“Presiding over a declining empire is more arduous than presiding over one that is rising.”
“The Queen, my lord, the Queen!”
William Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra
So wrote Shakespeare in Richard II. However, the monarchs who have sat the longest on the throne of kings have been queens.his royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars….this England.”
On February 6, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II will become the first monarch in the history of the British Isles to celebrate a platinum jubilee, a queen who, for 70 years, has graced the throne of kings. She became queen in 1952 at the age of 25 upon the death of her father, who, in turn, had become king only because his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne.
Until six years ago, the longest-reigning British monarch was Queen Victoria. Victoria ascended the throne at 18, but only because her father’s three brothers died without legitimate, male sons. The rules of royal succession have recently been changed to make princesses equal to princes, but Victoria and Elizabeth II were crowned only because there were no males ahead of them in the line of succession.
According to Buckingham Palace, on September 9, 2015 at approximately 5:30 in the afternoon, Elizabeth II broke Victoria’s two records previously considered near-impregnable: Britain’s longest-reigning monarch—63 years, 216 days—and the longest-reigning female monarch in world history. (Victoria was plagued by ill-health toward the end of her life; otherwise, her reign may have been even longer.) But there it is: Elizabeth, who is in robust health, outdistanced her. There was minimal fanfare from the palace. The British pride themselves on being proper, and it would not be very proper to thump one’s chest, Tarzan-style, and trumpet with bravado that you had overtaken your great-great-grandmother.
And what a great-great-grandmother—a feisty woman whose name now personifies an era. Elizabeth II could never match that, for the term Elizabethan is inexorably linked to the first Elizabeth.
Victoria reigned over the British Empire at its zenith; she was sovereign of an empire on which the sun never set. By contrast, Elizabeth II’s empire consists of just a few outposts like Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and the Chagos Archipelago (all of which are also claimed by other nations), though she is head of state of other sovereign nations in the Commonwealth such as Australia and Canada.
But the sun brightening the ripples on the blue surface of the sea does not penetrate into deep waters, where the story can be different. There are reports, recurring with enough frequency to garner attention, that not only Australia and Canada but many of the other Commonwealth nations have the Queen as head of state only because of their personal admiration and affection for Elizabeth II herself. When the Queen passes, some of these countries may become republics with a president as head of state. (Even already, Queen Elizabeth II will be removed as head of state from Barbados on November 30, 2021, when the country becomes a republic, with President Sandra Mason replacing the queen as head of state.)
But set aside the Commonwealth for a moment. Even the bonds holding the United Kingdom together threaten to unravel. Scotland came close to leaving the Union in 2014, and the threat of such a break-up in the future always lurks in the shadows. Scotland and England came under a common monarch (the Union of the Crowns) after Elizabeth I, another powerful queen on the Throne of Kings, died without an heir. This paved the way for her cousin, James VI the King of Scotland, to also become James I, the King of England. How ironic it would be if the Union of the Crowns dissolves during the last days (or after the passing) of a different Elizabeth.
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession was one of the most spectacular military parades in history, a display of the long reach and the might of the British Empire. 50,000 troops drawn from all parts of the Empire, Sikhs and Nigerians, Hong Kong Chinese and Australians, Cypriots and Fijians, Burmese and South Africans, accompanied the Queen-Empress on the six-mile procession through London on Tuesday, June 22, 1897. An estimated three million visitors from all over the world—no small feat in the pre-air-travel era—including an American journalist, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (writing under the pseudonym Mark Twain), joined Londoners to line the streets, gawk at the march past, and catch a glimpse of the Queen-Empress sitting under a parasol in her open carriage drawn by eight cream-colored stallions, visibly moved by the roaring cheers from the crowd. In comparison, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee procession was not much more than a carriage ride through the city with just a smidgeon of pomp to push it above a routine romp down the streets of London.
The two processions exemplify how the British monarch’s power has dwindled over the years. But it is hard to qualify or quantify this issue because Britain has never had a formal written constitution and because power can be de jure and de facto. So only a detailed study as to what powers Victoria or Elizabeth II could have wielded and how many of those they actually put to use can address that question to any degree of satisfaction.
After King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the powers of the monarch steadily dwindled as constitutional law slowly took root on the British Isles. But it is a myth that the monarch’s power slipped into a steady and linear decline. It certainly shrunk, but there were crests and troughs in its slide. For example, there was Henry VII (who established the Star Chamber, a court where he could convict people regardless of whether the acts with which they were charged were within or outside the framework of the existing law) and Henry VIII (who ripped apart the Catholic Church’s hold on Britain so that he could divorce his wife but whose actions had far-reaching political, social, and religious consequences for both his country and for the European continent).
