Queen Elizabeth II’s accession day, celebrated on 6 February 2012, was heralded by Boris Johnson, the then mayor of London, with the tribute: “Warm congratulations to Her Majesty on the 60th anniversary of her accession. Here’s to a sparkling diamond jubilee. God Save the Queen!”


In offering his felicitations to the Queen, Johnson was following in the footsteps of the lord mayors of the late 16th century who had led the city’s celebrations for the accession of the first Elizabeth on 17 November. However, while their congratulations and pledges of loyalty would be undertaken with considerable solemnity and ceremony, Johnson offered his tribute rather more informally on Twitter.

Elsewhere, more traditional rites were observed, including gun salutes at Hyde Park corner, the Tower of London and throughout the UK, while at St Paul’s Cathedral special parts of the accession service from the Book of Common Prayer was sung at Evensong.

Public celebrations

For much of her reign, Queen Elizabeth II has avoided comparisons with her Elizabethan predecessor and has typically shunned celebrations of her accession day – instead observing it privately in acknowledgement of it as the day of the death of her father, George VI. However, for the diamond jubilee year, the Queen broke with such convention, meeting crowds at the town hall in King’s Lynn in Norfolk before going to Dersingham Infant and Nursery School where pupils put on a musical performance for her.

This, together with the spectacular celebrations that are to be staged throughout the summer, can be said to have had their antecedents in the reign of Elizabeth I. While the first Elizabeth never made it to her diamond jubilee – she died after 45 years as queen – national exigencies meant that as her reign went on, and the dangers to the realm mounted, increasingly spectacular national celebrations on ‘the Queen’s Day’ became critical, not simply for spectacle and festivity but for security and defence.

The first Elizabeth had come to the throne on 17 November 1558 following the death of her Catholic sister Mary I. For many it offered the promise of a decisive break with an unpopular popish past and the dawn of a new age with a Protestant young queen.

Yet for others, Elizabeth was the ‘little whore’ daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the living symbol of the break with Rome and Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland believed to be the rightful heir to the throne of England. In the years that followed, Mary became the focus of numerous plots against Elizabeth.

Twelve years after Elizabeth’s accession, 17 November became the first royal anniversary to be popularly celebrated in England. It began as a spontaneous outpouring of popular loyalty following the abortive rebellion of Catholic nobles from northern England seeking to depose Elizabeth, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.

The first celebration is thought to have been in Oxford in 1570 with bell-ringing across the city, although there is also evidence that Lambeth, the home of the archbishop of Canterbury – and as such a royalist stronghold – rang its bells in 1569. Following the rebellion and endless rumours of Catholic plots inspired by the presence of the Scottish queen, who had fled to England in 1568, popular feeling surged and annual celebrations of bell-ringing, bonfires, prayers, sermons and feasting sprung up across the country. Anxious for government favour, town officials would sponsor increasingly elaborate customary ceremonies including processions and pageants to celebrate the queen’s life and reign and reaffirm loyalty to her.

In Liverpool in 1576 the mayor, Thomas Bavand, ordered a great bonfire to be lit in the market square and gave instructions that all householders should light fires throughout the town. That evening there was a banquet and then back at his house the mayor distributed sack, white wine and sugar “standing all without the door, lauding and praising God for the most prosperous reign of our… most gracious sovereign”.

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Two years later, in York, the city authorities ordered that officials should go decently apparelled to a sermon in praise of the queen “on pain of such fine as the mayor saw fit”. In more puritan areas such as Essex, however, the Queen’s accession day was normally kept as a fast.

By the early 1580s, accession day celebrations were brought under central control as a feast day of the church. Whereas previously Catholic feast days had been the occasion of spectacular pageants and processions in celebration of the saints, now such ‘holy day’ festivities were used to glorify Elizabeth. In 1576 a special service and liturgy was designed and a collection of psalms, prayers and readings published giving thanks for the reign of the queen who had delivered the English people “from danger of war and oppression, restoring peace and true religion”. Elizabeth was heralded as delivering the realm from the Catholic tyranny of Mary’s reign and from the yoke of Spain that had cast a shadow over England since Mary’s marriage to the Spanish king, Philip, in 1554.

Accession day sermons heralded Elizabeth as a “learned, wise, religious, just, uncorrupt, mild, merciful and zealous prince”. At a sermon at Lydd in Kent in 1587, Isaac Colfe remarked: “Surely never did the Lord make any such day before it, neither will he make any such day after for the happiness of England.”

And the celebrations were not confined to England. When Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins were at sea on 17 November 1582, three pieces of ordnance were shot in favour of the queen, and in 1587, Puerto Seguro in the South Seas saw a discharge of ordnance, a salute and firework display.

