LONDON – There were six figures on the balcony, three generations of royalty — and one large absence.
Queen Elizabeth II's appearance at Buckingham Palace with her family on Tuesday capped a triumphant Diamond Jubilee weekend for a British monarchy that has overcome years of crisis and seems secure in its subjects' hearts.
But the absence of 90-year-old Prince Philip — hospitalized Monday with a bladder infection — was a poignant reminder that the queen's 60-year reign won't last forever. And the presence of divisive heir to the throne Prince Charles alongside the wildly popular Prince William and his wife Catherine hinted at an uncertain future.
"What we forget is that monarchy is just the people doing the job," said royal historian Robert Lacey. "In a sense this jubilee looks to the future rather sadly. It could be the queen's last jubilee, and it is a jubilee in which she has relegated many of her public duties" to younger family members.
Yet the royal family will be overjoyed with the public response to the jubilee, which the queen, in a televised address, called "a humbling experience."
Fears that the celebrations would be met with apathy in an anxious, recession-afflicted Britain were unfounded. Enormous crowds greeted the queen over the four-day celebration. More than 1 million people lined the Thames on Sunday for a river pageant, despite dismal weather, and hundreds of thousands packed the Mall outside Buckingham Palace on Tuesday for a glimpse of the royal family.
Republican protesters did their best to dissent, staging demonstrations bearing placards demanding "Make Monarchy History," but they were vastly outnumbered — and drowned out by choruses of "God Save the Queen."
The well-wishers came in all ages, from across Britain and around the world, and many seemed genuinely moved.
Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand — one of 16 countries in which the queen is head of state — said the jubilee had brought a "natural outpouring" of popular feeling.
"People wanted to show their admiration for the queen and their respect for the job that she has done," he told the BBC.
The jubilation was a triumph of brand renewal that has been 15 years in the making. After decades of declining deference, the modern monarchy reached its lowest ebb during the 1990s in a blaze of unflattering headlines. Three of the queen's four children got divorced — most spectacularly, Charles from the wildly popular Princess Diana. Though both conceded infidelity, public opinion sided with Diana, generally viewed as an innocent devoured by the ruthless royal "Firm."
When Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, the royal family was criticized as aloof and unfeeling, in contrast to the wave of public mourning for "the people's princess."
Since then, the family and its staff have worked hard to turn around that image. The death of the much-loved Queen Mother Elizabeth in 2002 revived memories of World War II, a time of common purpose in which the royal family served as a unifying symbol.
In 2005, Charles married his longtime love Camilla in a low-key service, and a woman once viewed as a home wrecker has since come to be seen as a royal asset, a down-to-earth figure with a wicked sense of fun.
Last year's Westminster Abbey wedding of William and Kate Middleton was the crowning glory, an extravaganza of pomp and glamor that cemented the new couple — young, attractive, socially at ease — at the heart of a 21st-century monarchy.
In particular, Kate — now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge — brings to the family a dash of celebrity glamor unseen since Diana. Her appearances make celebrity magazines and fashion pages. The scarlet Alexander McQueen dress she wore to Sunday's river pageant caused a buzz of comment: too spicy or just right?
While the queen is the heart of the monarchy and its link to the past, the young royals have helped it appear relevant.
The monarch wore ear plugs for Monday's jubilee pop concert outside Buckingham Palace — she is thought to prefer opera. But William and Harry could be seen singing along enthusiastically to the likes of Tom Jones, Paul McCartney and Elton John.
The image of the relaxed young royals is a sign of how much, and how cannily, the monarchy changed with the times.
Throughout the jubilee, the queen was cast as a servant of the British people, rather than their sovereign.
"I think the monarchy has always adapted itself to contemporary circumstances, and has become what I call a public service monarchy," said Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert and professor at King's College London.
He said efforts by the queen to keep the monarchy in tune with contemporary Britain and her decision to prioritize the royal family's work with charities and good causes have safeguarded the institution's future.
In a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul's Cathedral on Tuesday, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointedly contrasted the queen's "60 years of utterly demanding yet deeply joyful service" with the "ludicrous financial greed" and other ills of wider society.
The decision to have only the core royals — the queen, Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry — appear on the palace balcony, rather than the extended family, gave an image of a stripped-down monarchy for austere times.
Philip's illness, however, provided a note of sadness and uncertainty amid the celebration.
The prince was said Tuesday to be doing well in a London hospital, but he will be 91 on Sunday and is increasingly frail. The queen, at 86, is already Britain's longest-lived monarch. Only her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, reigned for longer.
The queen's popularity is unassailable, but opinion polls consistently show Britons would prefer William to succeed her, rather than his father Charles. That is considered unlikely, as is any early abdication by the queen.
The 63-year-old Prince of Wales is a more divisive figure than his mother. While the queen's political views are a mystery, Charles often makes his thoughts known. (Likes: organic farming. Dislikes: most modern architecture).
But Bogdanor said Charles' support for unexpected causes, including ethnic minorities, Islamic and Hindu religious communities and young unemployed people, would see him achieve the same adulation as the queen.
"I think he will become as popular as the queen when he becomes king," Bogdanor said. "The challenge will be exactly the same, of adapting the monarchy to modern times, and I think he will respond in the same way."
Associated Press Writer David Stringer contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless