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Queen leads giant Diamond Jubilee flotilla on London's rainy Thames

Queen Elizabeth II's subjects honor her with the launch of a thousand boats on the Thames, a river pageant the likes of which Britons have not seen for 350 years. NBC's Michelle Kosinki reports.

Updated at 3:52 p.m. ET: It was Queen Elizabeth I who launched 1,000 ships down the River Thames in the 16th century. The same number of boats made their way through London on Sunday — not an armada for battle, but a fanfare of pageantry celebrating the 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Black clouds, gusting winds and often torrential rain — the hallmarks of a British summer outdoor event — were unable to darken the magnificence of the display, although several people were treated for hypothermia.

Hundreds of thousands gathered on the banks of the Thames to watch the queen glide past in a barge decorated with flowers, with her closest family at her side, including grandson Prince William and his wife, Kate.

Peter Jeary, NBC News

Rain-soaked spectators arrived early to get a good view.


The 1,000-strong flotilla was met by spectators lining 11 of the bridges that cross the river in the city center. Some of those had arrived in a chilly, miserable dawn to make sure they had the perfect view.

Eileen Scott, 67, from Southampton, England, had celebrated the start of Elizabeth's reign as a young girl. "We haven't had a pageant for so long,” she said. "I was here for the coronation. I was 8, and it was a dreadful day like this one."

In pictures: Britain honors Queen Elizabeth II with Diamond Jubilee

Erica Vey, a Royal Air Force veteran and amputee, was in the front row of spectators. "It is typically English to wait for hours on for something; we have the patience,” she said.

In the flotilla were kayaks, rowboats, barges and the Motor Torpedo Boat 102 on which the Allied Forces commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspected warships before the 1944 D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France. 

All were decorated with flags and banners, making an extraordinarily colorful spectacle harking back to Tudor times, when river pageants regularly took place for royal festivities.

While more than a century separates festivities marking Queen Elizabeth II's 60 years on the throne from those honoring her predecessor Queen Victoria, surprising similarities connect the commemorations. NBC News' Jim Maceda reports.

'Look! I've got the queen!'
In the distance, the dull waters of the Thames were slowly developing color as the formation of 1,000 boats of different shapes, sizes and colors approached Westminster bridge. Music also accompanied mass displays enhancing the atmosphere of the Diamond Jubilee celebration.

Bands on boats played "Pomp and Circumstance"; at one stage, a large vessel played Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair." Then an Indian bagpipe band played Asian renditions of "When the Saints Go Marching In," complemented by Bollywood-style dancing that prompted those watching on the bridge to join in the singing.

After three "hip hip hoorays," a woman started screaming out the national anthem, which spread over the whole bridge. Then the queen approached in the middle of the flotilla aboard the Spirit of Chartwell, where she stood and waved. 

There was a frenzy to snap pictures before the vessel  passed the bridge. Two women excitedly compared photographs: 

"Look! I've got the queen!"

"Wow!  I don't, but I have Will and Kate."

"You should give me your email. I'll email them to you."

Organizers say Sunday's river pageant was the largest of its kind in 350 years — when a similar spectacle was held for King Charles II and his consort, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662. 

Although the queen is still head of state in 16 countries from Australia and Canada to tiny Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, Britain is now a shadow of its former imperial self. 

A much-needed joyous celebration
Historians and commentators say the pomp and spectacle of British royal occasion gives the country a sense of national pride at a time when the economy is in recession and people face deep austerity measures. 

Secret donors, foreign firms bankroll UK’s Diamond Jubilee celebration

Across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, street parties were being held to mark the occasion. Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, dropped in on one in central London before the pageant, joining in a rousing rendition of the national anthem. 

The government hopes the festivities will mark the start of a summer of revelry capped off by the Olympic Games in London, raising the public's spirits and its own poll ratings. 

However, economists have warned that the extra public holidays will hit Britain's already ailing economy, potentially prolonging a recession. 

The celebrations come as polls show overwhelming backing for the monarchy, which has overcome a slump in the 1990s following marital infidelities and the death of the hugely popular Princess Diana in a 1997 Paris car crash. 

Last year's wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton was proof of such enduring appeal, with the ceremonial extravaganza attracting a global audience of up to 2 billion people. 

However, not everyone in London was cheering. The small yet vocal Republican movement planned a protest during the flotilla, saying the jubilee was "a celebration of inherited power and privilege, and those celebrations have no place in a modern democracy." 

Celebrations continue Monday with a pop concert outside Elizabeth's London residence, Buckingham Palace, where Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder will be among the acts. The band Madness is set to take to the roof of the famous landmark to belt out the hit song "Our House." 

Ben Fogle reports from a canoe taking part in the flotilla of 1,000 boats honoring Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee weekend.

Chiara Francavilla and Peter Jeary of NBC News in London and Alastair Jamieson of msnbc.com contributed to this report.

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