How the Queen has celebrated her birthday over the years – and why today will set a precedent

Matthew Dennison
·3-min read

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"Sincere good wishes and feelings of gratitude will be in the hearts of many millions of subjects as the Queen celebrates her 50th birthday today. She has spent nearly half her life as monarch," noted the Birmingham Daily Post on 21 April 1976. As always, "letters and messages of congratulation from all parts of the Commonwealth and overseas arriving at the Court Post Office at Windsor Castle" marked the run up to the big day; on the eve of her birthday, the Queen hosted a dance for 600 guests.

But the day itself was one of private celebrations, beginning with the flower placed on her early-morning tray by Prince Philip, and kept clear of public engagements, a habit the Queen has mostly maintained throughout her reign (exceptions include 1966, when she spent her 40th birthday opening Parliament).

On her 90th birthday, the Queen greeted well-wishers in Windsor - Reuters
On her 90th birthday, the Queen greeted well-wishers in Windsor - Reuters

This year, of course, there will be no flower from Prince Philip on the Queen’s early-morning tray, but she will spend her birthday at Windsor Castle, her favourite home, as she has since her first birthday in 1927. On that occasion, in her parents’ absence on an overseas tour, her grandparents George V and Queen Mary hosted the baby princess. Queen Mary had chosen apartments for her in the Victoria Tower, supervising their arrangement herself and ensuring the nursery was "gay with many flowers from the royal gardens".

A pattern was set: as a child, the Queen invariably spent birthdays at Windsor, staying with her grandparents. Presents – wrapped in brown paper, tied and sealed with wax – were opened in the Oak Room, where last year the Queen and Prince Philip were photographed reading the 73rd wedding anniversary card made for them by their Cambridge great-grandchildren.

The Royal Family in the gardens of Frogmore House, Windsor, Berkshire, as they celebrate the Queen's 39th birthday in 1965 - PA
The Royal Family in the gardens of Frogmore House, Windsor, Berkshire, as they celebrate the Queen's 39th birthday in 1965 - PA

Only presents from friends and family were allowed: those sent by members of the public unknown to the birthday girl or her parents were returned to their senders. The day culminated in a party, with a pink-and-white-iced cake made by the King’s chef. Little Elizabeth’s guests were members of her family: her younger sister Margaret and her cousins George and Gerald Lascelles, the two sons of her aunt, Princess Mary; her royal uncles, the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent.

As a child, the Queen was exempted from schoolroom lessons on her birthday; instead she rode her pony. As with many aspects of the Queen’s life, this early pattern changed little over time. In 1956, the Queen spent her 30th birthday at Windsor, with Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. After breakfast, mother and children went riding in Windsor Great Park and, noted one newspaper, "in brilliant sunshine, they enjoyed a gallop of several miles". In 1962, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and five-year-old Viscount Linley joined them.

The Queen lit a series of birthday beacons, on the occasion of her 90th - PA
The Queen lit a series of birthday beacons, on the occasion of her 90th - PA

From her 60th birthday onwards, the Queen’s milestone birthdays have included an element of public celebration: an open carriage procession in Windsor in 1986, a walkabout outside the castle to mark her 80th birthday in 2006, the lighting of the first of 900 birthday beacons in 2016.

Matthew Dennison’s The Queen is published on 3 June. Follow him on Instagram: @matthewdennisonbiographer

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