I’ve always rather enjoyed the cantankerous Dr David Starkey ever since we shared a bottle or three of Prosecco in a caravan in Green Park. We were ensconced in the ITV compound opposite Buckingham Palace to commentate on the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I did take exception, however, when he recently said that HM The Queen’s reign compared unfavourably with that of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
As we all know, tomorrow Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest serving monarch in British history pushing Queen Victoria into 2nd place and King George III into 3rd. The more I read about Queen Victoria, the less I like her. Queen Victoria’s obsession with her consort Prince Albert eclipsed any affection for her children and in particular the eldest boy Bertie. When the Prince Consort died, the Widow of Windsor went into a forty-year period of deepest mourning.
Though she appeared to be rather a gay young lady, Princess Victoria was under the malign influence of her widowed mother the Duchess of Kent and her Svengali Sir John Conroy. The relationship was beautifully described in the Emily Blunt film Young Victoria. As a young married woman Queen Victoria was the first reigning monarch to live in Buckingham Palace and was known to dance until 3am in the morning so, naturally, her nine pregnancies were viewed as hideous indignities.
The Queen’s letters to her children are loaded with heavy-handed advice, censure and frustration. She meddled furiously in the marriages of her sons and daughters as well as the marriages of royal cousins throughout Europe and Russia who were all related to the British royal family. History has proven Queen Victoria to be quite wrong in much of her dynastic matchmaking.
Queen Victoria has been depicted many times on screen not least Dame Judi Dench’s rendering of the old queen in Mrs Brown. I think the most accurate portrayal of Queen Victoria from youth to the grave was given by Anette Crosbie in the TV series Edward VII starring Timothy West. Crosbie’s queen is vain, imperious, incredibly short of temper and as bullying with her Prime Ministers as she was with her family.
HM Queen Elizabeth II has missed the State Opening of Parliament only twice in her entire reign. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria appeared seven times in forty-years. She was deeply unpopular because as queen Victoria failed to uphold her constitutional duties and show herself amongst her people. This might be understandable considering that there were several assassination attempts in her younger life. But monarchy must be visible and has to put on a show. A black-clad queen-without-crown hiding behind the walls of Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Osborne House was useless as a symbolic head of state.
I believe Queen Victoria’s popularity was restored somewhat when she celebrated her Golden and Diamond Jubilees. By the late 1890s, Queen Victoria earned applause for endurance alone. She had presided over the greatest age of Empire that Britain had ever enjoyed before or since. She was the first and last Queen Empress of India regnant. I do wonder whether Queen Elizabeth II will ever wear Queen Victoria’s petite diamond crown that she had Garrard set for State Occasions in her later life?
The British Empire effectively died with Queen Victoria in 1901. In some respects our status as a world power was downhill all the way after the old lady was buried next to her beloved Albert in the Frogmore Mausoleum at Windsor. It is Dr Starkey’s belief that Queen Elizabeth II has been such an example of a constitutional monarch – saying nothing of consequence and rising above politics – that her reign will be remembered for little other than presiding over great change.
I find that rather a narrow verdict on Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The Industrial Revolution was a blip compared to the global Technological Revolution that has consequently rendered the world unrecognisable. The Queen was born into the era of Downton Abbey and has lived to see the t’Internet, drones and Cheryl Cole. I am bewildered to see tech that was science fiction on Star Trek thirty-years ago come true so Lord only knows how The Queen feels.
I think one of The Queen’s greatest achievements was to nurture the Commonwealth and carve a useful global alliance out of what was once the empire. As the EU collapses, we may have more cause to thank The Queen for the Commonwealth as a trade network. The Queen has also steered the royal family through the dark days of the 1990s when three of her four children divorced and Diana, Princess of Wales died.
I heard the tumbril wheels creaking during the aftermath of Diana’s death. The monarchy appeared to totter and thunder rolled around the throne. For The Queen to be so unpopular at such a late stage in the reign must have been bewildering albeit undeserved. I believe the deaths of her mother and sister in 2002 allowed The Queen to assume the mantle of the Nation’s Grandmother. She was wise to finally bless the marriage of Prince Charles and Mrs Parker-Bowles. Prince William is a very lucky boy to have the experience and advice from his grandmother who is so much more benign, selfless a monarch than Queen Victoria.
If The Queen has kept the promise she made on her accession, Prince Philip has followed his vow to ‘never let The Queen down’ to the letter. Their sense of duty – and the sense of humour that must be necessary to carry out endless public functions – is exemplary. We’ve had Bluff King Hal, ‘Merry Monarch’ King Charles II and ‘Wisest Fool in Christendom’ King James I. I wonder how we will remember the present Queen? Maybe as a second Good Queen Bess or Queen Elizabeth the Constant.