Queen Elizabeth II walked gingerly on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Thursday, drawing cheers from the tens of thousands of people who came to join her at the start of four days of celebrations for her 70 years on the throne.
Her fans sported Union Jack flags, party hats or plastic tiaras. Some had camped overnight in hopes of catching a glimpse of the 96-year-old Queen, whose appearances are rare, and the chance to attend Trooping the Colour, a military parade that marks the official birthday of every sovereign since 1760.
It was an explosion of joy in the massive crowd, one of the first major gatherings since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Everyone has the same mission,” said Hillary Mathews, 70, from Hertfordshire, near London. “All the horrors unfolding in the world and in England at the moment 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 seven decades on the throne.
Yet, after a lifetime of good health, age began to catch up with her. Buckingham Palace announced on Thursday evening that the Queen would not attend a thanksgiving church service on Friday after feeling “some discomfort” at events on Thursday. The palace said with “great reluctance” the monarch had decided to skip the service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
The celebrations continue for a full long weekend, and it was not immediately clear how the news would affect Jubilee events on Saturday and Sunday.
The palace says “the Queen very much enjoyed” Thursday’s events – and it shows.
She took advantage of her moment. Smiling, she chatted with her great-grandson Prince Louis, 4, who sometimes covered his ears as 70 military planes old and new flew over the palace to greet 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 dark dove blue dress designed by Angela Kelly, was joined on the balcony by more than a dozen senior royals – but not Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who stepped down from their duties frontline royals two years ago. The couple traveled to London from their California home with their two young children to quietly join in the celebrations and watched Thursday’s Trooping the Color with other family members.
They did not appear on the balcony of the palace, as the monarch decided that only working members of the royal family should have this honor. The decision also easily excluded Prince Andrew, who stepped down from public duties amid controversy over his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Andrew will also miss a thanksgiving service on Friday at St Paul’s Cathedral in London after testing positive for Covid-19.
The jubilee is commemorated with a four-day holiday extravaganza and events, including a concert at Buckingham Palace on Saturday and a performance by thousands of performers from schools and community groups 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 Britain celebrates. Many people took advantage of the long weekend to go on vacation. And 12 protesters were arrested on Thursday after passing barriers and on the parade route. The group Animal Rebellion claimed responsibility, saying the protesters were “demanding the royal lands be reclaimed”.
Yet the jubilee gives many people – even those indifferent to the monarchy – a chance to reflect on the state of the nation and the enormous changes that took 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 had helped lead the country over the decades.
“The Queen has represented us better for over 70 years,” he told the BBC.
In a written jubilee message, the Queen thanked those in Britain and across the Commonwealth involved in organizing the celebrations. This country loves good parties.
“I know many happy memories will be created during these festive occasions,” Elizabeth said. “I continue to be inspired by the goodwill that has been shown to me and hope that the next few days will be an opportunity to reflect on all that has been achieved over the past 70 years as we look to the future. 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 that connects our two countries” and former President Barack Obama recalled the Queen’s “grace and generosity” during her first visit to the palace.
“Your life has been a gift, not just to the UK but to the world,” Obama said in a video message, adding, “May the light of your crown continue to reign supreme.”
Cheers and hoofbeats 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 Prince Louis, 4, from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade, a ceremonial parade ground about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), for the Trooping the Color ceremony.
The annual tradition is a ceremonial re-enactment of how battle flags, or colors, were once displayed for soldiers to ensure they would recognize a crucial rallying point if they became disoriented in battle.
Prince Charles played a key role in the event by replacing his mother. Elizabeth has been having trouble getting around lately, and her courtiers have been careful to make things as easy as possible for her.
Dressed in his ceremonial military uniform, Charles rode onto the parade ground on horseback and took the salute of passing troops in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats. He was accompanied by his sister, Princess Anne, and his eldest son, Prince William.
Tens of thousands of locals and tourists lined the route between the palace and the parade ground to enjoy the spectacle and atmosphere.
“I was right in front…I’m very proud of the queen,” Celia Lourd, 60, said. “She’s been my queen my whole life and I think we owe her so much for the service she’s given to the country, so I wanted to come out and show my support today and say thank you.”