As we write in the opening of Chapter 7, “London liked to portray itself as a loyal, royal city”; furthermore, when they were not opposing the Crown and its ministers, Londoners liked to turn out for royal coronations, entries, weddings, funerals and, more recently, jubilees. The idea of celebrating a royal jubilee publicly is a relatively recent one, both because modern monarchs have tended to live and reign longer than their predecessors and because they have more need to play to their subjects. The first public jubilee celebration took place in 1809-10 on the fiftieth anniversary of George III. But as he was blind and half mad at the time, his family members had to stand in for him. In 1887 Queen Victoria was a more active participant in her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, not least because of a need to show herself to her public after years of closeted mourning for Prince Albert.
Queen Elizabeth II has been a far more public monarch than Victoria was, but given the continuing bad economic news, there is still a sense that the British people could use a party. This year’s Jubilee took place over the extended Bank Holiday weekend of June 1-5 and I was there to see it. Specifically, I was in England to speak at the Conference on the Making of the Modern Monarchy at Kensington palace and to act as academic spokesperson for the launch of The Royal Establishments Online, the household admissions registers held in the Royal Archives at Windsor. But I also plunged into the crowd for Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on June 3rd; the lighting of a Jubilee Beacon in Ipswich; Suffolk on the 4th; and the Carriage Procession and Balcony Appearance on the 5th.
So what did I see? First, London looked great, decked out in Union Jacks and red, white and blue bunting, the shops bulging with royal Jubilee souvenirs: the usual cups, plates, etc. but also special commemorative packaging for items like bread, candy, etc. Restaurants offered special Jubilee menus and desserts. The weather was less cooperative: Queen Victoria was usually lucky in her weather but Elizabeth II’s big events (her wedding in 1947; the coronation in 1953; and now her Diamond Jubilee in 2012) have been dogged by rain.
But bad London weather is not enough to stop this Queen or her people: Perhaps the Jubilee image that most sums up her character and why the British people have come to so admire her so much is that of her standing continuously, for a total of four hours, in the launch that carried her in the water pageant. As a matter of royal etiquette, if the Queen stood for four hours, so must everyone else on the boat: It is not permitted to sit in the royal presence while she stands. As for her people, they, too, stood and braved the elements to see her, crowding along Bankside for the water pageant; flocking to town squares for the lighting of the beacons, and surging up the Mall in a pouring rain to see her at the balcony of Buckingham Palace. I was part of those crowds, but that does not mean that I was able to see much of the Queen: there so many people that it was difficult to catch a glimpse of the royal family. Still, for me the story was not so much the royals as their relationship with London, Londoners, and her subjects across the country. Anyway, to be part of that good-natured holiday crowd was both fun and a privilege.
Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph Ward are the authors of London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 (on sale July 24).
Check out pictures from Robert’s trip on Facebook.