They stood for hours in London’s pouring rain – just for a glimpse of her.
It was June 2, 1953, and millions of Britons and visitors lined the parade route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey.
There, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor would soon be crowned the new Queen of the United Kingdom – Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Securing curb-side vantage points, thousands had encamped overnight, huddled under blankets and umbrellas.
The new Queen had ascended to the throne 16 months earlier, at the age of 25, on the death of her father, King George VI.
Her formal coronation, before 6,000 dignitaries in the historic Abbey – tens of millions more watched the event at home, via the new technology of television – seemed to mark the auspicious dawn of a new era.
Now, six decades later, Britain and the Commonwealth nations are celebrating an event that few would likely have predicted: a diamond jubilee, marking Her Majesty’s extraordinary 60 years on the throne.
Queen Elizabeth is just the second British monarch to reach that milestone. Only Queen Victoria reigned longer, from 1837 to 1901.
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth has reigned for longer than the vast majority of her subjects have been alive.
“The monarchy is the one enduring factor in everyone’s life,” says royal commentator Rafal Mankoo, editor of Burke’s World Orders. She is the most enduing symbol.”
Tomorrow, accompanied by the ceremonial pealing church bells, a flotilla of thousands of boats will make its way along the River Thames in tribute – part of an extended weekend of commemorative events.
Elsewhere, Britons and other celebrants will mark the occasion with street parties, picnics, parades, concerts and religious services.
Governor General David Johnston, Prime Minister and Mrs. Harper, and Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore are among dozens of foreign dignitaries now in London to participate in the jubilee.
The Queen herself will attend the Epsom Derby on Saturday. On Sunday, she’ll be at the Big Jubilee Lunch, one of hundreds being organized, and the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant; with The Duke of Edinburgh, she’ll travel in the Royal Barge, escorted with the help of the Canadian Navy.
There’s a gala BBC concert at Buckingham Palace and a beacon-lighting ceremony planned on Monday; the Queen will light the National Beacon, one of 2,012 across the Commonwealth.
A Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral – followed by a carriage Procession – is scheduled on Tuesday.
Perhaps the most novel expression of homage is taking place in Canada. An Arctic Jubilee Expedition team – five Britons, one Canadian and one Inuit – are climbing Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in the Arctic. It’s located on Ellesmere Island, part of the Queen Elizabeth Islands, which were named to mark her coronation in 1953.
“It really is an occasion to experience,” Mr. Mankoo says. “The mood on the street is one of genuine excitement. I have not seen Londoners motivated this way, with so much decking out of flags on shops and window displays in many years.” Royal commentator and media pundit, Editor of Burke's World Orders
Mr. Mankoo attributes this remarkable outpouring of support for the Queen to the royal family’s ability to change and adapt.
“That’s been the key to its success,” he says. “The monarchy has streamlined itself. The Queen has become an iconic figure, like her late mother, the Queen Mother, whom we always loved. And there’s the injection of young blood with the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.”
Particularly in an epoch marked by sudden and dramatic change, the British monarchy’s talent for being at once “dynamic and traditional, glamorous and stable, becomes something that grounds us, a rock around which we can take comfort,” Mr. Mankoo says.
“The jubilee is being launched on a rising market for the monarchy,” agrees Stephen Brooke, professor of 20th-century British history at York University.
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Royal Family was beset by a series of controversies that seemed to undermine its relevance – marital woes, divorces, and a Republican-led debate about the vast, taxpayer-borne cost of maintaining the monarchy.
“Recent polls suggest that they have recovered popularity,” Mr. Brooke says. “It’s seen as a source of continuity in very uncertain times.”
Ironically, he adds, Queen Elizabeth came to power in similar times – during the post-Second World War era of instability, reconstruction and austerity. “The monarchy had to reinvent itself for those times. They are very smart at marrying traditional forms to the modern age. So while they symbolize order, they also symbolize change – the ability to modernize.”
What’s remarkable about the Queen’s tenure is not just her durability. It’s also that her six decades on the throne have coincided with tectonic changes in the social and geopolitical landscape.
“She’s effectively presided over the decline of the British Empire, the shrinkage of the Commonwealth and the emergence of a multiracial, multicultural Britain,” Mr. Brooke notes. “I’m not a monarchist, but I give her enormous credit for successfully negotiating those changes.”
Indeed, says Daniel Woolf, principal of Queen’s University – established by royal charter of Queen Victoria in 1841, 26 years before Canada’s confederation – “the Queen has shown enormous composure and grace under sometimes adverse circumstances.”
The long Cold War, England’s growing ties with the European community, the massive change in Britain’s imperial status – all of this has occurred under her watch.
During this time, Mr. Woolf observes, “many former monarchies and regimes have come to an end, but the British monarchy, notwithstanding its challenges, continues to endure.”
Many older Canadians still vividly recall the Queen’s coronation – what Sir Winston Churchill called “the splendour of this day that glows in our minds.”
Coldbrook, Nova Scotia’s Frank Himsl, for example – then in kindergarten – remembers being given a special coronation coin and being taken to the Oxford Theatre in Halifax to watch colour newsreel film of the event, which had been flown specially over. Other children were given tiny Union Jack flags and let out of school early.
Teresa Woods, of Shanty Bay, Ont., recalls making a special family trip to London to watch the coronation.
“We watched the parade making its way to Westminster Abbey from a balcony on Pall Mall,” she said, in a written submission to The Globe and Mail. “My uncle worked for the Rank Organization and they had put cameras in the Abbey itself, so we watched the actual ceremony on a huge screen in whatever building we were in. …. In hindsight, I realize how lucky I was to be there.”
And Torontonian David Schatzky, then a boy of 6 in Norwich, Britain, remembers gathering at the house of a friend whose family was one of only a few that owned a television set. “As through a glass darkly, we saw a very fuzzy, crackly, small, black-and-white, fading-in-and-out picture,” he recalls. “It was at that age something grand and mysterious. I recall the pageantry and the music, but not much else.”