As a 9-year-old girl, Princess Elizabeth appeared with her family on Buckingham Palace’s balcony to mark her grandfather George V’s Silver Jubilee, an excited grin on her face as she gazed at the crowds below.
The better part of a century later, the former princess — now 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth II — is expected to take to the same balcony this week to smile and wave at millions celebrating her 70 years on the throne.
The balcony appearance is the centerpiece of almost all royal celebrations in Britain, a chance for the public to catch a glimpse of the family assembled for a grand photo to mark weddings, coronations and jubilees. Every June, the extended royal family put on their finest uniforms, hats and frocks and gather to mark the queen’s birthday, celebrated with an extravagant military parade known as Trooping the Color and concluding with the balcony moment after the Royal Air Force flies past.
Balcony images through the decades chronicle the changing faces of the monarchy, and offer snapshots of many milestones in Elizabeth’s life. As a young woman, the princess donned her military uniform and stood alongside Winston Churchill to celebrate the end of World War II in 1945.
Eight years later, she wore the Imperial State Crown and regal robes to greet a sea of ecstatic subjects after her own coronation.
This Thursday, the family’s Platinum Jubilee balcony appearance will be notable for those who will be absent. Palace officials announced earlier this month that “after careful consideration,” the queen decided that only working members of the royal family and their children will gather on the balcony.
That means that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who stepped away from frontline royal duties and moved to California in 2020, and their young children will be excluded. So will Prince Andrew, who has been disgraced by a sex scandal and his links to the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
“I think the decision to only have current working members of the royal family on the balcony was a very sensible one because it avoids any awkward situations,” said Emily Nash, royal editor at HELLO! magazine.
“People are watching the family dynamic to see if there are tensions, and there would be a huge outcry, I think, if we see Prince Andrew on the balcony. So it resolves all those issues in one fell swoop,” Nash added. “But the palace had made it clear throughout that Harry and Meghan remain very much loved members of the family and they will be here.”
Harry and Meghan, known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have said they will fly to the UK with their two young children and that they look forward to joining the long weekend of festivities. The trip will be the family’s first visit to Harry’s home country, and any appearance they make at Jubilee events — including a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and a possible second balcony gathering on Sunday — will be closely watched.
Andrew, meanwhile, will be kept out of the public spotlight after he recently reached a multi-million-pound settlement with a woman who filed a US lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault when she was 17 years old. The queen’s second son was stripped of his honorary military titles in January amid the scandal.
Some royal watchers say the limited balcony lineup this Thursday is also consistent with a longstanding desire by Prince Charles to slim down the monarchy.
The decision means the queen will be flanked Thursday on the balcony by her 73-year-old heir, Charles, and his wife Camilla; Prince William, the second in line to the throne, with his wife Kate and their three children; and Charles’ siblings, Princess Anne and Prince Edward, along with their spouses.
Several other less recognizable working royals will join the group, including the queen’s cousin, the Duke of Gloucester and his wife, as well as the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra.
While some past balcony gatherings have included a large contingent of royals — including the queen’s distant cousins — the Diamond Jubilee celebration in 2012 saw the queen accompanied by just five close family members: Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry.
“It was making a point, it’s saying -- this is the future, folks,” said Robert Hardman, the monarch’s biographer and author of “Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II.”
For this week, “it’s not a case of Andrew or Harry or Meghan being barred from the balcony,” Hardman added. “They have withdrawn from royal duties, so they’re not part of the operational unit. That’s what it’s all about.”
The tradition of a balcony appearance began with Queen Victoria, who transformed Buckingham Palace into the monarch’s official residence and a royal family home in the 19th century. Victoria made the first royal balcony appearance during celebrations marking the opening of the 1851 Great Exhibition.
It’s a symbolic moment of the crown and people coming together, said Ed Owens, a royal historian and author of “The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public 1932-1953.”
“It was popularized as this moment where the nation came to look up to the royals,” Owens said.
It’s a formal occasion, though mischievous royal children often steal the scene. Harry, at 3 and still in his mother Diana’s arms, made an impression when he stuck his tongue out at photographers.
Royal watchers are hopeful that the queen, who has trouble getting around now and recently missed out on several major public engagements, will be present for Thursday’s balcony moment and at least one or two of the events planned for the four-day Platinum Jubilee weekend. But there are no promises.
“We can’t take anything for given at this point — at the age of 96, you have good days and bad days,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine. “The palace is very much taking it one day at a time.”