Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee: What to know about Britain's big royal party

The 4-day festival of royal pageantry and public partying to mark her 70-year reign may be the final time the queen is celebrated on such a grand national stage.

The queen's reign has spanned 13 American presidents and 14 British prime ministers.Joanna Neborsky for NBC News / PNA Rota/ Tim Graham Photo Library / Bettmann / Press Association / Getty Images / AP Keystone / Hulton Archive

LONDON — Few nations have thrown a party like this. 

Britain is set to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a four-day festival of royal pageantry and public partying to honor her 70-year reign.

She is the world’s third-longest serving monarch in recorded history, the longest of any British or female sovereign. On the throne since 1952 — a time closer to the Statue of Liberty’s completion than it is to the present day — she has become an unshakable emblem of British soft power and perhaps the nation’s most recognizable celebrity around the world.

This week will carry bittersweet undertones, however, as many Britons wonder whether this might be their last chance to celebrate the queen, 96 — and what that will mean for the identity of their nation.

Her age means this jubilee has perhaps been planned with even more gusto. A year of events will crescendo in a long weekend and public holiday starting Thursday (the timing coincides with the queen’s “ceremonial” birthday in June. She has two: Her actual birth date is in April). 

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Over the next few days, the country will be abuzz with concerts, parades and historic church services, all adorned by festoons of Union Jack flags and giant television screens set up in major city centers. 

Sunday is the centerpiece: A four-act “Jubilee Pageant” at Buckingham Palace, including a military parade, a celebrity-packed carnival celebrating British cultural and technological innovation during the queen’s reign, and a pack of puppet corgis created in the image of the queen’s famous pets.

Meanwhile, an estimated 16,000 street parties will kick off all over the country, with people popping commemorative sparkling wine and eating sandwiches from special imprinted jubilee plates.

Jubilee schedule

Thursday, June 2

Trooping the Color, followed by a Royal Air Force flypast that will see the royals make a Buckingham Palace balcony appearance.

Friday, June 3

Service of thanksgiving at St. Paul's Cathedral

Saturday, June 4

The Derby horse race at Epsom Downs southwest of London, then 22,000 people attend the BBC Platinum Party at the Palace concert.

Sunday, June 5

Thousands of street parties are expected to take place across Britain while the celebrations will end with the Platinum Jubilee Pageant at Buckingham Palace, a four-act carnival of music and theater.

“Everybody around here loves the royals,” said Adele Mouter, 36, assistant manager at the Red Lion pub in Chester-Le-Street, a historic market town in northeast England. “She makes you proud to be British because it’s something no other country in the world has.”

Like thousands of others across the country, her pub is devoting itself to the event this weekend, with a barbeque and games in the garden, face painting and even a special jubilee real ale on tap. While royal favor will be high, she says, the jubilee has an added cathartic significance after more than two years living with the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a chance for everybody to be together after the last two years,” she added. “Mind you, some people will just be celebrating an extra day off work.”

The Mall — a wide avenue between Buckingham Palace and Horse Guards Parade — will be lined with royal fans during Trooping the Color.Vuk Valcic / Sipa USA via AP

There will be an unspoken undercurrent this week, however. 

Though few will mention it aloud, Britain is now bracing for the queen’s inevitable passing.

It may not come for years, but the aging monarch has canceled a bundle of recent events due to poor health, including catching Covid in February. It’s unclear which events she will attend this week, and those she does may see her take on a reduced role.

Her death will thrust a fragile royal family —  and country — into the unknown, an event of such unprecedented significance that it’s somewhat difficult to comprehend. 

In the past three years, the family has again been rocked by scandal, infighting and the death of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, at age 99 last year.

After a relatively successful decade buoyed by the wedding of Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and the popularity of the Netflix show ‘The Crown,’ the royals’ rough ride began in early 2020. William’s brother, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan, announced they were stepping back as front-line royals, culminating in an interview with Oprah Winfrey a year later in which they portrayed the royal “firm” as uncaring and even racist.

Meanwhile, Prince Andrew, the queen’s son and Prince Charles’ brother, has faced allegations that he sexually abused a 17-year-old who had been trafficked by the financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The case was recently settled out of court.

Closer to the throne, Charles is less popular than his mother but has taken on an increasingly prominent role of late, such as standing in for her last month at the opening of Parliament, one of the key duties for the ceremonial but politically powerless head of state.

And this all comes at a time when the United Kingdom is grasping for its place in the world after Brexit; some of its former colonies want to wash their hands of the royals; and rising separatist tensions in Scotland and Northern Ireland threaten to fracture the U.K. into pieces.

