It was a year that drove home one lesson with unusual brutality: Nothing lasts forever, no matter how solid it looks. In 2011 popular anger swept away dictatorial regimes across the Middle East and dysfunctional governments in Europe. The Occupy movement rattled authorities in the U.S. and found raucous echoes around the globe. Fury at austerity budgets sent millions more to the barricades. In London and other parts of England, for five sultry nights, there were riots. From Athens to Moscow, one impulse, often inchoate, brought people onto the street: to wrest power from institutions.
Yet in the midst of all that, the United Kingdom's biggest demonstration of popular opinion, on April 29, indicated that at least one institution still commanded wide respect. In the chill of predawn, crowds converged on the capital to participate in an event that promised to be a piece of history. These people, a million or more, came not in anger but in optimism, to cheer an ancient organization putting on the pomp to observe a traditional rite. They came to celebrate the wedding of Prince William Arthur Philip Louis, the second-in-line to the British throne, to Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, a commoner elevated through their marriage to Duchess of Cambridge and to a leading position to become, one day, Queen.
The royal wedding, and the celebration in 2012 of Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, her 60th year on the throne, mark something of a comeback for the Windsor dynasty, which just 20 years ago appeared irretrievably tainted by scandal and divorce. Things looked as if they couldn't get worse, but they did, in 1997, with the death of Princess Diana. For the royals, however, comebacks run in the family. The most extraordinary characteristic of the extraordinary phenomenon that is Britain's monarchy is its ability to endure and renew. Since Charles II was installed on the throne in 1660, at the end of an 11-year experiment in republicanism that started with the decapitation of his father on the orders of Parliament, kings and queens have kept their heads and acted as heads of state. Their survival has relied on a willingness to adapt to public opinion without fatally undermining the idea that royals are different from most folk for the people, yet above the people.
No monarch has faced down greater existential challenges or perfected the technique of quiet adjustment to shifting realities with greater skill than the current Queen. The throngs that packed central London to see her grandson and his bride may have been caught up in the romance of a story sprinkled with the residual stardust of the groom's iconic mother and the fairy-tale plot line of a nice but ordinary girl snaring a prince; but they would not have turned up at all if not for the Queen's achievement in navigating more than half a century of tumult.
Her Diamond Jubilee year opened with no letup in the popular unrest that in the previous year had dismantled seemingly impregnable establishments. The United Kingdom itself could be imperiled as Scottish nationalists look forward to a 2014 referendum on independence. Yet those same nationalists have pledged to keep Elizabeth II as head of state whatever the outcome of the vote, and there are festivities planned on both sides of the border to mark the Queen's Jubilee. During an extended holiday weekend in June, the focus will return to London with a flotilla of 1,000 boats expected to accompany the sovereign's barge along the Thames, a concert at the gates of Buckingham Palace, a carriage procession to a thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral and, in an oddly sci-fi touch, the Queen will trigger a giant laser to light the last in a series of beacons to be illuminated across the U.K.
Britain's anti-monarchists and there are more than a few, around a fifth of Britons, according to polls, with 20,000 of them signed up as supporters of the pressure group Republic are preparing to celebrate too. For them the Jubilee presages the beginning of the end of the Elizabethan age and the eventual transition to a less sure-footed monarch.
In 1936, the monarchy survived the abdication of Edward VIII, who gave up the throne to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Indeed, the monarchy emerged stronger for it. That says something about where the two biggest risks to the institution reside: Any crisis raises questions about its continued existence, and it is only as good as its leader. King George VI, Edward's successor, stilled the questions raised by the abdication by proving far better suited to the kingship than his capricius brother, courageously overcoming his famous stammer to articulate a vision of national unity in a time of war. His daughter Elizabeth II has only rarely put a foot wrong. Her son and heir, the Prince of Wales, has not always appeared so deft.
So republicans see in the beacons lit to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee the flames that may one day consume the monarchy. That ignores the institution's resilience. To understand why it has endured, one must understand what it has endured, and how it has anchored itself at the heart of British life. Because the people who plan to congregate on that Jubilee weekend those who will wave flags and strain for a glimpse of the Queen's famous wave agree on one issue with the people planning to protest the festivities: Like it or not, the monarchy still matters.
If 60 years doesn't seem like much in the sweep of human history, it's worth listening to a BBC radio report filed from Kenya on the day Princess Elizabeth became Queen. She was traveling there with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (she didn't make Philip a prince until 1957). The journalist Frank Gillard, who covered the royal visit, spoke with the distinctive upper-crust accent, A's shortened into E's, that has come to be called the Queen's English. Gillard recounted that he had seen Elizabeth shortly after 9 o'clock in the morning. "Then, looking a little tired but very heppy, she was driving away from the Treetops hut where she and the duke had spent the previous 19 hours, about as far removed from normal civilization as possible, even in Efrica." Her heppiness would last until news of her father's sudden death could be communicated by telegram and trunk calls and she learned of her loss and her gain in status. "In the words of a member of the household," intoned Gillard, "she bore it like a Queen."
