The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
In the early morning of 6 February 1952 George VI died in his sleep at the age of only 56 after several years of poor health, and his elder daughter Elizabeth, in Kenya en route to Australia and New Zealand, became queen. She had to abandon the Commonwealth tour that had just started and return home to Britain to face a lifetime of duty and service to her country. Today marks the 60th anniversary of her accession.
Elizabeth II has been queen during a challenging period of British history. Because of her name she has been compared with Elizabeth I, and because of the length of her reign she has been compared with Queen Victoria, two other queens whose reigns spanned several decades and lasted into a new century (1558-1603 and 1837-1901, respectively). However, both previous queens led their country during times of expanding international influence and increasing prosperity, whereas Elizabeth II has been head of state of a declining power, a country dismantling its empire and looking for a new role and new alliances while questioning the need for many institutions previously taken for granted, including the monarchy. Her position as Head of the Commonwealth (many of whose member nations do not have the Queen as head of state), as opposed to the more grandiose Empress of India like Queen Victoria, is one example of the more low-key status of the modern monarchy.
Early in her reign, the major changes in society and culture were still in the future. She followed closely in her father’s footsteps and inherited his senior advisors and their way of doing things. The media were largely deferential and nowhere near as intrusive as they’ve become in recent years, and the Buckingham Palace press office was famous for being uncooperative. By the late 1960s this had changed almost beyond recognition. Throughout the decade, journalists, playwrights, and satirists were challenging the established institutions, and the monarchy wasn’t spared. There were complaints that the court was too narrowly upper class and white, not reflecting the newly multicultural society; there were complaints about the cost of the monarchy. Interestingly, the Queen herself was not criticised; most of the criticism was aimed at senior royal advisors who weren’t moving with the times, and at more junior royals (particularly Princess Margaret) who weren’t considered to be giving value for money. While the angry young men of the media mocked the monarchy, public interest, which had been intense early in the reign, was starting to decline.
The 1969 TV documentary “Royal Family” was, among other things, an attempt to respond to both criticism and apathy by showing what the Queen and her family did in their public and private lives. It was wildly successful and sparked a renewed interest in the royal family, also helped by the big ceremonial set-pieces of the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in July 1969 and Princess Anne’s wedding to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973. Speculation about Prince Charles’s love life and eventual bride became a national pastime. And of course his 1981 wedding to Lady Diana Spencer was a media sensation - the new Princess of Wales became a media icon, often eclipsing the Queen.
The intense interest in the royal family in the 1980s turned sour in the 1990s with the collapse of the marriages of Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and Prince Andrew and the media circus around the breakup of the Wales marriage. The Queen’s “annus horribilis” in 1992, the year of her ruby jubilee, saw the separation of the Yorks and the Waleses and culminated in a devastating fire at Windsor Castle followed by a public outcry when the government offered to pay for the repairs. Even the announcement that the Queen would start paying tax on her private income was met by “too little too late” ingratitude. Diana’s death in 1997 led to a backlash against the royal family, including the Queen, that continued for several days until the Queen returned to London from Balmoral and spoke to her people on television.
The 21st century has been a calmer period for the Queen, with more positive press coverage as Princes William and Harry have grown up and started to take their place as senior royals. Although 2002 saw the death of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, there have also been happier occasions: Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005, Autumn Phillips gave birth to the Queen’s first great-grandchild, Savannah, in 2010, and of course Prince William married Catherine Middleton in 2011. The Queen made history in 2011 with her first state visit to the Republic of Ireland, and in that year she also hosted only the second state visit of a US President in her reign. She may be getting on in years, but she’s moving with the times.
Although today marks the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession, there were no special celebrations; as well as being the anniversary of her accession, it’s also the anniversary of the death of her beloved father. She carried out a couple of engagements in Norfolk, visiting a school and a town hall in King’s Lynn. Most of the jubilee celebrations will take place during the first weekend in June, timed to coincide with the anniversary of her coronation on 2 June 1953. The weekend will include a Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, a concert at Buckingham Palace, the lighting of a chain of beacons, and a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral (unlike Queen Victoria, whose service had to be held outside the cathedral because she was too lame to manage the stairs, this service will be held inside).
There are also commemorative stamps, coins, and medals, issued in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth. A Diamond Jubilee Trust has been set up with Sir John Major as chairman. The Woodland Trust has launched the Jubilee Woods project, aiming to get people to plant 6 million trees to create new woodlands around the country, and the Queen Elizabeth II Fields initiative, with the Duke of Cambridge as patron, is focussed on creating and maintaining playing fields so that people will have access to safe outdoor areas for recreation. Two official diamond jubilee photographs have been released, one showing the Queen in front of a window in the Centre Room of Buckingham Palace with the Victoria Memorial behind her, neatly including the only two British monarchs who have celebrated diamond jubilees.
Despite the occasional suggestions that the Queen think about retiring, she is happily soldiering on with Prince Philip by her side, as has been the case ever since her accession. In a message released today, she said, “In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness, examples of which I have been fortunate to see throughout my reign and which my family and I look forward to seeing in many forms as we travel throughout the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth.” It certainly sounds as though she expects to be queen for a good long time yet!
Collages by Kelly Lacroix, used with permission.
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