She wears the crown, he lovingly calls her “sausage,” and their marriage has lasted 50 years. Today she struggles to appear contemporary, but a biographer calls her the original people’s princess. Their wedding helped to lift the spirits of a war-ravaged country and define the modern monarchy.
But as Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh celebrate their 50th anniversary today with two days of parties, concerts and services, the festivities will mark more the closing of an era than a tribute to the grandeur and glamour of the British monarchy.
Less than three months after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the royal family is coming to terms with the demands on a modern monarchy. Changes are promised, and the institution, the palace promises, will be slimmed down to suit the demands of the age. But change comes slowly, and the clashing symbols of an institution in transition are all around this week.
Wednesday, for example, the queen and Prince Philip and invited guests dined at the People’s Palace, a restaurant favored by Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his Labor government. Tonight , the royal couple hold their golden anniversary ball at magnificently restored Windsor Castle, which was heavily damaged by fire five years ago.
The lavish restoration cost about $60 million, most of it from private funds. The elaborate green oak ceiling in the 180-foot-long St. George’s Hall consumed 350 trees and took nearly a year to complete. Craftspeople used 500,000 gold leaves - 11,000 square feet of gilding - to restore interiors. “A wonderful anniversary present,” the queen called it.
The guest list is equally gilt-edged. The number of kings and queens, princes and princesses and dukes and duchesses coming from around Europe, according to the Daily Telegraph, has “excited genealogists, who cannot recall such a gathering of royal houses.” Before the ceremonies end, the queen and the prince will be feted by the prime minister and the lord mayor of London.
But this Cinderella week will have a pumpkin-coach ending Friday, when the royal yacht Britannia steams out of London for the last time. The new government has decided that, after 44 years and more than a million nautical miles, Britannia has become a costly and expendable symbol of the old order. The ship will be decommissioned next month. There is talk that the royal train will be next.
Since Diana’s death, the royal family has made a concerted effort to be more accessible and informal. Last week the queen visited a homeless center and chatted on camera with some of the people living there. Last month, during a rocky trip to India and Pakistan, she praised her former daughter-in-law.
Prince Charles, touring southern Africa with his younger son, Prince Harry, this month, sampled tribal beer, paid tribute to Diana and playfully posed, along with South African President Nelson Mandela, with the Spice Girls.
“I think there is a real sense at the moment, not only that people want the monarchy to change, but that they (the royal family) have taken that message on board,” said Ben Pimlott, author of “The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II.”
The palace says that by next year it will have cut the cost of running the monarchy by 39 percent since the beginning of the decade.
Prince Charles’s charitable work in Britain’s inner cities through the Prince’s Trust, which he established many years ago, suddenly puts him in better favor in the post-Diana world here.
But much of what has occurred are small gestures, curtsies to a new style. How much more the royal family is prepared to do - and how quickly they will do it - are open questions. “There is a debate going on, but there are no easy answers,” said one official close to the family. “It’s an institution based on a family, so it’s a debate within a family.”