In Queen Victoria’s glorious footsteps
The Telegraph: When the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee in June she will face fewer diplomatic dilemmas than her great-great grandmother, the empress of India.
Sixty years on, the Queen was in no mood for great celebration. Her beloved husband, Albert, had died 36 years before. The days of the unpopular Widow of Windsor – self-confined behind her castle walls, neglecting affairs of state and her people – had long passed, but she still missed him.
And age was catching up with her. In her Jubilee year, she dropped in on the dying old lady who ran the shop at Balmoral. As she left the cottage, Queen Victoria said mournfully, “Poor old soul”. She didn’t hear the dying woman say to her husband, as she watched the old Queen hobbling away, “Puir auld creetur”.
She was in no shape – spiritually or physically – to face a huge national celebration. She remembered the tremendous logistical difficulties of the Golden Jubilee, when the crowned heads of Europe, many of them her descendants, had flocked to Windsor and Buckingham Palace. It was the colonial minister, Joseph Chamberlain, who dreamt up the idea of making the Diamond Jubilee a gathering of colonial premiers rather than monarchs and princes.
The British Empire still stretched across the globe in big pink patches. And colonial affairs were still the focus of British government activity, and popular attention. The Diamond Jubilee was sandwiched between two of the great turning points in British imperial policy: the Jameson Raid in the Transvaal at the end of 1895, and the relief of Mafeking in 1900.
Queen Victoria, Empress of India since 1876, took to the imperial theme, particularly since it dealt with the prickly question of who to leave off the invitation list. You may have dreaded the arrival of scary great-aunt Agatha for Christmas. But that’s nothing compared with the problems Queen Victoria had over whether to invite the German Kaiser.
The Kaiser may have been her grandson, but that didn’t stop him being the dinner party guest from hell. Seventeen years before the outbreak of the First World War, he was already tremendously unpopular with the British public, and Queen Victoria knew it. On January 30, 1897, she wrote to her private secretary, “There is not the slightest fear of the Queen’s giving way about the Emperor William’s coming here, in June. It would never do.”
Queen Victoria didn’t want too much of a fuss for the celebration – just like her great-great granddaughter this year-, presumably. She asked her prime minister, Lord Salisbury, to keep her Honours List “as low as possible”. But, still, she was inundated by Jubilee requests. The sycophantic home secretary asked her if he might ramp up the occasion’s name to “Jubilissimee” – an invented Latin superlative, meaning “The most Jubilee-esque of Jubilees”. The National United Temperance movement asked if she could drive by its demonstration in Hyde Park. The Mayor of Coventry offered her a ribbon, a watch and a bicycle.
All this was a bit too much, but she knew some sort of public appearance was needed. She settled on a procession from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service attended by her colonial prime ministers.
Our Queen will also take part in a carriage procession to St Paul’s for a thanksgiving service, on June 5. Even if her way is obstructed by any remaining anti-capitalist protesters, she should still be able to get through the cathedral’s great west door.
Queen Victoria had no such obstruction but she knew she wouldn’t make it into the cathedral. At 78, eight years younger than the Queen will be in June, Victoria was too tired, lame and fat to make it up the stairs to Christopher Wren’s raised portico.
Princess Augusta Strelitz – the Queen’s cousin and George III’s granddaughter – was horrified. “No!” she was heard to bark, “After 60 years’ reign, to thank God in the street!” But that’s exactly what she did, on June 22, a day after the anniversary of her accession. On the actual anniversary, church and synagogue services were held across the country. The Queen attended a family service in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, headlined by a stirring performance of Prince Albert’s Te Deum.
Any mournfulness lifted on the day of the St Paul’s open-air service, though. The sun broke through the clouds as she left Buckingham Palace for the six-mile journey. Her route was further illuminated by thousands of gas jets, lighting up street decorations that cost a quarter of a million pounds.
Throughout the day, new technology was employed – a special stand was erected on Whitehall, equipped with telephones and ladies’ lavatories, which had been painfully lacking at the coronation 59 years earlier. The Queen pressed the button that sent a telegraph message across the world: “From my heart, I thank my beloved people. May God bless them!”
The tallest man in the British Army – Captain Ames of the 2nd Life Guards, all 6ft 8in of him – led the parade. The dignitaries behind were accompanied by troops from across the empire; the Queen’s escort was formed from the Second Life Guards and officers from the Indian regiments.
A painting by John Charlton of the St Paul’s service shows the tiny, faraway figure of the Queen in her open landau, parked just where the anti-capitalist protesters are now camping. She is surrounded by a sea of turbaned Sikh mounted soldiers, Beefeaters, bishops in copes, Grenadier Guardsmen in bearskins, footmen, London bobbies and colonial leaders in cocked hats with white ostrich plumes.
It is hard not to be impressed by the scene, even in an oil painting. And the Queen, too, was, if not quite amused, then certainly moved. From time to time, she burst into tears of happiness, comforted by the Princess of Wales, who leant across and squeezed her hand.
During the service, Queen Victoria was sheltered from the sun by a Chantilly lace parasol, presented by the Father of the House of Commons. There’s still time for the current Father, Sir Peter Tapsell, to get hold of a new one for our own Queen. He wouldn’t be the only one keen to show his appreciation for this once-in-a-lifetime, twice-in-a-millennium achievement.