Beginning at 9:45 pm on farm fields and royal estates, atop castle walls and city halls, the beacon fires burned in a ceremony that tapped into old ways.
If Henry VIII had heard news of his chain of beacons being lighted, he would have marshaled his armies to the coast to meet the French in battle.
Before? Beacons signaled dire emergency.
Now? It’s a mega-celebration.
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Thursday’s jubilee festivities also included an elaborate trooping the Color military parade in London, watched by the queen from the Buckingham Palace balcony. Afterward, the palace said she had experienced “some discomfort” and would pull out of a church service of Thanksgiving on Friday. But she still participated in a beacon lighting ceremony at Windsor Castle, now her primary residence, on Thursday night.
Many of the thousands of beacons were proper old-fashioned bonfires – some huge, some humble. Others were stoked in medieval-style braziers or gas-fueled burners erected on high posts.
A few were arty – to emit less carbon dioxide, in keeping with a green agenda. At a hospital in Manchester, welders created a beacon sculpture that resembled a giant crown, made from old hospital beds, illuminated by blue lasers.
Old-school fire, set by the Yeoman Warders, illuminated the battlements of the Tower of London. Flames could be seen in the night sky at the queen’s Sandringham and Balmoral estates in Norfolk and Scotland, and at Windsor Castle, too.
Beacons were ignited by revelers at a Hindu temple in London, at Winston Churchill’s birthplace at Blenheim Palace and at the 17th-century Tan Hill Inn in the Yorkshire Dales, the highest-elevation pub in Britain.
Organizers hoped flames would be visible on the four highest peaks in the United Kingdom, as climbers with gas-fueled braziers ascended to the top of Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in England, Mount Snowdon in Wales and Slieve Donard in Northern Ireland.
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The Platinum Jubilee is also being celebrated in the capitals of the 53 Commonwealth nations, which lit their own fires – even as some of those nations have less and less to do with the queen and Britain.
The pageant master for the jubilee beacons, Bruno Peek, told The Washington Post ahead of the ceremony: “It will be a marvelous spectacle, unprecedented, and international.”
Peek said the ritual was fitting: “The queen has been our beacon, unfailing in her service, and so we wish to show our appreciation.”
There were 51 points of light along Hadrian’s Wall, the 73 miles of defensive structures stretching east to west across England, constructed 1,900 years ago on orders of the Roman emperor.
“There’s nothing like a massive bonfire to bring people out,” said Jez Light, the Hadrian Wall beacon master. “Fire is elemental – it speaks to people.”
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He was running the show at Cawfields, a Victorian-era quarry dug along Hadrian’s Wall, where three archers dressed as Roman soldiers shot flaming arrows at a giant pile of kindling floating on a raft in the quarry’s lake.
“This will be the last jubilee of the queen’s reign and this is a message of thanks,” he said.
In 1897, beacons were lighted to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1977, 2002 and 2012, beacons commemorated the Silver, Golden and Diamond jubilees of Queen Elizabeth II.
Stuart Brookes, a lecturer in medieval archeology at University College London, said fire beacons were deployed for centuries in England, certainly by Anglo Saxons in the 9th century to warn the population of continued invasions by the Vikings.
“It was quite a sophisticated communications system by the late medieval time,” he said, describing the basic message as “run for the hills or muster your armies.”
The lighting of the beacons makes for a particularly dramatic scene in “The Lord of the Rings.”
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Archaeological evidence of the earliest beacons is scarce. Early fire signalers might have been drawn to some of the same hilltops that people of the Bronze Age had sought out for their religious sites and settlements.
But place names tell the story, too, Brookes said, like “Beacon Hill.”
A famous street in London is called Tottenham Court Road. In Old English, “Tottenham” means “house of the beacon.”
This stuff goes way back, the archaeologist said.