LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee has become a party without its guest of honor. Her absence is a metaphor for the twilight of Britain’s second Elizabethan Age, an awkward limbo in which the 96-year-old queen still reigns but has, in many ways, been replaced by her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles.
After appearing Thursday on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and lighting a beacon to celebrate 70 years on the throne, the queen skipped a thanksgiving service Friday at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The palace cited her “discomfort” and problems with mobility, which have forced her largely out of the public eye.
Charles, in what has become a familiar sight, played the understudy. He took his mother’s seat at the front of the cathedral, smiling slightly when the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said of the queen, “We are so glad you are still in the saddle. And we are all glad that there is still more to come.”
How much more, of course, is a mystery.
That lingering uncertainty poses an acute challenge to Charles, who at 73 is already the longest-serving heir in British history. His unspoken transition into the sovereign’s role amounts to a kind of soft launch, royal experts said, allowing Britons to get used to the idea of him as king. But with Buckingham Palace averse to designating him a regent, the delineation of his duties can become constitutionally tricky.
“Prince Charles is now the de facto, front-of-house head of state,” said Peter Hunt, a former royal correspondent for the BBC. “A frail queen will mostly be a virtual presence in our lives. What’s yet to be resolved is what happens if she can no longer carry out her core duties, such as her weekly discussions with the prime minister.”
The four-day jubilee, which concludes Sunday, has served as a vivid reminder that the queen remains the most popular member of the royal family. She has a 75 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll by the market research firm YouGov. Her grandson Prince William is the next most favored, with a 66 percent approval rating, while Charles is at 50 percent, a number that has ticked up slightly over the last year.
For those who lined the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace on Thursday, including admirers from the United States and other countries around the world, the queen was clearly the main attraction. Her initial, surprise appearance on the balcony to inspect the troops drew a thunderous cheer. And her absence at St. Paul’s, while not a surprise given the forbidding logistics, was a letdown.
The religious service, with a New Testament reading by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was meant to honor the queen’s role as head of state. Five former prime ministers that she met with over the decades were on hand: John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May.
“The queen has been a constant through everything,” said Sharon Kent, who traveled from Devon in southern England to take part in the festivities. “Whether you’re patriotic or not, she’s always been there.”
On Friday, the palace said the queen would also miss the Epsom Derby, a horse race she has attended for decades. That is perhaps an even more painful blow to Elizabeth, a dedicated horsewoman who has had entrants in the derby. (The closest she came to a victory was in 1953, not long after her coronation, when Aureole, a racehorse bred by her father, King George VI, finished second.)
The queen, the palace said, planned to watch the race on television at Windsor Castle, the home to which she has largely retreated since the coronavirus pandemic first forced her to curtail her public schedule in early 2020.
With the queen missing, the spotlight inevitably swung to the younger generation of royals. But just as inevitably, it resurfaced the intergenerational tensions that have spilled out from behind the palace walls.
Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, made the splashiest entrance at St. Paul’s on Friday, emerging from their Range Rover to a welling of cheers — interrupted by a few boos — from the crowd. Once they were inside, every head turned as the couple walked, holding hands, through the cathedral’s soaring nave to their seats.
It was the couple’s first official royal event since they left Britain in a bitter falling-out with the family, particularly with Charles, Harry’s father, and Harry’s elder brother, William. The seating chart spoke to their more peripheral status: They were in the middle of the second row, mixed in with the two daughters of Prince Andrew, the queen’s second son.
But it also spared them an awkward encounter with Charles and William as they were escorted to their front-row seats on the other side of the aisle — something that was clearly not lost on the palace’s meticulous choreographers.
Some Key Moments in Queen Elizabeth’s Reign
Becoming queen. After the death of King George VI, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary ascended to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, at age 25. The coronation of the newly minted Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2 the next year.
A historic visit. On May 18, 1965, Elizabeth arrived in Bonn on the first state visit by a British monarch to Germany in more than 50 years. The trip formally sealed the reconciliation between the two nations following the world wars.
First grandchild. In 1977, the queen stepped into the role of grandmother for the first time, after Princess Anne gave birth to a son, Peter. Elizabeth’s four children have given her a total of eight grandchildren, who have been followed by several great-grandchildren.
Princess Diana’s death. In a rare televised broadcast before Diana’s funeral in 1997, Queen Elizabeth remembered the Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris at age 36, as “an exceptional and gifted human being.”
Golden Jubilee. In 2002, celebrations to mark Elizabeth II’s 50 years as queen culminated in a star-studded concert at Buckingham Palace in the presence of 12,000 cheering guests, with an estimated one million more watching on giant screens set up around London.
A trip to Ireland. In May 2011, the queen visited Ireland, whose troubled relationship with the British monarchy spanned centuries. The trip, infused with powerful symbols of reconciliation, is considered one of the most politically freighted trips of Elizabeth’s reign.
Breaking a record. As of 5:30 p.m. British time on Sept. 9, 2015, Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. Elizabeth was 89 at the time and had ruled for 23,226 days, 16 hours and about 30 minutes.
Marking 70 years of marriage. On Nov. 20, 2017, the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 70th anniversary, becoming the longest-married couple in royal history. The two wed in 1947, as the country and the world was still reeling from the atrocities of World War II.
Losing her spouse. In 2021, Queen Elizabeth II bade farewell to Prince Philip, who died on April 9. An image of the queen grieving alone at the funeral amid coronavirus restrictions struck a chord with viewers at home following the event.
Andrew, too, was a no-show, because the palace said he had tested positive for the coronavirus. This was to have been his only public participation in the jubilee, given that he has been largely banished from public life because of his association with Jeffrey Epstein, the deceased financier and convicted sex offender.
With fewer working royals, the burden of hundreds of public appearances a year falls on Charles. He performs investitures, in which the palace confers knighthoods, on behalf of his mother. Last month, he presided over the state opening of Parliament, dutifully reading the Queen’s Speech, which lays out the government’s legislative priorities.
“We’re living through a regency in all but name,” said Ed Owens, a historian who has written about the relationship between the media and the monarchy. “They’ve got no blueprint for what to do with a monarch who is so aged and so frail.”
To some extent, Mr. Owens said, the limbo might be an advantage for Charles. “When the day comes when she does die,” he said, “there won’t be a great sense of rupture, because we’ll be familiar with him in those roles.”
The danger is that the transition could last so long that Charles will not have enough time, after he finally becomes king, to modernize the institution. People with ties to the palace say he has strong ideas about the monarchy, some of which — like streamlining the number of working royals — are already visible.
Charles also has a long history of activism on environmental protection and climate change, causes that William has also picked up. Rarely have those issues seemed more relevant, but they also pose a danger: Some Conservative Party lawmakers are demanding that Mr. Johnson scale back his government’s “green agenda,” given the economic pressures from the rising cost of living.
“The environment could become a very politically fraught topic,” Mr. Owens said, “at which point Charles and William would have to be much more careful about speaking out about the natural world.”
For one more day, though, those debates will be set aside as Britain celebrates seven decades under a queen who, however absent she may be from these festivities, remains just offstage, still in the saddle.
Saskia Solomon contributed reporting.