On the weekend of 10–12 June, members of the British public, the media and the royal family will partake in a series of spectacular events to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. The grandest celebrations will be enacted in the ceremonial spaces in the heart of central London. For more than 150 years these places have functioned as the sites where crown and people have come together to dramatise a vision of British national life resplendent and historic in character. The official programme for this year’s celebrations includes a special service of thanksgiving in honour of the queen at St Paul’s Cathedral, the annual trooping the colour on Horse Guards Parade, and a street party for 10,000 guests on the Mall – the ceremonial road linking Buckingham Palace to that other arena of Britishness, Trafalgar Square.
Those unable to line London’s streets will be able to join in the fanfare and festivities from their living rooms as the weekend’s events play out on television. One of the climactic scenes orchestrated as part of the schedule will be the queen’s balcony appearance – that theatrical set-piece where the monarch and the masses appear to greet one another – that has been inscribed on the nation’s imagination through the power of live broadcasting. But even before radio and television, Buckingham Palace’s East Front balcony functioned as a focal point for public displays of unity centred on the sovereign and the royal family. What has changed over time are the meanings associated with this platform, and the symbolic salutation between crown and people enacted from it.
Historians have identified how the balcony was redesigned as part of a wider palace-backed campaign to remodel London’s ceremonial centre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an age dominated by imperial ambition and international competition, European nations vied to construct grandiose capital cities that symbolised their wealth and overseas power.
David Cannadine was one of the first historians to argue that the European building projects of this period were also intended to convey to new urban publics the enduring power of the social elite. In London, these imperial and hierarchical messages were communicated through new commemorative statues, and through an architectural plan that encompassed the widening of the Mall, the building of Admiralty Arch, the construction of the Victoria Memorial, and the re-fronting of Buckingham Palace.
The building work was completed by 1913 to create London’s first triumphal, ceremonial route, the culminating point of which was Buckingham Palace’s East Front. Although royalty had appeared on the palace veranda since 1851 with the opening of the Great Exhibition [the first international exhibition of manufactured products], the new ‘public face’ of Buckingham Palace was much grander and enabled a greater number of people to assemble in front of the gates. So it was on the evening of 4 August 1914 when, having convened a special council to declare war on Germany, George V was called out onto the balcony three times by a crowd who wanted their sovereign to signal his approval of the impending conflict. The king, in turn, interpreted the cheers of the thousands who had gathered around the Victoria Memorial as vindication of his government’s decision to join the fray, recording in his diary that “now everyone is for war and for helping our friends”. Queen Mary, who had joined him on the balcony, similarly noted how “we have the feeling of being supported by the people which is the great & glorious thing”.
The popularisation of the palace balcony as the altar where crown and people communed at times of national importance was secured with the Allied defeat of Germany and the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Night after night, crowds called the king and queen to the balcony to cheer and wave to them, elevating the monarchs as symbols of the nation’s victory. But now this was a ritual that members of the public outside of London could join in as well. Advances in film technologies meant that newsreel cameras captured the scenes of jubilation along the Mall and outside Buckingham Palace. And so, for the first time, Britain’s cinema audiences could partake in the moments when George V and his consort stepped out onto the balcony to acknowledge the crowds’ cheers.
This pattern continued through the interwar years with four of George V’s children marrying in a succession of spectacular royal weddings. In a period beset by social and political unrest, the royal marriages of 1922, 1923, 1934 and 1935 were staged by the monarchy and media as national events in order to generate unity and cohesion among the British public. With their emphasis on love and family, the interwar weddings also intensified the personal character of monarchy.
Princess Mary and her husband became the first royal newlyweds to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers from Buckingham Palace’s balcony in 1922, and in 1934, Prince George, Duke of Kent, and his bride, Princess Marina of Greece, added a further personal touch when they became the first members of the royal family to wave from the balcony to those massed below. This new intimate form of communication contrasted with the bowing that royalty had traditionally used to signal appreciation of a crowd’s ovation, and it immediately took off: at George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, the nine-year-old Elizabeth II could be seen waving to the people gathered outside the palace gates, and she did so again alongside her younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose, at their father’s coronation in 1937.
In the newsreel coverage of these events, special attention was devoted to the huge crowds that gathered to acclaim the royal family. The arrival of sound newsreels and BBC radio in the mid-1920s also enabled the media to convey the audial atmosphere that characterised these symbolic manifestations of national unity.
Britain’s victory in the Second World War further enhanced the function of the palace balcony as a focal point for national celebration with the prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously joining the royal family there during the VE Day celebrations. The monarchy’s close association with the armed forces was similarly strengthened with the introduction of the RAF fly-past in these years. Initially popularised during the reigns of George V and George VI, it was as part of the televised balcony appearance following Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that the fly-past was immortalised as a new ritual in the royal repertoire.
Now, more than 60 years on, the royal balcony appearance remains an important moment that encapsulates the abiding connection between British people and the crown. The royal protagonists who have stood and greeted their well-wishers from this platform have aged and changed over time, but the continuation of the British dynasty through the Windsor line and the focus on the family group as they smile and wave from the palace balcony helps to remind us of the enduring centrality of monarchy to public life and to the nation’s recent history.
Ed Owens is a historian and lecturer who is currently writing a new book on the relationship between the British monarchy, media and public in the 20th century.