Great days and petty disasters

Dinah Starkey reveals the chequered history of jubilees

ueen Victoria celebrated two jubilees, both elaborately choreographed to provide a spectacle that was as vulgar as possible. George III, by contrast, had a very low-key event. A mongrel dog was the star of George V's Silver Jubilee. But they all had one thing in common. Royal jubilees come from an ancient Jewish custom that decreed that every 50th year was sacred. It commemorated the deliverance from Egypt of the children of Israel and it was a time when fields were allowed to lie fallow and slaves were freed. It got its name from the flourish of rams' horn trumpets that marked the start of the year. The Hebrew name for them was yobel and the fanfare proclaimed a year of special rejoicing.

The Catholic Church had observed a jubilee every 100 years since 1300. In 1809, George III became the first British king to institute an official year of celebrations to mark his 50th year on the throne. By this time he was in poor health. His eyesight was failing and his administration was racked with scandal. Nevertheless his subjects produced commemorative medals and souvenir pottery and many of these have since become collectors'


Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, celebrated in 1887, was in marked contrast to her coronation 50 years previously. According to witnesses, the crowning was a shambles. There was no rehearsal, and the Archbishop of Canterbury had forgotten his spectacles and held the order of service upside down. No one had thought to measure the young Victoria's finger before commissioning the coronation ring, and it was far too small. The archbishop crammed it on her finger somehow and she had to soak it for half an hour in iced water before she could get it off at the end of the day.

But the muddle didn't matter, because the coronation was not seen as a public event. It was a private affair, witnessed only by select groups from the aristocracy, and they saw no need for pageantry.

Fifty years on, things had changed. The man in the street now followed current events in the national newspapers and watched the spectaculars at the Palace of Varieties. The public wanted a role in the celebrations and their expectations were a good deal higher than those of their grandparents.

There could be no repetition of the amateurish confusion of the coronation. The Golden Jubilee was planned to the last detail by a master of ceremonies whose avowed intention was to produce a royal ritual that was popular, or, in his own words, "vulgar".

Everything went like clockwork. It was a glittering occasion, worthy of its name. The crowned heads of Europe turned out in force and crowds lined the streets of the capital to watch an exotic procession of maharajahs and princes, including the crown princess of Hawaii who was much impressed by the grandeur of the occasion. "But the centre to which the eye constantly returned," wrote The Times correspondent, "was the figure seated, solitary (still dressed in mourning for her husband), in all that sunshine of pleasure on her chair of state."

The rejoicings were not confined to the capital. The villagers of Denby Dale in Yorkshire prepared to bake an enormous pie in honour of the occasion. It was eight feet in diameter and two feet deep and the ingredients weighed a ton and a half. Game and poultry, rabbit, veal and beef went into the pie together with 40 stone of potatoes.

But the pie was a disaster. The meat that was used was far from fresh, and the event took place in high summer. When the pie emerged from the specially built oven, the smell was so bad that it overpowered the spectators and the celebrations came to an abrupt end. The pie was buried in quick lime in the woods nearby and, significantly, there was no Denby Dale pie for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations 10 years later.

George V was the first British monarch to celebrate 25 years on the throne. On May 6, 1935, he and Queen Mary took the route followed by Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee, from Buckingham Palace to St Paul's Cathedral for a thanksgiving service. The crowds were hugely enthusiastic and the King was so touched that he later wrote in his diary: "I had no idea they felt like this about me. I am beginning to think they must really like me for myself."

But the star of the day was a mongrel known as the "Jubilee dog". It appeared from nowhere and trotted in front of the royal carriage all the way to St Paul's, where it hid underneath the carriage and refused to come out. Soldiers tried to poke it out with their swords and policemen used truncheons but the dog stayed put all through the service.

Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee was on June 7, 1977. It proved very popular and there were street parties and many schoolchildren received a commemorative mug. This was emphatically a people's event, but even here protocol reared its ugly head. When the royal couple went "walkabout" in the city after the thanksgiving service, a boy tried to approach the Queen with his autograph book and was firmly diverted by an equerry. "She only signs Acts of Parliament", he was told and he had to make do with a chat with Prince Philip.



* Talk about special days, including those which are celebrated within the family, such as birthdays and anniversaries.

* Make a collection of cards and souvenirs associated with special days. You might include a commemorative mug, birthday cards, a Remembrance Day poppy, Christmas cards, or a wedding decoration. Which of these events are celebrated by just one family and which are nationwide? Why do we remember them? Why is a jubilee a special day?

* Invite two people who can remember the Silver Jubilee to talk to the class about their memories. Look for differences between the two versions.


* Talk about previous jubilees and locate them on a time line to support work on the Victorians and Britain since 1930.

* Provide a selection of coins minted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Include old currency as well as decimal coins. Sort them into a time line and ask children to use reference books to find an event which occurred in the year when each coin was minted.

* Brief children to watch part of the event on television and then write an eye-witness account of the ceremony.

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