Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, joined other members of Britain’s royal family on Friday for a church service honoring Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, making their first public appearance in the U.K. since stepping back from royal duties two years ago.
The queen skipped the event at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which came on the second of four days of festivities marking her Platinum Jubilee. The 96-year-old monarch has had difficulty moving around in recent months and experienced “some discomfort” after smiling and waving to throngs of supporters from the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Thursday afternoon.
But royal watchers quickly shifted their focus to Harry and Meghan, who held hands as they walked down the long central aisle accompanied only by a military officer in a scarlet dress tunic. Other guests craned their necks to watch the couple take their places in the second row, underscoring their lesser roles as non-working members of the royal family.
Prince Charles, who represented the queen, and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, had special chairs in the front row on the other side of the central aisle. Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge were seated next to them.
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Harry and Meghan sparked tensions within the royal family when they moved to California and signed lucrative media contracts. The rift deepened after they made allegations of racism and bullying in the royal household. But they flew back to Britain for the jubilee celebrations, bringing their son, Archie, and daughter, Lilibet, who had never met her great grandmother the queen.
“This is, again, Elizabeth II trying to put on a united front, bringing her family together one last time, probably, during her reign, so that ... handing over to the next monarch, she can be seen to have done at least publicly her best to try and unite the divisions that have opened up within the family group over the last couple of years,” Ed Owens, author of “The Family Firm: Monarchy Mass Media and the British Public 1932-53'' said in an interview before the jubilee.
The service of thanksgiving took place a day after the celebrations opened with the glittering military parade known as Trooping the Color, an event that has marked the sovereign’s official birthday for some 260 years.
Following the event, tens of thousands of royal supporters cheered wildly as Elizabeth joined other senior royals on the palace balcony and 70 military aircraft roared overhead in salute.
The queen doggedly appeared later in the evening outside her home at Windsor Castle for the final moments of an international beacon lighting ceremony. Moving slowly and with some difficulty she pressed an illuminated globe that sent a river of lights flooding toward Buckingham Palace, where a sculpture of living trees was lit up.
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Though the palace said she had enjoyed the festivities, the queen apparently decided that another trip from Windsor back into London on Friday might be a bit much. Prince Charles again stood in for his mother at the church service, as he has often done of late.
But the queen was still part of the service as participants assumed she was watching on television.
Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell spoke directly to her in his sermon, playfully riffing on her love of horse racing.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any great tips for the Derby tomorrow, but since the scriptures describe life as a race set before us, let me observe that your long reign reflects the distance of Aintree rather than the sprints of Epsom …,’’ he joked. “But with endurance, through times of change and challenge, joy and sorrow, you continue to offer yourself in the service of our country and the commonwealth."
“Your Majesty, we’re sorry you’re not with us this morning, but we are so glad you are still in the saddle,'' he added. “And we are all glad that there is still more to come.’’