Kathleen Cooper’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
It’s a shame that we don’t often celebrate the creators of small pleasures. Creators of Big Things — like cars, light bulbs, and antibiotics — understandably receive a great deal of attention, but when it comes to the small events in history, we seem to suffer from collective amnesia. The origins of the first birthday party are lost in the mists of time. We don’t know exactly who invented the first picnic, or thought of the first New Year’s Eve party.
But I am happy to report that the story of King George I of England and his fabulous, fairy-tale Royal Floating Concert Supper Party, the justly celebrated event that featured the first-ever performance of Handel’s famous “Water Music,” has survived through the ages. King George’s musical event was the first party to combine an outdoor concert with entertaining and dining, and this innovation has evolved into our modern tradition of outdoor concert and tailgate parties.
I know you’re shaking your head right now. George I and tailgating? Did they even play football in England in July 1717? Not exactly. But it is my deeply held belief that our outdoor concert and picnic tradition started with his big idea. Next time you pack an elegant meal and head off to Wolf Trap, Tanglewood, the Hollywood Bowl, Central Park, or any summer concert series that combines music and a picnic, remember King George I of England and Hanover: Party Planning Visionary.
King George doesn’t get the respect he deserves for his entertaining prowess, and after reading a lot of history about him, I think I know why. Historians find his family drama too juicy and his administration too boringly efficient. Even though he left England richer and more stable than when he ascended the throne, historians ignore his great entertaining legacy, preferring to focus on his complicated family life, the South Seas financial scandal, and his difficult relationship with his subjects. He had a contentious relationship with his son George II, his ex-wife Sophia, and many of his subjects — and since the paper trail outlasted him, there is a lot of gossip about his reign. Imagine if your future Wikipedia page was written by your high school nemesis, and you’ll get an idea about the kinds of accusations made against the first Hanoverian King — including gossip that he locked his unfaithful wife in a castle and had her lover murdered, cut into pieces, and thrown in a river: “If that story was invented, it at least shows what people thought of their ice-cold king. Selfish, cruel, vindictive, and malicious, in every personal relationship in life he proved detestable.” (I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that “Ice Cold Kings” would be an excellent name for a rock band.)
George I came to wear the English crown in a roundabout manner, kind of like becoming Miss America because the original winner was disqualified on a technicality. After Queen Anne died without an heir, there was some heated controversy over her successor. She had a brother, James III (named after their father James II), but Parliament had made Catholics ineligible to ascend to the throne with the Act of Settlement in 1701. George, the current Elector of Hanover and a Protestant, was next in line through his mother, and therefore became King. Supporters of James III proclaimed that Parliament could not eliminate a King divinely anointed to rule, but since the Hanoverian supporters had control of Parliament, they were overruled. (Like the Republicans under Obama, they sulked and plotted resistance for years.)
King George might have been touchy about this challenge. The British people (except for the Whigs) were not very welcoming. Even though the English said they wanted a Protestant (through votes of their representatives in Parliament), they complained about George in broadsheets and newspapers: He was German! He didn’t speak English! He had a jester! Contemporary accounts described him as “selfish, suspicious, proud, mean, and “contemptuous of gaiety.” Supporters of James III praised his manners and character while disparaging George’s. (James III was not a good leader, and had no ruling experience, so their main argument devolved to “George I is the meanest ever.”) Even after George was crowned King, many of his subjects remained unimpressed, and showed it. Here he was, educated (he spoke French, Latin, German, and accented English), an accomplished ruler of Hanover, and now he had to work with a Parliament (he had no Parliament in Hanover to annoy him). His subjects muttered about “that Damned Pretender.” Every time he turned his back, some group of Jacobite malcontents was plotting against him. He would show them who the better, more worthy King was!
George might have felt a little defensive, under the circumstances, and thus overcompensated a bit with the Royal Pageantry. Perhaps he felt he had something to prove, King-wise. I like to imagine him waking one day with a brilliant idea. In a most majestic example of thinking outside the box, boating party edition, he decides that he will have a supper party. It will be amazing! He consults with his Master of the Horse and they decide they will have an entertainment ON A BOAT. No King of England had done this before. Not one for half measures, George commissioned the Royal Navy to supply a barge for a short voyage with supper, up the Thames and back. And why not some splendidly uniformed sailors? Everyone shall wear their best! We’ll invite the prettiest, most noble women as guests. It will be splendid! (It will distract people from financial scandals!)
The Royal chefs were instructed to prepare a meal fit for a king and his guests. Contemporary accounts describe countless lacquered hampers filled with supper dishes and packed with ice or hot coals to keep things cold or warm. There would be an orchestra including trumpeters! George would show England how a real King has a party.
The whole point of a party like this would be to invite your most elegant and loyal supporters, the loveliest women (as long as they were Whigs) and assorted gentlemen. Everyone would wish they could be on your barge, enjoying your favor, and making those who weren’t there jealous. Illustrious guests included the Countess of Godolphin, the Duchess of Bolton, and several other aristocratic supporters.
