LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II, 96, is the only British monarch the vast majority of the world has ever known. Starting with Winston Churchill, she has worked with 14 prime ministers and has served longer than any other British ruler, including her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
The United Kingdom will celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this week to mark her record-setting 70 years on the throne. The nation is planning a four-day extravaganza, starting Thursday with the Trooping the Color, a parade that will include 1,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians.
A Saturday concert at Buckingham Palace will feature Diana Ross, Queen + Adam Lambert, Alicia Keys and Duran Duran. On Sunday, people across the country will take part in more than 16,000 street parties.
David Allwood, a 66-year-old craftsman who lives outside London, says the queen has set the standard for behavior and duty in this country for the past seven decades.
“Her original speech, when she was becoming queen and she pledged herself to the country and the people, really, that is what she’s done,” says Allwood. “The queen is definitely, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing this country has ever had.”
Many Britons also value the queen for being steadfast and dependable.
“It’s a sense that heads of government come and go, but the monarchy has been surviving for a thousand years, so it gives an important sense of continuity and stability,” says David McClure, a royal analyst and author of The Queen’s True Worth: Unraveling the public and private finances of Queen Elizabeth II. “I think history will regard her as one of the most successful monarchs of all time.”
New scandals and drama hit the royal family in recent years
But recent years have been bumpy, as new turmoil and scandals have enveloped the royal family. The queen’s second-oldest grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, left the family and moved to California. Later, they accused an unnamed royal of racism, after he or she allegedly asked how dark the color of their son Archie’s skin might be. Meghan is biracial.
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Harry’s brother, Prince William, denied the family was racist, while Buckingham Palace said the royals took the allegations seriously.
In February, the queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, settled a lawsuit over allegations that he’d sexually abused a 17-year-old girl who said she’d been trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein, the late, convicted sex offender and friend of the prince. Andrew denied any wrongdoing.
Neither Harry, Meghan nor Andrew will appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony on Friday, when the queen greets the public. The palace says that honor will be reserved for working members of the royal family.
Since last fall, the queen’s health has declined. In October, she began walking with the help of a cane and has appeared far less frequently in public, even missing key events, such as reading the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the British government’s legislative agenda at the opening of parliament.
In fact, the queen no longer lives in Buckingham Palace, which is undergoing a massive $460 million renovation. She has moved permanently to Windsor Castle, her weekend home outside London, where she spent the pandemic and which she is known to prefer.
Support for the monarchy has fallen
All this has people wondering what might happen to the monarchy after the queen eventually leaves the stage.
Max Hasting, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, thinks the transition to the next generation could be challenging.
“Many millions of people … have enormous respect and affection for the queen … but they’re much less committed to the institution of monarchy,” he says. “I suspect that we may discover that the monarchy in Britain is a more fragile institution than it seems for all these years that Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne.”
About 80% of Britons view the queen positively, according to a poll in May by YouGov, the British market research firm. A smaller majority—60%—backs the monarchy.
But that support steadily drops with age. A slight majority of people between the ages of 18 to 24 would like to see the institution go.
Among them is Emma McDonald, 21, who lives in Reading, a two-hour drive west of London. McDonald lives near a red billboard which bears the photos of Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Andrew, though someone has torn away Andrew’s face. The billboard reads: “Make Elizabeth the Last #abolishthemonarchy.”
This is among a dozen billboards that Republic, an anti-monarchy group, paid to have put up around the United Kingdom in advance of this week’s Jubilee festivities. McDonald says she pretty much supports the message.
“I don’t mind the queen as a person or any of them individually, but I think as a concept, as an institution, I don’t really agree with it,” she says. “I think it is probably time. To me, it seems like a bit of an unfair way for the country to be set up.”
McDonald says there is a generational divide over the monarchy, and that her grandparents are very supportive.
“Maybe they’re a little bit more patriotic,” she says.
Prince Charles is much less popular than the queen
Another challenge the monarchy faces is the question of succession. Prince Charles, 73, next in line for the throne, does not enjoy anything near his mother’s popularity.
Only 54% of people have a positive impression of him, according to YouGov. Some of the bad feeling stretches back to the end of the last century. Many Britons still hold a grudge against Charles for having an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, now his wife, while he was married to Princess Diana. They think he treated Diana poorly in the lead-up to their 1996 divorce.
“Prince Charles, in my opinion, is weak,” says Lola Krasser, a retired recreation coordinator at a senior care facility, who passes by the anti-monarchy billboard during walks. “It goes back to Diana. I lost respect for him for carrying on that affair while he was still married and so public as well.”
Charles and Camilla, who divorced her previous husband, married in 2005.
A YouGov poll in April showed that just 34% of people want Prince Charles to become king, while slightly more — 37% — would prefer his son Prince William to ascend the throne.
Prince William is more popular, and — at 39 — almost 3 1/2 decades younger than his father. But there is no sign that Charles plans to abdicate. After so many years in the wings, he’s more than prepared to do the job, some believe.
“I think he’s going to make an excellent king,” says Dominic Grieve, who served as a member of the British Parliament for more than two decades and as attorney general for England and Wales. “I think the evidence of that is overwhelming. He’s a man who is assiduous in trying to promote the public interest [and] has a wide range of charities. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s a very kind man.”
As for the queen, over the next few days the public will celebrate her longevity and her ability to guide an anachronistic institution through an ever-changing landscape.
“The queen’s greatest legacy will be to hand on a pretty well-working monarchy to her successor,” says Robert Lacey, a royal historian and author of Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II. “Just to survive as a monarchy in the modern world is in itself an achievement.”
NPR London producers Jessica Beck and Morgan Ayre contributed to this report