LONDON - The Queen Mother Elizabeth, a small, frail figure in blue silk, stepped onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to receive a thunderous 100th birthday cheer Friday from a sea of adoring fans that even a rock star would envy.
Tens of thousands of people from around Britain and abroad stood shoulder to shoulder in the August sunshine to shout their best wishes to a woman who has become a focus of pride and affection for much of the nation.
The Queen Mother, widow of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, married into the royal family 77 years ago. Through the following years, in wartime and in peace, she won the enduring loyalty of generations.
Mixed with the gray heads in the crowd were many young people and small children, some from as far away Australia and the United States, who had come to watch the Queen Mother's procession from her home at Clarence House to her daughter's official residence at Buckingham Palace.
''I think I'm going to cry,'' said Judy Crook, 41, among the huge crowd at the palace. ''I think the Queen Mother is lovely. She's very regal, just like a queen mum should be.''
Betsy Pelling, 59, said: ''I've liked her since 1947 when I saw her as a little girl. I live in South Africa, but I made sure I was here for this. We sang 'Happy Birthday' when she came out on the balcony.''
Thousands of well-wishers stood a dozen deep along the broad, flag-draped avenue of The Mall to cheer the Queen Mother as she rode past in an open carriage garlanded with blue and yellow blossoms and drawn by four white horses.
A military band in scarlet tunics preceded her, and a cavalry unit, resplendent in silver breastplates and plumed hats, followed on gleaming black horses.
Seated beside her eldest grandson, Prince Charles, she waved and smiled. As they passed through the palace gates to the strains of the national anthem, a traditional 41-gun birthday salute was fired from nearby Green Park. She appeared on the balcony with 27 members of her family and then went inside for a private birthday luncheon.
Before setting out for the palace, the Queen Mother made a brief appearance outside Clarence House to receive a birthday card from her daughter - signed ''Lilibet,'' the childhood nickname of the 74-year-old queen.
Standing firmly on her own and disregarding the chair offered behind her, the Queen Mother opened the traditional card - sent by the queen to all the nation's centenarians - and shared a laugh with the postman.
Her obvious pleasure in meeting people and sharing a joke has won the Queen Mother many friends. People like her jollity, her fondness of a gin cocktail or two, and the pleasure she gets from horse racing. She manages all this without eroding the regal dignity they admire.
But the solid foundation of her place in the nation's affections is the bond she and her husband formed with the British people during World War II.
During all the years of loss and deprivation, the relentless bombing of London and other cities, they traveled around the country raising morale and sharing as best they could the experience of their subjects.
President Vladimir Putin referred to the war in his birthday greeting to the Queen Mother, saying the Russians ''value highly your kind and interested attitude toward this country and will always remember your support of the residents and defenders of Stalingrad in the years of World War II.''
Prime Minister Tony Blair praised her ''extraordinary sense of duty (and) sense of obligation to others.''
And the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the two most senior prelates of the state Church of England, said in a birthday greeting, ''We are very conscious of the enormous debt which the whole nation owes you for the dignified, Christian example you have provided over the years. It has rightly won an honored place for you in the hearts of all your people.''
After the Queen Mother returned home by car, she sent a message of thanks to all who had wished her well.
A spokeswoman said the Queen Mother ''was very touched by the warmth of the welcome she received from the many people on the route from Clarence House and outside Buckingham Palace, and deeply appreciated the tributes she has received from this country and around the world.''
In the evening, the monarch and her sister, 69-year-old Princess Margaret, took their mother to the Royal Opera House for a ballet.
On the Net:
Official site, http://www.royal.gov.uk/family/mother.htm