Both reigns have broken records, but how do the lives of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II compare? And which legacy will endure?
The new longest-reigning monarch: Queen Elizabeth II
After 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest-reigning monarch in British history, breaking the record set by Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother.
These renowned sovereigns have experienced vastly different times. Victoria—who ascended to the throne at 18—oversaw the industrial revolution, the extension of the right to vote, the British Empire and progressions in science and medicine that dramatically extended life expectancy.
Elizabeth, whose life was put on a somewhat unexpected trajectory after her uncle Edward VIII abdicated, is widely regarded as the modern royal family’s redeemer.
Then and now
Now aged 96, she has reigned through post-war Britain, the formation of the Commonwealth, the Swinging Sixties, national and international conflicts, terrorism, the rise and fall of trades unions and the staggering rise of technology.
Since being crowned in 1953, Elizabeth has maintained a dignity that seems to balance out the decline of religion and the lusty forthrightness of present-day Britain, where hereditary rule isn’t quietly accepted and criticisms are shared worldwide by anyone who can swipe a screen.
Though the media was, naturally, not as ubiquitous—or, some might say, as pernicious—in the 1800s, Victoria’s views were kept private. The elite who surrounded her didn’t, for instance, disclose her dislike of Prime Minister William Gladstone or her disdain for democracy and votes for women—views that were only made public after her death in 1901.
"Elizabeth doesn’t want the event to be seen as a celebration of Victoria’s death"
Victoria's last years
Queen Victoria retired from public life for a decade after Prince Albert died in 1861, aged 42. She spent this grieving period at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where she commissioned the Prince Albert pyramid as a memorial to the love of her life. However, her withdrawal while she mourned her husband was not popular with the public and led to the formation of a republican movement. But Queen Victoria did return to the public eye towards the end of her reign, and regained a popularity that endures to this day.
Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and her Diamond Jubilee a decade later were celebrated with much verve, with Victoria writing in her journal on September 23, 1896, that she’d “reigned longer, by a day, than any English sovereign”.
She noted the festivities that were held to mark the occasion—the souvenir plates, the rejoicing church bells and numerous telegrams. But while she appreciated the loyalty that sparked these gestures, she didn’t encourage them. Her great-great-granddaughter will take the same stance, with the Palace preferring to focus instead on planning Elizabeth’s 90th birthday in April next year.
This is largely due to the respect held for her predecessors. Elizabeth doesn’t want the event to be seen as a celebration of Victoria’s death; her priority is that of public duty rather than bombast, and she aims to uphold a sense of respect around the milestone.
Queen Elizabeth in the public eye
Regardless, Queen Elizabeth has had to contend with living her life in an increasingly public fishbowl, where every move is scrutinised. Professor Robert Hazell, director at The Constitution Unit, University College London, comments, “Under Queen Elizabeth, the monarchy has become more open, with TV programmes filming the royal family at work and at play. There are risks here: the risk of becoming part of celebrity culture and the risk of William, Kate and their children losing their privacy.”
Dr Robert Morris, a former Home Office civil servant, believes that intensive media attention has done much to dispel any “mystique” of monarchy, adding that Elizabeth and members of her family suffer a degree of intrusion unimaginable in Victoria’s time.
He says, “There have been changes in the way in which the monarchy presents itself. Under Victoria, the monarch didn’t seek to establish the kind of public presence now the norm, or see it as desirable to seek public approval. The monarch was first and foremost at the apex of government and wasn’t conspicuously associated with charitable endeavours.
“Elizabeth, on the other hand, inherited and has developed what has come to be called the ‘welfare monarchy’—that is, the deliberate cultivation of a public identification with, and the promotion of, ‘good works’ and public-spirited endeavour. Through acting as patron of a great range of charities, she expresses an active interest in their work, and the charities themselves benefit from the connection.”
Dr Morris says that while these activities are inherently useful, they also fill a role vacant in post-imperial times—and pre-empt criticism of just how useful the royals are.
Helping the people less fortunate
One of the 600-plus patronages Elizabeth holds is that of the pro-marriage and family Christian charity Mothers’ Union—a position that was first held by Queen Victoria in 1898.
Like Elizabeth, Victoria was interested in what might be deemed charitable acts—even though she didn’t need to be seen to carry these out to satisfy her public. She favoured measures to improve the lives of the poor, recognising over time that inadequate housing was damaging the mental and physical health of those who lived in filthy, tiny homes.
Dr Morris continues, “Apart from limited smoke-abatement legislation, there was little by the way of conscious environmental policy. It took the Great Stink of 1858—when hot weather exacerbated the smell of human waste and industrial effluent on the banks of the Thames—to lead to the first major pan-London sewage works.
“Public health improved under Victoria, but slowly. There were still cholera outbreaks in the late 1840s and tuberculosis remained a scourge throughout Victoria’s reign. One of the important achievements of the second half of the 20th century, and during Elizabeth’s reign, was the reduction of pollution and the elaboration of effective planning controls.”
The Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes led to the construction of the first council-housing estate, in London, starting in 1893.
Victoria’s Britain also funded libraries, wash houses and public swimming baths for all to use. The mood of the time, often characterised by the wealthier doing their Christian duty to help those less fortunate, saw the formation of the Society for the Relief of Distress, the Peabody Trust, Barnardo’s and the Charity Organisation Society, all of which have had a lasting impact on society’s deprived.
And what of their political positions?
Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College, London, and author of The Monarchy and the Constitution, says a significant difference is that of the control they wield—or, indeed, do not.
He comments, “The main change is that Victoria had a fair amount of political power, which the present queen doesn’t want and doesn’t have anyway. One symbol of how the queen’s power has declined was after the 2010 election, which led to a hung parliament. Some people said that this would involve the queen’s discretion in choosing a prime minister, but she remained at Windsor for five days while the coalition was being hammered out. No one could accuse her of being involved, and the Palace’s view was, ‘Let the politicians decide and we will endorse the outcome they reach.’ They aren’t decision makers, but facilitators. It’s not for the queen to take an active role, and that’s very different to Victoria.