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From silver to platinum: a history of Queen Elizabeth II's jubilees

Royal anniversary celebrations have long been a litmus test of the public mood. As Queen Elizabeth II reaches her platinum jubilee, Stephen Bates looks at the major milestones in the reign of Elizabeth II, and Britons’ reactions to these events...

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip mark the diamond jubilee in 2012 by watching the Jubilee River Pageant, where a seven-mile flotilla sails past them (Photo by Eddie Mullholland - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Published: May 31, 2022 at 7:15 am
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Royal jubilee celebrations have a longer history than might be imagined, despite the fact that most British monarchs have not lived long enough to reach a major milestone. The first was celebrated in October 1809 on what was actually the 49th anniversary of George III’s accession, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars – which were not going well. A Mrs Biggs wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Dartmouth, suggesting a festival intended to “excite a spirit of loyal enthusiasm”.

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The event was a success, and its timing was fortunate – a year later the king, grief-stricken over the death of his youngest daughter, suffered a relapse of his mental illness.

In June 1887, Queen Victoria had to be persuaded to mark her golden jubilee; she had not celebrated her silver jubilee in 1862, which fell just after Prince Albert’s death. After 50 years, the golden jubilee would be “just hustle and bustle”, she said, and the government was reluctant to spend money on it. Ten years later, the celebrations were more lavish; it became an imperial celebration, with troops from all over the empire on parade. The procession to St Paul’s was one of the first events to be filmed.

Huge crowds cheered the queen, who by then was too frail to leave her carriage to attend the cathedral service, so it was held on the steps where she could see it. “No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation,” she wrote wonderingly in her journal that night, adding: “The cheering was quite deafening.”

George V’s silver jubilee in May 1935, eight months before he died, was suggested by the government partly as a patriotic display of British unity, a warning to Europe’s dictators, and partly with an eye to the forth coming general election. To his surprise, the gruff old king was greeted by cheering crowds on his way to the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s. “I am beginning to think they must really like me for myself,” he murmured, and that evening broad cast on the BBC his thanks to the nation.

In 2022, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her record-extending platinum jubilee – no other British monarch has ever reigned for 70 years. While not all her previous jubilees were as hotly anticipated as this one, they have all been a display of the monarchy's enduring popularity...


1977: The silver jubilee

The success of the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 25 years on the throne was by no means a foregone conclusion. The country was in an economic crisis, having been bailed out by the International Monetary Fund only the previous year.

There was a mood of political instability and discontent. Irreverent punk rock was the sound of the late seventies: the Sex Pistols launched their version of God Save the Queen to coincide with the jubilee. The affair between Princess Margaret and Roddy Llewellyn, a landscape gardener (and baronet) who was 18 years her junior, had prompted ribald headlines, and there was a general sense of fraying tawdriness about the country.

James Callaghan’s minority Labour government was reluctant to spend money on a celebration, but was talked into it

James Callaghan’s minority Labour government was reluctant to spend money on a celebration, but was talked into it by Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary, despite warnings in the press that it was unlikely to be a success because no one would want to celebrate the monarchy. The predictions were all proved wrong.

Although the weather was grey over jubilee weekend in June, there were thousands of street parties – 4,000 in London alone – and the crowds along the Queen’s processional route from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s stood six deep. There was a roaring trade in silver jubilee mugs, commemorative medals, tea towels and even Union Flag underpants. Five hundred million people around the world were said to have watched the celebrations on television.

The Queen was amazed at the warmth shown by the huge crowds during the silver jubilee celebrations, at a time when the monarchy had supposedly fallen out of favour (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The Queen was amazed at the warmth shown by the huge crowds during the silver jubilee celebrations, at a time when the monarchy had supposedly fallen out of favour (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Queen was as surprised by the response as her grandfather had been 42 years earlier. She was greeted by enthusiastic crowds, both during her visits all around the nation (including Northern Ireland, then at the height of the Troubles) and on her trips to Commonwealth countries as far afield as Fiji and Canada. “I am simply amazed: I had no idea,” the Queen was overheard saying repeatedly.

One innovation was the walkabout, previously seen only in her 1970 New Zealand tour. The informal greeting of people lining the streets was now tried in the City of London following the cathedral service, and proved to be such a success that it has been a feature of royal visits ever since.

The only misstep came in the Queen’s speech to the combined Houses of Parliament, when she upset Scottish Nationalists by insisting: “I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps the jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred.” This was the nearest the Queen has ever come to expressing a politically contentious opinion.

The poet laureate Sir John Betjeman’s celebratory hymn was also possibly a mistake: “From that look of dedication / In those eyes profoundly blue / We know her coronation / As a sacrament and true.” The sceptics were confounded, and the silver jubilee set a template for subsequent royal celebrations: a combination of formal official ceremonies and widespread visits, with informal local rejoicing.

Charteris told the royal biographer Ben Pimlott later: “She had a love affair with the country.” Or, as one banner along the processional route had it, “Liz Rules OK”.

