Queen Elizabeth II has reigned over the United Kingdom and her other realms and territories for longer than most of us have been alive.
Ascending to the throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, the 26-year-old Elizabeth became queen of a sprawling global empire on February 6, 1952. Many at the time anticipated a second Elizabethan Age. Whether that has or has not worked out as planned is up for debate. What is certain, however, is that the British monarchy—love it or loathe it—is synonymous with pomp and circumstance. Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, a first in British history, looks to be no different as the world celebrates the Queen's 70-year reign. While there are many exciting events planned throughout the year to mark this historic occasion, it remains to be seen whether they can live up to some of the truly extravagant moments from jubilees of yore.
1. King George III holds the first royal jubilee in 1809.
By the time George III—yes, the one who lost the 13 American colonies—reached the fiftieth anniversary of his ascension, his health was fading from what is suspected to have been porphyria, a disease of the blood. Still, "[T]he happy event of a British monarch's entrance into the 50th year of his reign,” wrote publisher John Stockdale at the time of George's Golden Jubilee, "was celebrated by all ranks of people throughout every part of the United Kingdom, in a manner worthy of an amiable, patriotic, and venerable king, and a loyal and enlightened nation.” The first time a jubilee was celebrated in Britain, the festivities included a fête and fireworks display hosted by Queen Charlotte.
2. Queen Liliuokalani dishes on Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887.
Queen Victoria was the next monarch to reach the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. While undoubtedly the star of the events, it was another queen whose recollections of jubilee provide a better glimpse into the celebrations: Liliuokalani, who was then the heir apparent to the Hawaiian throne, wrote of her royal reception in her autobiography.
While describing a religious service that took place at Westminster Abbey to mark the occasion, Liliuokalani recalled that “while uprose the prayers of the vast assembly, invoking the blessing of the Almighty upon the head of the great British Empire, a gleam of God’s sunshine penetrated through one of the windows, and finding its way across the casement of the grand temple, illuminated with its radiance the bowed head of the royal worshiper.” This was, Liliuokalani thought, “a beautiful emblem of divine favor.”
Unfortunately, Liliuokalani's trip was cut short. She had to leave the festivities abruptly, rushing across the Atlantic, the North American continent, and then to her native Hawaii, where a group of American businessmen were attempting a coup. Across the Pacific, though, the celebrations continued.
3. Queen victoria is fêted with washing machines and refrigerators in australia.
Jubilee celebrations occurred across the whole of the British Empire, as evidenced by a world’s exhibition held in Adelaide, Australia. Attracting exhibitors from more than two dozen nations, the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition made more than 3000 awards and included entertainment and an agricultural show.
The United States had many attendees, all of whom exhibited exciting innovations of the era. This included the Baldwin Refrigeratory Company of New York, which showed off its refrigerators and ice-making machines. The Horton Manufacturing Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana, demonstrated its “Western Monarch” washing machine. While McCormick Reaper and Binder of Chicago displayed the reaping and binding machines which, before his death five years prior, had made Cyrus McCormick one of the wealthiest capitalists in the country.
4. Queen Victoria marks the first Diamond Jubilee with a Devonshire House ball.
Ten years after the excitement in Adelaide, Queen Victoria became the first British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. To commemorate the occasion, the fabulously wealthy Duchess of Devonshire threw a legendary “fancy dress” (that’s British for costume) party, which remains one of the most glamorous spectacles British high society has ever seen. “It was an exceptionally brilliant affair, even for this season of brilliant social functions,” The New York Times wrote of the event, which was the most talked about party of the 1897 London Season.
The paper went on to coo over the “masses of color and gems presented by the costumes of the 700 guests.” The exclusive list of invitees included the Prince and Princess of Wales (Victoria and Albert's eldest son, Edward, and his wife), the famed American-born socialite Jennie Churchill (mother of Winston and known formally as Lady Randolph Churchill), and Colonel John Hay—the American ambassador to the Court of Saint James. Many of the guests were photographed in their costumes, and those portraits can be viewed on the National Portrait Gallery website.
5. The Sex Pistols crash the party in 1977.
It would be another 80 years before the United Kingdom would celebrate its next jubilee—this one marking Queen Elizabeth II’s first 25 years on the throne. However, not everyone was in a party mood. The 1970s were a turbulent time in the UK, and the legendary punk band the Sex Pistols had had enough. After releasing the scathing protest anthem “God Save the Queen,” the band rented a boat called the Queen Elizabeth and set sail down the River Thames.
At first there was a party atmosphere on board, as passengers—including the band members—drank and smoked and danced. However, as passengers got increasingly intoxicated, the band began performing their song “Anarchy in the UK” as they sailed past the Palace of Westminster, where the UK parliament sits. Police began surrounding the boat as the band played on. When the vessel eventuall docked, the band’s manager Malcolm McClaren and several members of their entourage were arrested.
Given the controversy, the BBC banned “God Save the Queen” from its radio stations. Even so, sales of the record were shockingly strong, selling up to 150,000 copies a day. It was surprising, then, when the song didn't top the charts. Some have alleged a conspiracy to keep that from happening, which would be seen as an embarrassment to the queen.
6. The 2002 Party at the Palace.
Rock stars took center stage at Elizabeth’s 2002 Golden Jubilee, too, though in a decidedly less disruptive role. An estimated 1 million people packed onto The Mall outside Buckingham Palace for what was aptly dubbed the “Party at the Palace.”
“Escorted by 300 children carrying lanterns in The Mall,” The Guardian reported at the time, the Queen “ignited a rocket which flew by wire into the National Beacon on the Queen Victoria Memorial. As the flames in the beacon grew, jets of water, orchestrated to music, sprang from the memorial, signalling the fireworks to begin from the Palace roof, forecourt and nearby Green Park.” Those gathered were treated to a concert featuring such esteemed acts as Queen, Phil Collins, Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, and Elton John.
7. a flotilla of boats converge for the River Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant of 2012.
The year 2012 was an exciting one in the UK. Not only did London host a very successful Summer Olympics, but Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, commemorating 60 years on the throne. Of all the events to mark that momentous occasion, perhaps none were as awe-inspiring as the River Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. A flotilla of 1000 boats sailed through the heart of England's capital, including dragon boats, a floating belfry, and the royal barge. It was, according to CNN, "the largest celebration on the Thames for hundreds of years."
The flotilla was met with a 41-gun salute from the Tower of London, which delighted the crowds. “Cheers, whistles, and the odd chorus of 'God Save the Queen' rang out," CNN reported, "and the crowd stayed jolly despite the rain.”