September 25, 2022

The Origin of the King’s Birthday Holiday

The origin of the King’s Birthday holiday stretches back to the 17th century, and it is now celebrated throughout the Commonwealth. Except: not, in Great Britain.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

In 1660, the Stuart royal family returned to rule in Great Britain.

The Stuart’s had been deposed in 1649. Oliver Cromwell, a junior Parliamentarian, had lead a revolutionary uprising against King Charles I, that had ended in Civil War; Parliamentary and Royal armies clashed over religious freedom and the proper role of Parliament.

The Parliamentary forces were victorious, and in January 1649 Charles was executed for treason. Cromwell installed himself as the new head of a British Republic; first, as leader of Parliament, later as Lord Protector.

But England’s republican experiment would not long survive its creator. Cromwell died in 1658, and the government descended rapidly into chaos. Two years later, public opinion heavily favoured a return to the monarchy.

This period would be known as the ‘Restoration’.

Charles II
Charles II

Charles’ son, also named Charles, was living in exile in the Hague.

In April 1660, sensing his moment, he issued the ‘Proclamation of Breda’, in which he promised a peaceful transfer of power if restored to the monarchy. Things moved quickly.

On May 8, British Parliament declared Charles the rightful ruler of the country; on May 29 he returned to London, greeted by cheering crowds and the declaration of an impromptu public holiday.

The following year, he was crowned Charles II, at Westminster Abbey.

The Coronation of Charles II
The Coronation of Charles II

After the violence and upheaval of the Civil War, and the austerity of the Republic, the Restoration provided a welcome change.

Charles II would not retain his popularity, but he was initially embraced by his subjects. Many different public events were held, to celebrate his return to the throne, and the optimistic mood of the time.

Among these was an event conducted by Charles II’s personal regiment, the Life Guards.

The origin of the king's birthday holiday
Member of the Life Guard in action

The Life Guards were a cavalry regiment, formed by Charles while he was in exile. They wore a distinctive red and white uniform, and were charged with his personal protection: in effect, they were his bodyguards.

After Charles returned to the throne, their role continued.

To celebrate the Restoration, in June 1660 the Life Guards organised a parade. Cavalry horses, soldiers and weapons were presented to Charles for inspection, along with the regimental ‘colours’: a flag that represented each individual regiment.

The parade was called ‘Trooping the Colour’, and shortly became an annual event.

The Life Guards were eventually incorporated into the ‘Household Division’ of the British Army, an expanded group of regiments in the personal service of the monarch.

Maria Theresa
Maria Theresa

Informal celebrations of the King or Queen’s birthday had occurred throughout the history of the British monarchy. These varied in size and importance depending on the monarch, and were held at different times of year, to accompany their actual birthday.

This would change in 1748. That year marked the end of a lengthy conflict in Europe, the ‘War of Austrian Succession’. Fought between 1740 and 1748, the war had been triggered by the death of Emperor Charles VI, ruler of the Hapsburg Empire.

Charles’ young daughter, Maria Theresa, was his heir, other European countries saw this as their moment to make territorial claims. France, Prussia and Bavaria challenged the Hapsburgs; Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Hannover came to their defence.

As the war dragged on it expanded globally, leading to conflicts in the participant’s territories in North America, and the Caribbean. A fragile peace was finally agreed in May 1748.

Map of Europe after the peace of 1748
Map of Europe after the peace of 1748

The end of the war was cause for public celebration across Europe. In London, a large fete was held in Green Park, with famed composer George Handel providing a new composition.

Trooping the Colour was held in June, and it was decided to amend the event to include a celebration of George II’s birthday. Adding a birthday to an already popular parade allowed people to pay tribute to the King, celebrating George’s role in ending the war.

George’s actual birthday was in November. But November in England was usually cold and wet, and so unsuitable for a public event.

The origin of the King's birthday holiday: George III
George III

This event would set a precedent. George’s successor, George III, formally aligned the ‘King’s Birthday’ celebration with Trooping the Colour, and marked both together.

The British monarch would now have two birthdays, one actual and one official, each year. The name of the celebration would change with the monarch, either King’s or Queen’s Birthday.

The date of the official birthday would sometimes vary as well.

Both Trooping the Colour, and the monarch’s Birthday, would shift between May and June, depending on where other public events may fall. But they were always held in summer, to try and provide good weather.

Queen Elizabeth II, on horseback at Trooping the Colour
Queen Elizabeth II, on horseback at Trooping the Colour

In England, the day continued to be marked by a military parade, usually with the monarch in attendance. Queen Elizabeth II, a keen equestrian, attended 36 times on horseback, up to 1986.

She also moved to set the date. From 1959, the official Queen’s Birthday was fixed on the second Saturday in June.

In England, this is not a public holiday. Some public servants are granted an additional day off, known as a ‘privilege day’, for everyone else: it’s business as usual.

The Origin of the King's Birthday Holiday: European settlement in Sydney, 1788
European settlement in Sydney, 1788

In Australia, the tradition of a King or Queen’s birthday holiday dates back to the arrival of the first Europeans.

Arthur Phillip landed the First Fleet in Port Jackson, on January 26, 1788. His party, made up of transported convicts, soldiers and settlers, were charged with creating a new settlement from scratch.

On June 4, Phillip decided they had earned a holiday.

‘On the anniversary of the King’s birthday, all the officers dined with the Governor. At daylight, the ships of war fired 21 guns each, which was repeated at noon.

 

Four unhappy wretches labouring under the sentence of banishment were freed from their fetters, and each prisoner, male and female, received an allowance of grog.

 

Bonfires concluded the evening.’

 

– Watkin Tench, ‘1788’

As modern Australia divided into states, the holiday continued with different rules applied.

Queen's Birthday football at the MCG, Melbourne v Collingwood
Queen’s Birthday football at the MCG, Melbourne v Collingwood

With the exception of West Australia and Queensland, all Australian states and territories have marked King or Queen’s Birthday with a public holiday around the traditional time in early June.

In Victoria it is also the setting for one of the marquee games of the AFL season, when Melbourne play Collingwood. This tradition also has a long history: a Queen’s Birthday match was held in the league’s first season, in 1897. Melbourne and Collingwood played on the public holiday for the first time, the following year.

WA and Queensland have other, state based holidays around this time, or have had, so King/Queen’s birthday is usually in October instead.

This is similar across the British Commonwealth, with many countries providing a public holiday sometime in early June. Other countries mark the date at different times, as per local custom, or have an informal celebration that does not include a holiday.

With King Charles III ascending the throne, a 70 year period of celebrating the ‘Queen’s Birthday’ will end, with a change back to ‘King’s Birthday’. It remains to be seen what other changes may occur to these traditions.

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