2002: The golden jubilee

The 50th anniversary of the Queen’s accession followed a decade of shocks to the monarchy: the divorces of three of her children, including the highly public and acrimonious split between Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales and the subsequent death of Diana in an accident in Paris; and the fire at Windsor Castle, after which it was announced that the Queen wished to pay income tax for the first time.

These were events that led to questioning of both the monarchy’s popularity and its long-term viability. As before the silver jubilee, there were predictions that the celebrations would be a flop. The emphasis of organisers at the palace, as one official told the journalist Robert Hardman, was informality: “A lot of effort went into making it look unplanned.”

The centrepiece was to be the Queen thanking her people for their support. The year got off to a bad start with the deaths in rapid succession of Princess Margaret and then the Queen Mother at the age of 101. The public reaction to the latter’s death revealed a sizeable reservoir of respect and affection for the monarchy, as had the celebrations for her centenary two years earlier. The queue to walk past her coffin in Westminster Hall stretched for more than a mile. “As soon as I saw the length of the queue… it spelt to me that the troubles were now passed,” a private secretary told Hardman.

Within a month, the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh were embarking on a tour of the British Isles. Once again enthusiastic crowds turned out, as they would when the couple visited Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Considered something of a test of the public’s affections, golden jubilee festivities drew around a million people to The Mall to celebrate (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Considered something of a test of the public’s affections, golden jubilee festivities drew around a million people to The Mall to celebrate (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

The centrepiece of the jubilee weekend was another innovation: two concerts, one classical and one pop, on a giant stage in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. There were concerns about the effects on the lawns, and the Queen – by then well into her seventies – did not actually turn up to the pop concert until towards the end. It was a star-studded show, with performances by Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Cliff Richard, among others, and was launched with a surprise appearance by Queen guitarist Brian May, who played a rock version of the national anthem on top of the palace roof.

The event fitted into the pattern as before: a service at St Paul’s, formal lunch at the Guildhall in the City of London, followed by an RAF flypast over the palace, watched by the Queen and her family from the balcony. An extra public holiday helped prolong the celebrations, and there were again street parties across the country and crowds pouring into London to watch the spectacle. The monarchy was back on track.

2012: The diamond jubilee

Ten years after the golden jubilee, the monarchy had sailed into calmer, more serene waters – though that was not the case for the centrepiece of the commemorations at the start of June.

A spectacular regatta procession down the Thames from Putney to the Isle of Dogs was meticulously planned, comprising a flotilla of 1,000 boats, barges, cruisers, rowing boats, dinghies and skiffs. Unfortunately, the weather grew increasingly squally and wet as the fleet made its way past Westminster. Through it all, the Queen and her nonagenarian husband stood stoically in the open on their barge, watching the procession pass by – a gallant performance that landed the duke in hospital with an infection.

The weather grew increasingly squally and wet as the fleet made its way past Westminster. Through it all, the Queen and her nonagenarian husband stood stoically in the open on their barge

Unlike earlier such anniversary events, the diamond jubilee was not a tentative testing of the public mood. The monarchy’s popularity was not now in doubt, especially in the wake of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton the previous year. Even so, to forestall criticism of the cost at a time of recession, some elements of the celebrations were privately sponsored.

Once again the Queen and duke toured the British Isles but this time, in a concession to their age, other family members were sent on tours abroad: Prince Charles and his wife Camilla to Australia, New Zealand and Canada; Prince William and Catherine to Malaysia and the Pacific islands; and Prince Harry to Belize, Brazil, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

For the younger members, these tours were partly testing-the-water exercises to see how they performed in their royal roles. Each was a success. There were other, by-now traditional elements to the jubilee, such as a St Paul’s service, walkabouts, a formal dinner and a concert, though this time, in deference to the palace lawns, it took place at the Victoria Memorial on The Mall.

Many of the stars were the same, too, with performers from each decade of the Queen’s reign. Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and Paul McCartney rubbed shoulders with Grace Jones, Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, Elton John, Jessie J and Ed Sheeran. As before, the Queen put in a late appearance at the concert.

Overall, the Queen’s jubilees have proved an increasingly successful element in promoting the monarchy’s popularity: an opportunity for an extra day’s holiday for the public, for street parties and uninhibited – though decorous – celebrations.

2017: The sapphire jubilee

The 65th anniversary of the Queen’s accession passed without fanfare. On 6 February 2017, she spent the day privately at Sandringham, as she does every year, going diligently through the red boxes of official documents sent to her daily by the government.

The chief reason for the lack of ceremony on the actual day is that the date of her accession is also the anniversary of her father’s death, which the Queen likes to spend in quiet reflection. George VI was found dead in bed by his valet in 1952, having suffered a heart attack in his sleep. He had been ill with lung cancer but his death was unexpected; Elizabeth II was on a tour in Kenya when she succeeded to the throne.

Stephen Bates is a journalist and author. His books include Royalty Inc: Britain's Best-Known Brand (Aurum Press, 2015)

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This article appeared in BBC History Magazine's 'The Queen' Special Edition, republished in 2022

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