Queen Elizabeth II marks historic milestone as longest-reigning British monarch

Today, in a remarkable milestone, HM Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952- present) has become the longest reigning monarch in British history, breaking the record of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria (r. 20 Jun 1837 – 22 Jan 1901).

Photo courtesy of The British Monarchy Facebook page. This photograph of The Queen by the renowned British photographer Mary McCartney has been released to mark the moment Her Majesty becomes the longest reigning British Monarch, 9 September 2015.

Photo courtesy of The British Monarchy Facebook page.
This photograph of The Queen by the renowned British photographer Mary McCartney has been released to mark the moment Her Majesty becomes the longest reigning British Monarch, 9 September 2015.

Queen Elizabeth II

In ever-humble fashion, and in an enduring testament to her humility, the Queen chose to make only the briefest of remarks to the British people and her subjects around the world acknowledging the occasion. She thanked them for their well-wishes on behalf of her and her consort, HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who has been her husband for 67 years. The monarch and her 94-year old consort, who had been on their summer holiday at Balmoral, took the train from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station alongside Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the hilly countryside town of Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders, where the Queen symbolically opened a new railroad station.

HM Queen Elizabeth and HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, pictured at her coronation on 2 June 1953.

HM Queen Elizabeth and HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, pictured at her coronation on 2 June 1953.

Photo courtesy of The British Monarchy Facebook page. HM The Queen is greeting by crowds as she and The Duke of Edinburgh travel by steam train to inaugurate the new Scottish Borders Railway, 9 September 2015.

Photo courtesy of The British Monarchy Facebook page. HM The Queen is greeted by crowds as she and The Duke of Edinburgh travel by steam train to inaugurate the new Scottish Borders Railway, 9 September 2015.

Born in 1926 to the then-Duke and Duchess of York, Elizabeth II was not born as the heir to the world’s largest empire, but to the then-reigning King George V’s second son Prince Albert Frederick, known affectionately as Bertie. Her imposing paternal grandfather, not known for his geniality or easiness of manner, referred to her affectionately as ‘Lilibet’, while the young Princess Elizabeth called the King ‘Grandpa England’. George V died in 1936 at the age of 70, after just reaching his Silver Jubilee marking 25 years on the throne.

The then-Duke and Duchess of York (future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) with their eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth II) in 1926.

The then-Duke and Duchess of York (future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) with their eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth II) in 1926.

Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII’s self-centered decision to abdicate in December 1936 elevated her father to the throne as King, and his first decision was to take the regnal name George VI, to gloss over his brother’s disastrous short reign and show continuity with his father’s line.

The British Royal Family wave to the crowds of well-wishers on the Buckingham Palace balcony following George VI's coronation as King and Queen Elizabeth's as Queen consort. From left to right are: Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth II's mother), then-Princess Elizabeth, Queen Mary (George V's widow and George VI's Queen Mother), Princess Margaret (Elizabeth II's sister) and King George VI. 12 May 1937

The British Royal Family wave to the crowds of well-wishers on the Buckingham Palace balcony following George VI’s coronation as King and Queen Elizabeth’s as Queen consort. From left to right are: Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth II’s mother), then-Princess Elizabeth, Queen Mary (George V’s widow and George VI’s Queen Mother), Princess Margaret (Elizabeth II’s sister) and King George VI. 12 May 1937

The dutiful George VI — who worked diligently to overcome a pronounced stammer- and his immensely popular consort Queen Elizabeth were the public face of British resistance and solidarity in the face of Nazi Luftwaffe blitz bombings of London during the darkest hours of the Second World War. In 1944 the eighteen-year old Princess Elizabeth, the heiress to the throne, took a far-from-safe role in wartime efforts, personally driving British military supply trucks. On Victory in Europe (VE) day in 1945, marking Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces, the entire Royal Family assembled with Prime Minister Winston Churhill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to share in their people’s joy. It is well-known that, on that night, the future Queen and her sister Princess Margaret donned disguises and went out on the streets of London to be among the British people and share fully in the national rejoicing.

The British Royal Family and Prime Minister Churchill wave joyously to the crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace on V.E. Day marking the end of World War II in Europe. From left: Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, PM Churchill, King George VI, and Princess Margaret.

The British Royal Family and Prime Minister Churchill wave joyously to the crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace on V.E. Day marking the end of World War II in Europe. From left: Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, PM Churchill, King George VI, and Princess Margaret.

