When Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 60 years on the throne next year, the event will be marked with a majestic flotilla of a 1?000 boats on the Thames – the biggest such display for 350 years.
The queen, who turns 85 this week, will only be the second monarch in history to celebrate a diamond jubilee – following Queen Victoria, who passed the milestone in 1897.
The lavish anniversary bash in June, 2012, is likely to be the last big party for the Windsors for a while, coming after the “celebrity wedding” of Prince William and Kate Middleton at the end of this month.
When the celebratory mood has calmed down, thoughts are likely to turn to the future of the monarchy.
Queen Elizabeth, royalists and anti-monarchists agree, has provided Britain’s constitutional monarchy with a sense of continuity and stability that will be hard to match.
Most Britons do not know their country without her.
While pro-monarchists hope the queen’s longevity will match that of her mother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 aged 101, opponents believe the end of her reign will mark a turning point.
“When the queen dies, there will be sadness and mourning, but then opinion against the monarchy will galvanise,” predicts Graham Smith, campaign manager for anti-monarchist group Republic.
And that is exactly why the royal wedding between her grandson and Kate Middleton is seen as a major watershed in the 1 000-year history the British monarchy, according to most analysts.
Royal historian Hugo Vickers predicts that the marriage and the changes it heralds will appeal to the young.
“This is a new generational revival. I think it will be wonderful that during the queen’s reign you may get another prospective generation – our queen with Charles, William and a little boy or girl. Continuity is so important,” said Vickers.
The forthcoming royal wedding offers the chance to “re-make the royal family for a new era,” believes Rachel Johnson, the editor of the magazine The Lady.
“It’s showbiz, America has Hollywood, we have the royals as natural celebrities,” said Johnson. Kate Middleton, the “middle-class girl come good”, would save the monarchy, she predicts.
Peter York, a social commentator, agrees that the “Middleton story” represents a favourable development for Britain’s royals.
Over the years, Britain’s royal family had been able to observe that members of the middle classes who married into other European royal houses – from the Netherlands to Scandinavia and Spain – “were seen to be doing quite a good job,” said York.
“The general idea is let’s have more of them. It’s a practical admission that it works”, said York about the marriage of so-called “commoners” into royal families.
However, that did not mean that the royals wholeheartedly agreed with such a trend, or had changed their fundamental views on class, heritage and tradition, he added.
Whether it will work or not, remains to be seen.
However, the as yet unknown length of the queen’s reign, and the tenure of Prince Charles, however long, mean that it will be some time before William and Kate can assume their role at the top.
Recent opinion polls have, however, produced contrasting results on the question of succession.
A survey last month by the respected YouGov institute showed that Charles, the 62-year-old heir to the throne, was favoured by 45% of Britons to succeed the queen, compared to 37% who say they would like William to take over – a scenario that would ignore tradition.
But a more recent poll, published less than three weeks before the wedding, said 59% would favour dispensing with tradition to see William ascend the throne, compared with 41% for his father.
Following the difficult decade of the 1990s – when Britain’s royals were rocked by a series of scandals and divorce, culminating in the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – the young generation represented by William was seen as best placed to lead the monarchy into a “new era”.
However, with the growing acceptance by the public of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, whom Charles married in 2005, the succession pendulum appeared to have swung back into Charles’ favour.
Pollsters said that, in the light of the upcoming wedding, many Britons may also feel that William should be given a chance to enjoy some years of “as-normal-as-possible” life with Kate before he ascends to the throne, the exclusive poll in Prospect magazine showed.