♦ The diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was a nautical display inscribed not only within the age-old tradition of pompous naval processions extolling the monarchy and its relations with its subjects, but also in a history of prestigious parades conducted on the great rivers and urban canals which have served as the theatres of Antiquity and the European Renaissance down to the modern age. Yet the innumerable stream of small crafts hailing from all corners of the world also represented a series of significant breaks with tradition. The military was completely absent from the proceedings, whereas globalization was very visible, emblazoned in the various colours of the Commonwealth adorning the boats winding merrily down the river. Ordinary citizens happily breached protocol by directly taking part in the festivities, in testimony to a common desire for a more modern relationship between the royal house and the people. The entire ritual was a benevolent affair attesting to the durability of an institution and its lingering prestige, and reaffirming its value as a symbol of unity and community. As a cultural heritage symbol, the Thames epitomised the very event it hosted, the embodiment of a public space and national ethos. […]
The Amazon is longer, the Congo darker, the Mississippi more powerful, the Seine more gentle. But within the pantheon of great rivers, the Thames occupies a special place in the popular imagination. With the passage of time accompanying the rise and fall of an empire, the river has become an international artery promoting a global interchange.
“The Thames belongs not to the sovereign, but to the people, who in any case never refer to it by name, but instead call it ‘the river’ as if it were a member of the family”: for Tony Travers, professor at the London School of Economics, the river symbolises the steadfast rejection by aristocrats and citizens of absolute monarchy. The counterweights to the realm were established on its banks: the Houses of Parliament, the ministry buildings and Lambeth Palace, official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Their purpose was to oppose the royal house, which had scattered its other palaces along the river between the 11th and 16th centuries. In 1717, the royal barge carrying George I along the Thames was accompanied by another vessel on which musicians played “Water Music”, Handel’s ode to the river as requested by the king. The exercise was meant to endear the House of Hanover to the English public following the German-born monarch’s accession to the British throne. In the 19th century, royal events were moved to The Mall, the ceremonial road running from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square, on account of the Great Stink which had overwhelmed the Thames, and the development of wide avenues in the city of London. State funerals are nonetheless still held on the river. The bearing of Nelson’s remains from Greenwich to Whitehall, on 8 January 1806, following his death at the battle of Trafalgar, or of Winston Churchill’s coffin between St. Paul’s Cathedral and Waterloo Station on 30 January 1965, bear witness to the enduring symbolic quality of the Thames during major events.♦
Source: extracts, Le Monde, 2 June 2012.
(translated from French by Wolf Draeger)