In February, the English cricket team virtual demigods in their country after defeating Australia last summer were attending a reception amid the Rembrandts and Rubenses in the Picture Gallery of Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth had just pinned medals on the athletes' chests signifying their new status as Members of the Order of the British Empire, and was strolling among them, chatting and laughing with their proud families. She was the star of the show, making people grin indeed, sometimes erupt with laughter her own face switching between that studied placidity that is her trademark and a really dazzling smile. After the Queen moved on to another clutch of guests, Ashley Giles, one of the cricketers, appeared starstruck. He is 33, used to the pressure of top-level sports and the adulation of crowds. Yet he was visibly moved. "Just coming to Buckingham Palace in itself is an incredible honor for me," he said, shaking his head. "But meeting the Queen makes this one of the most memorable days of my life." Really? That grandmotherly figure who always carries a handbag and never says anything controversial? "She is a living link with our history, which is very important to me. She's also very sharp. I think she does a fantastic job." Then he added, slowly and with feeling: "And she is the most ... beautiful ... woman!"
Chalk one up for the enduring enigma of royalty. Long ago, mystery added to the authority of Kings; now, the idea of monarchy is self-evidently nonsensical. How can one person picked by the lottery of birth possibly embody a whole nation? What can a constitutional monarch like Elizabeth II, prohibited from exercising any real power, actually do to justify her country's steady devotion the crowds who line up to cheer when she passes, her face on each coin and bill and postage stamp, a national anthem that beseeches God to save her? What does she really do to earn something for which respect is way too small a word?
The Queen is 80 on April 21, and in the run-up to her birthday, TIME has been exploring how the institution of the British Crown retains meaning by watching the Queen at work. At her direction, the palace also granted unusual and exclusive access to her senior aides and her son Andrew. But in keeping with her lifelong custom, she granted no interview; she prefers to be observed rather than questioned.
The Queen is acutely aware that the continued success of the monarchy depends on the careful nurturing of popular consent and that a peculiar danger of being the best-known woman in the world for over half a century is becoming background noise, ubiquitous but forgotten. Her press secretary, Penny Russell-Smith, says that the last 15 years of coverage, focused mostly on the misadventures of the younger royals, has created "a generation of readers and viewers who aren't aware of what the Queen's work is all about." The antidote is more exposure. So not for the Queen a quiet retirement: she plans to keep working, and for people to see her working, as long as she can manage.
What, precisely, is the Queen's job? There is not much she can do entirely at her own whim. Technically, she could dissolve Parliament to get rid of a Prime Minister she disliked, but it would provoke an unthinkable constitutional crisis if she tried. The great 19th-century journalist and constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot said the monarch had the prerogative "to be consulted, to encourage and to warn" the government of the day, but it is one Elizabeth II never exercises in public (unlike her opinionated son Charles). Yet she still derives power from her twin roles as head of state the one who opens and dissolves Parliament, makes splashy visits abroad and hosts dinners for foreign leaders and head of nation, a focus for British unity and identity, rewarder of excellence, a visible oasis of continuity in an accelerating world, even as Prime Ministers (she's had 10) come and go. A clutch of other symbolic roles Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, chief of the armed forces reinforce a peculiar kind of omnipresence in public life. In a media-soaked age, that is a fantastic asset.
No matter how irrational may be people's desire to invest their love of country in a single person, the Queen's well-polished routine still resonates. In February she went to Reading, 65 km west of London, to open a hospital wing. She stepped out of the limousine wearing a lime green suit; the townspeople cheered and the hospital's cooks pressed their faces to the windows. As officials and doctors gave her a tour, the corridors were lined with hundreds of staff, patients and families who cheered and waved flags. Teenagers laughed and gave each other high-fives for snatching good snaps of her with their mobile phones. Charles Anderson, who had suffered a mild stroke, said the Queen "is very warm, very easy to talk to. Helluva job she's got. I wouldn't want it." She stopped to chat with Linda Patterson, whose arm was in a cast after breaking her thumb. "I think I'm going to cry, I'm so excited!" Patterson said a few seconds later and did.
The assistant private secretary on duty, Edward Young, pointed out the Queen's professional skill: at just the right moment she turned to give the cameras a perfect backdrop of happy, flag-waving children. The emotional pitch was not quite the hormonal exchange of former U.S. President Bill Clinton working a rope line, but in her subdued way the Queen is a rock star whose charisma is curiously magnified because she seems to have no desire for the fame she cannot escape. As her limousine crawled away (she deadpanned to the chauffeur who tested it at the factory that its most important quality was how it handled at 5 km/h), she had accomplished her goal, which Young describes as "seeing and being seen by as many people as possible, and for them to go away feeling something special."
It is a balmy period in her 54-year reign. The tabloid fodder of Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie, the death of her beloved mother at 101, are all behind her. Charles is at long last married to Camilla, which according to courtiers has reassured his parents about his long-term soundness; Princes William and Harry appear to be well launched. Robert Lacey, one of the Queen's biographers, says the long-running Windsor saga has resonance with the public once more. She has become a matriarch in autumn, presiding over "a family happy once again, the more credible for the traumas they have been through." Her country is prosperous and generally content with her performance. According to a 113-page Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Buckingham Palace in January and seen by TIME, only 19% would like to switch to a republic one more percentage point than in 1969. "This is the most stable measure in British polling," says Robert Worcester, who presented the poll to palace staff. No matter how you break down the respondents young, old, ethnic minorities, Londoners, non-Christians, local opinion leaders, readers of the Sun tabloid, readers of the "quality" dailies no more than 25% of any group wants to dump the royals. Even after a decade of tumult for the Windsors, 68% of Britons want to retain them. "That's astonishing," says Sunder Katwala, head of the Fabian Society, a think tank affiliated with the Labour Party. "It represents an absolute failure for British republicanism," to which he is instinctively sympathetic. In fact, there's no real debate at all on the future of the monarchy in Britain. Republicans want to abolish it, so won't discuss reform. The government won't touch the subject with a barge pole. So what should be uncontroversial proposals, like an end to the ban on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic, are never discussed. Intelligent debate about what kind of monarchy Britain should have in the 21st century has disappeared "into a kind of Bermuda triangle," says Katwala.