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Britain’s last royal jubilee?

On the surface, the United Kingdom’s royal jubilees have been jolly affairs — all pomp and pageantry, marching bands and parading redcoats, bunting and commemorative souvenirs, street parties, warm beer and cake.

In this regard, undoubtedly, Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee next month, for which celebrations already began on Sunday, will be no different. But all royal jubilees also come with a sense of public apprehension — and this will once again be the case.

The first time the country celebrated a monarch’s jubilee in a significant public way was the Golden Jubilee in 1809 of King George III — the “mad king” who lost the American colonies. Loyal inhabitants of an Oxfordshire village decided to name every child born during the year either Jubilee George or Jubilee Charlotte, after the sovereign’s wife.

The actual day in London, marking the start of his 50th year as king, was “one of the finest imaginable for the season, and favored the public expressions of satisfaction in the highest degree,” according to contemporary chronicler John Stockdale.

“The celebration was announced in this great metropolis by the pealing of bells, the hoisting of flags, and the assembling of the various bodies of regular troops,” he added.

Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, marked in June 1887, was celebrated with even greater pomp and circumstance, including a banquet attended by Europe’s kings and princes. And her Diamond Jubilee of 1897 was even grander, thanks to a government decision to turn it into a Festival of the British Empire, a global celebration for a long-reigning monarch who ruled over 450 million people.

American novelist Mark Twain witnessed the culminating endless military parade. “For varied and beautiful uniforms and unceasing surprises in the way of new and unexpected splendors, it much surpassed any pageant that I have ever seen,” he wrote.

But royal jubilees have always been accompanied by some public unease too, as longevity inevitably implies approaching mortality.

Apart from a brief appearance, George III was absent for his jubilee celebrations — his madness had returned. It triggered nearly two years of ferocious behind-the-scenes parliamentary agitation, leading to his son’s appointment as Regent.

Queen Victoria, for her part, wasn’t much delighted by either her Golden or Diamond jubilees. Still mourning her spouse, Prince Albert, before the public celebrations of 1897, she complained to her journal, “People wished to make all sorts of demonstrations, which I asked them not to do.”

On the “eventful day” marking her 60 years on the throne, Victoria’s thoughts were gloomy and with her youngest daughter Beatrice, whose husband, nicknamed “Liko,” had died the previous year. “I feel sad at the new losses I have sustained, especially the last one of our beloved Liko! God will surely help me on!”

Suffering from severe arthritis, she remained in her coach for a thanksgiving service that had to be conducted outdoors, as many contemporaries sensed the jubilee was an opportunity to bid her farewell.

A comparison between Victoria and Elizabeth II, the two longest-serving British monarchs, is an obvious one to draw.

The U.K.’s 96-year-old current monarch has only just lost a beloved husband and companion of 73 years. She, too, is struggling with infirmity and ill-health, and there are doubts as to how much of the planned events she will actually be able to attend — much as there were worries about Victoria’s participation.

And just as no one was in any doubt that upon Victoria’s passing her son, Edward VII, would succeed her, there are no doubts that Charles will ascend the throne on Elizabeth’s death. As royal commentator Jennie Bond told LBC’s “Tonight” last week: “People are getting used to the idea of King Charles.”

But there is one major difference between 1897 and 2022: Even though the succession is assured, the future of the British monarchy is now being questioned in a way it simply wasn’t when Victoria approached her end.

Despite Queen Elizabeth’s personal popularity and steadfast service, public faith in the institution has eroded, in part because of changing times and an altered culture — one that’s much less deferential and more questioning of the relevance of institutions and traditions.

Last year, a poll found that a majority of young Britons no longer thought the country should keep the monarchy. An ominous finding.

Earlier this year, another survey found that republican sentiment is growing in Britain, again, especially among the young. “The question of whether the monarchy has a role in modern Britain is being discussed more than ever before,” the pro-royal Daily Express lamented upon the poll’s release. And Prince Charles is said to be especially preoccupied by the direction of travel: His plans to streamline the working family are part of a strategy he’s been pushing behind the scenes.

Analysts also put the slippage down to yet another tumultuous year for Britain’s royals, which saw Prince Andrew’s settlement of a sexual abuse case filed against him, as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s vengeful allegations about the turbulent House of Windsor, nicknamed “the firm.”

Walter Bagehot, one of the most influential journalists of the 19th century and former editor of the Economist newspaper, famously drew a distinction between the “dignified parts” of Britain’s governance and its “efficient parts.”

The latter are “those by which it, in fact, works and rules” — think parliament, the cabinet and civil service. Whereas the dignified parts, including the monarchy and the House of Lords, “excite and preserve the reverence of the population,” he said. These work by theater and mystique, and their role is to sustain confidence in how the country is run, according to Bagehot. But he had in mind a different and more dignified kind of theater than the royal scandals that have come thick and fast since Prince Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana fell apart in public. The long-running soap opera and vendettas of the House of Windsor make for great tabloid fare but do nothing to maintain mystique.

As he watched the celebrations for Victoria’s 60 years on the throne, Twain had observed that the purpose of royal pageantry is to celebrate the survival of the throne as much as anything. And next month’s royal anniversary will be another occasion to do so — though some will be wondering whether it will be the last jubilee.

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