Fate unexpectedly made her queen. Duty and endurance have made her an institution and an icon.
Queen Elizabeth II turned 90 on Thursday as Britain’s oldest and longest-reigning monarch, drawing crowds of well-wishers and floods of tributes to the stamina and service of a woman who can claim to have given her name to the age.
Britain is living, Prime Minister David Cameron said, in the “modern Elizabethan Era.”
The queen usually spends her birthday privately, with most of the pomp and ceremony reserved for an official birthday that’s marked in June. But Thursday’s milestone brought an outpouring of public goodwill.
Thousands of fans greeted the queen on a tightly choreographed walkabout near her Windsor Castle home, while elsewhere her government and subjects held gun salutes, fireworks and speeches in Parliament, and broadcast retrospectives offered scenes from a royal life that has stretched from the Roaring ’20s to the internet age.
“Her Majesty has been steadfast — a rock of strength for our nation, for our Commonwealth and on many occasions for the whole world,” Cameron said as he led tributes in the House of Commons.
He praised the monarch’s “unshakable sense of duty,” pointing out that she had provided counsel to 12 British prime ministers and met a quarter of all the U.S. presidents since Independence.
Her record is all the more remarkable because she was not born to be queen. When Princess Elizabeth was born on April 21, 1926, her father was a younger son of the king and not expected to reign. His older brother took the throne in 1936 as Edward VIII — but abdicated the same year.
Elizabeth’s father became King George VI and, at 10, she became heir to the throne. When she was 21 — almost five years before she became queen — she promised the people of Britain and the Commonwealth that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
She kept the promise, and it has struck a chord with people in Britain and around the world.
“She’s such an icon and a real role model for the children of today. And I think everybody should respect her for all the years that she’s given for her country,” said Donna Werner, an American tourist from New Fairfield, Connecticut, who came to greet the queen in Windsor, just west of London.
Thousands lined the streets of the town carrying cakes, cards, balloons and Union Jack flags. The band of the Coldstream Guards played “Happy Birthday” and royal fans snapped cellphone photos as the queen greeted local dignitaries, townspeople and tourists.
By her side was 94-year-old Prince Philip, her husband of 69 years, with whom she has four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Elsewhere, artillery companies fired gun salutes from sites including Hyde Park and the Tower of London, the bells of Westminster Abbey rang out in celebration and the Parliament building was being lit in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.
There was even a tea party aboard Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean, whose crew stood in formation to spell out “EIIR 90” — Elizabeth II Regina, her official monogram — on the flight deck.
In the evening, the queen was lighting the first in a chain of 1,000 commemorative beacons to blaze across Britain and around the world, before attending a private family party at the castle.
The queen will receive more birthday greetings on Friday, when she hosts President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama for lunch at Windsor Castle.
And there is more (much more) to come.
For four nights next month there will be a musical pageant in Windsor, involving 900 horses and some 1,500 actors, dancers and musicians, celebrating the queen’s nine decades.
On June 11 comes the monarch’s “official” birthday, traditionally marked by the Trooping the Color military parade. This year there will also be a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and a huge street party in the Mall outside Buckingham Palace for members of charities the queen supports. The government has even given pubs permission to stay open later on June 10 and 11, until 1 a.m. instead of the standard 11 p.m.
Not everyone in Britain has succumbed to royal-mania. The anti-monarchist group Republic published a resolutely undeferential message headed “Happy Birthday Mrs. Windsor.”
“A long life is no reason for a long reign,” it said.