The Arches of Triumph, built for James I's entry into London, March 15th 1604

Description

On 15 March 1604,[1] King James I made his royal entry into London, with an extravagant pageant of street theatre and music, staged on huge wooden arches specially made for the day by Stephen Harrison and his team of craftsmen. The festivities had been intended for the previous year, straight after James’s coronation on 25 July 1603. But they were delayed by an outbreak of the plague, and perhaps by James’s reticence about this kind of public performance.

On the day, the roads were ‘paved with people’ (sig.C1r) enjoying the carnival atmosphere and the rare chance to see their king. Harrison says the streets ran with ‘Claret wine’ which flowed ‘merrily’ into people’s ‘bellies’ (K1r). By contrast, James himself – in his dual role as spectator and spectacle for his subjects – showed a more muted reaction, at least according to the playwright Thomas Dekker.

What were the Arches of Triumph?

The joiner and architect, Stephen Harrison, designed seven triumphal arches – though initially only five were planned. These imposing constructions were wide enough to span the street, around 23 to 27 metres tall (40–90 feet)l, and elaborately decorated with statues, paint and gilding.

Funded by London’s multinational merchants, the arches represented different regions, creating a kind of symbolic world tour. As James processed from the Tower to Temple Bar, he paused at each arch to watch an allegorical show, composed by renowned writers like Thomas Dekker or Ben Jonson, and performed by actors perched on the platforms high above.

The arches were dismantled straight afterwards, but this book of striking engravings forms a ‘perpetuall’ souvenir for a much wider audience (K1r).

The first arch was topped by a model of the city of London. The use of the Roman title, Londinium, shows how James I’s progress was modelled on the entrances of emperors into ancient Rome. On the arch’s highest platform sits an actor playing the role of the King of Britain; in the lower central niche is the Genius Urbis or spirit of the city, and below him lies another actor playing London’s River Thames (C1r).

The second arch was erected at the cost of London’s Italian merchants (D1r).

The sixth arch represents the New World, with a mechanical ‘Engine’ in the form of a globe ‘turned about by foure persons’ (H1r).

 

[1] On the title page of this book, the date is marked as the ‘15th day of march 1603’ rather than 1604. This is because, according to the Julian calendar used at that time in England, the legal New Year did not begin until 25 March.  

Full title:
The Archs of Triumph Erected in honor of the High and mighty prince James the first ... at his ... Entrance and passage through ... London upon the 15th day of march 1603.
Published:
1604, London
Format:
Book / Folio / Illustration / Engraving / Image
Creator:
Stephen Harrison, William Kip [engraver]
Held by:
British Library
Shelfmark:
G.10866.

Full catalogue details

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