Queen on the eve of longest ever reign
This week, Queen Elizabeth II was voted Britain’s greatest monarch, and tomorrow she will also claim the title of its longest reigning ruler. What has she achieved in those 63 years?
There are a few similarities between Queen Victoria and her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth. Both women are rather short, for one thing, although what they lack in height they more than make up for in stature. They have also presided over two of the most exciting and prosperous eras of Great Britain’s history, mostly free from the devastating wars which preceded them.
Victoria, although she was just 18 when she took the throne in 1837, represented a strong and hopeful figure. ‘I am sure,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘that very few have more real goodwill and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.’
Her earnest tone was echoed over a century later in Elizabeth’s coronation speech in 1953: ‘Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.’ Despite living in vastly different times, each has been a symbol of stability facing an uncertain future.
For Victoria, this future would hold some of the most groundbreaking inventions the world has ever seen. Just a year after she became queen, the first public steam trains ran along Robert Stephenson‘s new railway between London and Birmingham. In 1840, her face adorned the first ’Penny Black’, a cheap stamp which revolutionised the postal system, making it far easier to share information between all sections of society.
It was, perhaps, a communications breakthrough which would not be seen again until the arrival of the internet during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Suddenly, knowledge could be shared instantly around the world at very little cost, in a way which was unimaginable just a few decades before.
And, of course, the two queens are internationally recognised figures. Although Elizabeth’s reign has seen the end of the empire which Victoria helped to expand, the Commonwealth remains a global network of countries with a beloved figurehead.
Reign or shine
She may be the public’s favourite monarch, but the historian David Starkey expressed a more reserved view of Elizabeth’s reign. She has ‘done and said nothing that anybody will remember,’ he commented last week. Her meticulous impartiality is a stark contrast to Victoria’s forceful nature, which characterised the strength of her empire. ‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat,’ she said during the Boer war at the end of her reign. ‘They do not exist.’ In comparison, Elizabeth seems rather mild.
But perhaps this neutrality has been her greatest strength. Since 1952, Britain has undergone enormous changes, yet its queen has largely remained uncontroversial. This is an amazing achievement for a woman who has spent more than 63 years in the public eye.
- Who is your favourite British monarch?
- Is the royal family still an important part of 21st century society?
- List five of the most important achievements during the reigns of either Queen Victoria or Elizabeth II.
- Imagine you are a Victorian who has time travelled to a period during Elizabeth II’s reign, or vice versa. Write an A4 page describing your impression of society.
Some People Say...
“The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy.”Terry Pratchett
What do you think?
Q & A
- Has Elizabeth always been popular?
- Not exactly — one of her darkest periods followed the death of Princess Diana, when many accused her of being cold and aloof in the face of a national tragedy. Since her jubilee in 2012, however, her popularity has soared. It has been helped, in part, by the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the birth of their two children.
- What did people think of Victoria?
- She was generally well respected, although when her beloved husband Albert died in 1861, she retreated into a deep period of mourning, neglecting many public duties and frustrating her subjects. She regained her popularity in her later years, particularly as the empire expanded. In total, she survived seven assassination attempts during her reign.
- Devastating wars
- The Napoleonic Wars had ended 22 years before Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, at a time when Europe feared the loss of the monarchy’s power. When Elizabeth took to the throne in 1952, Britain was only just emerging from a period of austerity after World War Two.
- Robert Stephenson
- George Stephenson was known as the ‘father of British railway’ after engineering the first public railway. His engine, the Rocket, was the fastest of its time, and his son Robert also became a skilled rail engineer.
- The idea of a shared network which would allow communication between computers originated in the 1960s. In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web, which allowed anyone to access information.
- The British Empire covered one-sixth of the world’s surface when Victoria took the throne. When she died, it was nearly a quarter. In the years following World War II, most remaining colonies began to claim their independence.
- Boer war
- Forces of the Boer Republics in South Africa unsuccessfully attempted to oust British colonialists from 1899-1902.