The UK gave thanks for Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne on Friday, but her absence from St Paul’s Cathedral was a reminder that the monarchy is in transition at an uncertain moment for the country.
A four-day bank holiday weekend of street parties and concerts to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee has been a welcome respite for a country facing economic hardship and political division, and also highlights the affection in which the Queen is widely held.
But her absence from the St Paul’s national service of thanksgiving — Buckingham Palace said she had decided with “great reluctance” not to attend the event after experiencing “discomfort” — was further evidence that the House of Windsor is preparing to turn a page in its history.
Prince Charles, heir to the throne, led the royal party at the cathedral. In recent weeks he has stood in for his mother at other landmark events, including the state opening of parliament last month and Thursday’s trooping of the colour.
The Queen’s role as a unifying presence in Britain’s national life, and that of the Commonwealth, was reflected by her conduct during the Covid-19 crisis.
Her message to the country during the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020 — “We’ll meet again” — summed up a mood of defiance and optimism; her isolated grieving at Windsor for her late husband Prince Philip captured the pain felt by many.
Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, said in his sermon to the St Paul’s congregation — including political and faith leaders and figures from civil society — that the country was “so glad you’re still in the saddle”.
He said there was “still more to come” from the Queen, a horseracing enthusiast, but at the age of 96 and with increasing signs of frailty, the monarchy and the country is preparing for a new chapter.
The platinum jubilee celebrations come at a time of national hardship, as the country contends with the biggest squeeze on living standards in a generation, with inflation heading for 10 per cent and heating and food costs spiralling.
They also come amid deep political divisions, with Boris Johnson accused by his critics of undermining some of Britain’s institutions, including the BBC, the judiciary, the civil service and even parliament.
The prime minister, who is facing a growing revolt by his own MPs following the partygate scandal, was booed and jeered by some of the flag-waving crowd outside St Paul’s.
Johnson was also cheered by some in the crowd, but the intrusion of Britain’s fractured politics into a thanksgiving service for the Queen was evidence of a country ill at ease with itself.
The House of Windsor has been through its own problems and the St Paul’s service cast an intriguing light on its attempts to reinvent itself and prepare for life after the Queen.
Prince Andrew, probably to the relief of courtiers, did not attend the service, having contracted Covid. His reputation has been shattered by his association with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and may never recover.
However Prince Harry and his wife Meghan were cheered by the crowd as they entered the cathedral. Royal choreographers allowed the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to walk down the aisle on their own — giving them a moment in the spotlight and suggesting a rapprochement with the couple, who now live in California.
Meanwhile the royal family are having to reassess their relationship with former colonies in the Black Lives Matter era, after the public relations disaster around the visit to the Caribbean this year by Prince William and his wife Kate. Barbados last year removed the Queen as head of state.
Some in the UK are indifferent to the monarchy, or hostile. Last year a YouGov survey found that 41 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 wanted an elected head of state, compared to 31 per cent who preferred a monarch.
That is a sign of the challenge facing the royal family, but they remain an extremely powerful brand for Johnson’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda.
The platinum jubilee events, which started with a fly-past down a sun-drenched Mall, also include a concert at Buckingham Palace headlined by Diana Ross, and a pageant involving the Queen’s gold state coach.
The Archbishop of York said in his sermon that this was a “great and historic day” but that the country was “living in a time of uncertainty and challenge”.
The Queen is making plans to ensure the monarchy continues to play a role in offering stability and continuity in such difficult times now and into the future.
But for most of the country, the platinum jubilee represents a chance to take a break from work, concerns about living costs and political rancour. Across the country Union Jack flags have been strung across streets, as the parties got into full swing.