LONDON — With regimented lines of Scots and Irish guards, throngs of Union Jack-clad onlookers and waves of aircraft streaking overhead, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 70 years on the throne on Thursday, earning tributes from world leaders and ordinary people for a reign unmatched in British history.
Shortly before 1 p.m., the queen stepped out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet a sea of well-wishers, stretching down the Mall. She was among four generations of the royal family, a tableau that captured both the monarchy’s timeless durability and a modern family’s internal stresses.
Three heirs to the throne stood alongside her: her 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 But William’s younger brother, Prince Harry, was missing, having withdrawn from his royal duties and moved to Southern California with his wife, Meghan, in 2020.
Also missing was the queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, who has been all but banished from public life because of his association with Jeffrey Epstein, the deceased financier and convicted sex offender. Later Thursday, Buckingham Palace said that Prince Andrew had tested positive for Covid and would miss the remainder of the celebrations.
And late Thursday the palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II had decided to skip a thanksgiving service on Friday, one of the major events of her Platinum Jubilee, after experiencing discomfort on a busy first day of festivities. The palace said that the queen “greatly enjoyed” the military parade that marked her birthday, but “did experience some discomfort.”
Still, on Thursday, the royal family’s dysfunction was pushed offstage by a joyful celebration of its 96-year-old matriarch, whose lifetime of service has been an anchor for Britain through any number of convulsive times.
Tributes poured in from world leaders, past and present, some of whom sounded like fanboys in their awe-struck admiration.
“You are the golden thread that binds our two countries, the proof of the unwavering friendship between our nations,” said President Emmanuel Macron of France, speaking in English in a videotaped greeting.
Former President Barack Obama, who visited the queen in Buckingham Palace with his wife, Michelle, in 2011, declared, “Your life has been a gift, not just to the United Kingdom, but to the world.”
In what was the emotional highlight of the festivities, the queen stepped out onto the balcony shortly after noon to inspect the troops marching beneath her. She looked alert and engaged, wearing a dusky dove blue dress with a pearl and diamanté trim cascading down the front of the coat. She then re-emerged just before 1 p.m. with other members of the royal family.
It is the first of four days of festivities — the queen’s Platinum Jubilee — featuring a military parade with 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 queen’s birthday, which was back in April. But the show of military grandeur, known as Trooping the Color, also symbolizes Elizabeth’s status as the commander in chief of the British armed forces. That link has been sacred to her since she served in the auxiliary service as a driver and truck mechanic during World War II, when she was a young princess.
The queen did not take part in the day’s earlier ceremonies, a concession to her frail condition and the problems she has had walking recently. But the palace had left little doubt that she intended to turn up 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 dual ceremony with her grandson Prince William.
Buckingham Palace sought to head off weeks of press speculation by disclosing last month that the queen would be joined at the front of the palace by a streamlined version of the royal family.
The thinner ranks at Buckingham Palace fulfill a longtime strategy by Prince Charles to reduce the number of working royals — a concession to changing times and growing public resistance to the cost of supporting the royals.
That the queen has made it to her Platinum Jubilee at all is the major story line of the week. She contracted the coronavirus in February and has talked about how the ordeal left her exhausted. She lost her husband, Prince Philip, last year, and her fragile health has forced her to cancel multiple public appearances, including a remembrance service for the war dead and the state opening of Parliament.
That is a heavy blow for a monarch who has lived by the mantra that she had to be “seen to be believed.” But Elizabeth looked spry on Thursday, and at recent appearances at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and the Chelsea Flower Show, raising hopes that the jubilee may yet be a joyful commemoration rather than a wistful twilight.