Jubilee Weekend, 2-5 June - Diamond Jubilee: a tale of two queens

18th May 2012 at 01:00
They are 115 years apart, but A.W. Purdue believes there are parallels between Victoria and Elizabeth's 60-year celebrations

Matriarchy seems to suit the British monarchy. And as we celebrate the 60th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, comparisons between this Diamond Jubilee and that of Queen Victoria in 1897 are compelling.

Our Queen, we hope, will overtake Victoria, who reigned for 63 years and seven months, as the longest reigning monarch in British history. But as well as demonstrating the resilience of the monarchy, the celebrations of two such long reigns highlight the development of relations between the royal family and the British public - and illuminate the major changes to this country over more than a century.

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee marked a peak in the popularity of the monarchy and, coming at the high tide of imperial might, the official ceremonies were glittering. The royal procession along the elaborately decorated six-mile route through London - a shorter version of which Elizabeth II will follow on 5 June - was escorted by 50,000 troops from all over the Empire.

Victoria was conveyed in an open state landau (a predecessor of the 1902 state landau that will be used this year) drawn by eight cream-coloured horses. Dressed in black, she remained seated in the coach outside St Paul's Cathedral during a short service of thanksgiving. Around her, British pageantry was reinforced by the attendance of prime ministers of dominions and colonies, and the more exotic representatives of the expanding Empire - princes, maharajas and sultans.

Queen Victoria had not always been such a popular monarch. She had withdrawn into seclusion after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, and eschewed public appearances, only on rare occasions condescending to open Parliament. The 1860s and 1870s had seen the nadir of royal grandeur and the emergence of considerable criticism of the monarchy by the press. It was, indeed, only with reluctance that Victoria gave permission for public celebrations of her Golden Jubilee in 1887. But the popularity of the occasion surprised and delighted her. Ten years later, an elderly Victoria steeled herself for the arduous programme of planned events, but was moved by the adulation of the crowds that lined the streets. When the Archbishop of Canterbury called for "Three cheers for the Queen", the cries echoed around London.

Just as important as the grand spectacle were the hundreds of celebrations organised in towns and villages throughout the nation. For while the political power of the monarch had faded, a new social monarchy had developed, retaining the grandeur but acquiring a new social dimension and the leadership of civil society. The Diamond Jubilee was the climax of Victoria's reign.

But if Victoria had become the embodiment of the nation's past and present, the Jubilee also fanned public interest in the lives of the royal family. Births, deaths, marriages, romance and even scandals became public events rather than private concerns. A "people's monarchy", which was the patron of innumerable charities and societies and which replaced power with influence, had transformed the monarchy Victoria had inherited, though she had not willed it so.

By the time Elizabeth II inherited the throne, a close relationship was beginning with British society. The trauma of the abdication of Edward VIII had been overcome and a long and arduous war had cemented relations between the people and the Crown. And though wartime austerity persisted, there were high hopes for a "New Elizabethan Age".

Some characteristics of Britain during the last years of Victoria's reign were still evident in 1952: industrial manufacturing dominated the economy; the vast majority of the population would have been categorised as working class; and what would now be considered "Victorian" values and codes of conduct remained influential.

Today, however, after 60 years at the helm, Queen Elizabeth reigns over a very different country; one with a post-industrial economy and a more complex social structure. There has also been a moral and sexual revolution that, with the increase in divorce, has affected the royal family itself. In 1992, the Queen spoke of an "annus horribilis" as the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana fell very publicly apart, while Diana's death five years later seemed to many to herald a crisis for the monarchy. Yet the crowds still turned out in traditional force in 2002 for the Queen Mother's funeral and for the Golden Jubilee.

Many features of Queen Victoria's 1897 Jubilee will be present this June. Monarchical ceremony has been refurbished and perfected since the late 19th century and horse-drawn carriages escorted by cavalry with swords and in magnificent uniforms have a greater eclat than when the horse was the main means of transport. (For the Queen to arrive in a Rolls-Royce would indeed be a let-down.) And despite the clarity of television, for many, nothing can compare to "being there".

Much of it will be traditional. A fireworks display was provided for the very first Jubilee, the Golden Jubilee of George III in 1809; beacons were lit in 1897; commemorative mugs and glassware have become a standard part of royal celebrations; and postage stamps and specially minted coins were issued at Victoria's Golden Jubilee. This year, tea towels - banned as too vulgar for William and Catherine's wedding last year - will be issued again.

An innovation is the pageant on the Thames, which invokes the reign of Elizabeth I, when London centred on the river, and recognises its recent reinvigoration. Innovations, if successful, become traditions and there is to be, as in 2002, a Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace - a performance as inconceivable in 1952 as it would have been in 1897.

But there is more than the glitter of tradition and ceremony here. At the deepest level, jubilees reflect the way people relate their own lives to the reigns of monarchs; one of the great strengths of a hereditary monarchy is that its term is set, not by elections or statutory terms of office, but by the lives of sovereigns. As with those who celebrated Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, only a minority will remember a time when Queen Elizabeth II was not on the throne, but very many will identify with the births, marriages and deaths - and the twists and turns in the fortunes - of the royal family, which have in many cases paralleled those in their own lives. The monarchy today may be less elevated than that of Victoria's time, but I believe the Jubilee will show that we do not need it any less.

A.W. Purdue is visiting professor of history at Northumbria University


Key stage 1: God Save the Queen

Teach pupils the national anthem with pwilloughby3's resource.

Key stage 2: Tasks for 60 years

For Jubilee activities, try Teachersstickylabels' list of ideas.

Key stage 3: Decade by decade

From pop culture to politics and fashion to Friends, zroberts' quiz tests how much pupils know about life during Elizabeth II's reign.

Key stage 4: Jubilations

Design posters for a Jubilee street party with The Big Lunch's media studies lesson plan.


Find Jubilee-themed songs for a Year 6 summer show on the TES primary forum.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources035.


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