Jubilation at the Jubilee?

What does jubilee mean?

The Oxford Dictionary describes a jubilee as ‘a special anniversary of an event, especially one celebrating twenty-five or fifty years of a reign or activity’.[1]

For the British monarchy specifically, the jubilee is an important celebration of the reign of the current monarch. This year, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating her Platinum Jubilee, the only British royal to ever do so, making her the longest reigning British ruler in history.

Here comes the Queen….

There have been six undisputed Queen Regnants of England; Mary I (r. 1553-58), Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), Mary II (r. 1689-94) Anne (r. 1702-14), Victoria (r. 1837-1901) and Elizabeth II (r. 1952 -).[2] This article discusses Mary I: the first ever Queen Regnant, Victoria: the youngest crowned Queen Regnant, and Elizabeth II: the current Queen Regnant as well as the longest reigning Ruler of England as she celebrates her 70th year on the throne.

All three Queens may not share the same last name or bloodline, but what they do share is the same place of Coronation. Since the coronation of William I in 1066 Westminster Abbey has acted as the coronation site for every British Queen (and King).

Queen Mary I (1553 – 1558)

Queen Mary I, Museo de Prado, 1544, (image available under the Creative Commons Licence

Born Mary Tudor on 18th February 1516 to Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, Mary was born a royal princess but later became illegitimate when her parents divorced in 1533. It was not until 1544 that Mary was accepted back into the Tudor line of succession, behind her younger brother, the future Edward VI, and ahead of her younger sister, the future Elizabeth I.

While Mary I is often referred to in popular culture as ‘Bloody Mary’ as a result of her prosecution of the 287 Protestants whom she had executed, this nickname is somewhat unfairly given. Her father, the infamous Henry VIII, is believed to have executed as many as 57,000 individuals during his reign, yet he is given no such moniker.

However, Mary’s reign did start with blood. Her younger brother Edward VI had died at the age of 15 and upon his death he wished for his cousin Lady Jane Grey to take the throne instead of his Catholic sister Mary. Lady Jane Grey was famously Queen for nine days before she was beheaded, along with her husband, on Mary Tudor’s orders.

Mary’s coronation, as the first Queen Regnant of England, largely followed the same format as her brother’s in 1547. However, she chose to get rid of several elements which she found personally offensive. For example, she chose not to wear St Edward’s robe at her coronation and only carried the orb in the outgoing procession.[3] Following Mary in her coronation procession was her younger sister and future Queen Elizabeth I and Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. As a result of the difference in faith between Mary and her late brother Edward, she needed a new supply of coronation oil made and sent over from the Catholic Bishop of Arras and she chose not to use the ancient coronation chair, instead using a new one which had been sent over by the Pope.[4] This was all done because she believed many objects had been ‘polluted’ by her Protestant brother. A large, raised platform also had to be constructed so that everyone present could see her and Mary had to climb thirty steps to reach the top. [5]

While Mary’s reign only lasted for five years, she is ground breaking in being the first Queen Regnant crowned in British history.

Queen Victoria (1837-1901)

Queen Victoria in her Coronation Robes, V&A, 1838 (image available under the Creative Commons Licence).

Queen Victoria, born on 24th May 1819 to Princess Victoria (of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld) and Prince Edward (Duke of Kent and Strathearn), was coronated on 28th June 1838, just a year after she ascended the throne at the age of 18.

Not only was Victoria the youngest Queen Regnant to be crowned but her coronation ceremony went on for five hours and involved two outfit changes! Her coronation included a public procession to Westminster Abbey and a second procession back to Buckingham Palace afterwards. A key part of Victoria’s coronation was the public spectacle that was put on. By 1838 the newly built railways were able to bring thousands of people from across the country to London. It has been estimated that c. 400,000 visitors arrived in London to watch the two processions, filling the parks where catering and entertainment were provided.

