Our June speaker was travel journalist and cruise ship lecturer Graeme Payne, who delivered a fascinating talk on the history of royal jubilees only three days after the Platinum Jubilee of our own Queen had ended.
While we mostly associate jubilees with occasions to celebrate the life and reign of a monarch, the concept and origins of jubilees can be traced back to the Old Testament: the Hebrew word yobhel (horn of a ram) was used to mark the year of the remission of sins, celebrated every 50 years with the sounding of a ram’s horn. In Latin, the word iubilare means “to shout with joy”.
Although significant, Elizabeth II’s reign is not the world’s longest – many monarchs have reigned longer, such as Sobhuza II of Swaziland (82 years), Harald I of Norway (73 years) and Louis XIV of France (72 years), although in most cases they ascended the throne without gaining full power until their majority.
The longest current reigning monarchs are both women, Elizabeth and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. In England, there have been 14 silver, six golden and two diamond jubilees, including those of Victoria and Elizabeth II. The idea of celebrating a sovereign’s jubilee is a relatively new idea and very particular to the UK. Other countries consider a long reign more a matter of divine will.
The Plantagenet king Edward III was the first to introduce royal hierarchy and pageantry, including the Order of the Garter and coins to commemorate his reign. His nine children were all given titles.
It wasn’t until George III, aka ‘the Squire of Windsor’, that certain celebratory elements were introduced to mark a jubilee. Although George disliked pomp, for his Golden Jubilee he released land or ‘royal farms’ to the people impoverished by Napoleonic conflicts, and the public flocked to thanksgiving services and impromptu fireworks displays.
Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 was the first to be celebrated over two days. It was attended by dignitaries from around the world and involved military processions and immense street parties. Because she wanted people to enjoy leisure time in the fresh air, she introduced parks to different industrial cities, although not all city officials saw this as a good thing. In the words of Pitman Poet Matty Tate:
Why waste we our means
Over Kings and Queens
Though ever so good they may be?
Let the Duke and the Peer
With their thousands a year
Rejoice if they like, but
Oh dear, oh dear,
Save the poor from this Jubilee.
Special-issue coins were first used to mark a royal jubilee with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 and a statue of the queen was erected in Brighton to commemorate the people’s achievements in education, science and industry.
Although the times were hard, people came out in their thousands to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. He introduced King George V playing fields and recreational grounds in towns and villages to encourage young people to exercise and enjoy sports.
In 1977 we saw a plethora of souvenirs and stamp collections issued to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. However, the main breakthrough was the introduction of the royal walkabout, despite the threat of IRA terrorism. This was a time when the royals mingled with the people, embedding the idea of the people’s jubilees.
In 2002, although having lost her mother and sister within weeks of her Golden Jubilee, the Queen went ahead with the celebrations; and her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 saw the launch of royal sponsored charities such as the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. The Queen went on to become patron of 510 charities, raising £1.4 billion in the year of the Diamond Jubilee alone. The Queen and other members of the royal family are now patrons to 2,415 Commonwealth charities.