LONDON (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II stepped gingerly onto the Buckingham Palace balcony Thursday, drawing wild cheers from the tens of thousands who came to join her at the start of four days of celebrations of her 70 years on the throne.

Her fans sported Union Jack flags, party hats or plastic tiaras. Some had camped overnight in hope of a glimpse of the 96-year-old queen, whose appearances are becoming rare, and a chance to watch the Trooping the Color — a military parade that has marked each sovereign’s official birthday since 1760.

It was an explosion of joy in a massive crowd, one of the first big gatherings since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than two year ago.

“Everybody has got the same mission,” said Hillary Mathews, 70, who had come from Hertfordshire, outside London. “All the horrors that’s been going on in the world and in England at the moment are put behind us for a day, and we can just enjoy really celebrating the queen.”

Elizabeth, who became queen at 25, is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and the first to reach the milestone of seven decades on the throne.

She basked in her moment. Smiling, she chatted with her great-grandson Prince Louis, 4, who occasionally covered his ears as 70 military aircraft old and new swooped low over the palace to salute the queen. The six-minute display included a formation of Typhoon fighter jets flying in the shape of the number 70.

The queen, wearing a dusky dove blue dress designed by Angela Kelly, was joined on the balcony by more than a dozen royals — though not Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who gave up front-line royal duties two years ago. The couple traveled to London from their home in California with their two young children to take a low-key part in the celebrations, and watched Thursday’s Trooping the Color with other members of the family.

They did not appear on the palace balcony, because the monarch decided that only working members of the royal family should have that honor. The decision also, handily, excluded Prince Andrew, who stepped away from public duties amid controversy over his links with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Andrew will also miss a service of thanksgiving Friday at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London after testing positive for COVID-19.

The jubilee is being commemorated with a four-day holiday extravaganza and events including a concert at Buckingham Palace on Saturday and a pageant staged by thousands of performers drawn from schools and community groups around the country on Sunday. Thousands of street parties are planned nationwide, repeating a tradition that began with the queen’s coronation in 1953.

Not everyone in Britain is celebrating. Many people have taken advantage of the long weekend to go on vacation. And 12 protesters were arrested Thursday after getting past barriers and onto the parade route. The group Animal Rebellion claimed responsibility, saying the protesters were “demanding that royal land is reclaimed.”

Yet the jubilee is giving many people — even those indifferent to the monarchy — a chance to reflect on the state of the nation and the huge changes that have taken place during Elizabeth’s reign.

Former Prime Minister John Major, one of the 14 prime ministers during the queen’s reign, said the monarch’s stoic presence had helped steer the country over the decades.

By 4difm

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