David Bowie once said we’ve got five years. Well, we’ve got five days now. No, don’t worry; I haven’t received advanced warning of a meteorite poised to crash into the planet. I’m referring to the fact that, unless she unexpectedly conks out before next Wednesday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will overtake Queen Victoria on September 9 and become this country’s longest-serving monarch. Ever. We’ve all grown-up with the knowledge that Victoria was the yardstick by which other reigns were measured and, like the No.1 singles tally of Elvis and The Beatles, the thought that the record could one day be beaten has always seemed remote and…well…wrong. But it’s about to happen.
At 89, Brenda is already the oldest sovereign Britain has ever had; she was 25 when she ascended to the throne in 1952, seven years older than Victoria had been when she became queen in 1837. But her maternal genes are made of strong stuff; the Queen Mother was over 100 when she died, lest we forget, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there could even be an unprecedented Platinum Jubilee on the horizon. I don’t suppose anyone anticipated this when Princess Elizabeth was informed of her father’s death whilst on a royal tour of Kenya. George VI had reigned for just sixteen years. In fact, anyone over, say, fifty-three the day we entered what was trumpeted as the New Elizabethan Age would have already seen five different monarchs occupying the throne; by contrast, to have been born just before the reign of Elizabeth II began, one would now be within a year or two of retirement age.
The longer the reign, the more potential for change in the wider society, and it could be argued the changes that have taken place since 1952 are on a par with those that took place during the Victorian Age. When Victoria became queen upon the death of her uncle William IV, she was the only legitimate living child sired by any of her grandfather George III’s notoriously rakish sons. She was born into a transitional era that had seen both the end of Napoleonic domination of Europe and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, with the pendulum of power swinging away from France towards Britain. The woman who ended up being associated with a strain of prudish Puritanism was actually a product of the Regency and was in possession of all the hedonistic frivolity that went with it during her spell as Europe’s most coveted marital prize. It was strait-laced husband Albert (the son of a philandering rake himself) and his determination not to repeat his father’s mistakes that redesigned the image of a battered brand and turned the royal household from a hotbed of disreputable debauchery to the nation’s moral barometer.
With Victoria as the figurehead, Britain spread its imperial wings and was ruling over almost a quarter of the world’s population by the time of her death aged 81. Its navy acted as the maritime world police and its language, culture and industry circumnavigated the globe. After Bonaparte, Victoria became one of the first internationally recognisable public figures, with her iconic properties as the reincarnation of Britannia the nineteenth century’s equivalent of the Che Guevara poster that used to be an obligatory addition to the bedroom walls of every campus dormitory. When she celebrated her 1897 Diamond Jubilee, the event was marked everywhere from Calcutta to Cape Town, from Sydney to Singapore, and from Montreal to Malta.
During Victoria’s reign, transport went from horsepower to steampower and then the internal combustion engine. Advances in industry built railways and laid cables under the ocean to open up a new lines of communication, whilst advances in science and medicine saved lives and (in the case of Darwin) rewrote the history of mankind; social reformers attempted to do something about the kind of poverty we’d now associate with the Third World; the working-class was given a voice with the formation of trade unions and extension of the voting franchise; demands for women’s rights became organised; and the flourishing of the Arts in particular helped establish Britain as the cultural capital of the world. Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, Eliot, Gaskell, Trollope, Hardy, Lear, Carroll and Wilde all produced their literary masterpieces on Victoria’s watch; the Pre-Raphaelites rocked the galleries and Elgar embarked upon his distinguished musical journey, whilst photography and then moving pictures brought us one step closer to the twentieth century. The formation of police forces and improvements in street lighting via gas and, eventually, electricity made the streets safer, the Gothic Revival gave dramatic new architectural skylines to the towns and cities in which those streets were situated, and rising literacy levels, not to mention civic museums, libraries and swimming baths as well as the codification and new professionalism of sports such as cricket, tennis, golf, association football and both strains of rugby aided in the intellectual and physical improvement of Victoria’s subjects. When she finally passed away in January 1901, the country that mourned her was very different to what it had been in 1819.
And what of the country inherited by Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter half-a-century later? The slow recovery from the ravages of war was still a work-in-progress with many of the new queen’s subjects living in housing that had been condemned as unfit for human habitation decades before, the class system had been temporarily fractured by conflict and was attempting to revert to its pre-war distinctions, television had yet to supplant radio or the cinema as the medium of the masses, corporal and capital punishment were still enforced, National Service continued to interrupt male civilian lives, homosexuality and abortion remained illegal acts punishable with prison sentences, illegitimate birth was a social stigma, mass immigration from the colonies hadn’t yet altered what was a predominantly white society, and the nation’s Prime Minister, Churchill, was approaching eighty. Sixty-three years later, the same monarch presides over a different country in a different century.
The year of Elizabeth II’s Coronation saw Crick and Watson discover the structure of DNA, an early sign that the new queen was about to begin her reign on the cusp of changes that would radically transform the monochrome kingdom in ways comparable to those that Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother had overseen. These changes are perhaps more evident and within living memory, so don’t necessary need to be recited like the ones that occurred during Victoria’s reign; but even those of us whose lifetimes haven’t yet spanned fifty years have witnessed dramatic alterations to everyday life that in many cases would have been pure sci-fi in 1952. The technology that enables me to write this piece as well as enabling you to read it, wherever on the planet you happen to be, is just one.
As those nice people at Guinness are prone to reminding us, records are made to be broken, but this is one I never quite imagined would be, especially as Victoria had a seven-year start on Elizabeth. Prior to Victoria, the title had been held by George III, even though he spent the last decade of his reign as a mentally ill prisoner of his own palace; he does, however, remain the longest-reigning male monarch in British history, a record Prince Charles is not destined to break. Had the self-styled James III not had his intended reign aborted by the Glorious Revolution, he would have been king for 64 years; Elizabeth will also beat that titular record if she’s on the throne next May. As it is, she’ll still be the longest-reigning female monarch in not only British, but world history come next Wednesday.
Whatever one’s opinion of her or the institution of monarchy in general, Elizabeth II is about to write herself into the history books and the woman who has held that record for more than a century will be pushed down to the No.2 slot. Longevity may have made Victoria the royal family’s Bryan Adams, but I liked the fact that she was unchallenged. She still could be, of course. Best use the Buckingham Palace stair-lift for the next five days, Brenda – just in case…
TRACK CAPTAIN RACCOON DAY 6: http://jst.org.uk/track-our-ships/