LONDON - Under dank and rainy skies that challenged a wave of popular acclaim for a monarch marking 60 years on the throne, a flotilla of 1,000 boats cruised down the Thames on Sunday in an extravagant royal pageant of a kind last seen 350 years ago during the reign of Charles II.
The pageant, the highlight of a four-day national holiday to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, was reported by police to have drawn a million spectators along a 7-mile course through London.
With millions more at home and abroad watching on television, commentators called it the greatest public spectacle of the queen’s reign.
The 86-year-old queen, accompanied by her 90-year-old husband, Prince Philip, and a gathering of her family, spent several hours moving slowly down the river aboard a lavishly adapted royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, named for the home of Sir Winston Churchill.
Historians said that only Churchill’s funeral procession along the Thames in 1965 came close to matching the crowds along the river.
The pageant ended with a rousing musical salute in the lee of Tower Bridge, infamous for the rugged fortress beside it, the Tower of London, where Britain’s medieval kings imprisoned and executed generations of those who fell foul of their rule.
The queen and her party appeared enraptured as the London Philharmonic orchestra, aboard a vessel that drew parallel to the royal reviewing stands, played a medley of the country’s most rousing patriotic songs before ending with “God Save the Queen.’’
Only once before in the 1,000-year history of the British monarchy had a reigning sovereign marked a diamond jubilee, and that was in 1897, when Elizabeth II’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, then 78, achieved the landmark.
Unlike Elizabeth II, who is marking her jubilee in good health, Victoria was frail and reclusive at the time of her jubilee, and sent her son, the future Edward VII, to represent her at a review of a fleet of British warships at Spithead on England’s channel coast.
Sunday’s flotilla was composed of a richly varied assembly of watercraft. A barge with pealing bells led the procession, followed by an array of “man-powered’’ craft like single-seat kayaks, dragon boats, Maori war canoes, and jumbo Venetian gondolas.
The most eye-catching vessel in the pageant was a 94-foot red-and-gold replica of a 17th-century royal barge, the Gloriana. The $1.5 million barge was rowed by 18 oarsmen who included two multiple gold medal-winning Olympian rowers, Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, as well as disabled British servicemen from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
On Monday, there will be a concert at the gates of Buckingham Palace featuring Elton John, Paul McCartney, Jessie J, and other marquee names from the world of pop, rock, and rap.
Across the country, at more than 10,000 street parties, local communities will be marking the jubilee with their own celebrations. After nightfall, in another feature drawn from Britain’s long history, 4,000 fires will be lit to serve as beacons from hilltops and mountains throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth II and Prince Philip will attend a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a similar service was held in 1897 for Victoria, though she was too infirm to venture beyond her horse-drawn coach parked at the cathedral’s steps.
Sunday’s festive mood was in counterpoint to the country’s current woes, which include a persistent recession, the highest unemployment in 30 years and a wide range of demoralizing social problems.
Britain, at least in the more recent decades of Elizabeth II’s reign, has also questioned the role of the monarchy, and, in some quarters, even its existence.
But at the beginning of Elizabeth II’s seventh decade on the throne, the debate has been subdued by a huge outpouring of support for the queen personally and, judging from opinion surveys, for the monarchy itself.
One recent poll, for the Ipsos-Mori organization, showed that 80 percent of British adults favored the continuation of a monarchy, compared with 13 percent who preferred a republic. The poll represented the strongest support for the monarchy in such soundings for Ipsos-Mori in 20 years.