Marrying her beloved Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in  November 1947 (Philip was regularly lauded as a modern ‘Adonis’), the beautiful, glamorous heiress to the throne quickly started her own family, with Prince Charles, her own heir, born in 1948. Here is a beautiful, short documentary video showcasing much of the celebrations at Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s royal wedding.

The British Royal Family greet throngs of well-wishers from the balcony at Buckingham Palace on 20 November 1947. From left are: King George VI, Princess Margaret, then-Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), and Queen Mary (widow of George V and mother to George VI).

The British Royal Family greet throngs of well-wishers from the balcony at Buckingham Palace on 20 November 1947. From left are: King George VI, Princess Margaret, then-Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), and Queen Mary (widow of George V and mother to George VI).

Queen Elizabeth II's mother-in-law, Prince Philip's mother, was the widowed Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), a descendant of Queen Victoria. In her widowhood, she became a Greek Orthodox nun (she was raised Orthodox, as a Greek princess). She assisted Jews during the Holocaust, helping many escape from the Nazis. For this she is honoured at Yad Vashem as a 'Hero Among the Nations'. Prince Philip has been quoted saying of his mother, who was, among other things, deaf:

Queen Elizabeth II’s mother-in-law, Prince Philip’s mother, was the widowed Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), a descendant of Queen Victoria. In her widowhood, she became a Greek Orthodox nun (she was raised Orthodox, as a Greek princess). One can see photographs of the Princess in full nun’s habit at her daughter-in-law’s coronation and also at Elizabeth and her son’s wedding. She assisted Jews during the Holocaust, helping many escape from the Nazis. For this she is honoured at Yad Vashem as a ‘Hero Among the Nations’. Prince Philip has been quoted saying of his mother, who was, among other things, deaf: “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”

Elizabeth II became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the British Empire (now renamed the British Commonwealth) at the age of 25 early on the morning of 6 February 1952, when her beloved father King George VI passed away at the age of only 56. United in mourning for the man who was their son, husband, and father, Britain’s three living queens — the dowager Queen Mary (George V’s widow and George VI’s mother), Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (George VIs’ widow and Elizabeth II’s mother) and the young Queen Elizabeth II — observed a period of mourning broken only by Queen Mary’s death at the age of 85 in March 1953. One of her last wishes was that her granddaughter’s coronation not be postponed in the event of her death, and so it was on the second of June, 1953 that Queen Elizabeth was crowned as sovereign of the United Kingdom and the Empire as “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith”.

RCOD 227-X01A Queen Elizabeth II Obligatory Credit - CAMERA PRESS/ Karsh SPECIAL PRICE APPLIES - CONSULT CAMERA PRESS OR IT'S LOCAL AGENT. HM the Queen pictured around the time of her accession to the Throne on the 6th February, 1952.

RCOD 227-X01A Queen Elizabeth II Obligatory Credit – CAMERA PRESS/ Karsh SPECIAL PRICE APPLIES – CONSULT CAMERA PRESS OR IT’S LOCAL AGENT. HM the Queen pictured around the time of her accession to the Throne on the 6th February, 1952.

Here is a beautiful prayer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for the life and safekeeping of Her Majesty:

Anglican prayer for the life and reign of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Anglican prayer for the life and reign of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Pietro Annigoni - Queen Elizabeth II, 1954-5.

Pietro Annigoni – Queen Elizabeth II, 1954-5.

On this glorious occasion, I thought it fitting to share this timeless anthem composed by choralist William Byrd for the first Queen Elizabeth some 450 years ago. Here are the magnificent lyrics:

O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength: give her her heart’s desire, and deny not the request of her lips;but prevent her with thine everlasting blessing, and give her a long life, even for ever and ever. Amen.

Congratulations to Her Majesty on her many years of tireless service to Britain and the Commonwealth! Long may she continue to reign! God save the Queen!

Remembering the death of a Queen

Queen Elizabeth I's famous signature at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

428 years ago yesterday, an anointed queen was put to death by the order of her cousin and fellow queen. One of the most tragic and controversial figures in English Tudor and Scottish Stuart history, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) died on the scaffold at eight o’clock on the morning of February 8, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. After months of anxious delay and tortured soul-searching, Mary’s nearest kinswoman and first cousin once removed, England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), had reluctantly signed her death warrant on February 1. Mary had been tried for treason—a charge of dubious legality since Mary was not an English subject, but Queen of Scotland by birth—and convicted by a court of English noblemen in October 1586.

