Prince of Wales joined the Royal Yacht on the river, for an event to mark the centenary anniversary of Tower Bridge.  Symbolically, when Britannia made her final visit to London, in November 1997, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales held a special farewell lunch, moored opposite HMS Belfast.  Many thousands of Londoners turned out to pay tribute to the 44 year old Yacht – still in very fine condition, on what was the last stage of her national farewell tour before decommissioning.

The Thames Diamond Jubilee Procession will provide Londoners with what is perhaps the best opportunity yet, to celebrate both the Queen’s reign and London’s river history.  It is entirely fitting that the 2012 event will take place on our very own ‘Royal River’.

Click here to see our video Royal River about the river's Royal links.