Queen Elizabeth celebrates 80th birthday

Thursday, April 20, 2006

LONDON -- Jane Freebairn once met Queen Elizabeth II. She curtsied, said hello, and like so many others who have encountered the monarch, came away a bit star-struck.

It wasn't just the monarch's regal air and manners that impressed Freebairn as she recalled the meeting a few years ago at a memorial ceremony for war dead at Westminster Abbey. "I had the most awful urge to try and touch her," she said. "She has the most amazing skin. It looks so soft. Of course, one doesn't."

The queen turns 80 on Friday, but her schedule -- and that skin -- make it easy to forget she's a grandmother who sailed past Britain's retirement age 15 years ago and seems unlikely to slow down anytime soon.

Her ceremonial birthday is celebrated nationally in late June, when the weather is warmer, so Friday's affair will be modest -- birthday wishes from the people of the town of Windsor, where she has a castle, and a black-tie dinner hosted by Prince Charles, her eldest son, at Kew, another suburban London palace.

But Britons are treating Friday as a milestone. Prime Minister Tony Blair led tributes to the queen in the House of Commons, and BBC TV ran a two-hour special on her life. On Wednesday she had lunch at Buckingham palace, her London home, with 99 guests born on the same day she was.

Although the queen has no political powers, she has become a symbol of stability in tumultuous times.

A teenager in World War II, Elizabeth took the throne just short of her 26th birthday after her father, King George VI, died, and was crowned the following year, 1953. In the 1960s she presided over the breakup of Britain's vast empire, and in 1970s over its difficult entry into what would become the European Union. As Europeanization abolished Britain's shillings and pence, its pounds and ounces, the queen remained a reassuring constant. In the 1980s, as economic upheavals polarized Britain between left and right, she was a rare unifying force.

On the throne for 54 years, she is Europe's longest-reigning monarch, and given her apparent good health, could well surpass her illustrious ancestor Queen Victoria's 63 years on the throne.

She has also weathered shattering personal crises. Three of her four children are divorced, the messiest breakup being that of Charles from Diana. After Diana's death in a 1997 car crash, a public perception took hold that the monarch disliked the princess and did not grieve appropriately. Her prestige, it was said, would never recover.

But last week, as the queen visited Guildford, 30 miles southeast of London for the ancient Easter ritual of Maundy Thursday, the storm seemed all but forgotten.

"There's a lot of talk about the monarchy not being popular," observed Nigel Patrick, who was at Guildford's cathedral with his wife, Paula, and daughter Samantha. "But there's a lot of people out here on a cold, windy day."

Wearing a pale yellow suit and matching hat, the queen arrived in her chauffeur-driven Bentley. Accompanied by Prince Philip, her husband of more than 58 years, she was greeted by hundreds of people with cameras and flags. More than an hour later the queen emerged, and received a bouquet of spring flowers from 11-year-old Samantha.

"I was very nervous," Samantha said. "It's probably hard, being the queen. You're watched all the time."

Indeed, few Britons are more heavily scrutinized than this short, bespectacled grandmother of seven, with silvery hair and a somewhat clipped, high-pitched speaking style that has kept generations of standup comedians in business.

She has about 470 official engagements each year, according to Buckingham Palace. She has visited 129 countries on more than 250 official royal tours. She has conferred more than 380,000 knighthoods and other honors, and has launched 23 ships. She gets a nightly report on proceedings in Parliament and meets privately with the prime minister every Tuesday night. From Winston Churchill to Blair, she has reigned over 10 prime ministers.

Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine -- and generally considered the doyenne of royalty watchers -- agrees that the monarch's personality is not suited to life under the microscope.

"She's a very humble person, and she doesn't particularly enjoy being the center of attention -- which, of course, she is, most of the time," Seward said. "I imagine it's very difficult for her because she comes across as quite shy."

Given her above-the-fray role, it is impossible -- and considered most unseemly -- to chat to her about anything controversial. The only safe areas, says Seward, are the queen's private passions -- horses and dogs.

But those who have met her say she seems genuinely interested in who they are and what they've done.

"She's incredibly well-versed in people at ease," said Bernard Donoghue, the head of governmental affairs for VisitBritain, the country's tourism agency.

"She's well briefed by a small but very professional team of people, so she knows exactly who everyone is and what they're doing. And because she's met more people than probably anyone else in the world, she has a storehouse of anecdotes and can relate your experiences to the experiences of someone else. It's incredibly flattering."

Republic, a small but vocal movement, continues to question why Britain has a taxpayer-funded monarchy. But even its leaders think the effort is stalled, at least for as long as Elizabeth reigns.

"The problem in Britain is that the public doesn't want to get rid of Elizabeth II," says Republic's Stephen Hasler. He said popular opinion is that she does a good job -- though he doesn't personally agree -- and that to call for her dethronement is disloyal.

"No one wants to change things while the queen is there," he said. "The debate about the monarchy will begin in earnest when Charles takes over."

That may take a while. Elizabeth's mother, the nationally beloved Queen Mother, lived to 101.

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