During her coronation, Victoria was not able to wear the ‘Wedding Ring of England’ (the coronation ring created for her uncle, King William IV in 1831) as a result of her small fingers. Instead, a custom ring was made for her because her fingers were too small to have the ring adjusted.

Queen Victoria recounted her coronation in her journals:

‘I reached the Abbey amid deafening cheers at a little after half-past eleven; I first went into a robing-room quite close to the entrance where I found my eight train-bearers […] all dressed alike and beautifully in white satin and silver tissue with wreaths of silver corn-ears in front, and a small one of pink roses around the plait behind, and pink roses in the trimmings of the dresses. Then followed all the various things; and last (of those things) the Crown being placed on my head — which was, I must own, a most beautiful, impressive moment; all the Peers and Peeresses put on their coronets at the same instant. My excellent Lord Melbourne, who stood very close to me throughout the whole ceremony, was completely overcome at this moment, and very much affected; he gave me such a kind, and I may say fatherly look. The shouts, which were very great, the drums, the trumpets, the firing of the guns, all at the same instant, rendered the spectacle most imposing’.[6]

Queen Victoria held the record as longest reigning British monarch until 2015 when her great-great granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, broke her record.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip Coronation Portrait, Cecil Beaton, 1953 (Image available under the Creative Commons Licence).

At her birth in 1926, there was little chance that Elizabeth would become Queen. Her grandfather George V (Grandson of Queen Victoria) was still on the throne, and her father, the future George VI, was the spare to the heir apparent. While Elizabeth grew up royal, she was third in line to the throne at the time of her birth, which was expected to change once her uncle Edward had children, and because of this she was raised out of the spotlight. However, everything changed for Elizabeth in 1936 after the death of her grandfather, the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII, and the coronation of her father, which all ultimately lead to her own coronation on 2nd June 1953.

Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother Mary of Teck (or Queen Mary) became the first Queen to see her grandchild ascend to the throne, however, she died before the coronation took place.[7] But Elizabeth II’s coronation was also groundbreaking in other ways – it was the first ever coronation to be televised and 27 million people tuned in from across the UK alone (which had a population of 36 million at the time), with millions more tuning in from around the globe.[8] For many, this was the first televised event they had ever watched. The service started at 11.15 am and ran for nearly three hours. There were more than 2,000 journalists and 500 photographers from 92 nations on the Coronation route which was designed so that the procession could be seen by as many people in London as possible. The 7.2 km route took the 16,000 participants two hours to complete.[9] 

Final Thoughts

Being able to wear the crown for 70 years is an impressive privilege. When looking at the lives of these royal women it is important to understand them and how they have contributed to modern society, to understand and reflect upon the good and bad. But when we are celebrating events like the jubilee, we must not overly glorify the institution. Both Victoria and Elizabeth II have strong links to Empire and Britain’s imperial legacy which must not be forgotten. In a time when more and more people are struggling financially, excessive displays of wealth, including the alleged £30 million spent by the British government on the four-day Platinum Jubilee celebration, have been more than questionable.[10]

As life expectancy improves, there may be many more monarchs who live as long as Queen Elizabeth II and who go on to break her record. However, this does also mean that future British monarchs have to wait even longer for their turn in the spotlight. While Elizabeth II is the longest serving monarch in British history, her son and heir, Prince Charles, is also the longest serving ‘heir to the throne’, having waited 70 years (and counting) to be crowned.

Long live the queen!

Carolyn Kane, 1st Year History Major at Queen’s University (Canada).

[1] https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/jubilee [last accessed 03/06/22].

[2] ‘Regnant’ means to rule in own right, opposed to a ‘Consort’ who does not possess power.

[3] https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/royals/mary-i [last accessed 03/06/22].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Letters of Queen Victoria, ed. by Arthur Christopher Benson (1907), Vol. 1, p. 148.

[7] https://www.royal.uk/50-facts-about-queens-coronation-0 [last accessed 03/06/22].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/royal-family/who-pays-for-the-jubilee-b2092532.html [last accessed 03/06/22].

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