Chairman Mao, no stranger to the difficulty of taking over a country and then maintaining power, noted that “a revolution is not a dinner party.” Every great truth has its opposite which may also be true: a successful dinner party may assist the clever ruler in preventing revolution. The Roman poet Juvenal dubbed this diversionary method panem et circenses, “bread and circuses.” The ability to host brilliant dinner parties with the right people is a little appreciated ruling skill. Having a concert party on a barge in the Thames was a stroke of genius. King George knew that everyone with access to a boat, (aristocrats, merchants, and the curious) would follow along just to watch and listen. In those days without radio, television and other diversions, it was free entertainment. Londoners would see how a Real King (as opposed to that penniless Jacobite Pretender in Rome) could entertain.
The exact menu of King George’s famous party is lost to history, but we can assume that it was designed to delight and impress. Popular party dishes of the time include molded fruit jams (like the quince paste served at some tapas restaurants), frozen molded custards, a variety of cold and warm roasted meats, and little fancy cakes and other sweets. Rare fruits, like pineapples, and other delicacies would be offered. Knowing the English, there was probably some kind of meat pie. The Royal Trumpets would blow fanfares with each course presented. Crystal goblets would be filled with a different wine for every course. Royal meals are not understated affairs!
And then His Majesty blew all other party planners out of the water, so to speak. He commissioned his court composer Handel to create a special composition in honor of his party. A separate boat carried the orchestra and followed the Royal Barge all the way up the Thames, playing what we now know as “Water Music”:
Newspapers reported that the King and his guests liked the music so much they requested the orchestra repeat it several times on the trip up to Chelsea and again on the return. Handel’s composition was so well-received that we still listen to it three hundred years later, but sadly not on our own royal barges. Contemporary accounts tell us the Thames was filled with hundreds of other boats all following the King’s boat, their passengers to enjoy the concert as well. Everyone was suitably impressed with George’s event, which is the whole point of giving a party like this. Probably not one person thought, “Hey that poor Catholic Pretender-King in exile in Rome could have done this better.” Mission: accomplished.
This painting depicts Georg Frederic Handel with George I during their trip up the Thames. See the orchestra in the next barge? (From this painting you cannot tell that the trip took place at night — maybe that would have been too difficult to paint.)
Even though the Jacobites tried a few more times to over throw the Hanovers, they were unsuccessful. My (unproven) theory is that they were unable to rally enough support to overthrow the government due to King George’s superior entertaining skills.
We have time to prepare for the 300th anniversary of George’s Water Music party, which will be on the wonderfully palindromic 7/17/17. It is my fond hope that Royal Barges will be prepared, a suitable menu designed, and a proper guest list planned for a grand 300th anniversary gala celebration. If England’s party planners have somehow overlooked this upcoming anniversary, let this be a gentle reminder to them!
Not many of us need to entertain nowadays to hold onto to our thrones, but we all like to give a party now and then. Who among us has not wondered, “How could I throw a musical picnic party like King George I?” Few of us have access to the Royal Navy, our own personal composer, or a staff of thousands. But we do have a multitude of outdoor concerts to choose from, and for the non-cooks among us, ample locations to buy elegant foodstuffs and fancy beverages.
Food and picnics are obviously very different now than they were in the 18th century. It’s fun to imagine what might have been served at George’s party. If we were to create our own quasi-Royal menu, we could include:
– Sliced roasted cold meats (we might serve roast beef, ham, or chicken, but it is likely that George’s guests were served a wide assortment, including mutton and venison)
– A raised meat pie (the English seem to never pass up a raised meat pie opportunity)
– Rolls (rolls were considered more genteel than sliced bread; these would have been made with white flour, which was considered more elegant)
– A fruit jelly (similar to quince paste) and candied fruits
– A custard-based dessert/drink, like a lemon posset (this discussion of lemon posset is delightful and includes recipes; recipes that include vanilla are inauthentic and should be avoided with a supercilious shudder)
– Cheeses (cheddar is a very old, very traditional English cheese)
– Small cakes, such as pound cakes cut into shapes, or fruit cakes with marzipan frosting
– Various wines, including champagne
Now that you’ve filled your hampers (whether gilded Chinese lacquer or an insulated backpack), selected your venue, and assembled your elegant guests, don’t neglect to raise a toast to George I, who may not have been England’s most beloved or accomplished king, but was one hell of a party planner — a fine legacy in itself.
Hatton, Reginald. George I. Yale University Press, May 2001.
Colquhoun, Kate. Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking. Bloomsbury, December 2008 (chapter 14-17)
Burns, John. The Urban Picnic: Being an Idiosyncratic and Lyrically Recollected Account of Menus, Recipes, History, Trivia, and Admonitions on the Subject of Alfresco Dining in Cities Both Large and Small. Arsenal Pulp Press, April 2005.
Hogwood, Christopher. Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
On George’s involvement with the murder of his wife’s lover and other gossip
On every bit of gossip the anti-Hanoverians left behind
On George I’s relationship with Parliament and financial scandal (this contains some inaccuracies, as the King could speak some English, albeit heavily accented English; it also repeats the untrue rumor that his half-sister was one of his mistresses)
More on the history of Water Music