Six decades later, the Queen's subjects not only talk in different accents, the terms of their conversations have changed. Technology has been a key driver of that change, speeding communications and, in a foreshadowing of today's protest movements, breaking the stranglehold of big institutions like the BBC or Buckingham Palace on those communications and redrawing their terms of engagement. Journalists have long ceased to defer to the establishment. Before the end of the 20th century, a pack of paparazzi pursued Diana, Princess of Wales, into the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris with tragic consequences. The disclosure in 2006 that the royal editor of the British Sunday tabloid News of the World, together with a private investigator on the newspaper's payroll, had hacked into the voicemail of Princes William and Harry made clear that the Windsors were considered fair game by the media, to be treated no better than garden-variety celebrities. The public evidently agreed. The hacking scandal would eventually bring down the 186-year-old tabloid (another seemingly impregnable institution to bite the dust in 2011), but only after it emerged that ordinary people, including victims of crime, had been targeted. Nobody seemed to worry too much about the rights of the Windsors to a private life.
That wasn't just because Britain and the wider world had become less deferential, though they had. The monarchy could no longer assume that anyone would bend the knee. When Princess Elizabeth was born, the British Empire extended across a quarter of the planet. By the time she ascended the throne, former colonies were asserting their independence. Then came the social revolutions of the 1960s, enshrining teenage rebellion against authority not as a passing phase but as a way of life and vaunting peace and love over the more traditional virtues embodied by the royals, like responsibility and duty. By the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, in 1977, the idealism of the previous decade had curdled into something more confrontational. "God save the Queen/She ain't no human being," intoned the Sex Pistols. Remote as Britain's head of state was, those words resonated.
They did so because another societal shift had altered expectations: the erosion of the private sphere. Everyone, even uptight Brits, had been learning by degrees to let it all hang out. Therapy culture fused with celebrity culture. People now expected to know everything about everyone. The Queen made concessions; she developed the walkabout, braving direct contact with crowds and reportedly joking, "To see me is to believe me." She broadened the old guest lists for palace entertainment from the posh and privileged to a more diversified representation of British life. She sometimes allowed TV cameras through her doors. But she remained, by instinct, a private person.
Those instincts were largely sound. The Queen is at least as famous as any celebrity on the planet, but she is beyond mere familiarity. She has preserved the sense of difference necessary to retain the support and respect of four-fifths of Britons and majorities in the 15 other countries where she serves as head of state and to hold together the Commonwealth of Nations.
The benefits to the countries that maintain a link to the Crown are hard to quantify. That does not mean they do not exist. A relationship with the Queen, at least in some eyes, still confers status and enhances national cohesion. "Monarchy is extremely important to this country," Prime Minister David Cameron told Time. "It's a reminder of our history and a symbol of national pride. But above all, it's important because right at the top of British life we have this institution that is nonpolitical, that isn't subject to the winds of change. That gives a certain strength and stability to this country, that people of all parties and none have an institution they can admire and feel proud of."
The Queen may have her Prime Minister's vote, but she works hard to steer clear of anything that could be construed as party politics. The body of conventions that combine to create Britain's unwritten constitution demand of the monarch a scrupulous neutrality that can be tested if she is called on to perform another of her duties and appoint a Prime Minister. Usually she rubber-stamps the voters' or parties' choice, but the sudden resignation in 1957 of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and a subsequent stalemate over his replacement created a problem. She followed the advice of senior politicians in appointing his successor but attracted criticism from supporters of the unsuccessful candidate. More recently, in May 2010, when parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear majority, the Queen stood back and waited for the parties concerned to reach a resolution. Five days after polling stations closed, Cameron traveled to Buckingham Palace so the Queen could officially appoint him to lead the coalition government the politicians had hammered out without her intervention.
That does not mean the monarchy has no role in the transition from one government to the next. The monarchy provides a symbol of stability and continuity at just such times, says Dr. Richard Chartres, the bishop of London; it is "the element in the constitution that is beyond partisanship." Chartres, a royal advisor and family friend who led the funeral service for Princess Diana and gave the sermon at the wedding of William and Kate, asserts that royalty is at the core of British life: "Our head of state stands for common human values, exemplifies the life we all know. And the fact that the focus of unity is someone without raw political power but exemplifying those values has a considerable impact on the life of the community at every level, because people are brought to see that there is a realm beyond the clash of ideas and programs. And that humanizes a society."
The millions of people who lined the route to Westminster Abbey for William and Kate's wedding or Diana's funeral and the millions more who will celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee may not express in such high-flown terms the reasons they consider these events worth marking. Some will say they like the Queen. Others might talk about Kate's beauty and Diana's, or their emotional connection to figures most of them have never met. A smaller number will grouch about them. Everyone has different reactions to the royal family, but nobody fails to have an opinion. In a world of constant change, the House of Windsor stands out, a familiar, fascinating landmark.
In a new book from TIME, The Royal Family: Britain's Resilient Monarchy Celebrates Elizabeth II's 60-Year Reign, Europe editor Catherine Mayer and colleagues look at Britain's resilient monarchy celebrating Queen Elizabeth II's 60-year reign. Now available in bookstores, or go to www.time.com/royalsbook to order your copy today.