LONDON — Seventy years ago on Sunday, a young English princess ascended to Treetops, a remote wildlife-viewing lodge in Kenya built into the branches of a fig tree overlooking an elephant watering hole. The next morning she descended as queen, although she did not learn of the death of her father, George VI, until later that day.
The 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne will be much more down to earth: the 95-year-old monarch plans to spend a quiet day at her country estate, Sandringham, where her father died on February 6, 1952. Four days of festivities to celebrate its platinum jubilee are planned for June.
But tributes to the Queen poured in from Britain’s great, good and simply eminent. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told the BBC: “She takes her duties seriously, but she doesn’t take herself very seriously.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised her for her “inspiring sense of duty and unwavering dedication to this nation”.
Those words, from a scandal-scarred leader whose tenure could be measured in days rather than decades, testified not only to the Queen’s longevity, but also to her steadfastness. In a country that has gone from Brexit storms to pandemic, she has been an anchor of unparalleled stability.
Time, of course, has not spared Elizabeth either. She commemorates this milestone alone, after losing her 73-year-old husband, Prince Philip, in April. And his health has deteriorated in recent months, forcing him to cancel several public appearances, including a memorial service for the war dead in November.
It was a blow to the Queen, who served in auxiliary service as a truck driver and mechanic during World War II. For worried Britons, it was another sign of its fragility and a melancholy reminder that the Second Elizabethan Age is coming to an end.
In a post on Saturday, the Queen spoke candidly about a royal family in transition. And she delivered a surprise, in the form of an endorsement from her daughter-in-law, Camilla, the second wife of her son and heir, Prince Charles.
“When, in due time, my son Charles becomes king, I know you will give him and his wife Camilla the same support you have given me,” the queen wrote. “I sincerely hope that, when the time comes, Camilla will be known as Queen Consort as she continues her loyal service.”
This settled a delicate and long-standing question of whether Camilla, who was romantically involved with Charles during her marriage to Princess Diana, would ever have the title of queen. It’s a victory for Charles, who has long pushed for this recognition for his wife, now known as the Duchess of Cornwall.
Elizabeth has otherwise endured another bumpy time in the soap opera that is her family. She recently stripped her second son Prince Andrew of his honorary military titles as he fights a lawsuit in a New York court for sexually abusing a teenage girl while a guest of the financier in disgrace Jeffrey Epstein.
His grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan, remain estranged from the family, with Harry working on a memoir that palace officials fear will reopen the wounds of a bitter interview the couple gave to Oprah Winfrey last year. The Queen has yet to meet her granddaughter Lilibet, named in honor of Elizabeth, whose parents called her by this nickname.
The Queen, however, remains enduringly popular; his 76% approval rating is No. 1 among royals, according to a poll last year by market research firm YouGov. Charles voted 45%; Prince William, next, at 66%; and the once-popular Harry at 39%.
“She has an instinctive understanding of the soul of the British people,” said Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London. Despite all the upheaval in the House of Windsor, he added, “the monarchy is seen as a unifying force of stability and constitutional democracy.”
Reaching this milestone puts Elizabeth in rare company. Only three monarchs are documented to have reigned for more than 70 years: Louis XIV of France; John II of Liechtenstein; and Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who died in 2016. Elizabeth is already Britain’s longest-serving monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria in 2015, and the longest-serving monarch. She will surpass Louis XIV, the Sun King, in less than three years.
It has been served by 14 prime ministers, starting with Winston Churchill. If political handicappers are to be believed, she could soon be on her 15th. An outcry over rallies held in Downing Street that broke pandemic lockdown restrictions led to calls for a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson.
Some key moments of Queen Elizabeth’s reign
Perhaps his lowest moment was apologizing to Buckingham Palace for two rowdy parties thrown by its staff the night before Philip’s funeral. The following day, a photographer captured an image of the Queen, alone in mourning at the service, masked and isolated in a choir stall in St. George’s Chapel.
If Mr Johnson hangs on until June, when the Platinum Jubilee is celebrated, he could even benefit from the general festive atmosphere. Among the planned events is a carnival-like procession of 5,000 performers through the streets of London, led by a dragon puppet the size of a double-decker bus. The government will give everyone an extra day off.
Accession Day, however, has always been a melancholic anniversary for the Queen, as much about her father’s death as her own rise to the throne. Although George VI was seriously ill, his death was traumatic for the 25-year-old princess, who was obviously very close to him.
Still, Elizabeth hosted low-key festivities on Saturday, cutting a cake and welcoming members of volunteer groups. Among his guests was Angela Wood, an 88-year-old former culinary student, who created the “coronation chicken”, the dish served to 350 VIPs at the banquet on Coronation Day in 1953.
Mrs Wood and the Queen discussed the recipe, which calls for diced chicken, tomato paste, a pinch of curry powder, brown sugar, a pinch of salt, a splash of red wine and, later, mixed with mayonnaise and mashed apricots.
“For a month or more,” she told the BBC, “I was cooking a chicken a day, and we had to change the balance of the spices in the sauce to get it right.”