The Queen at 90: Why it's more than just a celebration of Elizabeth's birthday

Queen Elizabeth turns 90 tomorrow, and events to mark the milestone are part of extended celebrations — culminating with official events in June — that are intended to pay tribute to her 64-year reign while also showing she remains firmly in command of the House of Windsor.

Events over next 2 months intended to send signals that monarch is still firmly in command

The Queen at 90: Celebrations begin

8 years ago
Duration 3:08
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh meet staff and view an exhibition at Windsor's Royal Mail office, in the first of a series of events to mark her birthday this Thursday

There will be cake tomorrow when Queen Elizabeth turns 90, and a chance for her to meet others marking the same birthday. She'll do a walkabout, as she has done so many times before, and unveil a walkway near her home at Windsor Castle just outside London.

Queen Elizabeth turns 90 on April 21, but it will be royal business as usual for the monarch this week as she does a walkabout, opens a bandstand and a walkway. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The events on tap for the Queen this week may be low-key — by royal standards. They will also be royal business as usual: today's appearances for Britain's longest-reigning monarch included going to the local postal sorting office in Windsor and opening a bandstand. On Friday, she'll host a high-profile guest — U.S. President Barack Obama — for a private lunch.

"Her vitality and her engagement in her role and her dedication are all the more remarkable because of the age she is," says author Sally Bedell Smith, whose biography Elizabeth the Queen was published in 2012.

This week's proceedings are part of extended celebrations — culminating with official events in June — that are intended to pay tribute to her 64-year reign, all the while showing that she remains firmly in command of the House of Windsor.

"The Queen is being celebrated as an experienced elder stateswoman who's been the monarch since 1952 and who has lived through tremendous social and political change during her record-breaking reign," says Toronto-based royal historian and author Carolyn Harris.

Though the monarchy has at times been mired in scandal, the House of Windsor wants it to be seen as resilient as it sails onward in the 21st century.

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Throughout the celebrations, it is intent on sending signals that Elizabeth still has her hand firmly on the tiller, so to speak.

Still the CEO

"I've heard that exact word actually, that exact expression," says Bedell Smith.

"I think they really want to emphasize … that she does have her hand on the tiller, that she is the CEO and yes we'll see less of her, but that does not mean she isn't in full command of her mental capacities and even physical capabilities."

Her grandson and second-in-line, Prince William, suggested as much in a speech last week.

"As she turns 90, she's a remarkably energetic and guiding force for her family," he said. "She may be my grandmother, but she's also very much the boss."

Queen Elizabeth has seen her name grace a multitude of public projects and landmarks, including the Crossrail train line, which is expected to be operational through central London in 2018. (Richard Pohle/Reuters)

Bedell Smith sees Elizabeth, who still rides her fell ponies, as a monarch who is "still very much hard at work every day going through the [red boxes that contain government docurments,] having audiences, keeping abreast of issues and fulfilling her inside role."

"I think what we're going to see now is a little bit less of her in the outside role but the continuity and the traditions will be kept intact."

While some European monarchs have abdicated in favour of the next generation in recent years, there's no indication Elizabeth has any intention of doing that.

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"For the Queen, abdication is associated with the destabilizing event that was the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936," says Harris.

No more long flights

Elizabeth has cut back on the long-haul travel, leaving that for the younger members of the family, including William, who was in India and Bhutan last week with his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.

"The monarchy under Elizabeth has always been very good at what they call a kind of imperceptible evolution," says Bedell Smith. 

"The way she is proceeding now is in line with that imperceptible evolution — that she is very much at the helm and she is aware of everything."

Queen Elizabeth has had a iifelong passion for horses, and was seen riding a pony in a documentary broadcast in Britain last month. (Rebecca Naden/Reuters)

And she's certainly still out and about in the United Kingdom — the Queen has, as Harris notes, said: "I have to be seen to be believed." There has also been the occasional trip to Europe in the past year or two.

"It's remarkable that last year she carried out 341 engagements," says Bedell Smith. "That's not to be trifled with, it's a lot of appearances."

While the Queen generally marks her actual birthday on April 21 privately, she has made appearances when it's been a milestone year. This time, the appearances are in Windsor, just west of London.

"Windsor Castle is her real home and she'll be spending more time there I think," says Bedell Smith. "That's pretty safe to assume.

"I think it's kind of great she's going to do those kinds of things, that she'll be seeing local people, she'll unveil a plaque, she'll just do a walkabout. She did the same kind of thing when she turned 80."

Surrounded by family

There will also be a private dinner with her family hosted by her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, similar to one he hosted 10 years ago.

"The Queen enjoys being surrounded by her family," says Harris, who notes that the birthday also provides an opportunity to look toward the future — both for other members of the family and more broadly in terms of public opinion about the monarchy.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Prince Charles as Queen Elizabeth looks on during a reception at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta on Nov. 27, 2015. (John Stillwell/Reuters)

Public views on the monarchy have waxed and waned, particularly as scandals swirled when three of the Queen's four children saw their marriages disintegrate in the early 1990s. For the queen, 1992 was an "annus horribilis." The House of Windsor was also seen as particularly out of touch with the public after the 1997 death of Charles's former wife, Diana, the Princess of Wales.

"There was a concern over whether the monarchy would outlast the Queen's reign and the Queen has come through that difficult time," says Harris.

"We now see that there are three generations of heirs to the throne, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince George, so there's a sense of continuity following the Queen's reign in terms of how the monarchy will unfold over the … 21st century."

Senior members of the Royal Family join the Queen and Prince Philip on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in the annual Trooping of the Colour ceremony to celebrate the Queen's official birthday in London on June 13, 2015. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Of course, what the Queen actually thinks about the prospect of marking her 90th birthday isn't publicly known.

She's not one for a lot of personal fuss, and didn't want much attention last year when she became the longest-reigning monarch, in part because it was a milestone that came about because of the death of her father, King George VI, when she was only 25. 

And she's not expected to make any public remarks this week. But there has been at least a hint she knows this birthday won't go unnoticed. 

In her 2015 Christmas message, she mentioned that she was looking forward to a busy 2016 and had been "warned that I may have Happy Birthday sung to me more than once or twice."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from the CBC's Erin Boudreau and Reuters