LONDON – Fifty years ago, Queen Elizabeth II ascended to Britain's throne in a grim time of rationing, postwar malaise and Cold War jitters. Crowds cheered as a golden coach carried her to a glittering and morale-boosting coronation, whose broadcast was an early triumph for the newborn medium of television.
This weekend, the celebrity concerts at Buckingham Palace — one of classical music, one pop — will highlight four days of celebrations, which are also expected to include street parties around the country.
For a half-century, the queen has been a solid, steadying presence, admired by the vast majority of her subjects even as some scoffed at her family's foibles and crises and questioned whether the monarchy should continue.
"She's not a showy figure, but she has been very devoted to her duty for 50 years," said Lord Deedes, 89, a newspaperman since age 17. "I think people are grateful. ... This is an opportunity to say 'Thank you."'
The monarch's 50th anniversary on the throne has been darkened by the deaths of her mother, the Queen Mother Elizabeth, and her younger sister, Princess Margaret.
But as she has through countless other woes, public and private, the queen has maintained a calm, dignified exterior.
Her warm thanks to the nation for its support after her much-loved mother's death showed a different side of a monarchy that had been publicly criticized as seeming cold and distant after Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997.
Elizabeth was born, in 1926, into the spotlight. Even as an infant her public outings drew crowds of admirers, and she made the cover of Time magazine at age 3.
But she was not originally expected to be sovereign. Her father, the Duke of York, was thrust onto the throne as George VI when his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. That made Elizabeth, at age 10, the next in line.
"It is very simple," she declared in a speech broadcast to the nation on her 21st birthday. "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong."
Less than five years later, married and with two young children, she was crowned queen.
For a nation still recovering from World War II, the young monarch and her handsome husband provided glamour and excitement.
Over the next five decades, through 11 prime ministers, she presided at countless ceremonial occasions and traveled through Britain and the Commonwealth of its former colonies.
Few other heads of Britain's 1,200-year-old monarchy have served longer, most notably Elizabeth's great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years.
Public interest in the lives of the queen and her family has been constant, and often painful. In 1978, her sister became the first member of the queen's immediate family to divorce. Three of her four children also are divorced.
Elizabeth dubbed 1992 her "annus horribilis," referring to her children's marital troubles, the fire that devastated the family's Windsor Castle and a bout of bad publicity over the costs of monarchy. She agreed in 1993 to pay taxes and has cut back expenses.
Her next big challenge may be managing the gradual emergence into the public eye of the longtime relationship between her son and heir, Prince Charles, and his companion Camilla Parker Bowles. Charles insists he has no plans to remarry, but opinion polls show the public is becoming more supportive of a wedding, provided Parker Bowles does not become queen.
Critics predicted earlier this year that Elizabeth's jubilee celebrations would attract little interest, but the outpouring of affection that followed the 101-year-old queen mother's death in March demonstrated Britons' enduring fondness for the royals.
Crowds — not ecstatic, but enthusiastic and respectful — have greeted Elizabeth in recent weeks at many stops on her jubilee tour of Britain.
Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and soprano Kiri te Kanawa are headlining two concerts, each expected to draw 12,000 visitors to the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Supporters worldwide will light a chain of 2,000 beacons, culminating in fireworks from the palace roof.
While a small republican movement has long argued for abolishing the monarchy, a solid majority of Britons disagree.
"The monarchy reminds us of more positive elements of the British nature: service, duty, self-restraint," former Prime Minister John Major wrote in the staunchly pro-royal Daily Telegraph.
"Around the world, no international figure has remained at the center of her nation's affairs as long as the queen," he continued. "The golden jubilee is an opportunity to celebrate a remarkable life of service."