When Queen Mary learned that Elizabeth had at last signed her death warrant, her response was composed and brief:

I did not think that the Queen, my sister, would ever have consented to my death; but, God’s will be done.  He is my principal witness, that I shall render up my spirit into His hands innocent of any offence against her, and with a pure heart and conscience clear before His divine majesty of the crimes whereof I am accused.  That soul is fair unworthy of the joys of heaven, whose body cannot endure for a moment the stroke of the executioner.

Here is Queen Mary’s last letter to her English cousin. She wrote this letter to Elizabeth after having been informed of her trial’s foregone conclusion: convicted of conspiring to assassinate her cousin and fellow Queen — a charge Mary vehemently denied to her death — Mary knew her cousin would be pressured to have her executed. Mary’s last letter to her rival and cousin contains a plea for her remains to be conveyed to France after her death, as well as a warning which would haunt Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

Now having been informed… of the sentence passed in the last session of your Parliament, and admonished… to prepare myself for the end of my long and weary pilgrimage, I prayed them to return my thanks to you for such agreeable intelligence, and to ask you to grant some things for the relief of my conscience.

I will not accuse any person, but sincerely pardon every one, as I desire others, and, above all, God, to pardon me. And since I know that your heart, more than that of any other, ought to be touched by the honour or dishonour of your own blood, and of a Queen, the daughter of a king, I require you, Madam, for the sake of Jesus, that after my enemies have satisfied their black thirst for my innocent blood, you will permit my poor disconsolate servants to remove my corpse, that it may be buried in holy ground, with my ancestors in France, especially the late Queen my mother, since in Scotland the remains of the Kings my predecessors have been outraged, and the churches torn down and profaned. . .

… I beseech the God of mercy and justice to enlighten you with His holy Spirit, and to give me the grace to die in perfect charity, as I endeavour to do, pardoning my death to all those who have either caused or cooperated in it; and this will be my prayer to the end.

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered, wherefor from the earliest dawn of your comprehension we ought to dispose our minds to make things temporal yield to those of eternity.

Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner,

Marie R

Aside from the tragic drama of the story—England’s Protestant Queen executing her Catholic Scottish cousin and rival—and the resultant war Mary’s death inspired between England and Spain, the Queen of Scot’s unlawful 1587 execution marked something far more profound: the “beginning of the end” for monarchies as an effective, fully functional political system:

The 1215 Magna Carta marks the “beginning” of the devolution of monarchical authority, as it was the first time a king had had to recognize himself bound to an authority besides God Himself. The 1689 Glorious Revolution and its English Bill of Rights marked the “end”, the death throes of the British monarchy toward unlimited Parliamentarianism, but what marked “the beginning of the end”? What heralded in the bloodless revolution that transformed Britain from a partly-limited monarchy into a crowned republic where Parliament ruled and monarchs simply reigned?

1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution which saw Jacobin France guillotine its King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in the prelude to the infamous Reign of Terror) is too recent…

1689 (William III and Mary II’s granting of the Bill of Rights which recognized the political supremacy of Parliament and granted English Protestants—not Catholics—many basic protections from the Sovereign but not from Parliament) is too recent….

1649 (The English Parliament voting to convict King Charles I of being a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy” and subsequently beheading the King) is too recent…

Where may we look to see the origins of the British monarchy’s long descent from a de facto absolutist state under the Tudors to the largely ceremonial figurehead regime we see in place today? We must look, not to the tumultuous reign of the English Stuarts or the increasingly ceremonial reigns of the Hanoverians, but to the Tudors themselves, to a decision made by England’s most beloved Queen, the “Gloriana” of famous memory, Elizabeth I. We must look to two seminal years: 1586 and 1587.

In 1586, without any legal precedent, without any attorney to aid her or even the benefit of having her own papers and documents to consult, Mary—Queen of Scots from 1542-1567 and Queen of France from 1559-1560—was tried for treason at the behest of her reigning cousin, Elizabeth I of England. Mary had fled to England in 1568 following her deposition from the Scottish throne seeking Elizabeth’s help and protection, expecting that her cousin and fellow queen would commit money and troops to restore the Catholic Queen to the throne of her rebellious and (since 1560) newly Protestant kingdom. The heavily-pregnant Mary had been forced to sign her abdication in July 1567 while imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. Her rebellious Protestant lords forced Queen Mary to sign the papers immediately after she had miscarried twins. Following her escape from that castle, Mary’s armies had been twice defeated by Protestant forces under her treacherous half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray, who was in Queen Elizabeth’s pay.

