The Kings and queens of Britain have, over the years, exercised a right to nominate a champion to act on their behalf in cases of a challenge to combat. Obviously the sovereign could not engage in combat personally, so the champion was appointed to carry out this task on his or her behalf, although there is no record of a champion having to perform anything other than a ceremonial duty.
The King’s champion seems to be unique to England and the idea originated in the feudal laws of the 14th century. The champion’s main duty came during the banquet held directly after the coronation – he rode on horseback into the assembled company to defend the new sovereign ‘by his body, if necessary’ against anyone who dared challenge. The last occasion when this was performed was after the outrageously and lavish coronation of King George IV on 19 July 1821, when Henry Dymoke was the champion.
The feast was held in Westminster Hall, a stone’s throw from Westminster Abbey where the coronation had taken place. A series of wooden galleries had been constructed in the hall for spectators to watch the celebrations. After the first course had been served the champion was called in to do his duty. A flourish of trumpets heralded his arrival on a piebald charger, flanked by the Duke of Wellington as Lord High Constable and Lord Howard as Deputy Earl Marshal. Dymoke read out his challenge at the gates to the hall:
If any person of what degree soever, high or low, shall deny or gainsay our sovereign lord King George IV, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, defender of the faith, son and next heir of our sovereign lord King George III, the last king deceased, to be right heir to the imperial crown of this United Kingdom, or that he ought not to enjoy the same, here is his champion, who saith that he lieth, and he is a false traitor; being ready in person to combat with him, and in this quarrel will adventure his life against him, on what day soever shall be appointed.
He flung his gauntlet onto the stone floor. There was no-one to accept his challenge and it was returned to him by his esquire. The party rode to the middle of the hall and the challenge was repeated. It was finally issued for the third and last time, amidst great applause from the assembled throng, at the steps leading to the royal banqueting table. His Majesty, now presumably relieved that there were no takers for the challenges, drank the health of his champion. He then passed the golden goblet to his champion who drank to His Majesty’s health in turn with the cry, “Long live his Majesty, King George IV!”. The cup was passed to his page who bore it away for Dymoke family posterity.
The King soon left the hall to return to the palace. The feast rapidly descended from sublime pomp into embarrassing farce. The guests and serving attendants now approached the deserted royal tables. Cautiously at first but then with increasing boldness, souvenirs of gold cutlery, plates, vases and many other portable items disappeared into the pockets of the surrounding crowd. The Lord High Chamberlain managed to push his way through the crowd and save the more important items.
Even at the time the expense of the coronation was extremely criticised. The King’s robes for the occasion cost £25,000 and were worn for only a few hours. The total cost was a quarter of a million pounds. The King’s popularity, never high, was soon as low as ever in the country. Nine years later his brother William IV spent only £50,000 on his entire coronation.
Never again was the King’s champion required to perform these official duties. The position of champion, however still exists. It is hereditary, tied to the lordship of the manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire since 1377 and the present incumbent is the direct descendant of the last active champion, Henry Dymoke.
The source for this post was “The Guinness Book of Lasts” by Christopher Slee, Guinness Publishing, London, 1994, pp. 165-166