The Queen’s Birthday: Development, Forms, and Functions of the celebrations for Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II
Over 90 minutes, 900 horses and more than 1,500 participants from around the United Kingdom and the World will create a joyful event for The Queen. The 90-year journey will take us from the excitement of the birth, through to World War Two, her marriage, the coronation and a reign of more than 60 years…The finale will be a kaleidoscope of memories and achievements. It will be a Birthday Party fit for The Queen.
This is how the specially-created website www.hmq90.co.uk describes the planned celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, due to commence from 1 April – the Queen’s actual date of birth – this year. For the majority of British citizens today, the public mass celebration of the monarchy in general, and Elizabeth II in particular, may seem routine; a subconscious activity practiced regularly in day-to-day life, whether singing ‘God Save The Queen’ at football games or catching the latest fly-past over Buckingham Palace on the news. Certainly some of these ‘traditions’ are invented – to borrow the terms of Hobsbawm and Ranger – and can only date back so far; others, however, have a much longer lifespan. Take, for instance, the invitation of the Church Buildings Council for all parish churches to ring their bells throughout the celebrations, or the Church of England’s list of prayers for use in national services around the birthday. These forms of celebration hint at the origins of our national recognition of the monarch’s birthday.
Kevin Sharpe argued for the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ during the sixteenth century, in which the representational forms of the monarch were received and read by a wider audience than ever before. In Sharpe’s view it was the first Elizabeth – the ‘Virgin Queen’ – who, through imagery, pageantry, and progresses, combined majesty and intimacy to usher in ‘a new and widespread fascination with authority as well as personal affection’ for the sovereign. Though she was not the first to be the subject of annual celebration, Elizabeth I certainly helped to secure the tradition of the calendrical marking of the person of the monarch. But how have the methods of marking the royal birthday changed over the course of the four and a half centuries since Elizabeth I was on our throne? This article will take us through the development, forms, and functions of the tradition of publicly celebrating the monarch’s birthday, touching on the changing reasons for its observance in our national calendar.
The development of a tradition
When Elizabeth I came to the throne on 17 November 1558, she succeeded her half-sister Mary Tudor – not yet known by the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’ but already having acerbated a great many of her subjects following the burning of around 238 Protestants in the Marian Persecution. As in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, Elizabeth was perceived in contrast as a ‘gracious Lady’ who, rather than taking the hard line of her sister on religious affairs, was famously alleged to have said that she ‘would not open windows into men’s souls.’ Instead she followed a relatively moderate position when it came to personal faith, although she was considered to be a Protestant sovereign. As with much Protestant commemorative discourse throughout history, the rhetoric surrounding the celebration of Elizabeth was largely providentialist in tone, heralding her as a saviour. Thus it was Elizabeth’s Accession Day, or ‘Crownation Day’ on 17 November – marking the date on which royal power transferred to Elizabeth – that became the focal point for celebration from around 1570 onwards. Indeed, it was not until the middle of the reign that the outpouring of public emotion and associated with Accession Day began to spill over into Elizabeth’s birthday on 7 September. The day was conveniently appropriate given its near-coincidence with the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (the Virgin Mary’s birthday) on 8 September. In the changing world of Reformation England, the Christian calendar of saints days was gradually replaced with a nationalist calendar, according to David Cressy, though this did not stop holy days from maintaining a certain reverence in the localities. In this regard the ‘cult of the Virgin Queen’ co-opted, competed with and, eventually, replaced the traditional, Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary; representative of a shift towards a calendar marked by the anniversaries of personal monarchy. The tradition continued beyond Elizabeth’s death, with her Accession Day still being celebrated during the reigns of the Stuart kings.
When Elizabeth II became Queen in 1952 the tradition of celebrating the monarch’s birthday was already firmly established, having been carried on since the sixteenth century. Indeed, by then the monarch had not just one birthday but two, with an additional moveable feast in June having been established by George II as the focal point for outdoor celebrations to compensate for his actual winter birthday. As the current Queen’s birthday falls in the Spring anyway, and her coronation anniversary on 2 June, the birthday festivities of the same month (usually a Saturday either in late May or June) aid in creating a calendar of celebrations for the nation to observe. As such, the events to mark the 90th birthday this year officially span from 21 April until 12 June, the closing night of the televised event from Windsor Castle. It has been noted by several scholars of commemorative activity that the United Kingdom has an unusually low number of public holidays compared to most other nations worldwide; most modern nations celebrate the emergence of their nationhood – 4 July in the U.S.A., Bastille Day in France – but the notion of the royal family as continued representatives of the United Kingdom means that the celebration of constitutional monarchy lives on.
