LONDON — With regimented lines of Scottish and Irish Guards, throngs of Union Jack-clad onlookers and waves of planes overhead, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 70 years on the throne on Thursday, winning tributes from world leaders and ordinary people for a reign unmatched in British history.
Shortly before 1 p.m., the Queen stepped onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet a sea of well-wishers, stretching along the mall. She was part of four generations of the royal family, a painting that captured both the timeless durability of the monarchy and the internal tensions of a modern family.
Three heirs to the throne stood by his side: his eldest son, Prince Charles; his eldest son, Prince William; and William’s eldest son, Prince George. But William’s younger brother Prince Harry was missing, after stepping back from royal duties and moving to Southern California with his wife, Meghan, in 2020.
Also missing was the Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, who was virtually banished from public life because of his association with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and convicted sex offender. Later Thursday, Buckingham Palace said Prince Andrew had tested positive for Covid and would miss the rest of the celebrations.
And on Thursday evening, the palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II had decided to skip a service of thanksgiving on Friday, one of the major events of her platinum jubilee, after feeling unwell on a first day of busy festivities. The palace said the queen “greatly enjoyed” the military parade to mark her birthday, but “felt some discomfort”.
Yet on Thursday the dysfunctional royal family was pushed offstage by a joyous celebration of its 96-year-old matriarch, whose lifetime of service has been an anchor for Britain through a number of convulsive moments.
Tributes poured in from world leaders, past and present, some of whom looked like fanboys in their awe.
“You are the golden thread that unites our two countries, proof of the unshakeable friendship between our nations,” French President Emmanuel Macron said, speaking in English in a video-recorded greeting.
Former President Barack Obama, who visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace with his wife, Michelle, in 2011, said: “Your life has been a gift, not just to the UK, but to the world. “.
In what was the emotional high point of the festivities, the Queen stepped onto the balcony shortly after midday to inspect the troops parading beneath her. She looked alert and engaged, wearing a dark dove blue dress with pearl and rhinestone trim cascading down the front of the coat. She then reappeared shortly before 1 p.m. with other members of the royal family.
It’s the first of four days of festivities – the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – with a military parade featuring hundreds of army musicians, 240 horses, a Royal Air Force flyover and a gun salute.
The ostensible purpose of all this pageantry was to celebrate the birthday of the Queen, who was back in April. But the spectacle of military grandeur, known as Trooping the Colour, also symbolizes Elizabeth’s status as Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces. This bond has been sacred to her since she served in the Auxiliary Service as a truck driver and mechanic during World War II when she was just a young princess.
The Queen did not take part in the day’s previous ceremonies, a concession to her frail condition and recent problems walking. But the palace had left no doubt that they intended to appear on the balcony, the ultimate royal photo opportunity.
She also led the lighting of the Platinum Jubilee Beacon on Thursday evening from Windsor Castle, in a double ceremony with her grandson, Prince William.
Buckingham Palace sought to avert weeks of press speculation by revealing last month that the Queen would be joined at the front of the palace by a streamlined version of the royal family.
Buckingham Palace’s thinner ranks respond to a longstanding strategy by Prince Charles to reduce the number of working royals – a concession to changing times and growing public resistance to the cost of support of the royal family.
The queen reaching her platinum jubilee is the main story of the week. She contracted the coronavirus in February and explained how the ordeal had exhausted her. She lost her husband, Prince Philip, last year, and frail health forced her to cancel several public appearances, including a memorial service for the war dead and the official opening of Parliament.
It’s a blow for a monarch who lived by the mantra that she had to be “seen to be believed”. But Elizabeth looked cheerful on Thursday and in recent appearances at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and the Chelsea Flower Show, raising hopes the Jubilee could still be a joyful commemoration rather than a melancholy twilight.