1988 and 1989 have been vintage years all over the world for centenary celebrations. People have celebrated the centenary of the Eiffel Tower, the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the bicentenary of Australia, the bicentenary of the American Bill of Rights, the quatercentenary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the sexcentenary of the battle of Kosovo (this one may have escaped your notice, but it brought over a million people to a gathering in the city of Pristina in Yugoslavia in June 1989), and, of course, the tercentenary of the English Revolution of 1688–89, with which I am concerned tonight. You will have no trouble believing that I have been “concerned with” and “celebrating” the Glorious Revolution for two years now, but I want to confess to you in the intimacy of this festive occasion that it has really been at least ten years, and that sometimes it feels more like three hundred!
How did centennial observances start? Why do people go to trouble, take time, and spend money to call to mind an event that happened one, two, or three hundred years ago? What is it about centennial moments that turns serious-minded, scholarly-inclined historians like ourselves into “party people”? What do celebrations tell us about the uses of the past in successive “presents”? The fact is that celebrations, each varying in character, have attended the Glorious Revolution from its beginnings on through each centennial anniversary thereafter — in 1788–89, 1888–89, and 1988–89. The observances at these centennial moments not only celebrated the Revolution itself, but also served, even as they reflected, current political, cultural, and/or economic ideas and goals. In a long perspective, the celebrations are an important part of the political and cultural history of the Revolution of 1688–89 itself. They illustrate how high and low politics may intersect, show how political ideas circulate through society and undergo transformation, and offer an index of changing ideological and cultural assumptions and aspirations over three hundred years.