There are parallels to be drawn between the present day and the early stages of this tradition in the forms of public celebrations, too. The festivities surrounding Elizabeth I’s calendar days were focused around an existing foundation of local activity of the ritual year and, as such, the specific forms which the celebrations took often borrowed from traditional frameworks. Bell-ringing on holy days was a long-standing practice that was quickly co-opted into Accession Day festivities. Often payment in advance was made by local authorities to the bell-ringers in order to create a much-needed sense of routine – to ‘invent’ a tradition. The thanks-giving, providentialist rhetoric of the occasion was represented through prayers and sermons. An example survives in the British Library:
Elizabeth in the kingdom, didst deliver thy people of England from danger of war and oppression, both of bodies by tyranny and of conscience by superstition, restoring peace and true religion, and liberty both of bodies and minds, and hast continued the same thy blessings, without all desert on our part… we who are in memory of thy great benefits assembled here together, most humbly beseech thy fatherly goodness to grant us grace… that our Queen through thy grace may in all honour, goodness, and godliness, long and many years reign over us…
Elsewhere, accounts exist of public speeches – such as that of the Mayor of New Windsor in 1586 – given especially for the birthday and consisting of much the same laudatory language. Otherwise sources for the celebration of Elizabeth I’s birthday are, admittedly, patchy. It must be noted that as far as can be understood the birthday in September was only inconsistently marked, and was much quieter than the celebrations for Accession Day; for example, prices paid in advance for bell-ringing on 7 September were usually around half what was spent on 17 November.
Elizabeth II’s birthday observances have typically followed a much more clearly ritualised format each year. The official birthday in June is traditionally celebrated with the birthday procession from Buckingham Palace and the Trooping the Colour, regularly accompanied by a fly-past. Such events typically draw large crowds on the Mall and in the royal parks, in addition to those watching it as it is broadcast live. The royal salutes – 62 rounds at the Tower of London, and 41 at either Hyde Park or Green Park – each year have been a key feature of all the public celebrations of the Queen, including both birthdays, her Coronation Day and her Accession Day on 6 February since almost the beginning of the reign, with The Times first noting such plans in 1955.
Otherwise the actual birthday in April is almost always a private day for the Queen, free of official duties of state. Beyond this the only public signs of the 21 April birthday have generally been the ‘traditional peal of bells, gun salutes, and the flying of flags from public buildings,’ as well as the navy’s engagement in salutes and dressing up with flags – ritualised observances rather than personal. Even in her 50th year in 1976 the celebrations did not deviate from their normal form. If anything, the ‘celebrations’ of both the Queen’s birthdays are characterised by uneventfulness, with even critics of the monarchy referring to it as ‘an event which resists rather than assists the tendency towards the Dallasification of the Monarchy…There are no mugs or tee-shirts or even big public ceremonies. It is simply a reminder of the fact.’ This makes the 90th celebrations, including the planned three-day event at Windsor, the call for local street-parties, and the list of prayers released by the Church of England more of a break from established tradition and a return to the original forms than they might at first seem.
A comparison between the birthday celebrations for these two queens, separated by four hundred years, allows for some general commentary on the changing functions of the event across history. Though Elizabeth I ventured into the localities on progresses far more often than the monarchs before her, the parochial bell-ringing especially had the function of making the royal presence felt and observed far beyond the capital city. The plans for Elizabeth II’s 90th celebrations capture the same spirit as this, including the lighting of a chain of one thousand beacons starting in London and spreading out across the British Isles as well as into the commonwealth nations. Naturally, however, the use of television, radio, and news media to broadcast the events at Windsor makes this a great deal easier for the modern-day monarchy.
Fundamentally one might argue that the necessity of the events has changed. David Cressy noted how the celebrations of Elizabeth I were about ‘national cohesion and solidarity, an annual occasion for communal celebration,’ but this had a political edge; marking the events had a partly competitive message, designed to rival popish, Catholic observances. In the case of Elizabeth II, the marking of the birthday is so ensconced and politically neutralised as to be perceived often as unnecessary. One observer of Queen Elizabeth II’s sixtieth birthday events in 1986 noted what many were thinking in saying that the celebrations seemed ‘a contrivance to reboost the ratings upon which the family – and the media – are now so mutually dependent.’ Cynically we might note the fervour with which many local businesses plan to organise and lead local events to mark the 90th festivities; the nature of the event has clearly become much more commercialised, though still driven from the top and, it could be said, still non-spontaneous.
The concept of celebrating the royal birthday annually was developed first as a means of instilling obedience to Queen Elizabeth I, before gradually becoming ensconced in the traditions of personal monarchy. Celebration of the monarchy is now a much more subconscious act than in previous ages; marking the birthday is more obviously an act of continuity and tradition than change and competition. Arguably the cohesive function remains, though the celebrations now seek cohesion from within rather than one which sets up the English people against a defined ‘other’. Whatever the case, the forms of the early modern celebration of the day – prayers, local festivities, bell-ringing – are re-surfacing in the present day, proving that the marking of the event itself remains alive.
Written by Laura Flannigan
British Library, Lansdowne 116 f.67; transcribed in William Keating Clay ed. Liturgical Services: liturgies and occasional forms of prayer set forth in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Cambridge: University Press, 1847.
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“Gun Salutes.” British Royal Family, https://www.royal.uk/gun-salutes. Accessed 17 April 2016.
Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence O. Ranger ed. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Nichols, John ed. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, Volume II. London: 1823.
“Prayers for HM The Queen’s 90th birthday published.” The Church of England, 2 February 2016. https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2016/02/prayers-for-hm-the-queen%E2%80%99s-90th-birthday-published.aspx. Accessed 12 April 2016.
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