Four days of public events are being held to mark Queen Elizabeth II's record-breaking 70 years on the throne / © POOL/AFP
Huge crowds on Thursday cheered Queen Elizabeth II for the first of four days of celebrations to mark her historic Platinum Jubilee, in what could be the last major public event of her long reign.
Tens of thousands of people converged on central London in bright sunshine to witness the centuries-old Trooping the Colour military parade.
The 96-year-old monarch's appearance at the festivities for her record-breaking 70 years on the throne had been in doubt due to illness and recent mobility problems.
But dressed in dove blue, her hands clasped on a walking stick, she took a salute from mounted troops from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, under the fluttering royal standard.
The Mall below was awash with red, white and blue union flags, with some die-hard royal fans having camped for days to be in prime position for the display of pomp and pageantry.
But many acknowledged the coming end of an era.
"We know it's a special occasion because it might be the last day we'll see Her Majesty in a public event," ambulance service worker Gilbert Falconer, 65, told AFP after travelling from Scotland.
Recognition of the queen's unprecedented reign saw tributes from political and religious leaders from across the world, including the leader of pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
Prince Charles took the salute on behalf of the queen / © AFP
Michelle O'Neill's message, praising the queen's "significant" contribution to the peace process would have been unthinkable before the 1998 peace deal that ended years of violence over British rule.
Sinn Fein was the political wing of the Irish Republican Army paramilitary group, which blew up the queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in 1979.
- Appearances -
The military parade, which dates back centuries, is held to mark the sovereign's official birthday / © POOL/AFP
The queen, a keen horsewoman, has previously taken the salute in person at Horseguards Parade, the site a short ride down The Mall where king Henry VIII once jousted.
But her 73-year-old son and heir Prince Charles stepped in this year, in the latest public sign of his future role as king.
Joining him at the parade of the colour or regimental flag of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards was his sister Princess Anne, 71, and his eldest son, Prince William, 39, both in ceremonial uniform.
Senior royals watching included Charles' younger son, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan, on a rare visit from California.
But the queen's disgraced second son, Prince Andrew, 62, did not join them.
The queen will make a second appearance on the balcony later to watch a six-minute fly-past of more than 70 military aircraft, including iconic models from World War II.
Senior royals including Prince William's wife Kate travelled to the parade by horse-drawn carriage / © POOL/AFP
At nightfall, the queen will be at Windsor Castle, west of London, to take part in a ceremony to light more than 3,000 beacons across the country and the Commonwealth of 54 nations that she heads.
- Thank you -
Elizabeth was crowned on June 2, 1953, more than a year after she became queen / © INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP/File
Elizabeth was a 25-year-old princess when she succeeded her father king George VI in 1952, bringing a rare touch of glamour to a battered nation recovering from World War II.
Seventy years on, she is now the only monarch most Britons have ever known, becoming an enduring figurehead through often troubled times.
Britain's first and very likely only Platinum Jubilee will see street parties, pop concerts and parades until Sunday.
It has not yet been confirmed if she will attend a thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral on Friday, while her planned attendance at horseracing showcase The Derby on Saturday is off.
She could yet put in a final appearance -- again from the palace balcony -- on Sunday, at the climax of a huge public pageant involving 6,000 performers.
The queen on Wednesday thanked everyone involved in organising community events in Britain and around the world, and said she was "inspired by the goodwill" shown to her.
Crowds have been gathering for days on The Mall outside Buckingham Palace / © AFP
"I... hope that the coming days will provide an opportunity to reflect on all that has been achieved during the last 70 years, as we look to the future with confidence and enthusiasm," she added.
- Respite -
The queen's grandson Prince Harry and his American wife Meghan watched the Trooping the Colour after jetting in from California / © POOL/AFP
The jubilee, held against a backdrop of rising inflation that has left many Britons struggling, is being seen not just as respite for the public after two years hit by Covid, as well as world events.
"All the horrors that's been going on in the world are put behind for us for a day and we can just enjoy really celebrating the queen," said Hillary Matthews, 70.
But the jubilee will also be welcome for the royal family.
Harry, 37, and Meghan, 40, caused shockwaves in early 2020 by moving to North America, from where they have publicly criticised royal life.
In April last year, she lost her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, and was forced to sit alone at his funeral due to coronavirus restrictions.
Since then, she has struggled with her health, and also the fallout from Andrew's links to the convicted sex offenders Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.
Queen Elizabeth II: timeline of a changing world / © AFP
Andrew, who in February settled a US civil claim for sexual assault, has effectively been fired from his royal duties.
Attention is increasingly turning to the succession, and the monarchy's future at home and in the 14 other Commonwealth countries where the queen is also head of state.