Unless you’re living without media access (which seems rather unlikely if you’re reading this blog), you are almost certainly aware that today Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest reigning monarch. Champagne is always a good idea so I don’t want to deny her a toast, but before doing so let’s think about what we’re toasting.

As a point of full-disclosure I will admit that I am not a monarchist, but as I believe in the importance of unbiased scholarly work I am intending to keep that out of this post. I don’t want to debate whether or not we should have a monarchy; I want to question what this milestone actually means. The real celebration has very little to do with monarchy and a lot to do with the benefits of living in the 20th & 21st centuries.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she was just shy of 82 years old and had been queen for 63 years, 216 days. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth II has reached this milestone at the age of 89 years 4 months (and a few days). She has surpassed Queen Victoria not by her actions (although her lifestyle does seem better) but by the good fortune of living longer. Of course had her father King George VI lived longer than 56 years she would still be a long way off from the status of longest reign. To put this into context, let’s take a look at the past 200 years of British monarchs.

Name Reign (years) Age at end of reign
George III 59 81
George IV 10 67
William IV 7 (minus 6 days) 71
Victoria 63 81
Edward VII 9 68
George V 25 70
Edward VIII 10.5 months (abdicated) 42
George VI 15 56

Looking at this table one can quickly see that luck and chance are the real determinants of a monarch’s reign. Indeed, the last time a British Monarch died of anything but natural causes was the beheading of Charles I in 1649 after being found guilty of high treason.

To celebrate the reign of a monarch is no more or less silly than birthday celebrations (what have most of us really accomplished by passing another calendar year?), so bring out the bubbly if that’s your cup of tea. But I cannot help but question whether it really warrants the level of attention it has received. Wouldn’t the press be better focused on news?

A life of luxury, modern medicine and living conditions, a reign during a time of relative peace, and a whole heck of a lot of luck have brought Elizabeth II to today. That’s nice for her, but let’s not confuse something passive with accomplishment or action.

If you want to find something interesting about the monarchy and their reign you are going to have to go back well over 200 years. Luckily for you, those of us at The History Collective fully support all historical research.

P1200606Author: Gwenith Cross

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