The country has hemorrhaged power during Elizabeth’s rule, and has come to rely on her for its identity, unity and relevance on the global stage.

Polls suggest the queen is indeed hugely popular, and a survey this week by the pollster YouGov found 62 percent of Britons want to keep the monarchy.

But the queen’s death is “going to lead to lots of sort of existential questions” for Britain, royal commentator Daisy McAndrew said. “Who are we? What do we stand for? What is modern Britain?” she added, “Do we want Charles? Do we want a monarchy?”

Not everyone will be celebrating this week, of course. 

While the country might seem awash with royalism, 56 percent of Britons said they had no plans to celebrate the jubilee at all, YouGov said in another survey last week. Deeper than that, another 41 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds told YouGov last year that they wanted to replace the royals with an elected head of state.

The picture is equally fractious in the Commonwealth, a loose association of 54 nations, mostly former British colonies, 15 of which still retain the queen as the head of state. That became one fewer last year after Barbados ditched the queen, while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were met with protests earlier this year during a tour of the Caribbean.

With disquiet bubbling among young people about the royal family’s historic links to the slave trade and other issues, Anna Whitelock, a professor of history of the monarchy at the City University of London, believes more countries will follow Barbados when Charles becomes king.  “Flying in, greeting a few people, seeing a few things and then flying out again just looks really tokenistic and really bad,” she said. “It’s not really sustainable for very much longer.”

In what may be an attempt to counter this narrative of a family of white aristocrats ruling over its subjects, Sunday’s Platinum Pageant will feature Bollywood performers and an interpretation of the queen’s 1953 coronation in an “Afro Caribbean carnival style.”

The optics really matter because, at their heart, these occasions are “PR opportunities,” McAndrew said. “They’re an opportunity to remind the public, or remind the Commonwealth, or remind the world that the royal family is still there, that the royal family has a future.”

Nevertheless the general mood this week, in the U.K. mainland at least, will be one of universal acclaim and deference.

The queen actually reached her platinum jubilee Feb. 6, exactly 70 years after her father, King George VI, died while she was in Kenya on a Commonwealth tour. 

There have been scatterings of events this year, including 20 million wildflower seeds sown in the moat of the Tower of London, a competition to bake for the queen a “Platinum Pudding” (a lemon and Swiss roll amaretti trifle baked by contestant Jemma Melvin), and eight towns receiving city status. 

Images of the queen in each decade of her reign were projected onto Stonehenge this week to mark the Platinum Jubilee. Jim Holden / English Heritage via AP

But the real agenda starts Thursday, when television, radio and much of everyday life will be overtaken with jubilee fever.

Some 1,200 soldiers, 400 musicians and 260 horses will come together for Trooping the Color, a state ceremonial parade down the road from Buckingham Palace that has marked the monarch’s birthday for the past 260 years. Crowds will line the Mall, while others watch on a giant screen in nearby St. James’s Park.

Here will likely be the first hint that this year is not like the others. 

Some British newspapers have reported that due to what the palace calls her “episodic mobility problems,” the queen may not receive the “royal salute” from the troops on the ground, news that has not been confirmed by NBC News but which would break a long-held tradition.

She should be present on the famous palace balcony later in the morning to watch a flypast by the Royal Air Force.

But here again, there will be evidence of the maelstrom that has torn through the royals these past few years. Absent from the tableau will be Harry, Meghan and Andrew — now removed from front-line royal duty — the queen will no longer have her husband of 73 years at her side.

As night falls, 1,500 beacons will be lighted throughout the U.K. and its overseas territories, the largest of them at the “Tree of Trees,” a 68-foot sculpture outside Buckingham Palace by artist Thomas Heatherwick.

And on Friday, there will be a service of thanksgiving at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, including hymns and prayers for the queen, who is the head of the Church of England.

On Saturday evening, the BBC will air the Platinum Party at the Palace, a 22,000 person concert featuring the rock group Queen, Elton John and Diana Ross. But Sunday is the main event, with the jubilee pageant and DIY lunches and street parties likely to unite the country like few other events can.

Among the partygoers will be Tessy Ojo, CEO of a charity called the Diana Award, which supports and encourages young people based on the “values” of the royal family.

“These are the values of empathy, of selflessness, of compassion, of respect and of service,” she said. “Across the world, the queen is loved and respected, and who cannot be in awe of her commitment to a life of service?”

While that’s clearly not everyone’s view, even the most ardent anti-monarchist will be unable to escape the unprecedented royal adulation that is about to blanket the U.K. They may even join in.