By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 70 years as the Queen of England. The platinum jubilee was split into four days of festivities and attended by countless onlookers. The 1897 Diamond Jubilee was a different, but historical, affair.
Britain’s longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has been in power for 70 years. To mark the occasion, a four-day festival was held in her honor that included a thanksgiving church service, a military parade, tributes from world leaders, and more. Crowds gathered to honor Her Majesty’s 70-year reign from as far away as the United States.
Royal jubilees are full of pomp and tribute, but are sometimes tied into major world events. In his video series Notorious London: A City Tour, Dr. Paul Deslandes, Professor of History at the University of Vermont, explains the historical significance of the Diamond Jubilee for Queen Victoria in 1897.
The British Royal Image
“Even though the monarchy continued to possess real political clout into the 19th century, its public image had been slightly tarnished by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837,” Dr. Deslandes said. “Her grandfather, George III (who reigned from 1760 to 1820), began to display signs of mental illness in 1788—attributed to porphyria, a liver disorder—and was totally incapacitated by 1811.
“His successor, George IV, was known as an extravagant spender and notorious womanizer—hardly a role model.”
By the time of Victoria’s reign, the monarchy had become more a symbol of the nation than the powerful political entity it had been in the past. This identity was cemented in the 1870s when some of her decision-making powers were replaced by more ceremonial functions. In order to make the best of this new position, state spectacles like the jubilees of 1887 and 1897 were considered “appropriate and necessary.”
“Necessary and appropriate not only because they appealed to every segment of British society at an intensely nationalistic moment, but also because they served to reinforce a growing notion of the monarch as a kind of celebrity,” Dr. Deslandes said.
The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire
In addition to the optics that would serve nationalism and the monarch as celebrity, organizers hoped spectacles like the jubilee would provide the world with a sunnier image of Britain than what was happening to its economy.
“Britain’s supremacy had been called into question from the 1870s on,” Dr. Deslandes said. “An agricultural depression undercut land values and increasing competition from Germany and other industrializing nations meant that the British were experiencing trade deficits. On the eve of the jubilee, the British were mired in an economic depression.”
However, not everyone under British rule was excited for the jubilee. In Ireland, the push for Irish Home Rule had persisted for two decades by the time of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. According to Dr. Deslandes, a Scottish man named Keir Hardie who was affiliated with the Independent Labour Party, shared his thoughts on the jubilee. He said that in light of the jubilee, workers can only feel “contempt for thrones and all who bolster them up.”
Meanwhile, a fear of “national degeneration” loomed.
“Some worried that so-called ‘new’ women—who were increasingly educated and independent—represented a challenge to the gender order,” Dr. Deslandes said. “Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial for ‘gross indecency’ (that is, sex with other men) signaled to some a dangerous decline toward self-indulgence and moral decadence. Abroad, nationalists in India were calling for greater autonomy, and the Indian subcontinent was wracked with famine and plague.”
Critics decried what seemed to them like hypocrisy for throwing a party celebrating the queen’s 60th year on the throne while such mass suffering occurred.