Victoria exerted more de facto power at the start of her reign than toward its end, though her power was considerably less than that exercised by her predecessors. At first, Victoria was helped by her beloved husband, friend, and adviser Prince Albert. They worked in tandem; Victoria had finely-tuned political antennae and Albert a good handle on the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day issues. But Albert died prematurely, felled by typhoid, and the widowed queen was on her own. She went into lifelong mourning, wearing nothing but black from then onward, and she stayed out of active politics for years, even from the State Opening of Parliament, one of the most elaborate displays of pageantry that includes the monarch’s Speech from the Throne.
Victoria dearly wanted to rule as well as reign, but as church and state were separated in America, so were the power and the glory separated in Britain. “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory…” But in Her Majesty’s realm, the power was controlled by the Prime Minister, his cabinet, and Parliament, while the glory rested with the Crown. Victoria was not above trying to manipulate her prime ministers, and she made it clear that she disliked William Gladstone but hit it off with Benjamin Disraeli.
Victoria’s foibles must seem like luxuries to Elizabeth II, who has had to steer a more pragmatic course to keep the monarchy, which is increasingly seen as anachronistic. And while Elizabeth II reads all the British State papers (including secret intelligence reports), Prince Philip, unlike Prince Albert, kept a discreet “constitutional distance” from affairs of state and instead supervised the running of the royal estates.
Yet it would be misleading to state categorically that Elizabeth II is without any power. In February of 1974, when the general election produced a hung parliament (with no party commanding the majority required to form a government on its own), Elizabeth II dissolved the parliament, resulting in a second general election in October of that same year. When the general election of 2010 again produced a hung parliament, the Queen signaled that she was willing to dissolve Parliament again if the parties could not sink their differences and form a coalition government. And if the Queen absolutely refuses to sign an Act passed by Parliament into law, there is not much the Prime Minister can do about it, short of staging a revolution and overthrowing her.
It might be more appropriate to say that the Queen’s power is subtle. Her vast store of cumulative knowledge of British and international affairs comes into play with her weekly meetings with the Prime Minister of the day, now including fourteen Prime Ministers, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson. Politicians tend to think in the short term, often in the very short term. And some are clueless about the long-term impact of current policy, and most are more concerned with re-election than governing. The Queen advises the Prime Minister based on her acquired knowledge of generations, the wisdom of the years. That is the power behind her words, though it is up to the Prime Minister to either heed or disregard what she says.
It is neither prudent nor fair, then, to judge the accomplishments of each monarch solely based on her Jubilee Procession or the time spent on the throne. It is not the length of their reign but, rather, what she has made of her circumstances that counts. How was their nation faring in relation to the rest of the world during her reign?
Queen Victoria oversaw her nation shape-shifting from agrarian to industrial and then marching on to extend its power and carving out what arguably was the mightiest empire the world had known. It was a stupendous task, but the nation was on the rise, and, in that sense, Elizabeth II has had the rougher time, for she has presided over a nation on the decline. Britain only won World War II in that it militarily defeated Germany. The real victor was the United States, which supplanted Britain as the planet’s superpower.
Britain in 1945, victor of the Second World War, was demoralized. Its cities were in shambles due to repeated blitzkriegs, and its people were forced into a post-war austerity of such proportions that it was nearly impossible to believe that most people in the nation that once lorded over the world could now barely afford to drink decent wine on Christmas Day. To hold such a nation together and to transform its former colonies into a league of over 50 independent nations bound by a common cord, the British Commonwealth, was taxing. Presiding over a declining empire is more arduous than presiding over one that is rising. But Elizabeth II has handled it with aplomb, making the British monarchy a force for stability and continuity, as familiar as tea and buttered crumpets, as well as a major tourist attraction and revenue source.
How was their nation faring at home during their reigns? Queen Victoria was multicultural long before the term was coined, and her worldview differed remarkably from that of the people of her day, which formed the collective mindset that we now think of as “Victorian.” She employed Indian servants and often personally saw to it that they were doing well, rare for a time when racial prejudice was rife. One servant, Abdul Karim, became her close friend and confidant. He introduced Victoria to Indian cuisine, and the queen more often than not had curry for Sunday lunch. When she entertained, an Indian delicacy was part of the menu, whether her guests ate it or not. Upon her death, her successor Edward VII sacked all the Indian servants and expunged Indian cuisine from the palace kitchens. Everything became English, “proper,” and stiff upper lip once more.
