Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch in British history and in June 2022 she'll celebrate 70 years on the throne. It will be the first time a British monarch has ever had a Platinum Jubilee and a special four-day bank holiday weekend has been declared to mark the occasion. Bursting with public events, special initiatives, and community activities, people throughout the United Kingdom will honour and commemorate the historic milestone.
Whilst the Platinum Jubilee is an unprecedented first for the monarchy, there have been several other jubilees in British history. Elizabeth II has of course marked three major jubilees already – Silver in 1977, Golden in 2002, and Diamond in 2012. The occasions have been filled with global tours, street parties, pop concerts, commemorative items, firework displays, and the lighting of beacons. Such festivities have become synonymous with Royal Jubilees but where did the traditions all come from?
What is a jubilee?
Before we dive into the annals of history and discover the delights of past jubilees, let us first understand what exactly a jubilee is. The word ‘jubilee’ has biblical origins, first appearing in the Old Testament referring to a celebration marked every 50 years. In modern-day terms, the word has now become closely linked with the reign of monarchs, celebrating their life and service after major milestones.
Following the tradition of wedding anniversaries, many significant occasions are associated with different types of precious metals and materials. The Platinum Jubilee of course marks 70 years of service, whilst Diamond is 60, Gold is 50 and Silver is 25.
The English monarchy has roots dating back over 1,000 years, but little is known about the jubilees of Royals before the 1800s. We do know that King Henry III, Edward III, and James VI all had reigns of over 50 years, but how (and if) they chose to mark those occasions is not so well established.
King George III
George reigned for over 59 years from 1760 to 1820 and witnessed some major historic events such as the Napoleonic Wars and the American War of Independence. However, his later years on the throne will mostly be characterised by his apparent ‘madness’, which we now know was likely due to bipolar disorder.
George III was the first British monarch to celebrate a Royal Jubilee of any sort in a significant way. On 25th October 1809, festivities broke out across the UK as well as the Colonies as George entered his 50th year on the throne. Due to his declining health, however, George was unable to partake in the majority of celebrations.
Many of the traditions in our modern Royal Jubilees stem from the Golden Jubilee of George III. Described as lavish, extravagant, and noisy, they included processions, feasts, fireworks, and a 50-gun salute blasted from the Tower of London. A service of thanksgiving was hosted at St Paul's Cathedral before dinner was held at the Mansion House. Money and food was handed out to the poor (even those in prison) so they could also enjoy the festivities, whilst military deserters and POWs were pardoned and discharged.
Monuments and landmarks were erected whilst special commemorative items were created in the forms of jugs and medals, sparking a tradition that would be warmly embraced and expanded upon during later jubilees.
Until Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria was Britain's longest-reigning monarch, sitting atop the throne for over 63 years from 1837 to 1901. This, of course, meant she not only went through a Golden Jubilee but also a historic Diamond one – a first for any British monarch.
What about a Silver Jubilee? Well, the concept of Silver Jubilees wasn’t a thing back in the 19th century, since the term ‘jubilee’ was still only associated with the number 50.
When Victoria’s Golden Jubilee swung around in 1887, the British Monarchy went big. It was an opportunity for the British people to celebrate their Queen but also provided her with an opportunity to reconnect with her people after years of shying away. After the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1961, Victoria had all but withdrawn from public life.
Celebrated over two days, the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria kicked off with a lavish breakfast situated outside at Frogmore (the Royal retreat adjoining Windsor Castle), near where Prince Albert was buried. She then travelled by train to Buckingham Palace where she enjoyed a banquet in the evening accompanied by 50 foreign kings and princes.
The following day, Victoria rode in an open landau (four-wheeled carriage) through London to Westminster Abbey, escorted by Colonial Indian cavalry in splendid ceremonial dress, which attracted much attention. The procession was said to ‘stretch to the limit of sight in both directions’.
After the service, Victoria returned to Buckingham Palace to wave to the gathering crowd from the now-famous balcony. The festivities came to a close with a spectacular firework display in the Palace garden.
As for memorabilia, Golden Jubilee silver florins were struck along with the creation of commemorative medals and busts.
Ten years later, the nation celebrated a Diamond Jubilee for the first time. On 22nd June 1897, the occasion was marked by the most spectacular procession through the streets of London. Thousands gathered to watch the spectacle since the day had been declared a national bank holiday. Cameras filmed the occasion providing early cinema with one of its first global box office hits.
‘No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets,’ Victoria would later write in her journal. ‘The cheering was quite deafening and every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified.’
With nearly 20 carriages involved, 11 colonial prime ministers in attendance, and troops from every part of the empire, the procession headed for St Paul’s Cathedral for a special thanksgiving service. Since Victoria was unable to climb the steps due to arthritis, the ceremony was held outside.
Up and down the country street feasts were held whilst a chain of beacons were lit across the United Kingdom, commencing precedence that continues to this day.
The grandson of Queen Victoria was the first in British history to officially celebrate a Silver Jubilee. On 6th May 1935, the nation revelled in pageants, fetes, and garden parties as people enjoyed the special bank holiday in glorious sunshine.
The day continued many themes already established by previous jubilees. A special thanksgiving service was held at St Paul's Cathedral where King George V and Queen Mary were in attendance. Afterwards, the royal couple returned to the balcony of Buckingham Palace to wave to the gathered masses. The advent of photography and film helped to cement the popularity of the balcony wave in the traditions of royal celebrations.
During the evening, the King’s Jubilee speech was broadcast to the world via radio.
George and Mary (along with their grandchildren Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret on one occasion) toured London in their carriage throughout May. A royal ball was also held at Buckingham Palace on 14th May, attended by 2,000 people.
The occasion saw the explosion of Jubilee souvenirs, with sets of stamps bursting onto the commemorative scene. The positive public reaction to the Silver Jubilee only solidified its place as a ‘must-have’ celebration for any future royal milestone.