The Fascinating Meaning Behind the Platinum Jubilee Beacons

The lighting of beacons has become a traditional aspect of major royal jubilee celebrations throughout Britain and the commonwealth but what does it mean? When did it start and what's planned for the Platinum Jubilee? Newsweek has the answers.

The History of Beacons

Traditionally beacons represented deliberately staged fires which were built at intervals along coastal and major internal land points, which when lit would denote a message. In the days before instant forms of communication, beacon lighting was one of the fastest ways of passing a message across large distances.

Most famously, beacons were often used to denote potential and impending invasions as signals to military bases to ready armed forces.

In Britain the oldest organized beacon system dates back to the 15th century during the reign of Edward IV. According to the Royal Observer Corps Association, beacons were a more effective way for a military call to arms to be raised than a messenger on foot, owing to the lack of clear paths across the wild countryside at that time.

Jubilee Beacons Lit for National Celebrations
A beacon is pictured during celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee on June 4, 2012. Beacons have been used throughout history as a fast means to send messages. Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous occasion when the country's beacon system needed to be used to its full effect was during the invasion attempt of the Spanish Armada in 1588, where Philip II of Spain actively challenged Elizabeth I's right to rule.

When the armada sailed up the English Channel, consisting of over 130 ships and 18,000 soldiers, a beacon watcher reportedly lit the first fire of warning from St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, sparking a chain which reached army generals and then the queen.

The armada was eventually defeated, in part thanks to the difficult sailing conditions and winds that protected the British coastline, although the beacon system was celebrated as a success. The Royal Observer Corps, which was active from 1925 to 1995 and provided vital information during World War II, incorporated an Elizabethan beacon lighter into its badge above the motto: "Forewarned is forearmed."

Royal Jubilee Celebrations

When the threat from seafaring invaders diminished and attention turned more towards the skies, the age of the beacon as a primary defense method passed. In times of peace beacons have since become part of national celebrations signifying a way for the large expanse of the country to be united.

Queen Victoria celebrated 50 years on the throne during her Golden Jubilee in 1887 and this was marked by a series of beacons that were lit around the country in her honor.

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee George V Silver
Queen Victoria, left, is pictured during her Diamond Jubilee year in 1897. King George V, right, is pictured during his Silver Jubilee year in 1935. W. & D. Downey/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Throughout history the symbolism behind the flame has come to represent eternity. The lighting of beacons for a royal jubilee in part came to symbolize the country's perceived "eternal" devotion to the monarch. Poet Thomas Lowe was inspired to write the work "The Beacon Lights of Loyalty" by the lighting of the beacons in June 1887. The poem ends with the line:

"Then higher flash the flame and louder raise the cheer,
Beacon answering beacon o'er all our happy land—
With loyal love and homage deep and sincere,
We hail! Our Gracious Queen—Victoria the Grand!"

Victoria's second jubilee—her Diamond celebrating 60 years on the throne in 1897—was again celebrated with nationwide beacons.

The next jubilee to be celebrated by a monarch was to be Queen Elizabeth II's grandfather King George V, who marked his Silver Jubilee (25 years on the throne) in 1935. On this occasion the beacons around the country were organized by the Boy Scouts and included an enormous bonfire in London's Hyde Park.

Queen Silver Diamond Jubilee Beacons
Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee beacons were lit on June 7,1977 after the queen ignited a bonfire in Windsor Great Park, left. A beacon is lit, right, during Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2012. Keystone/Getty Images/Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

In a novelty move, the bonfire was lit by George from the comfort of Buckingham Palace via the touch of a button. An electrical circuit was run from the park to the palace and when connected burnt out creating a small blaze beneath the bonfire.

George V died a year later and his successor, King George VI (the queen's father), did not rule long enough to celebrate a jubilee, dying in 1952 during his 16th year on the throne.

The three previous jubilee's of Elizabeth II's reign have all been marked with the lighting of beacons—her Silver Jubilee in 1977, her Golden Jubilee in 2002 and her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

For the 2012 celebrations the queen lit the first beacon by placing a symbolic diamond into a holder which set off the ignition of the central fire outside Buckingham Palace, which was then followed by a fireworks display.

Platinum Jubilee Plans

To mark the Platinum Jubilee, the first event of its kind in the 1000 year history of the British monarchy, special beacons have been organized around the country by The Queen's Platinum Jubilee Beacons committee.

The chain of thousands of community beacons is to be lit on the very first day of the Jubilee weekend on June 2, with 54 beacons also organized around the nations of the commonwealth.

The first beacon to be lit will be a symbolic one. A special sculpture titled "Tree of Trees"—a planter-like structure containing specimens from 350 of Britain's native trees—has been erected outside Buckingham Palace. A lighting installation has been incorporated into the design of the sculpture and this will be illuminated in the presence of members of the royal family to signal the start of the nationwide chain of beacons.

Tree of Trees Jubilee Beacons Sculpture
The "Tree of Trees" sculpture, pictured on May 24, 2022, has been designed by Thomas Heatherwick and erected outside Buckingham Palace in London as the principal beacon for the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Peter Nicholls/WPA Pool/Getty Images
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