Elizabeth II, however, did not have much of a choice between tradition and change. Immigration meant that her Britain more or less gave up its traditional character that it had preserved down the centuries. Post-war Britain needed cheap labor, loads of it, and so boatloads came from the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent, and the African colonies. In order to appear accommodative and tolerant, the government did not insist, for instance, that fluency in English be mandatory for immigrants. As a result, there has been as much segregation as integration—various ethnic groups forming human islands on a larger geographic island, bound only by the shared traditions of their erstwhile homelands and resistance to the language and culture of their new home. Once, people across the globe looked up to Britain. Now, Britain had to look up to the United States and, in some ways, to the European Union as well.
British politicians privately joggle and roll their eyes at the very thought of a British Commonwealth. If the Commonwealth continues to exist and perform, it is because of the patronage of the Queen. Because of her interest in the various peoples of the Commonwealth, some feel that the Queen relates more to non-European immigrants who now reside in Britain than the native islanders; for instance, receptions at Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace usually have more ethnic diversity than one might find at other official British government events.
Despite her age, the nonagenarian Queen’s schedule is grueling. For much of her reign, advancing years did not impede her travels overseas to promote British trade. She has had an endless series of meetings with soldiers, volunteers, hospital staff, baronets, construction workers, bankers, and people from all occupations and from every stratum of society. This is more than window dressing. The Queen is both a magnet and a source of radiance; her mere appearance turns a humdrum occasion into a mesmerizing one.
Prince Charles has the unenviable record of being the longest Prince of Wales-in-waiting in British history. In the last few decades, several rulers in Europe have abdicated their thrones in favor of their successors, including Juliana and Beatrix of The Netherlands, Jean Marc D’Aviano of Luxembourg, Juan Carlos I of Spain, and Albert II of Belgium. Even Benedict XVI, the temporal ruler of Vatican City, threw in the towel, the first pope to do so in six centuries. But the Queen herself would never abdicate. Abdications are considered abhorrent in British royal tradition and when her uncle, Edward VIII, stepped down to wed the married (and previously divorced) American Wallis Simpson, it was considered a constitutional crisis. Elizabeth, ten years old at the time, was shaken by the tumult surrounding the event. And though it was directly responsible for her ascent to the throne, she has vowed that there would be no repeats. In Matthew Dennison’s biography The Queen, she is quoted telling her cousin, Margaret Rhodes, that she would not leave her position “unless I get Alzheimer’s or have a stroke.” But even if the Queen is incapacitated, the Prince of Wales rules as Prince Regent in her name. She still remains the queen.
As the decades roll by, Prince Charles waits and waits, perhaps finding consolation in a line from a Milton sonnet: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In recent years, though, Prince Charles has been taking on some of his mother’s ceremonial duties. For though her spirit might be indefatigable, her body has slowed with age as bodies do, and it gives the Prince of Wales a few things to do before the crown becomes his, as well as prepares his subjects for the future King Charles III. Duties have been assigned to other members of the royal family as well.
King Charles III might be in for a rude shock, though. There are strong republican movements ascendant in Canada and Australia that aim to replace the British monarch as head of state with a president from among its citizens. According to popular opinion, they are holding back solely out of respect for Elizabeth II: respect they likely will not be extending to Charles.
While reflecting on Victoria and Elizabeth II, it is worth remembering their illustrious ancestor, Elizabeth I, who unified the splintered nation that she inherited and gave it a sense of self-confidence and national identity. Her victory over the Spanish armada at sea and with Spain on land raised a new respect for England in Europe and sowed the seeds for the rise of the British Empire some 150 years later. Elizabeth I reigned for a mere 44 years (“mere” only in comparison to the reigns of Victoria and Elizabeth II) but laid the foundation for the empire whose growth Victoria would shepherd and whose dissolution Elizabeth II would preside over, even as she did her best to maintain Britain’s place in the world.
The longest-reigning monarch in recorded history is King Sobhuza II of Swaziland, who reigned for 82 years and 254 days, followed by Louis XIV of France (72 years, 110 days), Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (70 years, 126 days), and Johann II of Liechtenstein (70 years, 91 days). Then comes Elizabeth II, who certainly might still outdistance some of the above.
Sobhuza II of Swaziland reigned as well as ruled for his close-to-83 years during which he repealed the Swazi Constitution, dissolved Parliament, went from being a titular king to an absolute monarch under a new constitution, gave precedence to tribal customs over modernization, appropriated most of the land and its natural resources for the royal family, married 70 wives and sired 210 children, and, at the time of his death, had over 1,000 grandchildren. Beside Sobhuza II, both Victoria and Elizabeth II appear to be many things—humdrum, angelic, maybe even weak—but most certainly quintessentially British. It is not their length on the throne but on what they have made of their station, in the circumstances that surrounded their reign, that each monarch will be ultimately judged by.
Vishwas R. Gaitonde is an Indian-American writer and has previously contributed at outlets including The Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, and Santa Monica Review.