Long Live Her Majesty

Queen Elizabeth's reign is Britain's longest and why we love her in the 21st century

by Deirdre Reilly | Updated 11 Sep 2015 at 8:46 PM

Queen Elizabeth has now become Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, beating out her own great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, for most time spent on the throne.

It’s rather astounding, but Queen Elizabeth has ruled Great Britain for 63 years and 213 days.

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England celebrated the queen’s feat by sailing a flotilla down the Thames River. The official festivities began by sea craft of all kinds, and historic ships and leisure boats sounded their horns at Tower Bridge. As the procession passed by the HMS Belfast, a four-gun salute also sounded, and crowds lined the river, with some no doubt offering a hale and hearty, “Good show, Mum!”

The queen will be surpassed in her time on the throne only by King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the world’s longest reigning monarch.

Most of her British subjects are thrilled by the new record. Historian Kate Williams told Britain’s newspaper The Independent, “It shows that our female monarchs last the longest. The Queen’s longevity is a great source of her strength and popularity. She has lived through World War Two and throughout the 20th century. Many people will not have known a different monarch.”

Don’t all of us love royalty just a little bit — at least the idea of royalty? Fans of Merchant Ivory Production films that depict properly attired British people dealing with crises of either class or romance, or both, are fascinated by the “stiff upper lip” and the innately remote nature with which the British are sometimes pegged.

Just the idea of ruling is powerfully appealing to many.

“I was looking for 'Sense and Sensibility' and of course found modern London instead,” said Carly Smith, a tourist from Boston, who traveled to London last year.

“We carry an idealized version of Britain and of London, particularly, in our minds. In reality, it was another big, busy city,” she told LifeZette. “But seeing the guards at Buckingham Palace and trying bangers and mash was worth the long flight!”

Royalty has always been fascinating, both to many of its subjects and to observers looking in from the outside. Just the idea of ruling is powerfully appealing to many; there's the hierarchy of lofty titles bestowed often because the recipient was simply born into the right family.

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip

Worldwide fascination with the royals reached a fever pitch during Princess Diana’s years in public life, when television and the rise of aggressive paparazzi shared her image and movements almost down to the minute. The queen was depicted at that time as either a quietly disapproving mother-in-law or, later, a ruler who changed and learned from her subjects’ devastation to Diana’s tragic death.

Before Diana’s dramatic entrance into arguably the world’s most famous family, photos of the royals suggested a proper and perhaps somewhat distant family who loved the outdoors, enjoyed wading about in their “wellies” while toting hunting rifles, and gathered for afternoon tea around a grand fireplace. The women wore pearls and the men suits, no matter how casual the occasion. Many photos show different family members on horseback, where the queen always seems happiest.

Other photos show the mysterious and loyal Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth's husband of 68 years this November, wearing a kilt. Old customs and a more innocent time, the images whisper to our collective subconscious. Not just old, but gilded.

The royals generate almost $767 million every year in tourism revenue.

The British tabloids have been a source of constant aggravation for the queen. Whether it was her moniker of “The Royal Heilness” as proclaimed by The Sun after film footage showed a very young Elizabeth giving a Nazi salute, or Diana’s flirtations with the media and assorted suitors covered ad nauseam, or her son Prince Charles’ clumsy attempts at wooing his mistress Camilla via cellphone (unsecure, obviously), the queen has had to put up with the downside of wearing the crown.

That goes for the public’s fascination with, and the tabloid sharing of, every aspect of living a privileged royal existence.

The royals also bring in heaps of money for England, just by being royals. Tourists from all over pour in to see Buckingham Palace and its guards, as well as other attractions such as the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. The British tourism agency has reported the royals generate almost $767 million every year in tourism revenue. Tourism is the third-largest source of revenue for Britain, according to the same agency.

Elizabeth II, Prince William, Prince Harry

And don’t forget all the money that's made from commemorative items — everything from tea cups and T-shirts to plates, hats, flags and fridge magnets — every time something significant happens to the royals, whether a baby is born or an icon passes.

So perhaps it’s the embodiment of a fairy tale that the royals and their queen represent to an increasingly beleaguered world.

“The monarchy is living history, a pageant of our past that remains relevant in the present and will continue to do so in the future,” said Gerald Warner, writing in The Independent.

Ironically, England’s longest-ruling monarch requested no celebration at all for the occasion, and asked that any celebrations be held with reverence and with no “triumphalism,” according to editors of Hello magazine. She presided over an opening of a new railway, her husband by her side.

Then she was scheduled to return to her beloved castle Balmoral, just as Queen Victoria did when she surpassed her grandfather King George III’s record. One can imagine a glass of sherry and a toast by the fire between two aging but powerful public figures who have witnessed, and survived, a multitude of historic world events.

And so, the fairy tale continues.

This article has been updated. 

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