History

The surprising pieces of history inside King Charles III’s coronation carriage

A relic from the lost Franklin Expedition, along with other pieces of polar exploration history, will accompany King Charles III to his coronation

King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla will ride from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey for their coronation in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, which contains pieces of Commonwealth history. (Photo: Grahamedown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
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Next Saturday, one of the many silent faces watching the coronation of King Charles III will be that of Sir John Franklin. 

His bust in Westminster Abbey commemorates the total loss of his 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, in which two Royal Navy ships and all 129 men vanished into the frozen Arctic. 

A fragment of this historic tragedy is coming back to visit him on May 6: the Diamond Jubilee State Coach due to transport Charles III to the Abbey contains an actual relic from Franklin’s lost expedition.

The interior is inlaid with pieces of illustrious history: polished slices taken from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Florence Nightingale’s dress, Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree, etc. Among these, in a top row position, is a wooden square marked “Franklin Expedition 1845.”

This is just one of more than 100 pieces of Commonwealth history painstakingly collected by Australian craftsman Jim Frecklington, who built the coach for Queen Elizabeth II to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

Frecklington lived and worked in Qausuittuq (Resolute Bay), Nunavut for several summers in the early 1970s. This imbued him with a deep respect for communities in the North, and also for the 19th century sailors who sailed there looking for a Northwest Passage.

“I’ve always been very interested in those very brave men that went up into the Arctic, like Franklin and Crozier, and after working at Resolute Bay I really understood what a challenging environment it is, and had an appreciation for the courage they must have shown,” he says. “I wanted to honour this bravery by including something from the Arctic in the coach I was building.”

Frecklington approached the Government of Nunavut for its help with the project. The then Director of Heritage Douglas Stenton, who still leads Nunavut’s archaeological study of the Franklin Expedition today, received the call.

Having considered the proposal, the Government of Nunavut offered a fragment of a barrel that had been recovered from Beechey Island.

“I was absolutely delighted when colleagues in Nunavut were able to contribute an artefact from Franklin’s camp at Beechey Island,” says Frecklington.

An 1851 edition of the Illustrated London News noted the finding of a barrel from the lost Franklin Expedition at Beechey Island. (Photo courtesy Alison Freebairn and Logan Zachary)
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This fascination with Franklin relics has been a constant since 1850, when search parties discovered the first traces of the lost expedition at Beechey Island, deep in the Northwest Passage. Franklin and his men had spent the winter of 1845-46 there, and buried three of their men on the island.

The discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus (in 2014) and HMS Terror (in 2016) sparked renewed interest in the expedition and its relics. An exhibition, Death in the Ice, toured three countries in 2018 and 2019, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, England, recently announced that it would be receiving Franklin artifacts from Canada.

The placing of Franklin Expedition relics close to state power may be unusual, but it is not without precedent; in 1865, Franklin relics were placed in the coffin of the assassinated U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. And to this day, the White House’s Oval Office is dominated by the Resolute Desk, carved from the timbers of a ship that searched in vain for Sir John Franklin.

A fragment of a barrel from the lost Franklin Expedition, found on Beechey Island in the Canadian High Arctic, was incorporated into the Diamond Jubilee State Coach alongside other relics. (Photo: Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014)
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A piece of Endurance’s spar is also included inside the Diamond Jubilee State Coach. The spar is the only surviving piece of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famed ship on dry land; the wreck of Endurance was found in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica in 2022. (Photo: Alison Freebairn)
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Franklin’s is not the only polar expedition that is memorialized in the royal coach.

The RRS Discovery is represented there alongside artifacts from Sir Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton, including a piece of Endurance’s spar donated by the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

This spar was used as a distress signal flag pole by the party left on Elephant Island by Shackleton when he sailed to South Georgia for help. It is still the only surviving relic of the famous ship on dry land, the wreck of Endurance having only recently been located in the Weddell Sea.

Frecklington describes his work on the coach as “a labour of love,” and hopes the various pieces of history he included will spark discussion and research for generations to come.

“Many places create time capsules,” he says. “They gather together parts of their community history, and then they bury it for 30, 50 years. This coach is a time capsule above the ground, and it belongs to everyone.”

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