Rowing: Still Not the Sport of Kings

The artist formerly known as Prince. The then Prince Charles sketching in 1986.

6 May 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch’s mostly loyal toast.

Today, the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III takes place. Although he became Monarch immediately on the death of his Mother, Queen Elizabeth, the Coronation will be the formal investiture of his regal powers. It will be the first such ceremony in the United Kingdom since that of the late Queen in 1953. Of course, Britain in 2023 is a very different place to that of seventy years ago and the thousand-year-old ceremony will attempt to reflect that.

One of the many differences between now and 1953 is that there are many more Britons who would declare themselves republicans. Overall, they are still a minority although the figures are no doubt very different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Further, age is a major factor with older people more likely than the young to support the Monarchy.

In 1867, the great writer on the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, called Britain “a disguised republic.” Comparing monarchism with republicanism, Bagehot wrote:

 …so long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, Royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding.

In my piece on the death of Elizabeth II, I noted: 

Whatever one thinks of the institution of Monarchy, it would be churlish to deny that Queen Elizabeth led a remarkable life of service. While no intelligent person can produce a logical case for Royalty, life is full of such oddities, including perhaps an interest in long-dead rowers and boats that use an outdated propulsion system. 

Prince William, now heir to the throne, at Eton in 1996 perhaps deciding that sculling was not for him.

In 2015, I noted that rowing was Not The Sport Of (British) Kings and wrote:

As the (picture above) shows, Prince William, like all boys at Eton school, was given the chance to try rowing and sculling but it seems that he much preferred soccer and rugby. The same applies to his brother, Prince Harry, and there appear to be very few members of the British Royal Family who have taken an active interest in the sport. It is true that they will attend rowing events as part of their Royal duties but I am sure that there is a more genuine enthusiasm from the older ones for sporting occasions involving horses and from the younger ones for contests featuring popular ball games.

Judging by this picture taken at the 1965 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, Charles is not a fan of the sport of rowing.
Prince Charles would have had an opportunity to row while a student at Cambridge’s Trinity College between 1967 and 1970 but, after enduring the enforced heartiness of his school days, the sensitive Prince took up more cerebral activities such as student drama. Picture: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

As to aquatic representation at the Coronation, the King’s Bargemaster and some accompanying Royal Watermen will have a central role when the King and Queen return to Buckingham Palace from the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. A release from the Royal Household states:

Their Majesties will travel in the Gold State Coach. The coach, last seen during the Pageant of the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in June 2022, was commissioned in 1760…

(The Coronation Procession will) include Armed Forces from across the Commonwealth and the British Overseas Territories, and all Services of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, alongside The Sovereign’s Bodyguard and Royal Watermen.

Having Royal Watermen in the land based procession is a reminder of the days when the Royal persons would have been carried by river, once much safer and more comfortable than roads.

A picture taken during a rehearsal for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant of June 2022 shows the Gold State Coach with an escort including four Royal Watermen (wearing black jockey caps and red stockings – apart from the Queen’s – now King’s – Bargemaster, Chris Livett, third from the right, in white stockings).
This picture is from the 2008 State Opening of Parliament. Standing side-by-side on the rear of the carriage delivering the Imperial State Crown from the Tower of London are two Royal Watermen acting as boxmen, including, nearest to the camera, Paul Ludwig, then the Queen’s Bargemaster. Royal Watermen will act as boxmen on various carriages going to and from Westminster Abbey on Coronation day.
Another picture of Queen’s Bargemaster Paul Ludwig (right) and a Royal Waterman acting as boxmen, this time at the 2014 State Opening of Parliament. Picture: Michael Garnett (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Left: Livery worn by Major Edwin Hunt, Bargemaster to Queen Elizabeth, 1978 – 1990. Right: Major Hunt with the Imperial State Crown, the crown worn on state occasions. For Coronations, St Edward’s Crown is used and if the procedures for transporting it are the same as for the Imperial State Crown, King’s Bargemaster, Chris Livett, will briefly have possession of it, a reminder of when it was taken to and from the Tower of London by river.
The “ER” (Elizabeth Regina) cypher on various liveries will be replaced with “CR” (Charles Rex). Strictly, the Queen’s or St Edward’s Crown should be replaced with a King’s or Tudor Crown but looking at the Royal Watermen in rehearsal in picture 4 here, this change has been omitted, presumably on the grounds of expense. Picture 16 shows the full contingent that will be walking with the Gold State Coach.

Returning to republicanism, anti-monarchists often argue that royalty somehow holds back progressive reform. However, it is interesting to note that what are generally accepted as some of the world’s most progressive and successful countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, are also monarchies. Even better, some of their royals have been rowers.

Pictured here in the 1940s, the man who would become King Frederik IX of Denmark between 1947 and 1972 was once a member of a rowing club in Copenhagen.
The future Olav V of Norway rowed at Balliol College, Oxford, 1924 – 1926. He was an honorary member of Leander for forty years until his death in 1991.
Olav’s son and heir, now King Harald V of Norway, then Crown Prince Harald (top left) was also at Balliol and also a keen rower. Pictured here in 1961, he has kitted out his Balliol crew mates with some traditional Norwegian “Marius” sweaters. A picture of Harald rowing on the Isis in the 16-oar Leviathan coaching boat and wearing his sweater from home is here.
While the present King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, never rowed, his father Prince Gustaf Adolf, Duke of Västerbotten, (pictured aged 26, in 1932) was a great sportsman and rowed when he was a student at the Swedish boarding school Lundsberg. Prince Gustaf Adolf died in an airplane crash at Kastrup Airport, outside Copenhagen, in 1947. His son was then only 9 months old. He ascended the throne on the death of his grandfather, King Gustaf VI Adolf, in 1973, which means that King Carl XVI Gustaf, 77, is celebrating 50 years on the Swedish throne this year.

One comment

  1. The current Prince of Monaco coxed and comes from the great line of Olympic sculling champions, the Kelly’s. The last Emperor of Japan also coxed.

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