The Coronation Journey of King Charles I
and the Loss of the 'Blessing' (1633)

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Charles I was born in Dunfermline Palace (pictured right) on 19th November 1600. He was the last British Monarch to be born in Scotland. He was a sickly child, unable to speak until the age of five. However he outgrew his defects and became a skilled horseman and marksman, taking great pleasure in hunting. He was also an accomplished musician, scholar and student of theology.

Charles was the second son of King James VI of Scotland but after his father inherited the English throne in 1603 he moved to England where he spent much of the rest of his life. He became heir apparent to the English, Irish and Scottish thrones on the death of his elder brother, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1612.

When his father King James VI and I died in 1625, Charles (pictured left, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London) became the second king of the United Kingdom. Charles I's English Coronation ceremony was held in February 1626, and there was some debate as to whether or not there should be a separate Scottish Coronation. Although born in Dunfermline, Charles was not keen to visit the land of his birth. He even suggested that he might be crowned King of Scots in London. However, the Scottish Parliament insisted on a Coronation in Edinburgh.It took several years for matters to get to the stage where a date could be agreed. Eventually it was decided that the Scottish Coronation would be held on 18 June 1633 in the Abbey adjoining the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The King and his vast entourage left London on the 10th of May, and arrived in Edinburgh five weeks later. The Privy Council had spent significant sums of money on upgrading the roads and bridges in advance of the journey. The noblemen with whom Charles stayed overnight during his journey had been ordered to ensure that their castles were, literally, fit for a King. And the same noblemen also had to feed and entertain him in the style to which he was accustomed. So great were the sums involved, that some of the nobles did not regain their financial equilibrium until years afterwards.

The same was true in Edinburgh, where no expenditure was spared. In return, the citizens were treated to a week of royal pageantry, with processions, royal banquets and a host of visiting foreign dignitaries; plus, of course, the Coronation itself.

Two images of King Charles I, as he enters Edinburgh. The drawing on the right is by Lindsay Brydon.

The mood soon changed, however. After the Coronation, the King and the Scottish Parliament fell out on a number of issues. The main bones of contention were the Parliament's growing concern that the King was intent on imposing his will on Scotland, and a conviction that he was paying no attention whatsoever to what members of the Parliament were saying.

Leaving behind a disgruntled Parliament, the King set out on the 1st of July on a pre-arranged tour of royal palaces in Scotland - Linlithgow, Stirling, Dunfermline, and finally Falkland (all marked in red on the map below, which was drawn by Lindsay Brydon).

The return journey from Falkland to Edinburgh took place on the 10th of July 1633, and involved the crossing of the Forth from Burntisland to Leith. James Speed records the preparations in Burntisland for the royal visit: 'The Council ordered the officers to have a new suit of clothes, and wine confits and other eatabales to be provided for His majesty and his attendants; the streets to be cleared of middings and red; women and children to keep within doors from morning to night on the day of the King's arrival; two boats with sufficient crews to be got to ferry the King across; and lastly they resolved to admit the King and his attendants free men of the Burgh.'

Cleaning and painting are activities still associated with royal visits, but it is interesting to note that in 1633 women and children had to be kept indoors and safely out of the way.

Above - Burntisland's East Port as it might have looked in 1633; artist's impression by Keli Clark.
 Below - the Tolbooth, completed in 1620; artist's impression by Andrew Young, based on the memories of those who had seen it.

  

 The loss of the ferry

It has been suggested that the notable absence from the records of the tragedy which was to follow was the result of a cover up to protect the King from embarrassment. We therefore do not know exactly what happened on that fateful day. However, Robert Brydon and Howard Murray have independently researched the events, and the following account is based on their conclusions from the little information available.

It appears that two Burntisland ships had been chartered for the King and his priceless possessions. One was to carry the King to a naval ship anchored in Burntisland roads. Brydon suggest that this was a man o' war, the 'Dreadnought', which had sailed from London as part of the Coronation plans. Murray thinks that it is unlikely that it was the 'Dreadnought', but that it was simply a ship 'supplied by the Lord High Admiral, at least two masted and capable of carrying a large number of passengers'.

The Burntisland ship carrying the King (and perhaps under the command of Captain A. Watson) left first and made its rendezvous with the larger vessel offshore, with the transfer of the King and some of his personnel being effected without any problems. The King then set sail for Leith, probably followed by the Burntisland vessel from which he had transferred.

In the meantime, the second Burntisland ship (the 'Blessing', which may have had Captain J. Orrock as master) set sail directly for Leith. No doubt heavily laden, she would have been less able to ride out the sudden squall which arose off Burntisland and which caused her to founder.

(Recent research has indicated that Captain Watson's ship, which carried the King, might have been the 'Blessing', and that it was Captain Orrock's (unnamed) ship which foundered. Further investigation is required.)

Howard Murray suggests that the two Burntisland vessels were between fifty and seventy feet in length and fifteen to twenty feet in breadth, with a carrying capacity of between 60 and 100 tons. They may have had the ability, as later boats had, of running cargo down a ramp into the hold.

Accounts of the tragedy give contradictory accounts of the number of lives lost. Murray estimated that the boat which sank was carrying some twenty to thirty people - a Burntisland crew of nine, with the remaining ten to twenty or so being servants of the King. There appear to have been only two survivors.

 

Two artists' impressions of the sinking of the baggage ferry.

On the left - by Eric Bell.
Above - by Lyndsay Brydon.

 

The original scheduled five day stay in Edinburgh was cancelled. On the morning of Friday 12th July, the distraught Monarch, his Court and Guards, departed posthaste for England to show the Royal face and dispel growing rumour that the King might be dead. Charles arrived at Greenwich on Saturday 20th July no doubt to be met by his anxious Queen, Henrietta.

The following is an extract from John Spalding’s contemporary account of the Scottish Coronation visit of King Charles I in 1633:

Spalding also offered perhaps the best and last pithy Scots comment: 'It is said his Majesty commendit our Scottish entertainment and brave behavior, albeit some lords grudgit with him.'

Another commentator puts it that the King himself 'was in grate jeopardy of his lyff.'

The bodies of two of those who perished were discovered. One was described as being found in Burntisland harbour and was identified as John Ferries, the King's cook. The other (unidentified) body may also have been found in the harbour. James Speed records what happened following the discovery of Ferries' body:

Although John Ferries was described as the King's cook, this is slightly misleading. Given the amount of money he was carrying, and the elaborate funeral he was given, he would no doubt today be referred to as the King's head chef. He certainly held a senior position in the royal household.
 

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