Stung by royal breakups, relentless sniping over her tax-free status and a fire at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II famously dubbed 1992 her annus horribilis, or horrible year. Two decades later, the world’s highest-profile monarch finds herself basking in the glow of something wholly different: an annus mirabilis.
One. Marvelous. Year.
The queen’s “diamond jubilee,” commemorating her 60th year on the throne, will draw an estimated 1 million people to London for a four-day fete starting Saturday that, in terms of sheer pageantry, will dwarf last year’s nuptials of her grandson Prince William and his now-famous bride, Catherine. Aboard a royal barge, the monarch will lead a 1,000-vessel flotilla down the Thames in a majestic scene inspired by a Canaletto painting. A network of 2,012 beacons will be lighted in her honor from the Scottish Highlands to the Channel Islands. Paul McCartney and Elton John will serenade her at a glittering concert outside Buckingham Palace.
Yet the queen is observing more than a milestone that puts her just three years shy of becoming Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. At a time when the missteps of King Juan Carlos have Spain seriously rethinking the wisdom of monarchy, she is also symbolically marking the revival of a British royal house that has defied the odds by bringing a nation — and the world — back under its spell.
For a family once described as Britain’s most dysfunctional, and in a country where whispers of republicanism seemed to swirl with every new tabloid headline, the rising fortunes of the British royals amount to what observers call a public relations coup. Although support for the monarchy has always been strong, a new opinion poll by Ipsos Mori shows that eight out of every 10 Britons want to keep the monarchy — the highest level of support since the surveys began in the 1980s.
Many credit the supernova wedding that produced the global stars now known simply as “Will and Kate” with providing the House of Windsor its undeniable boost. But in the year since the bunting came down from Westminster Abbey, the royals appear to have solidified those gains, with even the gangling Prince Charles and his second wife, Camilla, scoring fresh points with the public.
Most important, the younger generation of Windsors — including those now associated by marriage, such as Pippa Middleton, the sister of Catherine — have emerged as de facto pop culture icons rivaling the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Their fame, royal watchers say, has given the British monarchy’s international image a lift not seen since the early years of another royal couple — Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Yet as Britain prepares for the queen’s diamond jubilee, the monarchy more than ever is all about Her.
“At 86, the queen is having her star turn,” said Dickie Arbiter, her former spokesman.
Although publicly criticized for her initial inaction after Diana’s death in 1997, the queen has almost always been seen as the glue of the nation and its living link to a commonwealth of which she remains head of state and through which Britain enjoys outsize influence. The rare occasion of a 60th year on the throne — only Queen Victoria had made it this far until now — appears to have refocused Britain’s attention on a woman who has defined an era here.
British newspapers on both the political right and left are running gushing tributes. Cities great and small are being festooned with Union Jacks for more than 10,000 street parties (about double the number held for last year’s royal wedding). Merchandisers are minting everything from diamond jubilee retro lingerie to vintage champagne. Andrew Lloyd Webber has penned a song. Two national holidays have been declared.
It is all in honor of a woman who at birth was a long shot for the throne. The daughter of George VI, who became king only after his brother abdicated to marry a divorced American socialite, the queen was coronated June 2, 1953. The powers of the monarchy long ago reined in, she would watch from the gilded sidelines as the sun well and truly set on the greatest empire of its day, with the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China completing the passage of Britain’s glory days.
Yet, through it all, and with her husband and consort, Prince Philip, by her side, she would stand as a regal symbol of state from the first icicles of the Cold War to the first moon landing, from the birth of the Beatles to the death of singer Amy Winehouse, from the once-constant threat of Irish republican terrorism to the 2005 bombing of London subway trains by homegrown Islamist extremists.
“We look across the pond and we see America tearing itself apart over politics, and over here, we’re thinking, there’s a lot to be said for a constitutional monarchy,” royal biographer Robert Lacey said. “We are recognizing the queen more and more as the independent national figure that unites all of us and the one constant in our lives for the past 60 years.”
In many ways, the royals have capitalized on the goodwill engendered by last year’s royal wedding through a carefully orchestrated campaign. To herald the diamond jubilee, Buckingham Palace has launched a charm offensive, with the queen’s national tour over the past several months drawing crowds that would be the envy of any aging rock star.
But royal watchers also say that the palace has clearly been using this year to begin the process of passing the royal torch, with the queen dispatching younger royals on a blitz of domestic and international tours that has raised the family’s profile and spread the gospel of the House of Windsor near and far.
Prince Charles, next in line to the throne, is suddenly in danger of being cool after a hilarious turn as guest weatherman on the BBC and a stint playing DJ during a visit to a Toronto youth center. Even Camilla, still an object of derision among Diana loyalists, scored points by yukking it up on the set of the international hit show “The Killers,” going gangsta by pointing a fake gun at Princess Mary of Denmark.
Prince Harry, who once made tabloid headlines for donning a Nazi uniform at a costume party, sent seen-it-all Washington into a frenzy when he accepted an award there early this month. That came after the queen had sent him on his first major international tour, during which he stole the hearts of Brazilian schoolgirls after playing beach volleyball on the shores of Rio de Janeiro. In the queen’s name, the palace’s real secret weapons — William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — start their tour of Asia and the South Pacific in the fall.
Although a stickler for tradition — in fact, the very definition of it — the queen has seen fit to bend the rules a bit this year, making an official public appearance alongside both Catherine and Camilla in a hairline fracture of protocol. In making such a gesture, many here see a queen preparing her public for the future inhabitants of Buckingham Palace.
A poll released this week shows that about 40 percent of Britons are eager to see the popular William leapfrog his father to the throne, compared with roughly 46 percent who felt that way about one year ago. Still, almost no one believes that Charles will step aside, and few predict a succession crisis. Observers chalk that up largely to a queen who after six stalwart decades has somehow managed to endear the archaic notion of inherited monarchy to an otherwise progressive nation.
“In my life, she has always been there,” said aspiring lawyer Sean Brushett, 19, who waited hours in the rain to see the queen during her recent visit to south London. “It’s hard to see her ever really going away. The queen is the biggest celebrity in the world.”
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.