The first internationally observed British royal jubilee was held for George III to mark his fiftieth anniversary on the throne. On October 25, 1809, Britain and her colonies marked the half-century milestone of their monarch with enormous fetes and spectacular fireworks displays, establishing a precedent for formal celebrations and local jamborees, including parades, days-off, street-parties and the manufacturing of souvenirs, for the lengthy reigns of George’s successors.
Prior to 1809, few kings or queens had matched or surpassed George’s five-decade tenure, but it was his granddaughter, Queen Victoria, who had the distinction of beating his impressive record, being the first sovereign to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee (sixty years) in British history.
Like wedding anniversaries, jubilees are ascribed a hierarchy of precious substances (gold, ruby, sapphire), substances that increase in value and durability in accordance with the number of years being commemorated. To date, Elizabeth II is the only one of four monarchs in world history to reach a platinum year (seventy years); and indeed as of March 2022, she is the third longest-reigning monarch ever. Due to the rarity of monarchs reigning long enough to enjoy a jubilee, and the gradual disappearance of royal dynasties across the globe, this could well be the last platinum jubilee ever observed.
Originally conducted as religious rites, jubilee ceremonies have transformed over centuries into secular festivals, as infrequent opportunities for nations to praise the persistent presence of their figurehead.
The Queen’s first jubilee (silver) was in 1977. On June 6, Her Majesty lit a bonfire beacon at Windsor Castle, igniting a chain of lanterns that spread throughout the night across the United Kingdom. The day after, Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, remarked in the House of Commons: ‘On such an occasion we think of the Throne as an institution and of the Queen as a person. … the Throne as an institution enables us to maintain a stability that is widely admired overseas. Together, the Sovereign and Parliament provide the instruments by which momentous changes have been, are and will continue to be reconciled with continuity in our country.’
The constitutional contributions of the British royal family are too often overlooked, and as a result, are seldomly celebrated. Ever since the English Civil War, the modus operandi of the British monarchy has been, as Callaghan described, to preserve a feeling of ‘continuity’, throughout political upheavals, economic disasters and social strifes.
Events such as jubilees allow citizens of Britain and the Commonwealth to show their gratitude to their monarch for the strange status the country’s traditions have burdened her with, for her curation of that atmosphere of continuity. The British people do this by praising a life of immense service and by acknowledging the importance of a country’s totemic institution.
Given the military and political calamities of the twentieth century, spurred on at times by an impulse for nationalist pride, the triumphalism of statehood can be deemed distasteful, but jubilees are a mild method of expressing national pride — an exceptional chance to exhibit effusiveness for the individual occupying the throne. And unlike a coronation, or the state-opening of parliament, they are, in the most positive sense, events of no consequence.
Typically, ‘the plumed troop…the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,/ the royal banner, and all quality,/ pride, pomp and circumstance’ were largely reserved for military achievements, but today, no circumstance other than the Queen’s birthday or jubilee would warrant the splendour and pageantry that is planned to mark this momentous time in her long and extraordinary life.
Elizabeth Windsor has resided over an accelerated age. She was born into a world that still emulated the customs and characteristics of the Edwardian era, but despite her conventional confines, she has become the living symbol of modern times. Which is why, even particularly unpatriotic Brits can unashamedly say over the course of this weekend: God Save the Queen.