Queen Elizabeth II: The Longest Reign and Still Going Strong
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
These words were uttered by Her Majesty the Queen in 1947 via a radio broadcast to the British Empire and Commonwealth whilst she was still Princess Elizabeth and heiress presumptive to the throne. She was celebrating her 21st birthday during a tour of South Africa with her parents and younger sister, and made this extraordinary lifetime pledge to the peoples and lands over which she would one day reign.
For her, that day came sooner than she or almost anyone expected, for on February 6, 1952, George VI – whose health had been declining since the end of World War II – passed away at the relatively young age of 56. Elizabeth and her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh were on a Commonwealth tour in place of her father, and upon receiving the news while in Kenya, promptly returned to the United Kingdom with Elizabeth as Queen.
Since then, she has stayed true to the vow which she made with her people, and now at over 63 years on the throne, she has surpassed her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history. There is arguably no other person as well-known or highly regarded as Elizabeth II as she has become an instantly recognized figure around the world, and indeed, very few people have ever been closely watched since birth for as long a period as she has.
In the beginning however, this was not to be. She was born as the first child of Prince Albert, Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a Scottish aristocrat (who in time would eventually become the much-beloved Queen Mother). Albert – known to family and friends and “Bertie” – was the second son of George V and Queen Mary, and as such, was not expected to ascend to the throne, for that was the destiny reserved for his older and more glamorous brother, Edward, Prince of Wales – known as “David” within the family. The result was that despite the attention she received for being a granddaughter of the King, for the first ten years of her life, she could expect to live a relatively quiet existence in the countryside with her horses and corgis – away from the pomp and glitz which royal duties required, especially with the rise of mass media in the form of radio.
Indeed, at some level, this was the sort of life which for which her Uncle David was suited as a modernizing, photogenic, and dazzlingly popular prince – as opposed to her shy and stammer-plagued father. But her father’s strength was his solemn commitment to royal duties and to his close-knit family, to which he was devoted, and this stood in contrast to the Jazz Age playboy lifestyle of David, who enjoyed the social scene and his status as a celebrity, but detested the more serious, traditional, and (boringly) grounding demands of being a royal prince.
By the time he came to the throne as Edward VIII in 1936, he was still unmarried and carrying on an affair with a twice-married American woman, Wallis Simpson, and provoked a constitutional crisis by his determination to marry her against the wishes of the UK government and the Church of England, of which he was Supreme Governor. The result was that Edward abdicated after only eleven months as monarch, and his brother Bertie succeeded him as George VI.
This changed everything for Princess Elizabeth, who was now first in line to the throne and knew what destiny lay in store for her. She watched as her father was thrust into a position for which he was temperamentally unsuited, but also saw him eventually grow into it with the support and devotion of his family, most notably his wife Elizabeth, as well as the speech therapist Lionel Louge, who helped him to overcome his stammer and public speaking issues. He and the Queen endeared themselves to the British people by staying in the United Kingdom, and in particular, in London during the Blitz, during which was a raid on Buckingham Palace which nearly killed them.
The devotion to duty to the country in the face of aggression had a profound impact on the young princess – who served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a automobile mechanic and driver – with her parents providing her the example by which to lead, and the morale of the British people as a whole was immeasurably boosted by the actions of their king and queen, which helped to sustain them to victory over Nazi Germany. But the stress of being a wartime king, compounded with the effects of a lifetime of smoking took their toll on George VI, and this led to his premature death in 1952.
Coming to the throne at the age of 25 and with two young children of her own, his daughter had little experience with affairs of state, but guided by her sense of duty, she carried on with the task of being a monarch, and this was helped along with the guidance of her first prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, who poetically referred to her as “a fair and youthful figure, princess, wife, and mother” being the “heir to [Britain’s] traditions and glories.” He and others even talked of a new Elizabethan Age.
Unlike that period which was characterized by imperial ambitions and territorial expansion around the globe, this one has been noted for the transition from an Empire to a Commonwealth – a club of former colonies with the Queen as its head to symbolize their voluntary association with each other and the former mother country, the United Kingdom. The Queen has been keen to keep this association together, and has grown with the Commonwealth as its biggest and most enthusiastic supporter in its mission to foster greater business and cultural links amongst the countries of the former British Empire, and it now stands with 53 members and a population of over 2 billion people – roughly a third of humanity.
