Magazine article The Spectator

The Queen's Record

Magazine article The Spectator

The Queen's Record

Article excerpt

This year the Queen will become the longest-serving monarch in British history. Her rule defines our era

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. …

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