Food historians generally credit Auguste Escoffier for creating Cherries Jubilee to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration. There seems to be some conflict as to which Jubilee (1887? 1897?). Charles Elme Francatelli (primary Chef to Queen Victoria) confirms the Queen’s oft noted affection toward cherries. Francatelli’s recipe was meant to accompany venison:
“64. Cherry Sauce A La Victoria.
Put a small pot of red currant-jelly into a stewpan, together with a dozen cloves, a stick of cinnamon, the rind of two oranges, a piece of glaze, and a large gravy-spoonful of reduced brown sauce; moisten with a half a pint of Burgundy wine, boil gently on the fire for twenty minutes; pass the sauce through a tammy into a bain-marie, add the juice of the two oranges, and before sending to table boil the sauce. This sauce is especially appropriate with red deer or roebuck, when prepared in a marinade and larded.”
—Francatelli’s Modern Cook, Charles Elme Francatelli [David McKay:Philadelphia] 1890s? (p. 48) [RECIPE NOTE: Interesting juxtaposition in both ingredients and method to Escoffier’sSteak Diane.
Of course, dishes are not invented, they evolve. A survey of 19th century cookbooks confirms both cherry compote and cherries preserved in brandy were popular items. Towards the end of the century, elaborate chafing dish and flambe recipes (Baked Alaska, for a dessert example) became the hallmark of the best chefs and finest menus. Given this context, it was probably only a matter of time before someone decided to set sweetened, liqueur-covered cherries “on fire.” The vanilla ice cream base was introduced later, probably inspired by the popular appeal of Baked Alaska. In America, Cherries Jubilee quickly became a standard dessert item in the finest continental restaurants. The recipe was quickly adopted/adapted by American home cooks who wanted to impress their dinner guests. Cookbooks in the 1950s & 1960s almost always contain a simplified recipe for this particular item. In the United States, flamboyant flambe dishes climaxed during the Kennedy years.
“Cherries Jubilee were created in honor of Queen Victoria. Then, as now, the British public delighted in every detail of the Royal Family’s life and everyone know that cherries were the queen’s favorite fruit…The whole nation celebrated at her Golden Jubilee in 1887 and again at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It was during the earlier celebration that Cherries Jubilee first appeared. Curiously, the original dish did not call for ice cream at all. Sweet cherries poached in a simple syrup that was slightly thickened, were poured into fireproof dishes, then warmed brandy was added and set on flame at the moment of serving. Soon, however, Escoffier was serving vanilla ice cream accompagnie de Cerises Jubile to many dignitaries…”
—Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, Patricia Bunning Stevens [Ohio University Press:Athens OH] 1998 (p. 215)
“Cherries Jubilee: A dessert made with black cherries flambeed with kirsch or brandy, then spooned over vanilla ice cream. The dish [was]…especially fashionable from the 1930s through the 1960s in deluxe restaurants, and also a popular dinner-party dish of the same period. The origins of the dish are unknown.”
—Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 69)
Compare these recipes:
 “Compote of Cherries
Take 1 lb of May-Duke or Kentish cherries; cut off all but 3/4 inch of the stalks; Put 1/2 lb. Of lump sugar in a copper sugar boiler, with 2 quarts of water; boil for three minutes; put the cherries in this syrup; cover the pan, and simmer for five minutes; drain the cherries on a sieve; dish them up in a compte dish, the stalks upwards; reduce the syrup to 30 degrees; let it cool; pour it over the cherries; and serve.”
—The Royal Cookery Book, Jules Gouffe [Samson Low:London] 1869 (p. 207)
 “Recipe 4523: Cerises Jubilee
Remove the stone from some nice large cherries then poach the cherries in syrup; remove and place them in small silver timbales. Reduce the syrup and thicken it with diluted arrowroot using 1/2 tablespoons per 3dl (1/2 pint or 2 1/2 U.S. cups) syrup. Instead of the syrup, redcurrant jelly many be used. Coat the cherries with the sauce, pour 1/2 tablespoon of warmed Kirsch into each timbale and set alight when bringing them to the table.”
–Le Guide Culinaire, August Escoffier, 1903, translated into English by H.L. Cracknell and R.J. Kaufmann [Wiley:New York] 1981 (p. 538)
[NOTE: the similarities between Francatelli’s Victoria recipe (referenced above) and this.]
 “Cherries Jubilee
Few things are easier than this dessert with a cosmopolitan air. You simply drain the juice from a No. 2 can of pitted black cherries–the big ones–and reserve about one-fourth. Put the cherries and the juice in a chafing dish. Bring just to the simmering point and keep there for about a minute, agitating with a spoon (I really mean “agitating” instead of “stirring”). The pour on about a half a cup of warmed brandy, mix with the cherries, and ignite. While they are flaming, ladle them over individual dishes of vanilla ice cream, which are ready and waiting. (You’ll need a quart). And this dessert is bound to bring words of admiration.”
—Martha Deane’s Cooking for Compliments, Marian Young Taylor [M. Barrows:New York] 1954 (p. 241)
[NOTE: Martha Deane was a radio personality on New York’s WOR station]