Closer to home, the pace of change has been dizzying. Britain has become a more liberal, less religious, and more multi-cultural society. Unquestioned deference has given way to more measured respect as the country has become more cynical and critical, as and traditional societal norms and conventions have broken down. Within her own family, she has had to deal with the turmoil of the marriages of three of her four children, all of which ended in divorce, most notably the marriage of her heir Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales. The failure of those marriages, other private indiscretions, and a fire at her favorite residence of Windsor Castle all contributed to what she referred to as her annus horrilibus in 1992.
Following this, the worst period of her reign was when Diana died from a tragic automobile accident in Paris in August 1997. Staying at Balmoral in Aberdeenshire to care for her grandchildren – princes William and Harry – in the wake of their mother’s death, she was criticized for not appearing in public to grieve, failing to have the Union Flag flying at half-mast from Buckingham Palace, and in general, for being out of touch and misjudging the mood of the people. For the first time, there was real hostility toward the Queen and an aggressive press piled on the stinging criticisms of the Queen personally and the monarchy as an institution. But all was forgiven as she flew down to London to preside over Diana’s funeral and present a live broadcast to the nation in which paid tribute to her former daughter-in-law as a Queen and as a grandmother.
This moment was part of the monarchy becoming more media-conscious and professional in its relations with the press in an age of increased exposure, and with the Internet age, the ancient institution has adapted with an online presence – including websites and social media accounts to help it connect it more directly with the people and marking a huge leap in her lifetime from radio broadcasts to YouTube.
Indeed, this new Elizabethan Age as seen the explosion of technological growth and innovation on a scale never seen before, alongside advances in medicine, science, transportation, communications, and other areas – with Britain being at the forefront of many of these. There has also been the rise of British exports such as the Beatles, James Bond, and Harry Potter, which have done their part to ensure that Britain remains relevant as a cultural, social, and economic (i.e., soft) power.
The Queen herself and the institution she leads have themselves become British exports, in part because of her role as Head of the Commonwealth (including being head of state of 15 Commonwealth countries aside from the UK), and as such, she has become the most widely-traveled monarch in British history – visiting the vast areas of the Commonwealth and being a face of Britain throughout the world on many overseas journeys.
Through all of this, she has maintained that sense of duty with all of the change around her. To some, she may look like a stiff with no personality or emotion, but this isn’t to say that the Queen doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor about her, and as time has progressed, we have seen her more loose, engaged, and interactive with people as she and monarchy adapt to changing times.
During her reign, the ancient institution has continued with the standard set by George V of getting out, being seen, and working hard, and the Queen herself has said, “I must be seen to be believed.” With that, she has introduced the Royal walkabout, so that she can meet more people and allow them to have interactions with her and other members of the Royal family. She has also dispensed with the presentation of debutantes in favor of more garden parties in which a more representative cross section of society is invited for a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity to be in the presence the Royal family – whether at Buckingham Palace, Holyroodhouse, Windsor, or Hillsborough Castle. The Royal residences themselves have become more accessible to the public as a means of helping to meet the cost of maintaining them, especially in the wake of the Windsor Castle fire.
But even with the changes, the Queen still represents the continuity of the monarchy in the overall fabric of Britain and its long history, and this is a powerful symbol. Since coming to the throne, she has had 12 British prime ministers, from Churchill to David Cameron, which is a remarkable span of history when one considers that Churchill was born in 1874 during the reign of the previous reigning female monarch and two of her last three prime ministers (Tony Blair and Cameron) were born after she had acceded to the throne. In 63 years, they have come and gone while she has remained faithfully at her post as the one constant.
In this sense, she also represents stability in government, for as a constitutional monarch who is above politics, she openly favors no party. True, the government is termed Her Majesty’s Government, but it is the politicians elected to Parliament who run it in her name. She accepts the election results and appoints the prime minister accordingly, but otherwise steers away from politics and the charge of being a political operative. This way, she can be the head of state of everybody, as was suggested by Walter Bagehot in the Victorian Era, and this is one reason why the monarchy survives and provides stability, especially in these rapidly changing times.
