History is festooned with dozens of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish royals — they are the stuff of Shakespearean dramas, Hollywood movies and Broadway plays. But at some point Wednesday, the incumbent sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, will beat them all with a reign that will surpass in length the record of 63 years, 7 months, 2 days set by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
Third place, if you’re counting, goes to George III, who lost the Thirteen Colonies and then his mind during his 59-year reign. The first Queen Elizabeth, the one with the pasty face and the orange hair, reigned for a little more than 44 years.
But this week’s milestone is more than just the stuff of parlor games. Queen Elizabeth II is one of the rare human beings who have been on the world stage for as long as most of us can remember. (Only 1 in 5 Britons alive were around when she became queen in 1952.) During her reign, technological, political and social systems have changed beyond recognition. The world’s population has grown from 2.6 billion to 7.3 billion.
Over 63 years and counting, she has advised a dozen prime ministers (the first was Winston Churchill) and observed 12 U.S. presidents and seven popes. She’s still going strong, slowing a little, but it is not in her DNA to retire — i.e., abdicate in favor of Prince Charles. Her mother lived to 101.
Elizabeth has aged through the decades from glamorous princess to a somewhat dour, behind-the-times figure to a loving granny, but she has always been there, seemingly immortal and increasingly, yes, beloved.
At first, the queen did not want to mark the day (to be seen lording it over Victoria, whom she admires greatly), but has now decided to take a train journey with Scottish officials on a stretch of railway line reopened after many years. This seemingly bland gesture actually gets to the heart of Elizabeth’s significance, argues Elizabeth biographer Robert Lacey. “It’s invested with all sorts of meaning, and it’s the most extraordinary example of the apparently passive but in fact very active role that Elizabeth plays in the psychology of her country,” he said. (Read more.)