Elizabeth, troubled by Mary’s lack of judgment and highly controversial marital history (in May 1567 Mary had married her third husband, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, who was publicly accused of having murdered her estranged second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in February 1567), refused to help her cousin. Instead, as she had done previously, Elizabeth secured a Protestant regency in Scotland, ensuring that Mary’s only son and heir, James VI, was raised a Protestant and taught to despise his mother. Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for the next 19 years, during which time Mary actively plotted to regain her lost freedom and, so she was accused at her trial, to overthrow her Protestant cousin. For in the eyes of Catholic Europe, it was Mary Stuart, not the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, who was the lawful Queen of England.

Mary’s plotting made her the enemy of all English Protestants, and by 1586 Elizabeth was essentially forced by her advisers to bring her Scottish cousin Mary to trial for treason. As with all Tudor treason trials, Mary’s trial verdict was a foregone conclusion, as the jurors were all English nobles subject to Queen Elizabeth. As a Queen in her own right, Mary vehemently denied that the English court had any authority to try her, and, she famously stated, she would “rather die a thousand deaths” than acknowledge herself to be subject to the laws of England.

So it came to pass that, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth I regretfully signed her own cousin and sister queen’s execution warrant. While two medieval English kings, Richard II (1367-1400, r. 1377-1399) and Edward II (1284-1327, r. 1307-1327), had been unlawfully murdered shortly after their illegal deposition from the throne, neither men were executed lawfully; an assassin in the night is entirely different from a public, state-sanctioned, royally-ordered execution. Mary’s state-sanctioned murder, for which all England bears responsibility before God, but especially Queen Elizabeth I who signed Mary’s death warrant, was different from Richard II or Edward II’s killings in that, from the English Protestant point of view, Mary’s execution represented, somehow, incredibly, an entirely legal act in conformity with the existing laws of Parliament. That is what makes it so horrendously appalling. Edward II and Richard Ii were murdered after being deposed — they never freely abdicated. Mary, too, was unlawfully forced to abdicate by her political enemies, but then she was put to death after a formal trial by the English lords acting at Queen Elizabeth’s behest.

Walking to her execution dressed as a Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded with three strokes of the axe at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8 at the age of 44.  The most heinous aspect of the entire spectacle was that Elizabeth, a God-anointed sovereign queen, signed the death warrant of her own cousin and kinswoman, a woman who was, by all right, still the lawful Queen of Scotland the morning she died in February 1587, a forced abdication being null and void under both English and Scottish law.

With this execution, a Sovereign Queen had ordered the judicial murder and execution of a fellow Sovereign Queen. A reigning monarch had put to death her own cousin, a former monarch and by birth a Queen regnant. This marked the inevitable beginning of the end. Since Elizabeth, the childless Protestant Virgin Queen, ordered her luckless Catholic cousin Mary’s execution, Mary’s grandson Charles I’s execution, and the execution of King Louis XVI of France and his Queen Marie Antoinette, were all but inevitable. From Mary’s execution on February 8, the world experienced as a horrid reality the notion that a God-anointed monarch could be lawfully and legitimately put to death. From that moment, farewell to true monarchical sovereignty.

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Bibliography:

  1. Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Amazon. 1886. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Fotheringhay-account-historical-descriptive-execution/dp/1236203968
  2. Cheetham, J. Keith. On the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited, 2000.
  3. Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. Amazon. Vintage Books: New York, NY, 2003. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Mary-Cousins-Rivals-Queens/dp/0375708200
  4. Fraser, Lady Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. Delta Book, Bantam Dell publishers: New York, NY, 1993. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Queen-Scots-Antonia-Fraser/dp/038531129X/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=16XZ1SM5PEJQJAX9N7ZB&dpID=51JO1bzHJrL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR104%2C160_
  5. Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Amazon. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY, 2004. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Scots-True-Life-Stuart/dp/0618619178
  6. Guy, John. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. Harper Perennial: London, UK, 2004. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Heart-Own-Queen-Scots/dp/1841157538

Update on 28 September 2015: As of three days ago, according to this report by the Scottish Legal News website, and corroborated by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots has been cleared of the slanderous charge of murdering her second husband. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and King consort of Scots (tenure 1565-1567, 1545-1567) was found dead with his valet at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh in February 1567. The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s panel of expert historians, pathologists, explosive experts, and forensic scientists determined that Darnley was likely assassinated by angry relatives and political rivals furious with him for betraying them after David Rizzio’s March 1566 murder, which Darnley collaborated in and executed in the pregnant Queen’s presence.