From 1581 the focus of the annual accession day celebrations was a spectacular tournament – known as a ‘tilt’ – held at the palace of Whitehall; a public event which in its sheer size and splendour was matched only by coronations and royal weddings.

Shortly before 17 November the queen would make her state entry into London having returned from her summer progress and retire to the palace of Whitehall ready for the tournament. The citizens of London would witness processions to and from the tiltyard, city worthies would assemble in their finery, trumpets would sound, cannons were fired and bonfires set ablaze.

Verses of praise

A German traveller, Leopold von Wedel, observed the 1584 tournament and described how the combatants would ride in disguise into the tiltyard accompanied by their servants and, before the joust, would address the queen with special verses of wit and praise.

Entrants went to considerable expense to devise themes and order armour and costumes for their followers. Von Wedel described how some of the combatants’ servants were dressed as savages or Irishmen, others as women with long hair to their girdles, “others had horses equipped like elephants, some carriages were drawn by men, others appeared to move by themselves; altogether the carriages were very odd in appearance”.

While this was one of the high points of the court calendar it was also an event enjoyed by thousands of Londoners. Some 12,000 would squeeze into the tiltyard at Whitehall, now Horse Guards Parade, each paying 12d for entry to enjoy the tournament, which continued through the afternoon. It was for them a chance to display their loyalty to their monarch, to enjoy the spectacle and a day off work.

The accession day glorification of the queen was taken to even greater heights following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. A Catholic invasion had long been feared. But now Elizabeth had triumphed and defended Protestant England against the might of Catholic Spain.

In 1588 the queen rode in triumph into the city on a symbolic chariot “imitating the ancient Romans” as musicians played and the lord mayor of London waited to greet her. At St Paul’s Cathedral banners of the vanquished Spaniards adorned the walls, and from a specially constructed closet Elizabeth heard the sermon of thanksgiving at Paul’s Cross before returning by torchlight to Whitehall. Similar celebrations heralding the queen’s victory were held in Nottingham, Bristol, Maidstone and in other cities across the country.

The most famous of the accession day tilts was that of 1595 when the queen’s latter-day favourite, Robert Deveureux, the Earl of Essex, not only jousted, but acted out a publicity-seeking spectacle. While it was ostensibly designed as a public profession of loyalty to the queen, Elizabeth was, it seems, far from impressed by Essex’s display, believing herself to have been marginalised by his self-promotion. She is reported to have said that “if she thought there had been so much said of her, she would not have been there that night, and so went to bed”.

Courting favour

Essex’s attempt to use the public platform provided by the accession day to court the queen’s favour had backfired. On her accession day, more than any other, it would not do to upstage the queen.

In the final years of the reign, with Elizabeth still unmarried, with no heir of her body and no named successor, the question of the royal succession remained uncertain. Within and outside the court, this was a source of great anxiety for Englishmen who feared civil war on her death.

The Queen’s Day celebrations became firmly established across the country and were deliberately built up by the government as a great unifying national festival demonstrating loyalty to a lonely and ageing queen, and emphasising continuity and Protestant truth in the midst of continued threats. Elizabeth’s accession had heralded a new dawn, deliverance from the powers of darkness and triumph over the antichrist of Rome.

The diamond jubilee celebrations of 2012 also paid tribute to an ageing queen, emphasise continuity and perhaps provide a source of national unity, but undoubtedly in a far more secular fashion. Popular celebrations certainly acknowledged the longevity of the Queen’s reign, and perhaps in the words of the prime minister, her “magnificent service”. But what else? Was this an event of national loyalty reaffirming the devotion of the country to the crown and the Protestant church, as the first Elizabethans had intended?

Possibly not. What now does she represent?

This Elizabeth is not generally celebrated as a Protestant Deborah who shines the light of true religion. Indeed tributes to the Queen have been notable by their secular rhetoric, acknowledging her “experience, dignity and quiet authority”, her dedication, wisdom and continuity. However, the archbishop of Canterbury, in his accession day address, made not on Twitter but before the general assembly of the church, was at pains to emphasise her “Christian vocation” and her office as not a “secular” one but a “Christian one for which she had been anointed with oil and consecrated”.

One wonders whether it is the archbishop or mayor whose tributes are most in line with popular feeling. While the first Elizabethans, through a combination of loyalty, fear and instruction, recognised the accession day of their queen, us second Elizabethans observed the Queen’s anniversary bank holidays for rather more mixed reasons – a day of feasting and celebration perhaps. But whether it was more in celebration of a day off work rather than a display of loyalty to the crown is less easy to know.

Anna Whitelock is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of London. She is author of Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen (Bloomsbury, 2009)


This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


Anna Whitelock is chair in history at City, University of London