King George III celebrated his 70th birthday on 4 June 1808.
The king was losing his eyesight and, because of this, wasn’t present at his birthday court at St James’s Palace, but did receive several members of the nobility at Buckingham House (as Buckingham Palace was then known).
The morning was, as usual, ushered in with the ringing of bells, at noon the Park and Tower guns were fired, the ships in the Thames displayed their colours, and the flags and standards of the United Kingdom were hoisted on the different churches and public buildings. The streets in the neighbourhood of the Palace were crowded to an excess, and the windows in St James’s Street in particular, exhibited a display of beauty and splendour rarely to be witnessed in any country.
The royal family – minus the king – all began to arrive throughout the day, and assembled for ‘Her Majesty’s drawing-room’. The Prince of Wales, predictably, made sure everyone noticed his entrance.
At two o’clock the Prince of Wales and his Suite, in three carriages, and servants in state liveries, dress hats and feathers, proceeded from Carlton House to the Drawing Room, and entered by the private door in the Park. His Royal Highness was attended by the Duke of Clarence, Lords Keith and Dundas, Generals Lee and Hulse, and Colonels McMahon, Lee and Bloomfield.
The music playing had been specified by the king, but it was the queen who received the company, and all the nobility were present. Everyone had to wear full court dress and the queen continued to stipulate that ladies had to wear full hoops under their skirts, in an echo of the fashions of several decades earlier. Coupled with the trend for gowns with a slim silhouette in the early years of the nineteenth-century, the full skirts of the dresses which had to be worn at court looked ridiculously cumbersome. They certainly weren’t the most flattering of dresses to wear!
A sketch of one of the dresses worn has survived at this particular Drawing Room, and it was worn by the Countess, later Marchioness of Cholomondeley, someone we’ve written about at length. The Earl of Cholmondeley had, a few years prior to his marriage, been the lover of that ‘infamous courtesan’, Grace Dalrymple Elliott. And Grace had also, for just a few weeks in 1781, been the mistress of Cholmondeley’s boon friend, the Prince of Wales, and had subsequently given birth to the prince’s daughter. That girl, Georgiana Seymour (no, we don’t know why she had the surname Seymour either!) was brought up by the Cholmondeleys, treated as their own daughter. Georgiana, 26-years-of-age, couldn’t attend the court, however. The queen had agreed with her son that she should not be presented until she was married, lest the king realise exactly who she was. (Georgiana married in September 1808, and she was present at King George’s 1809 birthday court, as you can discover in our first book, An Infamous Mistress.)
The newspapers described the Countess of Cholmondeley’s dress as follows:
A yellow satin petticoat, covered with a rich Brussels point lace, with a rich border; the train of yellow satin; the sleeves ornamented with rich lace.
La Belle Assemblée magazine went into more detail.
Explanation of Lady Cholmondeley’s Court-Dress: A bright primrose-coloured sarsnet petticoat trimmed full round the bottom with point lace, and a rich drapery of the same, most tastefully festooned with diamond chains, and ostrich feathers in the form of the Prince’s plume reversed. Body and train of primrose sarsnet; the latter trimmed with lace, and the former ornamented with the most splendid diamond wreath to represent the oak leaf and fruit, placed obliquely across the front of the bust; the sleeves finished to match, and the bottom of the waist confined with a diamond cestus. Head-dress court lappets of point; a diamond bandeau and rich coronet, with four ostrich feathers of unequal lengths, most tastefully disposed. Splendid earrings of the oval form; necklace and bracelets also of brilliants. Gloves of French kid, considerably above the elbow. Shoes of white satin with silver trimming.
And, here is the dress:
Sources not mentioned above:
Morning Post, 6 June 1808