However, none of this would be possible without the help and support of her family, who despite some of their personal issues being made public and causing embarrassment and disappointment, have been invaluable in working to keep the monarchy as relevant today as it was in 1952. In addition to what the Queen has done, other members of the Royal family have taken it upon themselves to step up their involvement in good works for the benefit of the UK and the world at large. It’s not just about carrying out engagements and giving speeches, but also about being actively involved with the causes they support and showing that they can make a positive difference, which further entrenches the monarchy into the public and civic life of the United Kingdom as charities and organizations seek to have a royal patron.
But of all the family members, perhaps none has been more important or reliable than her husband of nearly seventy years, Prince Philip. His unstinting devotion to her through marriage, family life, and public duties has indeed provided a rock of stability at times when it seemed that everything was coming apart at the seams, and her reign as we know it would not be possible without him. At times, his verbal gaffes and forthright speaking in public has provided fodder for the press, but for her, he provides an outlet to which she can convey her thoughts, and he has no compunction against telling what he thinks. For his part, he has carved out a role for himself with initiatives such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for young people who come up with good and innovative ideas that improve the lives of others. But as the Queen’s consort, he has been there for her, just as she has been there for the country, and he has only become more important with the deaths of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in 2002. He has been, as she herself has said, quite simply, the “strength and stay” of her life.
Going forward, the Queen can be assured that the monarchy is as stable and secure as it ever has been throughout its long and illustrious history, with the institution having recovered from its most recent nadir in the 1990’s. She has a capable heir in Prince Charles, a man who as Prince of Wales, has probably had the longest apprenticeship for any sort of job, and has had his own recovery of sorts since his marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles and the development of his own charitable and advocacy efforts – particularly with regard to opportunities for young people, architecture, and the environment. Further down the line is Prince William, the eldest son of Charles and Diana, and his beautiful wife Catherine, along with their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Together with Prince Harry (who has been doing conservation work in Africa), they form the core of the future of the monarchy, and for them, and the Queen has provided the example by which to lead.
For over 63 years, she has been the face of the monarchy and an icon of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She represents continuity over the decades of her incredible reign, and as acted sensibly to ensure the monarchy’s survival into the 21st Century with her adaptations to changing times and circumstances, while also maintaining the traditions of the institution and presiding over a changed Britain where in many ways, she not only relies on the blessings of God, but also of the people. Her legacy has been that through it all, she has kept the obligation she made to the people in her “salad days” when she was “green in judgment”, and has not reneged on it or regrets it. In an age when people find it easy to get out of duties and responsibilities, she represents the idea of sticking around and committing to something bigger than themselves, something her Uncle David did not understand in his vanity.
Looking back, his abdication, as much as it caused a crisis which rocked the monarchy, was a good thing in the long-term, for it provided George VI and eventually the present Queen, who has been steadfast in her duties and responsibilities, and has made her people proud. Indeed, her popularity can be traced to the fact she really does not aim for popularity, but simply aims to do her job, and so there is a sincerity and realness about the Queen that is absent from celebrities who do seek the attention of the cameras and the press.
She has now been Queen for so long, that few remember the reigns of her father or grandfather, and it feels inconceivable that anyone can replace her. Of course, this is bound to happen, but this is a testament to her reign and herself as an individual, for in leading by example and living by her words from 1947, she has earned the respect, affection, and love of her people.
For many Americans (including your truly), the Queen has definitely earned our respect and appreciation over these last 63 years, and we look to her as well for that sense of stability and continuity. It is not so much that we yearn for a monarchy of our own or wish for the return of the British monarchy, but that we see it as an integral part of the UK – representing its past, present, and future like virtually nothing else does – and we see the Queen as the living embodiment of everything that is decent and good about Britain. Along the way, 12 of our presidents have occupied the White House in the course of her reign, from Truman to Obama – many of whom have expressed their appreciation for her as an individual and as a living testament to the strength of the Special Relationship between Britain and America.
As the Queen does finally eclipse her great-great grandmother to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, she has much to be proud of and much to look forward to as she carries on – reigning as ever, going from being a willowy young woman to the matriarch of a country and a global commonwealth. She has already secured her place in history on many fronts simply because she has been at the service of her people. Those people – of the United Kingdom and throughout the Commonwealth – are lucky to have her, and long may she reign.
By Earl Chatham