Sixty Glorious Years

Bunting. Image courtesy of Paul D Cocker.

It won’t have escaped the notice of the eagled-eyed readers of this blog that there are a few special events going on this weekend as we celebrate Her Maj’s 60 years on the throne (the actual anniversary of her accession was back in February, but obviously it’s more fun to have a summer celebration commemorating the Coronation than a winter one on the anniversary of the King’s death). But Elizabeth II isn’t the first monarch to celebrate a Jubilee – let’s take a look back and see what happened in the olden days…

First of all, what exactly is a jubilee? According to the Oxford English Dictionary (log in with your Westminster Library card), a jubilee was originally, in Biblical times,

“A year of emancipation and restoration, which according to the institution in Lev. xxv was to be kept every fifty years, and to be proclaimed by the blast of trumpets throughout the land; during it the fields were to be left uncultivated, Hebrew slaves were to be set free, and lands and houses in the open country or unwalled towns that had been sold were to revert to their former owners or their heirs.”

While a year’s holiday sounds nice, I doubt many people would want to ignore the allotment for 12 months nowadays.

In the Middle Ages a Jubilee year was

“A year instituted by Boniface VIII in 1300 as a year of remission from the penal consequences of sin, during which plenary indulgence might be obtained by a pilgrimage to Rome, the visiting of certain churches there, the giving of alms, fasting three days, and the performance of other pious works. It was at first appointed to take place every hundred years, but the period was afterwards shortened to fifty, thirty-three, and twenty-five years, and now ‘an extraordinary jubilee is granted at any time either to the whole Church or to particular countries or cities, and not necessarily or even usually for a whole year’.”

Later on, it became the term used for the fiftieth anniversary of an event. While Queen Victoria wasn’t the first British monarch to celebrate 50 years wearing a crown, (that honour goes to Edward III), she was the first to have a major national celebration of the event. You can follow her own account of the event by reading her diaries which have just been put online. On 20 June 1887, the day of the Jubilee, she began

“I am alone, though surrounded by many dear children. I am writing after a very fatiguing day…  The King of Denmark took me in, and Willy of Greece sat on my other side. The Princes were all in uniform, and the Princesses were all beautifully dressed. Afterwards we went into the Ballroom, where my band played and [several pages later] after a fatiguing day, I slipped away.”

Many entries have her own illustrations and should prove fascinating to historians and anyone interested in the private life of the royals.

For another account of the golden Jubilee, you might want to read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford – the chapter Harvest Home has an account of how the day was celebrated in an Oxford village:

Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

“There were more people in the park than the children had ever seen together, and the roundabouts, swings, and coconut shies were doing a roaring trade. Tea was partaken of in a huge marquee in relays, one parish at a time, and the sound of the brass band, roundabout hurdy-gurdy, coconut thwacks, and showmen’s shouting surged round the frail, canvas walls like a roaring sea.”

Ten years on, Queen Victoria, by then too frail to climb the steps into St Paul’s Cathedral,  celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. You can check out the Illustrated London News (log in with your Westminster library card) for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Special Number on 26 June 1897, with many splendid pictures of the parade, and incidentally some hilariously over-the top adverts (‘You haven’t used Robinson’s Patent barley or your baby wouldn’t fret and look so puny’). You can even  see a short film of the parade at the British Pathe site (accessible via the History section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites)

South Riding, by Winifred HoltbyThe next Jubilee was the Silver one for George V in 1935. By this time the Illustrated London News had a colour cover and the Silver Jubilee number of May 11, 1935 runs to 115 pages (check out page 62 for ‘The Little Princesses who delighted the crowd on Jubilee Day’). Or watch the Pathe video of the Jubilee State Drive which included a trip to Marylebone Town Hall.  For a literary account, why not read Winifred Holtby’s South Riding which has its climax at the Jubilee celebrations in a small Yorkshire town.

Moving into modern times, plenty of us will remember Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977.  People of a certain age will remember that the Sex Pistols controversially didn’t make it to number one with God Save the Queen while people of a different age will remember a day off school perhaps spent in a street party or watching the procession in London. For a rather different take on the events of 1977, why not watch Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels?

There will be no shortage of ways to celebrate this year’s Jubilee.  If you’re thinking of going to any of the events in Westminster, do check out the links about transport and don’t assume you can turn up 10 minutes before the start to watch the boat flotilla from Waterloo Bridge (you can’t!). And it’s not too late to organise an impromptu street party.  Even if you can’t close your road – there’s always the pavement or the front yard.

However crowds, Jubilees and street parties aren’t for everyone. If you fancy getting away from it all for your four day weekend (though Westminster libraries will still be open for business as usual on Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 June, closing only for the Bank Holidays 4 & 5 June), have a look at the Transport and Tourism page of the Gateway for some ideas.

Bunting. Image courtesy of Paul D Cocker.

However you choose to celebrate the long  weekend, remember to raise a glass to the lady who has made it all possible!



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