God save the Queen: A history of British Jubilees

The Queen's carriage procession makes its way to Buckingham Palace during the Jubilee on June 5, 2012
Celebrations will be held up and down the country for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee | Shutterstock

Queen Elizabeth II will go down in history as the first British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee for 70 years on the throne. She was also the first to celebrate her Sapphire Jubilee (65 years) but, outside of the royal household, the occasion wasn’t celebrated with as much vigour as we’ve seen on previous occasions. The same can be said of her Ruby Jubilee in 1992, which was also a relatively lowkey affair.

Incidentally, while we think of a Jubilee as something synonymous with royalty, according to Leviticus 25, it is actually a designated sequence of years where sins are forgiven and pardoned. On 22nd February 1300, Pope Boniface VIII declared that every 100th year from the birth of Christ should be a year of exoneration. This arguably inspired the Royal Jubilee tradition of granting a Royal Prerogative of Mercy (aka, a Royal Pardon) for military deserters and prisoners of war. This was seen in the Jubilee of George III, the first monarch in the UK to celebrate a Royal Jubilee of any sort on 25th October 1809.

George III, the king we’ve come to know and love ‘Mad King George' - though in reality he was probably suffering from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder - celebrated his Golden Jubilee in recognition of the 50th year of his reign. However, by then George was quite ill so it’s not known how much of it he actually appreciated. It’s worth noting that while George III was the first monarch to have a Jubilee, Henry III, Edward III, and James I all reigned for over 50 years but it’s unlikely there were any major celebrations.

Queen Victoria ‘enjoyed’ (following the death of her beloved Prince Albert, this word didn’t feature much in her life) both a Golden and Diamond Jubilee (60 years), and her grandson, George V, was the first member of the Royal family to have a celebration for his Silver Jubilee (25 years) in 1935. But, without a doubt, Queen Elizabeth II is the most Jubilee’d-up UK monarch of all time.

By the middle of April 2022, celebrations for her Platinum Jubilee were only just coming into focus but there were some events already confirmed. Some of these were quite familiar, even a few dating back to the original Jubilee of 1809, such as the shutting of shops to allow the public to take in the Royal procession, a few parties, and a firework display with impunity.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee set the precedence for the lighting of a chain of beacons across the country, commemorative coins, tableware and stamps appeared in the Silver Jubilee of George V, but in more recent times the Jubilee has been marked with large, star-studded, music events. Sure, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee includes an extended bank holiday, turning the Tower of London moat into a flower bed, and the ceremonial beacons, but for many, the highlight is the pop-heavy ‘Platinum Party at the Palace’.

The list of music artists was slow in reaching the public domain, though in March 2022, George Ezra - at the time suffering from a nasty dose of chickenpox - confirmed that he’ll be performing.

The music events have, for the last two decades or so, been a tried and tested crowd-pleaser. Arguably, it was the highlight of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Established acts such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Kylie Minogue, and Ed Sheeran performed outside Buckingham Palace at a specially organised event curated by Gary Barlow.

But it was the Golden Jubilee concert of 2002 that set the benchmark for subsequent celebrations when it came to pop. The show was kicked off with Queen’s Brian May shredding atop Buckingham Palace before the likes of Paul McCartney, Tom Jones and Rod Stewart (among many, many others) helped to make the 2002 Jubilee perhaps the most memorable to date.

Well, perhaps.

When the flag-waving subjects celebrated George V’s Jubilee, WWII hadn’t begun, let alone the Cold War or the Space Age. Forty-two years later, in this relatively short space of time, there was a cultural shift on a scale that’s hard to grasp by modern standards. For example, in 1939 there was no such thing as ‘a teenager’, but by the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977, the teenager was both well-established and very much anti-establishment. And it wasn’t just the kids. Everyone was fed up with strikes, power cuts, and rising unemployment. Furthermore, the Royal Family, probably for the first time in history, was being viewed as an irrelevant anachronism by a growing portion of the population.

Perfect ingredients for discord then, which came in the snarling form of the Sex Pistols, who had already outraged public decency with a sweary, anarchic appearance on Bill Grundy's popular talk show in December 1976. Manager Malcolm McLaren, always with a savvy eye for publicity, organised a boat trip (rented by Virgin’s Richard Branson) on the River Thames on 7th June, the same day as the Royal Jubilee procession. The band performed a few songs, including the soon-to-be banned/chart-topping punk anthem, ‘God Save the Queen' before the police clambered on board and arrested most of the passengers, including renowned fashion designer Vivian Westwood.

A cynic might see the subsequent ‘Party at the Palace’ events as attempts to prevent such anarchic behaviour by inviting popular musicians into the bosom of the Royal Family and making a controlled show of it. But with the possible exception of Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi (one half of Black Sabbath performing in 2002), the risk of things kicking off with the likes of Emma Bunton and S Club 7 was relatively low. And outside of catching something, I don’t think we’ve much to worry about with George Ezra either.