Elizabeth II vs Victoria: Who's the winner in this ultimate game of thrones?

This week, Elizabeth becomes Britain's longest serving monarch, overtaking Victoria

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The Independent Online

The Queen is tantalisingly close to claiming her place in the history books as Britain's longest reigning monarch. Tomorrow, on Wednesday 9 September, 63 years and 216 days will have passed since the death of her father, George VI. That is precisely the number of years and days between Queen Victoria's accession to the throne, on the death of her uncle, William IV in 1837, and her own death in January 1901. By Thursday, The Queen's reign will have been longer even than Victoria's.

The terms "Victorian era" and "Victorian times" are commonly used about the years from 1837 to 1901. We also talk of "Victorian values". In retrospect, there is a common theme to those years. Victorian Britain was wealthy, powerful, confident of its leading role in the world, full of its own importance, often cruel, and stern in its views on personal morality. It was an age when the works of William Shakespeare were considered to be too racy in parts for public consumption and had to be bowdlerised.

But it is hard to believe that future generations will talk of "Elizabethan values" to describe social attitudes in Britain from 1952 to the present. When people use the expression "Elizabethan era", they mean the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, four centuries ago. There is no reason to think that will change. Queen Victoria, with her narrow views on politics and sex, belonged to her era. The severe and joyless pictures of her, dressed in widow's black, conform to what we imagine the Victorian era to have been like.

But it is hardly likely that anyone will look at a photograph of the present Queen and see in it the embodiment of the fast-changing society over which she presided. She is separate from the times through which she has lived. That is her appeal. The pace of technological and social change has been so fast during the past 63 years that what is new and disturbingly unfamiliar one year is out of date and half forgotten by the next. The Queen has been an island of permanence.

In the 19th century, middle-class Britain wanted the world to stay as it was because they and their nation were doing so well. Now, when things have often not been going so well, many people have wished the bewildering rush of events would slow down, or even go into reverse.

And so, in two very different eras and two very different ways, two popular but very different queens have been symbols of stability and continuity in Britain. It seems appropriate to consider their reigns side by side, and to ask what other points of difference and similarity they have, apart from their length. This rough guide suggests some of the answers.

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Queen Victoria's length of reign: 63 years 216 days

Victoria

Length of reign: 63 years 216 days

Reputation

She came to the throne, aged 18, at the time when the reputation of the monarchy had been seriously tested by the behaviour of her father and uncles, the seven sons of George III. She was the only surviving grandchild of George III, whose parents' marriage was recognised in law. Securely married to a man she loved, she believed in strict sexual morality. Her longevity and disciplined behaviour ensured the survival of the monarchy into the 20th century.

Most memorable saying

"We are not amused" – her reputed response on being told a risqué story over dinner in Windsor Castle. It may be apocryphal.

Family

Married at the age of 20 to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, she was a widow at the age of 42, yet was known as the "grandmother of Europe", having had nine children over a space of 19 years, most of whom married members of other European royal families. Her 37 grandchildren included the Kaiser Wilhelm II, through her oldest child, Victoria, and Alexandra, wife of Tsar Nicholas II, through her second daughter Alice.

Family troubles

Her oldest son, the future King Edward VII was a philanderer, whose behaviour disgusted her, though the potential scandal was held in check. The bigger problems emerged after her death, when her grandsons were presiding over nations that were at war with each other after 1914. She also unwittingly passed on a haemophilia gene which afflicted Nicholas and Alexandra's son and heir – thus giving the notorious Grigori Rasputin, a faith healer, his entry to the Russian court.

Governments

She reigned through 15 general elections and was served by 10 prime ministers, six of whom were in and out of office more than once. The longest serving and best known was William Gladstone, whom she could not stand. "He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting," she complained. She also disliked Robert Peel, but liked Viscount Melbourne and Benjamin Disraeli.

Annus horribilis

In 1861, when Britain came dangerously close to being dragged into the American Civil War on the side of the slave-owning South, the Royal Family was hit by deaths and scandal. One of Victoria's aunts and two of Albert's royal cousins died. More distressingly, the Prince of Wales started his first extra-marital affair, with an Irish actress, provoking a confrontation with his outraged parents. Worst of all, Prince Albert died suddenly in December. She never got over the loss. She blamed her son for driving his father to an early grave.

