They are the men who have been on hand at some of the most pivotal moments in royal history. Among their number are those who took King John to sign the Magna Carta, or who carried Anne Boleyn on her coronation day.
In modern times, they were at the heart of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and they are asked to accompany the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London and back at the State Opening of Parliament. The Royal Watermen are the eyewitnesses of royal history, and the Queen is about to mark a major milestone with them.
On March 27th 2014, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a reception in the City of London to mark the 800th anniversary of the Royal Watermen. The company was formed in 1214 and, while their role nowadays is ceremonial with a token payment attached, their scarlet livery is a familiar sight, and they retain an integral role in many royal ceremonies.
Today the Thames is a lonely place, and while traffic on it has increased in recent years, many stretches remain all but empty at some parts of the day. When the Royal Watermen came into being in the reign of King John, the river was a busting highway and the lifeblood of London. It stayed that way for most of the eight centuries the company has existed. As well as a major trade route, it was packed with passengers as it was a safer, quicker and more comfortable way of getting about than the often very basic roads.
It therefore made sense that the most important people in the land would choose to travel by boat when necessary. Many of the great royal palaces of medieval and Tudor England were built along the River Thames, and the Royal Watermen rowed the barges that took the monarchs and their households to the places where history was made – Greenwich, Westminster, Whitehall and Hampton Court as well as the Tower of London.
Then, the Royal Watermen were vital cogs in the wheels of politics, state and history. Today, their role is purely ceremonial, and they come under the command of The Queen’s Bargemaster. They accompany members of the Royal Family when they travel on the Thames for an official engagement. The Royal Watermen can be spotted in their scarlet livery on other major occasions, like royal weddings, riding as boxmen on carriages. And all for the token payment of £3.50 a year.
The twenty-four Royal Watermen – Edward VII cut the numbers from forty-eight – are chosen from the Thames Watermen. When the river was bustling, the Watermen were licensed to carry passengers along it. In 1514, Henry VIII signed the first Act of Parliament that tried to regulate the way the trade was carried out. Watermen’s Hall is at St Mary at Hill in the City of London, built in the 1780s, and it is there that The Queen will mark her Royal Watermen’s 800th anniversary.
It will be a commemoration of eight centuries of service, and the many men who have rowed on silently as the dramas of royal life played out close by. The Royal Watermen may be purely ceremonial now, but they have been integral parts of history, and the eyewitnesses to monarchy in all its splendor.