Young royalists enthusiastically got in on Queen Elizabeth II’s 96th birthday celebrations on Thursday by lighting cannons outside Windsor Castle, setting off ear-splitting bangs as part of a traditional 21-gun salute.
Children described their excitement as they played a central role in Windsor’s celebration for the queen's big day. The event held in the Long Walk was attended by thousands of spectators who celebrated the birthday of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch in true royal fashion.
Bothers Archie Williams, 10, and Mason Sambua, 4, decked out in replica uniforms worn by the Queen’s Guard and waving Union Jack flags, were among those who volunteered to set off a miniature cannon.
Their mother Gemma Williams, from Windsor, said it was a “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for her sons.
“It’s a good experience for them as well,” she told The National. “We go to the changing of the guard at Windsor Castle every week and we came out of respect and courtesy. It’s part of our heritage.”
Describing the moment he stepped forward with his younger brother to light a cannon, Archie said: “It was scary at first but when I heard the bang I was OK, I have heard louder.”
The schoolboy said he admires the queen for her public service and hopes to one day follow in the footsteps of his ancestors by serving in the British Army. His grandfather was in the Welsh guards while his uncle served in the Scotchman Guards and fought in the Falklands War.
“The queen is fair. She’s not like King Henry VIII. He was terrible.”
Charlotte Elizabeth Lynch, 7, and her brother Ethan Lynch, 10, from Wokingham, west of London, also enjoyed the privilege of taking part in the gun salute at the Long Walk, which stretches for 4.2 kilometres from Windsor Castle to the Copper House Statue.
Charlotte, who turned up with a home-made birthday card and a bouquet for the queen, said the loud bangs frightened her at first but having her brother by her side calmed her nerves.
“At first it was quite scary but then I got a little calmer. My brother was with me and we had earplugs because it was super-loud.
“I drew some really nice flowers and wrote ‘Happy birthday Queen Elizabeth II’ on my card.
“She has been queen for such a long time and it’s her birthday, so I came here to watch.”
Anna Kosydar, 9, waved a Union Jack flag as she watched the cannons being set off.
The local schoolgirl said she felt “very proud” of how much the queen had achieved in her 96 years.
“[In school] we learn how she is living in Windsor Castle,” she said. “It’s very pretty and we have been on a school trip there. This is a very special day.”
Before the cannons were lit, the crowds sang Happy Birthday to the queen, led by Windsor’s mayor and the town crier.
The annual festivities were extra special given that 2022 marks 70 years since the queen ascended the throne. The monarch departed Windsor Castle by helicopter on Wednesday for Norfolk where she will celebrate her birthday at Sandringham, her country estate.
Two self-described “monarchists” wearing party dresses and holding birthday balloons were among the guests who enjoyed the pomp and pageantry associated with royal events.
Anne Daly from Cardiff and Grace Gothard from Surrey arrived in Windsor at 6am on Thursday to kick off their day of celebrations.
“We are here because her majesty is everything to us. We’re in love with her and we adore her,” Ms Daly told The National.
“I met Her Majesty on the occasion of her 90th birthday in Windsor. She came over and said ‘Hello, how do you do?’
“We are monarchists. We love the royal family and the Commonwealth.”
Ms Gothard, who is originally from Ghana, one of the 54 nations in the Commonwealth, was also full of praise for the queen’s many decades of service.
“We love our queen. She’s a good leader, she has united the Commonwealth. I really adore her for doing that and being 70 years on the throne.”
The event was the first in a packed calendar of festivities set to take place in Windsor and across the UK in the coming months. Street parties and picnics are among the events planned to celebrate the monarch’s platinum jubilee in June.
Paul Roach, a local government manager overseeing the towns of Windsor, Eton and Ascot in Berkshire, said the setting off of miniature cannons to wish the queen a happy birthday was unique to Windsor.
“This is a great event for Windsor town. We do this every year so it is an occasion and we’ve never ever had bad weather on Her Majesty’s birthday so we’re very fortunate on many accounts,” he told The National.
“Children absolutely love it. Some are a little apprehensive... but they love getting involved.
“It’s just a fun event and it’s a great way for us to start off the summer season."
Mr Roach said many people are surprised at how loud the the cannons sound when they are set off, given their small size.
“It’s quite unbelievable to see. We fire 21 cannon on the Long Walk. Despite the fact that they are miniature they make a sound as if they’re full-sized cannon.
“They are literally about a foot long and we line them up along the Long Walk and everybody comes along and has a bit of a laugh and thinks ‘Oh, what are you going to do with those cannon?’ and thinks there will be a little pop, like a comical pop. But these things when they go off they are like full-blown cannons.
“I have to say, while we may get 20 volunteers, by the time the first two go off sometimes the rest run away scared. Every year we do it and every year there’s a surprise.”
Birthday celebrations were also held in London and other locations across the UK.
A 41-gun salute was fired by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery at London’s Green Park, opposite Buckingham Palace.
Then an hour later the Honourable Artillery Company fired a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London, an extra 21 for the City of London.
Her Majesty’s birthday was marked by the release of a picture showing her indulging her passion for horses and ponies.
Standing with two of her Fell ponies, the queen was photographed as the build-up begins for the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which commissioned the image.
Members of the royal family took to Twitter to wish her a happy birthday.
Prince William and his wife Kate’s official account tweeted a picture of the couple with the queen and another image of the monarch and her late husband Prince Philip surrounded by their great-grandchildren.
“Wishing Her Majesty The Queen a very happy 96th birthday today!” the message read. “An inspiration to so many across the UK, the Commonwealth and the world, it’s particularly special to be celebrating in this platinum jubilee year.”
The official Twitter account of the monarchy also recognised the queen’s milestone with a black and white photograph of a young Princess Elizabeth.
The tribute read: “Happy Birthday Your Majesty!
“Today as The Queen turns 96, we’re sharing this photograph of the young Princess Elizabeth aged 2.
“Then, in 1928, it was never expected she would be Queen, and this year Her Majesty is celebrating her platinum jubilee, a first in British history.”
The former Princess Elizabeth was 25 when she was sworn in as queen of Britain and the Commonwealth in 1952.
Thursday's celebrations took place after an eventful Easter break for the queen that included a brief visit from her grandson Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle.
Harry said his grandmother was “on great form” during their meeting, which was held shortly before the couple travelled to the Netherlands for the Invictus Games.
Queen Elizabeth II's 70-year reign — in pictures
He said he wanted to ensure she was “protected” and had “the right people around her”, but did not elaborate on NBC’s Today show interview whether he was referring to palace aides or the royal family.
The queen has in recent months appeared frail and has been experiencing mobility problems. She has cancelled a number of appearances at high-profile events, but this month she did attend a church service in memory of her husband Prince Philip, who died in April 2021.