A history of jubilee celebrations
With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee taking place at the start of June, we take a look at the history of jubilee celebrations.
By Guy Walters
5:07PM BST 26 Apr 2012
As millions of us tuck into barbecued sausages at the thousands of Queen’s Diamond Jubilee parties being held this June, few will be aware that we are taking part in a tradition that is at least two centuries old.
Quite a few British monarchs have reigned for 25 years or longer. But the first we know to have celebrated a jubilee in any significant way was George III, who marked the start of his Golden Jubilee year in 1809 with a grand firework display and fete at Frogmore in Windsor.
Many of the celebrations held nationwide would have undoubtedly breached today’s health and safety regulations. In Abingdon in Oxfordshire, cakes were hurled from the top of the Market House; in Wokingham in Berkshire, muskets were fired in the Market Place; and in Hungerford, there was a public display of swordsmanship.
However, many of the festivities were of a kind we might recognise (although the menu may have changed slightly), with feasts of roast ox, plum pudding and plenty of beer.
The next significant jubilee to be marked was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, which was commemorated enthusiastically by the nation – despite the fact that the reclusive monarch had been almost completely isolated since the death of Prince Albert in 1861.
On the evening of June 21, a magnificent royal banquet was held at Buckingham Palace, which was attended by dignitaries from all over the Empire.
“Had a large family dinner,” Queen Victoria wrote in her diary. “All the Royalties assembled in the Bow Room, and we dined in the Supper-room, which looked splendid with the buffet covered with the gold plate. The table was a large horseshoe one, with many lights on it.”
The following day, Queen Victoria travelled in a procession to Westminster Abbey, accompanied by thousands of troops. According to one onlooker, author Mark Twain, the procession was so long that it “stretched to the limit of sight in both directions”.
Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 – she is the only other monarch to have celebrated 60 years on the throne – was even more impressive than her Golden Jubilee and was toasted around the world. Five thousand beggars in Calcutta received a free meal, as did paupers in Sydney. Even in offbeat places such as Moose Jaw, Canada, the local militia marched through the streets of the town, while children sang songs praising the Queen.
In London, there was a vast procession, after which Victoria appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. “No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets,” she recorded.
As has been the case for the two jubilees of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1897 parties were held in nearly every town and village in the land. Although there were some elements that reflected the era’s more unenlightened times. In Compton Bishop in Somerset, for example, the celebration lunch was attended only by men, with the women and children having to eat a separate ‘meat tea’ in the early evening.
Like all Britain’s historic jubilees, this year’s event will doubtless prove to be a uniting occasion. It is an opportunity to bring people together, to celebrate not only the monarchy, but also the country.
For those over the age of 40, the Silver Jubilee of 1977 can be hazily remembered as a source of national pride in what was a difficult decade. The Golden Jubilee of 2002 gave the monarchy a real boost and will be remembered for spectacular celebrations including two concerts in the Palace grounds, a spectacular firework display, a worldwide chain of beacons and thousands of street parties.
This June provides a great opportunity once more for the country to come together and, like all previous jubilees, we shall be able to indulge in a weekend of unabashed patriotism, and of course, a great party. Some things never change.