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Her Majesty The Queen of the United Kingdom waving

Her Majesty The Queen is the first British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of service to the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Historian Professor Philip Williamson takes a look at the changes around jubilees over the years.

Royal jubilees are invented and moveable. Originally a jubilee marked the start of a fifty-year reign, as was the case for King George III in 1809, but for Queen Victoria, it was moved to the end of her jubilee year, in 1887. Her longevity resulted in the creation of a new jubilee for her sixtieth year on the throne in 1897, named the ‘diamond jubilee’ to distinguish it from that of 1887, now retrospectively described as ‘golden’.

A ‘silver jubilee’, for twenty-five years, was invented for King George V in 1935, given his already advanced age. For Queen Elizabeth II the jubilees moved from the strict anniversary in February to that of her coronation in June, offering better weather for outdoor events. She is the first sovereign to have four jubilees: silver in 1977, golden in 2002, diamond in 2012, and now, for seventy years, the first platinum jubilee.

Nation, empire and Commonwealth

Jubilees celebrate not only of the reigns of sovereigns, but also the communities over which they reign. As the monarch is the symbolic head of the nation, jubilees have been national occasions. The jubilees of 1887, 1897 and 1935 were also great imperial occasions; and as the present Queen is head of the Commonwealth, her jubilees have been marked by Commonwealth events. All the jubilees have been treated as opportunities for members of the nation, empire or Commonwealth to celebrate their solidarity, institutions and public values.

This wide importance is evident in their changing organisation. Arranged rather haphazardly in 1887 and 1897 by palace authorities with various other bodies, since 1935 they have been a matter for governments, with civil servants, palace officials, public and voluntary associations and media representatives planning events under ministerial oversight, and with the detailed programme announced in parliament.

Since 1887 all jubilees have had national events in London as their centrepiece. But as wide participation has been a leading purpose, local celebrations have always been encouraged, to engage as many civic bodies, civil associations and members of the public as possible with the implicit aims of the jubilees.

Celebrations, charities and commemorations

Royal jubilees are now most popularly associated with holidays, entertainments and ‘big lunches’. In 1935 the UK Government initiated an enduring jubilee event, the local street parties. Jubilees have also promoted good causes, expressing the striking modern development of a ‘welfare monarchy’, with the royal family acting as patrons – in effect fund-raisers ­– for a huge number of philanthropic, medical, health, educational and, more recently, ecological causes.

As the solidarities encouraged by jubilees included pride in city, town, village and associational communities, each has produced innumerable local commemorative amenities or foundations which bear the name ‘jubilee’. But their main charitable feature has been general appeals: for relief of insolvent debtors in 1809, an imperial institute in 1887, a hospital fund in 1897, youth welfare in 1935 and 1977, five of the Queen’s charities in 2002, and Commonwealth medical and health charities in 2012. In keeping with contemporary environmental concerns, for the platinum jubilee the chief cause is the ‘green canopy’, a mass planting of trees.

A unifying force?

The modern monarchy seeks to represent and to unify, and to promote admirable values and causes. In these aims it is sustained by a great range of institutions and associations, for whom loyalty to the sovereign and royal recognition of themselves validates their own status and purposes. This helps to sustain public respect for the monarchy, strengthened by the evident dutifulness and probity of successive monarchs.

The aspect that brings together representation, respect and good causes is religion. Jubilees have always been important religious events, with both national thanksgiving services in London, and services in local communities across the nation. Although the monarchy is tightly connected with the Church of England, these services have become increasingly inter-denominational, with participation from all the main churches in the United Kingdom.

Since 1977, to accommodate the growth of devolution, ‘national’ services have also been held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. More strikingly still, the jubilees since 2002 have been marked by inter-faith events, at which the Queen and the royal family encourage good relations among Christian and non-Christian faith communities in the Commonwealth and in contemporary multi-cultural Britain.

The platinum jubilee is another opportunity for the monarchy to show that it is keeping pace with social changes. Its success is hard to measure, given how the media both idealizes and criticizes members of the royal family, perhaps distorting deeper opinions towards the institution and the sovereign. In the most recent survey of popular attitudes, 58 per cent said that the monarchy should be kept for the foreseeable future, and 52 per cent said that it had an important part in bridging divides between different ethnic and faith groups.

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