“I declare before you all, that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service, and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
On the occasion of her 21st birthday, while on her first official overseas engagement, the then Princess Elizabeth declared those famous words. Spoken with solemnity and conviction, she pledged herself to a life of service. She has not wavered from that heavy burden once in the past sixty-eight years later. Though her 90th birthday is still a few months away, she recently passed a different, though no less impressive milestone. On 9 September 2015, Her Majesty surpassed Queen Victoria’s record as longest reigning British monarch, at 63 years, 216 days.
Her reign has spanned more than six decades and is a testament to her devotion to service, to the stability of the institution she represents, and to the admiration of the people in each of her realms. Indeed, very few of those people can even remember a time when she wasn’t the monarch. Over this exceptionally long period of time, a tenure to which very few heads of state can compare, our Queen has seen phenomenal change all over the world. Over the course of her reign, the monarchy itself has adapted and modernised. For example, in New Zealand, the Royal Succession Act was made law in 2013, removing male preference and ending discrimination against an heir marrying a Roman Catholic. The monarchy has progressively become more accessible, and in some ways more human – a change over which she has presided.
Queen Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother Victoria recognised the significance of surpassing George III as longest reigning British sovereign. She recorded the moment in her journal on September the 23rd, 1896:
“Today is the day on which I have reigned longer, by a day, than any English sovereign, and the people wished to make all sorts of demonstrations, which I asked them not to do until I had completed 60 years next June. But notwithstanding that this was made public in the papers, people of all kinds and ranks, from every part of the kingdom, sent congratulatory telegrams, and they kept coming in all day.”
Like her great-great grandmother, The Queen will no doubt see the occasion as more than a mark of longevity. Not only does it demonstrate the continuity of constitutional monarchy, it also represents the unification of a diverse nation under a constitutional system that cannot be held to ransom by political manoeuvre or scheming, and is not characterised by arbitrary terms of office. She will likely reflect on the lifetime commitment she gave on her 21st birthday many decades ago, as she did on her Diamond Jubilee in 2012:
“In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness, examples of which I have been fortunate to see throughout my reign and which my family and I look forward to seeing in many forms as we travel throughout the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth.”
In the coming years, many more milestones approach. Next year, The Queen will celebrate her 90th birthday, and in 2017 she will mark 65 years as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as New Zealand, and her other realms and territories. In 2022, she will be the first British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne – a momentous occasion which will likely mirror the Diamond Jubilee festivities. As she continues to reign, shouldering the burdens of state with her characteristic grace and humility, she will remain a source of inspiration for many. She is a continual embodiment of service.