The transcendent Queen: Celebrating Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee

Exactly 60 years after Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the Royal Family embarks on an unprecedented effort to honour a monarch whose devotion to duty has been a hallmark of her reign.

On the only other occasion that a British queen marked 60 years on the throne, the celebration went to her.

It was 1897, and scores of nations from the British Empire, Canada among them, sent their contingents to London to help honour Victoria's six-decade reign.

The Canadian prime minister of the day — Wilfrid Laurier — went along and received a knighthood from Victoria, even though he said he really didn't want the title.

More than a century later, another queen, Elizabeth II, is poised to mark a Diamond Jubilee — she ascended the throne on Feb. 6, 1952 — but this celebration will be very different.

In England, which loves its pomp and ceremony, the main celebrations will take place in June, and will feature, among other events, a 1,000-ship flotilla down the Thames.

But this time around the Royal Family is marking the occasion throughout the year and, more importantly, taking its brand to the world.

Britain's longest-serving monarchs

Queen Victoria leads a procession through London during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations on June 2, 1897. (London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)

Victoria, (1837-1901) 63 years and seven months

Elizabeth II (1952- ) 60 years as of Feb. 6, 2012

George III (1760-1820), 59 years and three months

Prince Charles and Camilla are coming to Canada in May, and will also be making visits to Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — Prince William and Kate — are going to Malaysia, Singapore, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Prince Harry went to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in early March.

Other royal trips include Prince Andrew to India and Princess Anne to Mozambique and Zambia. Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, went to several Caribbean countries including Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago in late February and early March.

This jubilee, "the Royal Family is very much going to the Commonwealth, whereas for Victoria's jubilee in 1897, the British Empire came to England," says Carolyn Harris, a British royalty expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Duty and service

Times — and travel — have changed, of course, since 1897 when the Canadian cavalry opened the celebratory procession in London. The empire is gone. A much more constrained Commonwealth now exists in its place.

Technology has changed, too. Today's instant world is a far cry from that day 60 years ago when King George VI died and his daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne. Then it took hours to get the life-altering news to her at Treetops, a remote retreat in Kenya.

Prince Philip listens attentively as the Queen reads the speech from the throne opening Parliament in Ottawa on Oct. 14, 1957. (Canadian press)

Indeed, today's wired world makes you wonder why the Royals are scampering about the planet as much as they are.

Except that getting out among her public has been a hallmark of Elizabeth and her sense of duty since becoming Queen at the tender age of 25.

"I think her decades of public service have attracted a great deal of respect," says Harris, even from those who disagree with Canada being a constitutional monarchy. 

The Queen took her coronation vows very seriously, Harris notes, adding that Elizabeth believes "that this is a position she has sworn to uphold for life."

'Post-imperial respectability'

While the devotion to duty is well known, it is harder to gain a full picture of a woman who is often so guarded in public.

Certain traits and hobbies have become obvious — a friendliness that seems tempered by a sense of reserve, the corgis, the horses.

But after 60 years as Queen, what does she really think or feel?

Many would argue that is no one's business but her own. But given what she has seen and been privy to, it is a tantalizing thought to consider.

Queen Elizabeth gets set to plant an oak tree at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Oct. 19, 1977. (Rob Cooper/Canadian Press)

"As Queen, she's been above politics and personality," says Ninian Mellamphy, a professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., and a longtime royal watcher.

"She's been, in a strange, admirable way, impartial, and in a strange, admirable way, impersonal."

Mellamphy sees her as a kind of symbol of "post-imperial respectability" who has shown "the wisdom of discretion."

He remembers a speech the Queen made at the time of her Silver Jubilee in 1977, when she spoke of her "salad days" after her arrival on the throne, a time when she said she was "green of judgment."

But he quickly counters that assessment.

"She was never green in judgment. She was a very wise woman from when she was a young woman, from 1952 on."

Annus horribilis

That's not to say she has had an easy ride, or that the monarchy in her time has enjoyed consistently high regard.

Why so long until the coronation?

Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, but her coronation was not held until June 2, 1953.

The 16th-month span allowed for a mourning period following the death of King George VI, and also for preparations for the ceremony held in Westminster Abbey.

It was the first televised coronation, a decision ultimately made by the Queen.

"I think the Queen saw it as an opportunity to really involve the Commonwealth," says Carolyn Harris of Queens University.

"Early in Elizabeth the 2nd's reign, there was a very strong interest in her and in the Duke of Edinburgh," says Harris.

But that changed over time.

"Certainly the reputation of the monarchy declined to a degree in the 1990s with the number of family scandals that took place and the Royal Family was viewed through more of a celebrity lens because of those rather high-profile divorces," says Harris.

The Queen acknowledged some of those difficulties, calling 1992 an "annus horribilis" in one of her addresses that year.

(In addition to the crumbling marriages of her son, Prince Andrew, and daughter, Princess Anne, and the publication of the tell-all book about the Princess of Wales, Diana, Her True Story, a fire devastated part of Windsor Castle.)

For Mellamphy, though, that was the year when Elizabeth admitted to being "a person rather than a symbol." And yet she remained above all the scandals.

"I think that is what people admire about her — that she has been in some strange and admirable way, transcendent," says Mellamphy.

Canada's tour

Neither Harris nor Mellamphy expects an overwhelming outpouring of excitement from Canadians when Charles and Camilla arrive here to mark the Diamond Jubilee in May.

"I don't think there will be as much interest as there was when William and Kate visited" last year, says Harris.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, take part in the unveiling of a statue of jazz legend Oscar Peterson at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on June 30, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The visit of Prince William and Kate shortly after their marriage was considered a success for the monarchy and its efforts to look to the future, although Mellamphy considers it was "all charm and of little significance."

He's predicting a "rather cool" response to Charles and Camilla, though he suggests Camilla might surprise as she is "a modest person and very likable and nothing seemingly obnoxious about her."

Back in England, Elizabeth and Philip, 90, five years her senior, will spend much of the year touring the U.K. and, of course, taking in the big flotilla on the Thames in June.

Mellamphy recalls a previous flotilla, marking Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, in which there was reference and honour to Queen Elizabeth the first. He doesn't expect to see that this time, as the current queen is honoured.

"This woman has outlived [Elizabeth I] and outshone her."

And has given every indication of continuing to do so.