God Save The Queen!
The young princess came of age listening to the roar, whistle and thud of air raids near the sand-bagged redoubt of Windsor Castle. As the Second World War neared its end in 1945, she would wheel an ambulance through roads cratered by German bombs. She became Queen on Feb. 6, 1952, upon the death of her father, King George VI. Neither she, nor her subjects, had any real say in the matter.
And Queen she remains. A Queen who, as of 5:30 p.m. London time on Sept. 9, 2015, surpasses the 23,226-day, 16-hour and 23-minute reign of Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. A Queen longer than any monarch in British history. Like Victoria, who became the longest-serving monarch in 1896, Elizabeth is not particularly keen to have this milestone celebrated. Like Victoria, she is extraordinarily well-briefed on the affairs of her realm, though less overtly meddlesome.
Elizabeth has also produced a large (for her times) family with its share of woes and, like her great-great-granny, she has kept Charles, her son and heir, waiting into his senior years for a chance to rule. There the similarities largely end. The often reclusive Victoria was obese, frail and mentally confused by the time of her death at 81, while age has hardly diminished Elizabeth—although, of course, she is no longer the fetching beauty who married Philip. She has morphed over time to become the all-knowing grandmother of the Commonwealth, while remaining, in an era of fleeting attention spans, perhaps the most famous woman in the world.
The crown is more often conveyed in sorrow than in joy. It’s a lesson Elizabeth would learn at age 25, when Philip broke the news of her father’s death while the couple was visiting a Kenyan game resort. He put his arm around a weeping Elizabeth that morning as they walked the lawns of the resort, contemplating their loss and the daunting new reality. His career as a naval officer was over. She was Queen. He was her consort; their life sentence had begun.
Unlike raw power, influence is a discreet instrument. In the 63rd year of her reign, she is a master of the long game.
The last vestiges of Victorian prudery crumbled in Elizabeth’s time, as did the Empire, though she can’t be blamed—or credited—with either event. It was left for her to put a brave public face on her family’s marital woes, and to champion the Commonwealth, the more benign offspring of the empire Britain once ruled. For a woman who’s never owned a passport, it’s been quite the journey.
She was—literally—born to do this job, and has worked relentlessly these 63 years to prove herself worthy. So she gathers bouquets while she may, she smiles and lets them snap their damned photos. And, in so doing, tries to keep alive in a loud and cynical age this curious notion of a hereditary monarchy.