Much of Britain might be celebrating on February 6 as Queen Elizabeth II marks 70 years on the throne – the first platinum jubilee in British history. But the central figure will be in no mood for a party just yet, and the big set-piece state occasions will come in the summer when the weather is better.
Robert Hardman, an author who has written about the royal family – and Queen Elizabeth in particular – for over two decades, explains that the mood is very different in the monarch's inner sanctum.
“For the Queen, Accession Day is a moment for sombre contemplation. It is etched in her mind not so much as the day that she became head of state, but as the day her beloved father, George VI, died.
“Yes, her jubilee is an important milestone. Yet she would have much preferred not to have beaten the reigning records of Queen Victoria (63 years, 216 days) or George III (59 years and 96 days) for the simple reason that she would have had so much longer with her father.”
Patrick Jephson, equerry and private secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, from 1988 to 1996, has long observed the Queen and says it is that very human quality of a daughter's loyalty to her father's memory that adds an element of the intangible to Queen Elizabeth's rapport with the British public.
“The Queen’s achievements outstrip the efforts of the most industrious historians," he said. “Consistently they perceive in the Queen a set of qualities which reassuringly confirm a humanity to which we feel connected and a willingness to sacrifice which earns our loyalty.
"Adjectives such as humorous, straightforward, modest and unstuffy aren’t awarded lightly, they are earned through years of dedicated service – the bedrock of a reputation few elected leaders could match.”
In preparation for this year's anniversary, the Queen made a trip by helicopter followed by a short drive by car to Norfolk. She is staying in her late husband’s Prince Philip’s Wood Farm cottage on the Sandringham estate for the first time without him after spending the festive period at Windsor Castle.
She is expected to spend Accession Day with her family during an extended break at the cottage and will mark the start of her platinum jubilee in private.
In February 1952, the 25-year-old mother of two was on holiday in Kenya with Prince Philip when George VI died, making her the first British monarch in 200 years to ascend the throne while overseas.
She become head of state of many nations, head of the Commonwealth, head of the armed forces, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Of course, until the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, in December 1936, to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, the Queen had not been raised to understand that she would inherit the throne.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born at 2.40am on April 21, 1926, at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London. (She also has an official birthday in June which falls this year on Saturday June 2 to be part of the platinum jubilee long weekend.)
She was christened on May 29, 1926, in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace. She married Prince Philip on November 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey in London, and she became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch on September 9, 2015, breaking the record set by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
An extraordinary life in service
The idea of a jubilee comes from the Old Testament. According to the book of Leviticus, there would be great celebrations across ancient Israel every 50th year, involving the release of prisoners and the forgiveness of debt.
Hardman said that Queen Elizabeth is the beneficiary of a decision taken after the great trauma of the UK losing its American colonies.
“The idea only took off as a royal concept during the long reign of George III, following a suggestion in The Times," he said. "As he approached his 50th anniversary on the throne in 1810, it was decided that there should be great celebrations. King George might have lost America and he had already suffered one mental breakdown, but he was seen as wise, extremely dutiful, devoted to his wife and a focal point of national pride in the face of the predatory Napoleon Bonaparte across the Channel.
“His even longer-reigning granddaughter, Queen Victoria, would mark both golden and diamond jubilees," Hardman said. "It was her grandson, George V, who then had the idea of also marking 25 years. He was well aware he would not reign for 50 years, but the country believed that 25 was certainly worthy of a great celebration.
"His silver jubilee was, therefore, the catalyst for wildly successful festivities in 1935. Now his granddaughter has beaten the lot of them.”
Since 1952, the Queen has conferred 380,630 honours and awards and received more than three million items of correspondence.
She has assented to 3,135 acts of Parliament and is patron of 620 charities and organisations, 433 of which she has held since 1952. She has attended every opening of Parliament except those in 1959 and 1963 when she was expecting Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively, and sat for 129 portraits.
To mention just a few of the extraordinary occasions in the seven decades of her reign, the Queen sent a message of congratulations to Apollo 11 astronauts for the first Moon landing on July 21, 1969. The message was microfilmed and deposited on the Moon in a metal container.
She was the first British monarch to visit China – in 1986 – and she made a historic visit to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011 – the first visit by a British monarch since Irish independence from the UK.
So many light touch interventions have marked her era that Hardman feels that the imminent events are a chance to acknowledge the nation's deep attachment and gratitude to the woman who has sat at the helm for so long.
“Even as the Queen’s years advance, it is almost impossible to imagine the British monarchy without her," he said. "The platinum jubilee events this year give us all an opportunity to show her the depth of our gratitude for her 70 years of dedicated public service."
At her coronation, she issued a manifesto for her reign that sit holds true. "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," she said.
We are all fortunate that it has turned out to be so long.
Robert Hardman’s biography Queen of Our Times – The Life of Elizabeth II, is published by Macmillan in March.