On September 11, 2015, Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Duke of Lancaster, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann, surpassed her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the longest-reigning British sovereign. It was yet another remarkable milestone in a life already filled with remarkable milestones. To add to her list of records, which include being the longest-reigning female monarch in world history and having the longest-lasting marriage of any British monarch, she again notches another feat today, April 21, 2016 –the only crowned ruler of the British Isles who lived to their ninth decade. If she possesses the impressive longevity of her beloved mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who soldiered on to the ripe old age of 101, the United Kingdom can expect to have Elizabeth II around for at least a few more years. If she lives to the year 2022, when she will be 96, she would celebrate her platinum jubilee to commemorate seventy years on the throne. This would place her second to King Louis XIV of France as the longest-reigning monarch in European history.
On this day ninety years ago, no one expected that the infant princess born at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, London would even succeed to the throne. She was the daughter of Prince Albert, Duke of York, the second son of King George V; it was still believed that her uncle, the dashing Edward, Prince of Wales, would find himself a bride in due time and sire heirs that would displace the newborn Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary in the line of succession. It goes without saying that the world in 1926 was far different than the one we know today. Unlike the births of her great-grandchildren in 2013 and 2015, which were met with a barrage of flowery coverage on the news and social media and beaming photographs of the infant royals with their glamorous parents outside the hospital, Princess Elizabeth’s birth was conducted in that old-time, decorous royal manner which we would deem positively archaic. For one, the pregnancy of Elizabeth’s mother, the Duchess of York, was never even formally announced, as public discussions of a royal pregnancy were considered taboo. Instead, the announcement from Buckingham Palace that the Duchess would temporarily step back from public duties was considered sufficient indication of her confinement. Secondly, the princess’s name was not even publicly announced for a number of weeks after the birth. Any information thereafter about Elizabeth was carefully orchestrated and released to the public with the strictest amount of formality. She even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in the United States in 1929, at the tender age of three. Despite the amount of interest in the young princess, she still only occupied a relatively minor position within the royal family. All that would change in just a few years’ time.
The lives of Princess Elizabeth, her sister, Margaret, and their parents were irrevocably changed in December 1936 with the abdication of Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII. The bachelor king had been on the throne for less than a year when he gave up his crown for the American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson in the face of a constitutional crisis over his plans to marry her. In his brother’s place came Elizabeth’s nervous, stammering father, who adopted the regnal name King George VI. Aided by his charming, stalwart wife, Queen Elizabeth, George VI led his nation through the dark days of World War II and emerged a deeply respected leader, but in the end sacrificed his health for the cause. The king’s early death in 1952 thrust his elder daughter onto the throne at the age of twenty-five. While the new queen possessed the dutiful qualities of her father, along with his reserved character and touches of his shyness, she also inherited the stamina and longevity of her enormously popular mother. Unlike her father, she had been prepared for her destiny once it became clear the throne stood directly in her path. Her youth did not betray her commitment to duty, and just as she had pledged aged twenty-one during a broadcast to the Commonwealth, that her “whole life, whether it be long or short” would be devoted to her people, she has served the British nation and the other nations of the Commonwealth, that surviving vestige of the former empire which still declare her their queen, with unfailing devotion. True, unlike her predecessors Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria, it cannot be said of Elizabeth II that her reign will come to define an era –her limited political influence (and her desire to maintain her position’s apolitical nature) coupled with the dramatic social changes of the past sixty years, cannot realistically be regarded as a second Elizabethan Age. The one defining characteristic of Elizabeth II’s tenure as queen, however, should be adaptability. She has adapted herself, her family, and the institution she represents with surprising flexibility. The deference of the early years of her reign gave way to growing indifference in the 1970s and 80s, and she adapted accordingly. Even the Queen’s time of troubles during the 1990s – spurred by a fire at Windsor Castle, the collapse of her children’s marriages, and the short-lived though deeply cutting backlash over the Queen’s response to the Princess of Wales’s shocking death – eroded away into the new millennium, replaced with informal but widespread public admiration. The size of the crowds that turned out for her golden jubilee in 2002 and diamond jubilee in 2012 serve as solid testaments to the respect the monarch commands from her people.
No tribute to the Queen’s life and reign would be complete without a word on her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh. Though largely viewed nowadays as a cantankerous old man with an unfortunate propensity for foot-in-mouth syndrome, Prince Philip’s devotion to his wife has been as dedicated as her devotion to her nation. In so many ways, he is the perfect counterbalance. While she grew up cosseted and nurtured as the heiress to Europe’s most secured dynasty, he grew up penurious and nomadic, as a member of the troubled, unstable Greek royal family. She enjoyed the luxury and comforts of homes such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, while he was bounced unpredictably between royal relatives in France, Germany, and England after his parents proved unable to care for him (his mother was sent to a mental hospital and his father retired to southern France with his mistress). Yet they were most likely drawn to each other precisely because of their differences. Marrying Elizabeth would give Philip the stability and family life he had never known, while she was certainly enamored by his tough, independent streak, so different from anything she had ever known in her privileged upbringing among upper-crust aristocrats. Their marriage has lasted sixty-nine years – in 2017, provided they are both living, they will celebrate their seventieth anniversary. Their progeny includes four children, eight grandchildren, and (at present count) five great-grandchildren. The failures of three of their four children’s marriages yielded a gold mine of tabloid fodder and partially called into question their success as parents. Thankfully, the family troubles have largely been smoothed over. Their eldest son is married to the woman he has loved all along, and whatever their views on the Duchess of Cornwall may be, the Queen and the Duke cannot be displeased that Charles’s married life is at least settled and devoid of scandal these days. Given the unique nature of their positions, one can only assume that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh did as fine a job as they could with their brood.
Having served long past the accepted age of retirement, and with her heir, Prince Charles, already in his late sixties and still waiting for the top job, a growing discussion has emerged over whether the Queen will seriously consider abdication. Indeed, there have recently been plenty of examples to support this notion. In 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Albert II of Belgium both stepped down in favor of their middle-aged heirs, followed in 2014 by Elizabeth II’s third cousin, King Juan Carlos of Spain. But any serious discussion of the Queen abdicating should not seriously be entertained. For one, the Queen regards her monarchical role as a sacred one; the oath she swore at her coronation confirms it as such. She believes it is a role to carry on for life, without retirement, without relinquishing. The Dutch, Belgian, and Spanish monarchs might be able to slip the glove on and off, but they do not oversee the most famous royal house on Earth. How seriously could the idea of the Queen stepping down into glorious retirement be taken, to live in the countryside somewhere as Queen Emeritus, with her shadow looming over the House of Windsor and looming over her son’s throne? It is highly unrealistic. As mentioned earlier, the Queen is certainly one to adapt, and she has done so in delegating a wider breadth of duties and representation to the Prince of Wales as well as her grandsons, William and Harry, preparing them for their future roles as the heads of the House of Windsor and ensuring the monarchy retains a bond with younger generations. In any event, the Queen would never agree to retirement. Service and duty are embedded in her veins, and any notion that she will take a full rest is simply unfathomable. The Queen has spent more than half of her ninety years in full devotion to her country, and in the twilight of her life she will certainly never recede from that.
Happy birthday, Ma’am. Send her victorious, happy and glorious.