On 24 September 1896 Queen Victoria was given a present of a paper knife, and expressed herself ‘much delighted’. The handle was set with overlapping gold coins each bearing the portrait of a British monarch. The uppermost coin bore an image of Victoria herself; the one beneath it, that of her grandfather George III. As Victoria recorded in her journal, 23 September 1896 was ‘the day on which I have reigned longer, by a day, than any English sovereign’. She had exceeded George III’s record of 21,644 days on the throne and, unlike her grandfather, remained of sound mind (if you overlook her taste in interior decoration and her views on women’s rights).
Recent Buckingham Palace calculations suggest that at her death in January 1901, Victoria had reigned 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes — in layman’s terms, 63 years and seven months. It’s an incredible record but one that will this year be bested as (God willing) Queen Elizabeth II nudges her great-great-grandmother into second place. Perhaps breaking a reigning record doesn’t seem much of an actual achievement, but it has a huge symbolic significance. Britain reacted to Victoria’s record with an outburst of national rejoicing because it confirmed in the public mind the importance of the Victorian era — and they’ll do the same for Elizabeth come 9 September.
Victoria was at Balmoral that Wednesday morning, as Elizabeth plans to be. As the day progressed, church bells clanged out their clarion, bonfires blazed from hilltops. ‘People of all kinds and ranks, from every part of the kingdom, sent congratulatory telegrams,’ Victoria wrote — by turns triumphant and self-effacing. She understood that her achievement was merely survival, but that in itself was no mean feat. As a teenager, Victoria had nearly died of typhoid fever; she had subsequently been the target of numerous assassination attempts. In that respect Elizabeth has been more fortunate — but there have over the decades been many attempts to damage her reputation and that of the monarchy, and she has survived them all with a mixture of cunning and grace. A poll last month asking who gives moral leadership showed the Queen coming first, comfortably ahead of the Archbishop of Canterbury (both were well ahead of the Prime Minister).
In her journal, on the anniversary of her accession in 1896, Queen Victoria wrote, ‘God… has wonderfully protected me. I have lived to see my dear country and vast Empire prosper and expand, and be wonderfully loyal.’ That possessive note said it all. Country, empire and Victoria had prospered together. For the Victorians, Victoria was their queen, and her achievement and theirs merged. Everybody wanted a slice of the action. ‘How great has been the religious progress during these 60 years!’ stated Cardinal Vaughan. The Daily Mail, ever measured, claimed for Victoria that there was only ‘One Being more majestic than she’. The sun shone and both Victoria and Grub Street labelled it ‘Queen’s weather’. She ruled over the empire on which the sun never set: even meteorology fell within her remit.
So what happens come September? Will it be comparable? For all its hypocrisy and complacency, the Victorian age was less cynical than our own. Patterns of belief, though challenged, remained partly intact. As a society they enjoyed a spectacle and their tastes embraced the grand and the gaudy. Even their royal commemoratives — like the Golden Jubilee patent automatic bustle that played ‘God Save the Queen’ when the wearer sat down — excelled at bombast.
Now the Empire has gone. Elizabeth appears essentially modest, though her championing of the Commonwealth has lent her a reflection of her great-great-grandmother’s imperial glitter. The special coin minted for her golden jubilee was inscribed on the obverse with a distinctly conciliatory Latin tag: ‘Amor populi præsidium reg’, ‘The love of the people is the Queen’s protection’. This is a clear statement of the balance of power in modern Britain.
Elizabeth is a devout church-woman who believes in the sacrament of kingship. That said, she has, in service to her people, deferred to their tastes, and appeared as a Bond girl and been painted by Justin Mortimer with her head apparently severed from her body as if guillotined. The idea of queenship is no more or less complex now than in Victoria’s day; it is the idea of being a subject that has changed fundamentally. Elizabeth seems to recognise and acknowledge that change — which is why, in return, the public continue to recognise and celebrate her.
Elizabeth’s gameplan echoes to the letter a Times editorial of 1937. Successful kingship, the Times suggested, relies ‘not upon intellectual brilliance or superlative talent of any kind, but upon the moral qualities of steadiness, staying power and self-sacrifice’. Longevity is thus a virtual imperative. In 2002, in a supremely slick piece of statesmanship, the Queen articulated the message of her Golden Jubilee. ‘Gratitude, respect and pride. These words sum up how I feel about the people of this country and the Commonwealth — and what this Golden Jubilee means to me.’ Across the globe, from the Victoria Monument to the ends of the earth in a string of flaming Jubilee beacons, new Elizabethans realised that these emotions were ours too, their focus the diminutive but unflagging public servant who is every bit as formidable as her unsmiling great-great-grandmother.
Enoch Powell once said, ‘Monarchy is not modern. Monarchy is primeval. Monarchy is absolute.’ I suspect that Elizabeth loosely agrees. At no point in her reign has it been viable — let alone sensible — to assert any of Powell’s three claims, so the Queen and her advisers have worked quietly to appear to contradict the first without negating the second and third. Since she has done so while mostly increasing the popularity of the institution she embodies, history will surely judge that Elizabeth has succeeded.
In nine months’ time we will ignore this kind of argument. Many will gush and some will carp. Elizabeth will appear unmoved, allowing multiple interpretations to be projected upon her. And each of us will feel a tiny bit better about ourselves. We will recognise that, whatever has or hasn’t happened in our national life over the past 63 years and seven months, we have all shared a single blessing of ‘steadiness, staying power and self-sacrifice’: as the national anthem has it, our gracious Queen, our noble Queen, who, happily, has reigned over us for a very long time indeed.
Matthew Dennison is the author of Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions.