Today, September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest-reigning monarch in British history. Today is her 23,227th day on the throne, her first being February 6, 1952, the day her father, King George VI, died. The record she was trying to beat was that of Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837 and died in 1901. She was the previous record-holder. While I don’t know off the top of my head how many other monarchs in world history have reigned longer than she has, I know there aren’t many; this morning I vaguely recall seeing something in a news report that flashed by on my Feedly app that she’s in the top three of all time.
I’ve written about the British royals, and specifically about the extraordinary longevity of Elizabeth II, before on this blog when I speculated about the upcoming reign of her son, who will be King Charles III. (In that article, written in fall 2013, I incorrectly calculated Elizabeth’s record-breaking day as September 11. Hey, I was only two days off). Curiously, that article sparked a conversation in the comments about whether or not Elizabeth can “skip over” Charles and designate William as her successor. (For the record, she can’t). There’s not a lot of love out there for Charles, and a fair number of Britons and people of other countries aren’t looking forward to his reign, at least not nearly so much as they are that of William. Whether it’s because of Charles’s reputation during his sad marriage to the late Princess Diana, or his marrying of long-time mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, or something else entirely, I really couldn’t say. But suffice it to say I don’t think they’re going to be selling a lot of King Charles III bobbleheads at the Tower of London gift shop in future decades, barring something unforeseen.
The last coronation in British history, Elizabeth II’s in 1953, was the first to be broadcast on TV. The next will be the first one live-streamed on the Internet.
Yet I do believe–and I’m speaking as an American, a disinterested observer of the British system–that the monarchy will continue. Every few years someone takes a poll of the British people to find out how many of them want to abolish the royal family. The usual reason is financial: why should the British taxpayers pay for the upkeep, protection and ostentation of an institution that no longer has any real temporal power? This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument, but I don’t think it strikes anywhere close to the fulcrum on which the existence of the monarchy turns. It has far less to do with power or economics, or even the privilege of one specific family that found themselves lucky enough to be royal, but with history and tradition. Whether they acknowledge it or not, the British people have shown themselves willing to spend a lot of money to preserve the continuities with the past.
The British monarchy is an institution that transcends one particular family. Kings have ruled Britain, or at least England, since the Romans decamped in the 5th century CE, and a large part of the identity of the British nation is tied up, for better or for worse, in this institution. From Edward the Confessor to Henry VIII, Charles II and Queen Victoria, many of the British people’s efforts to define who they are, and what sets them apart from other countries, has involved the monarchy. It’s not as simple a story as the monarch dragging the nation along with whatever he (or she) wanted, bending it to his or her will, though naturally there are some examples of that, like Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 16th century. But what about episodes like the English Civil War, in which Charles I was beheaded and Oliver Cromwell assumed leadership of England? While a political stride forward in the long run, a totally non-monarchical England simply didn’t fit, and a new king (Charles II) was on the throne barely 11 years after the axe fell on Charles I’s neck. If you look at Britain as an organic collective, as opposed to a political entity subject to the will of one or a small group of people. this almost looks like an experiment. “Our government is unbalanced between king and Parliament. Let’s try throwing out the king. Oh, that didn’t work as well as we hoped. Well, how about a king, but with Parliament taking a larger role in the affairs of the nation?”
In her long reign, Elizabeth II has seen 12 Prime Ministers come and go. The first was Winston Churchill.
It seems to me–and this is nothing more than my opinion, obviously–that if World War II didn’t finish off the British monarchy, nothing will. Between 1914 and 1947 Britain lost most of her overseas empire, which was by then the main reason to have a monarch anyway. (In addition to being Queen of England, Victoria was crowned “Empress of India” in 1876). The new world that arose after 1945 was woefully hostile to old-style monarchs, and if the British had wanted to abolish the monarchy, there would have been no better opportunity. Yet somehow the Windsors survived. Since 1952 Elizabeth II has presided over yet another reconstruction of Britain’s relationship with the world, that being the Commonwealth. This will probably be her major contribution to history.
The royals probably still have contributions to come. A new international order, involving cooperation between First World nations (like Britain) and developing ones (like many of her former colonies), is going to have to be created to deal with the pressures of climate change. Is it far-fetched that a King Charles III or King William V will have a significant role to play in that order? The monarch does serve a function as an ambassador, a symbol, a ceremonial head of state and a repository of moral authority. I don’t see what Britain gains by closing herself off from the potential benefits this could bring. Will it cost money? Sure. Everything does. But it’s not a zero-sum game, economically speaking.
Not long ago I saw again the wonderful 2006 film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren (in an Oscar-winning role) as Elizabeth II and focusing on the relationship between her and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). A strong subtext of the movie, which takes place in 1997 around the death of Diana, is whether the royal family is still relevant at the dawn of the 21st century. In 1997 Elizabeth, somewhat reluctantly, rose to the occasion of filling her new role of helping the British people mourn Diana’s death. I suspect that when Elizabeth herself passes on, as she must eventually, there will be a great deal more grief and mourning in Britain than many people expect. Like him or not, it will fall to Charles to bring Great Britain out of the era of Elizabeth II and into whatever uncertain world lies ahead. Whether he’s ready to do that or not is irrelevant. He’s not going to have a choice, and neither are we.