Queen Elizabeth II stepped cautiously onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Thursday, drawing wild cheers from the tens of thousands who flocked to her at the start of four days of celebrations to mark her 70th jubilee.
Her fans wore Union Jack flags, party hats or plastic tiaras. Some had camped overnight hoping to catch a glimpse of the 96-year-old Queen, whose appearances are becoming infrequent, and a chance to see Trooping the Color – a military parade that has marked every sovereign’s official birthday since 1760.
There was an explosion of joy in the huge crowd, one of the first large gatherings in the UK since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone has the same mission,” said Hillary Mathews, 70, who was from Hertfordshire, outside London. “All the horrors that are happening in the world and in England right now are behind us for a day and we can just enjoy really celebrating the Queen.”
Elizabeth, who became queen at 25, is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and the first to reach the milestone of seven decades on the throne.
But after a life of good health, old age has begun to catch up with her. Buckingham Palace announced late Thursday that the Queen would not be attending a thanksgiving service on Friday after experiencing “some uneasiness” at events on Thursday. The palace said with “great reluctance” the monarch had decided to cancel the service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Queen has struggled to move around in recent months and has withdrawn from many public events.
But Elizabeth took part in lighting a string of ceremonial beacons at Windsor Castle on Thursday night as planned.
The anniversary celebrations span a long weekend and it wasn’t immediately known how the news would affect the anniversary events on Saturday and Sunday.
The palace says “the Queen thoroughly enjoyed Thursday’s events” – and it showed.
She basked in her moment. Smiling, she chatted with her great-grandson Prince Louis, 4, who occasionally covered her ears as 70 military planes, old and new, flew low over the palace to salute the Queen. The six-minute display included a formation of Typhoon fighter jets flying in the shape of the number 70.
The Queen, wearing a powder-blue dress designed by Angela Kelly, was joined on the balcony by more than a dozen royals – though not Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who stepped down from their front-line royal duties two years ago. The couple traveled to London from their home in California with their two young children to attend the celebrations and watched Trooping the Color with other family members on Thursday.
They did not appear on the palace balcony because the monarch decided that only working members of the royal family should have this honor. The decision also conveniently excluded Prince Andrew, who is retiring from public duties amid controversy over his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Andrew will also miss Friday’s thanksgiving service after testing positive for COVID-19.
The anniversary will be marked with a four-day holiday extravaganza and events including a concert at Buckingham Palace on Saturday and a pageant featuring thousands of performers from schools and community groups from across the country on Sunday. Thousands of street parties are planned across the country, repeating a tradition that began with the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
Not everyone in the UK celebrates. Many people used the long weekend to go on vacation. And 12 protesters were arrested on Thursday after getting past barriers and onto the parade route. The group Animal Rebellion claimed responsibility, saying the protesters were demanding “the retaking of the royal lands”.
But the anniversary gives many people – even those indifferent to the monarchy – a chance to reflect on the state of the nation and the tremendous changes that have taken place during Elizabeth’s reign.
Former Prime Minister John Major, one of 14 prime ministers during the Queen’s reign, said the monarch’s stoic presence has helped guide the country over the decades.
“The Queen has represented our better selves for over 70 years,” he told the BBC.
In a written anniversary message, the Queen thanked the people of Britain and across the Commonwealth who were involved in organizing the celebrations. This country likes a good party.
“I know that these festive occasions will create many fond memories,” Elizabeth said. “I continue to be inspired by the goodwill shown to me and hope that the coming days will provide an opportunity to look back on all that has been achieved over the last 70 years as we look to the future with confidence and enthusiasm.”
Congratulations came from world leaders including US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis. French President Emmanuel Macron called Elizabeth “the golden thread connecting our two countries,” and former President Barack Obama recalled the Queen’s “grace and generosity” during his first visit to the palace.
“Her life was a gift, not just to the UK but to the world,” Obama told the BBC. “May the light of your crown continue to reign supreme.”
Cheers and the clatter of hooves rang out on Thursday as horse-drawn carriages carried members of the royal family including Prince William’s wife Kate and their children Prince George, 8, Princess Charlotte, 7, and 4-year-old Prince Louis. from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade, a ceremonial parade ground approximately 1 km away for the Trooping the Color ceremony.
The annual tradition is a ceremonial re-enactment of the way battle flags or colors were once displayed for soldiers to ensure they would recognize a crucial rallying point should they become disoriented in combat.
Prince Charles, the 73-year-old heir to the throne, played a key role during Thursday’s event as he stood up for his mother – as he has been doing more and more recently.
Dressed in his ceremonial military uniform, Charles rode into the parade ground on horseback and took the salute of the passing troops in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats. He was flanked by his sister Princess Anne and eldest son Prince William.
Tens of thousands of locals and tourists lined the path between the palace and the parade ground to enjoy the spectacle and the atmosphere.
“I was at the forefront… I’m very proud of the Queen,” said Celia Lourd, 60. “She’s been my Queen all my life and I think we owe her a great deal for the service she’s given the country Has. So I wanted to come today to show my support and say thank you.”
– Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless, The Associated Press