Society

Victoria presided over Great Britain's emergence as the richest and most powerful nation on earth, an economy built on iron, coal, textiles and the newly invented railway. Besides the wealth, there was also appalling poverty. There were philanthropists and political activists who tried to alleviate poverty, alongside others who blamed poverty on the poor. Victorian morals destroyed Oscar Wilde, the greatest dramatist of her reign.

Wars

Almost all the wars Britain fought during Victoria's reign were to protect sea routes and trading rights, or to expand the empire. The worst fiasco was the 1838 invasion of Afghanistan: of about 16,500 Britons, Indians and others who joined a retreat from Kabul, just one reached India alive. However, there was greater public outrage over blunders committed in the 1856 Crimean War. The war that most damaged the UK's reputation was the Boer War of 1899-1902 – though in retrospect, the least justified wars were the two fought in China to keep the market for opium open.

Culture

Culturally, Victoria's was a glorious reign – the time of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, the Brontë sisters and George Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, JMW Turner, William Morris, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde.

Elizabeth II

Length of reign: 63 years 215 days, so far

Reputation

The monarchy was in good standing when The Queen came to the throne, aged 25, because of the unifying effect of the war, but she has presided over the disappearance of deference. Holding an aristocratic title is now more likely to attract ridicule than reverence. Yet through it all, The Queen herself has retained her popularity, by carrying out public duties meticulously and by rigorously avoiding saying or doing anything to attract public disapproval.

Most memorable saying

"Grief is the price we pay for love." This line from The Queen's message to a service of remembrance for British victims of the 11 September 2001 atrocity so impressed Bill Clinton that he told Alastair Campbell "find the guy [who wrote it] and hire him".

Family

She married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, when she was 21. He now holds the record as the longest serving consort of a reigning British monarch and, at 93, is the oldest ever male member of the Royal Family. They have four children, and eight grandchildren. Unlike Victoria's children, they have all married British subjects, and all their spouses, with the arguable exception of Lady Diana Spencer, have been commoners.

Family troubles

Scandal has lapped around the Royal Family without ever touching The Queen herself. The break-up of the Prince Charles's first marriage, to Diana, was the most damaging. The standing of the royals hit its nadir when Diana was killed in a road crash in August 1997. Princess Anne and Prince Andrew have also been through broken marriages. In the 1950s, the Queen's sister, Margaret, was prevented from marrying Captain Peter Townsend, a war hero, because he was divorced. Fifty years later, Prince Charles married the former Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles.

Governments

She has reigned through 16 general elections, and been served by 12 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill. The longest serving was Margaret Thatcher, with Tony Blair a close second. It is believed Thatcher, who showed her exaggerated reverence, was her least favourite. "Why does she always sit on the edge of her seat?" The Queen is reported to have said.

Annus horribilis

That was the label The Queen herself attached to the year 1992, when the Palace had to acknowledge that the marriage of Prince Charles to Diana was over, photographs of Prince Andrew's estranged wife Sarah cavorting with her lover were published, Anne divorced and remarried, and fire swept through Windsor Castle. After the outcry over who would pay for the damage, The Queen agreed to pay tax for the first time.

Society

Britain was still the centre of a vast empire at the early stages of Elizabeth's reign, despite the departure of India and Pakistan. It was the world's third most powerful nation, and many of her subjects accepted the idea that ruling the world was "the white man's burden". Social mores were strict: divorce was rare and illegitimate births were considered scandalous. She presided over the disappearance of that empire, with some vicious colonial wars along the way, and Britain's descent down the table of most powerful nations as the manufacturing industry that had made Victorian Britain so powerful became obsolete. But increasing prosperity generally ensured that there was still stability, while attitudes to sex and to race changed drastically.

Wars

The wars fought during Elizabeth's reign have been about how or by whom faraway places shall be governed. The biggest military fiasco was the Suez crisis of 1956. Arguably that has since been overtaken by the 2003 invasion of Iraq as the most unpopular conflict, though initially it was a military triumph. The most popular was the 1982 Falklands war. The one that did most damage to the UK's international reputation was the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Culture

She presided over the switch from an age when entertainment meant reading or going to the theatre or concert hall, to television and, later, the internet, music imported into the home, first by radio and gramophone, later by digital technology. The cultural leaders were the mass entertainers – singers, actors, comedians, and the anchors of game shows and reality TV. The most successful authors wrote thrillers or fantasy, from Agatha Christie to JK Rowling.

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