Britain's golden jubilees: from George III to Elizabeth II
King George III pardoned prisoners of war, Queen Victoria dressed down to fit the public mood, and George V brought London to a near-religious standstill. As Queen Elizabeth II marks 70 years on the throne in 2022, Tracy Borman tells the story of three previous monarchs’ jubilee celebrations...
This year Elizabeth II marks her platinum jubilee – the first time any monarch has completed 70 years on the throne in the history of the British crown. A raft of celebrations is planned across the UK, the Commonwealth and around the world: from street parties to a star-studded concert at Buckingham Palace, a new jubilee garden (“Superbloom”) in the Tower of London moat, and even a platinum pudding.
While the scale of the celebrations is likely to eclipse any other in the history of the British monarchy, Elizabeth II is by no means the first sovereign whose jubilee has inspired their subjects to pull out all the stops.
When did royal jubilees begin?
The history of official jubilee celebrations only goes back as far as George III (reigned 1760–1820). But the origin of jubilees can be traced to the Bible – the Old Testament uses the term to describe the marking of a 50-year milestone. Since then, the naming of these celebrations has followed the traditions of wedding anniversaries: 25 years is called a silver jubilee, 50 years a golden jubilee, 60 years a diamond jubilee, and 70 years a platinum jubilee.
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Although little is known about how they celebrated, the records hint at some similarities to the present day. Edward III was the earliest English ruler to mark his golden jubilee publicly. This began with a procession from the Tower of London accompanied by trumpeters, followed by a spectacular week-long joust at Smithfield.
Most monarchs might not have notched up a half century on the throne, but nearly all marked the anniversary of their accession each year – notably Elizabeth I, who held accession day tilts, theatre, poetry and costume parties. In fact, she made her accession day such a prominent part of the court calendar that it continued to be celebrated into the 18th century as a national holiday.
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Yet even Elizabeth’s accession day celebrations struggle to rival the splendid global pageantry of the jubilees of George III, Victoria (r1837–1901) and George V (r1910–36).
Here, we chart the highs and lows of their celebrations, from the thronging crowds who turned out to see them to personal battles with grief and mental instability...
George III: a last hurrah
In contrast to every other golden jubilee since, George III marked the beginning, not the end, of his 50th year on the throne. The “Grand National Jubilee”, as it was known, began on 25 October 1809 with festivities across the United Kingdom and the British colonies. The governor of India threw a fête in Bombay on 4 June, the king’s birthday, while in Britain the price of candles had begun to rise from as early as March that year as people planned for indoor jubilee parties.
Most of the events were scheduled around the anniversary itself, and shops were closed so that everyone could take part. They kicked off with balls in Basingstoke and Wokingham and, on 25 October, the king and queen, along with three of their children, attended a private service of thanksgiving at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Other festivities included a firework display at Frogmore, a 50-gun salute from the Tower of London and a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral.
George III’s subjects entered fully into the spirit of things. A number of children born during jubilee year were christened “Jubilee George” or “Jubilee Charlotte” in honour of the royal couple; military deserters and prisoners of war were pardoned; and monuments were erected, such as a statue of George III in his favourite seaside resort, Weymouth. There was plenty of jubilee merchandise, too, including a series of jugs and medals.
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Sadly, because of his declining health, George III was unable to take part in most of the celebrations. From early in his reign, he had suffered from what he termed his “ulcer’d mind” – bouts of mental instability that became ever more serious and prolonged as the years passed.
On 25 October 1810, the king appeared in public for the last time at a reception to mark the end of his 50th year on the throne. It was obvious to all those present that the “madness” had returned. Early the following year parliament passed the Regency Act, conferring George III’s authority upon his eldest son and heir, who became prince regent and the future George IV.
Queen Victoria: out of mourning… into the modern age
The next monarch to reach the 50-year milestone was George III’s granddaughter Queen Victoria, who had ascended the throne in 1837, aged just 18.
It was with some difficulty that her ministers persuaded her to go through with the celebrations for her golden jubilee in 1887, because she had largely withdrawn from public life after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. On the anniversary itself (20 June) the queen had breakfast outdoors under the trees at Frogmore, close to where Albert lay buried.
She then travelled by train from Windsor to London for a “large family dinner” at Buckingham Palace. “We dined in the supper room, which looked splendid with the buffet covered with the gold plate,” she recalled in her journal.
Victoria refused to wear her crown and robes of state, substituting them for a bonnet laced with diamonds and travelling in a simple landau coach. In so doing, she proved more in tune with the public mood than her ministers
At the service of thanksgiving held at Westminster Abbey the following day, Victoria refused to wear her crown and robes of state, substituting them for a bonnet laced with diamonds and travelling in a simple landau coach. In so doing, she proved more in tune with the public mood than her ministers. At a time of economic hardship, the pageantry of a full-scale royal event would have caused widespread resentment. Vast crowds that “stretched to the limit of sight in both directions”, wrote the American writer Mark Twain, turned out to cheer the queen’s procession.
Ten years later, Victoria became the first monarch in British history to celebrate their diamond jubilee, which was made a Festival of Empire. Among the gifts that Victoria sent across the globe to commemorate the occasion was a white silk shawl to Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved African-American woman who had become an abolitionist. The significance of the colour was lost on neither woman: white was synonymous with freedom and power.
On 22 June 1897, the queen was driven in a six-mile procession through London, witnessed by huge crowds. Thanks to the wonders of what was then cutting-edge technology, it was also broadcast to cinema audiences across the world, with 40 camera operators stationed along the route. An open-air service was held outside St Paul’s so that the queen could take part from within her carriage rather than climb the steps to the cathedral.
Lame from rheumatism and using a wheelchair, her health was declining rapidly. But the adoration of the crowds left a deep impression on the queen, who wrote in her journal: “No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me… The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified.”
George V: turning the monarchy into a religion
There would not be another golden jubilee until Elizabeth II’s in 2002. The only other jubilee of any kind between the reigns of Victoria and Elizabeth was that of George V, who celebrated his silver jubilee in May 1935.
A willingness to respond to his people’s desires had made George a popular king. He had become the first British sovereign to record a Christmas broadcast, and he acted as a vital figurehead for the nation during the First World War. As a result, the silver jubilee celebrations prompted an outpouring of affection among his subjects.
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The celebrations began on 6 May with a procession through London to St Paul’s Cathedral for a ceremony of thanksgiving. The king recorded his astonishment at: “The greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life… The enthusiasm was indeed most touching.”
On another carriage ride that month, George was joined by his granddaughter, the future Elizabeth II. Meanwhile, Britons celebrated with garden parties, pageants and sports events, and every child born on jubilee day was given a commemorative silver cup. In a jubilee speech broadcast to the nation, the king gave thanks “from the depths of his heart to his dear people”.
Reflecting on the celebrations, prime minister Ramsay MacDonald observed: “We all went away feeling that we had taken part in something very much like a holy communion.” This marked an important moment in the evolution of the crown. As one commentator has since put it: “Monarchy was no longer simply in alliance with religion; it had become a religion.”
This article was first published in the June 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine