Though Buckingham Palace didn’t make a big deal out of it, September 9, 2015 marked a once-in-a-millennium milestone: Queen Elizabeth II officially became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, and the second-longest-serving female monarch anywhere (after Eleanor of Aquitaine; Elizabeth could break that record in three years). By holding her crown for 62 years and 217 days, QEII surpassed the woman who previously held both of those titles, none other than Queen Victoria. Allow me to summarize the tone of most of the articles that will come up when you google this (including those from the BBC News, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Yahoo News): “Wow. Can you imagine another queen? Wow.”
Of course, it would have been unseemly for Elizabeth to organize or take part in any sort of commemoration that might possibly demean her great-great-grandmother. So let me surpass the other writers who’ve noted this milestone, and take care of that for her.
Start with the knowledge that absolutely no serious writer has ever – ever! – failed, while writing a book that discusses Anglo society between 1837 and 1901, to refer to the period as the Victorian Era or Victorian Age. It’s simply the name of the period, one that directly suggests that Victoria, or at least Victorian values, bestrode her time like a colossus. We also know that no serious writer has referred to the last six decades as the Elizabethan Era. It’s simply not done, and not only because there already was an Elizabethan Era, when Shakespeare lived. This gives the sense that England’s current Queen isn’t as important, not as influential, not really as consequential as her great-great-grandma.
And maybe that’s true. But it’s a short leap from there to the presumption that Victoria was a better queen than her great-great-granddaughter. And she wasn’t. Lest anyone turn this week into yet another opportunity to wax sympathetic for the Great Victoria, let’s suggest something radical, especially for us non-royalists: Elizabeth is better.
One reason that the English think so fondly of Queen Victoria was because of how many assassinations she survived: in 1840, thrice (thrice!) in 1842, in 1849, in 1850, in 1872, and in 1882. Each errant shot considerably increased her popularity. The death of her beloved Albert in 1861 at first occasioned sympathy, later caused ridicule (and the success of her enemies) as she remained in secluded mourning for most of a decade, and finally accorded her a measure of integrity as she never stopped wearing black for the rest of her life. Still, widowhood and near-death experiences shouldn’t, in retrospect, give undue glory to any leader.
Britain’s economy grew significantly in the last six decades of the 19th century, to the point where it accounted for as much as a third of world trade. Queen Victoria had next to nothing to do with that growth, and no British queen really could have done. Yes, she had more power than her great-great-granddaughter, but by the time of Victoria’s 1837 ascension, British domestic policy was firmly in the hands of its Parliament and Prime Minister, as it is now. True scholars of Victorian domestic politics mostly credit, or blame, men like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli (and a cantakerous press; Fleet Street wasn’t as different as you may think). Occasionally Victoria might inveigh against a bill – for example, Victoria opposed women’s suffrage, and that probably made it harder for British women to attain the right to vote – but generally, unlike monarchs in some countries, Victoria wasn’t privy to domestic policy-maker councils. (A proper ruling monarch can’t take a decade off, as Victoria pretty much did during the 1860s.)
Where Queen Victoria had more power was foreign policy, and her current esteem has everything to do with British expansion during her time and that bygone pride about the “sun never setting on the British Empire” (they may have cribbed that phrase from Russia, where, for centuries, it’s been true not about the “Empire” but about the country itself). It’s true that in recent years it’s become all too fashionable to criticize imperialists – that we shouldn’t judge Victoria by modern metrics. But bear in mind that before anyone uttered the phrase “politically correct” in the late 1980s, Elizabeth II had for decades (mostly) pursued a humbler, conciliatory foreign policy with better benefits for most Britons.
Queen Victoria presided over both Opium Wars against China, fought because the English insisted on keeping Chinese addicted to opiates for the sake of trade balance (otherwise, Britain had little that Chinese merchants wanted)…not exactly the kind of war, like one against Nazis, that one feels good about in retrospect. Victoria could have drastically reduced the severity of the Irish potato famine – instead, the famine resulted in at least a million dead, and a million more emigrated to the main British Isle. At one point in 1848, when Irish nationalism coincided with European Communist revolutions, Victoria and Albert fled to the Isle of Wight. After “The Famine Queen” (as she was known in Ireland) gave the Irish such strong reason to desire home rule, Victoria did everything she could to thwart that outcome for the remaining five decades of her life.
While it’s true that Victoria deserves credit for maintaining the Royal Navy’s control of the world’s oceans, her troops were far less effective on land. She arguably treated India worse than Ireland during and after India’s 1857 uprising; at least 100,000 Indians died in direct fighting, when Victoria could have simply walked away. Perhaps her resolve to become Empress of India was strengthened by the poor results of the Crimean War (1854-56) – though Britain won, and became closer to France than anyone might have imagined 40 years before, many English writers felt that the cost was far higher than it had to be.
Victoria wasn’t an innocent bystander to colonialism, but instead a proponent of the idea that the British rule of foreign lands was both benign and civilizing. The still-common notion that there was a Pax Britannica between the end of the Second Opium War (1860) and the start of the Boer War (1899) is refuted by Britain’s participation in continental wars in Italy and Austria and Germany, as well as its attempts to subjugate people in places like Persia, Afghanistan, Fiji, and Guyana. And finally, Britain led (in) the “race for Africa,” where knighted Britishers like Cecil Rhodes treated the colonized as little more than properties to be exploited, up to and including the Boer War, which killed at least 30,000 on both sides and was so unpopular during Victoria’s lifetime that she cancelled her annual trip to France in 1900. There’s a reason that Africa’s largest lake and its most spectacular waterfall (nowhere near the lake) are named after Victoria: Britain’s explorer-conquerors were grateful for her blessings and encouragement.
Queen Victoria also has the reputation as the so-called “Grandmother of Europe” – her “issues,” as they’re called, were quite prolific, and three of her grandsons held arguably the world’s three most important thrones in 1914, those of Germany, Russia, and Britain. Yet Victoria’s honorific has to be at least slightly tainted by the fact that, as exhaustively chronicled in Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers,” these three men couldn’t prevent the unthinkably horrific Great War, which destroyed a generation. No, the First World War certainly wasn’t Victoria’s fault, but having grandmothered its hapless, antagonistic leaders shouldn’t exactly count as a C.V. perk.
Compare Victoria’s record to the last 62 years under Queen Elizabeth. It’s true that QEII has had missteps, notably in the Suez crisis of 1856, resulting in fewer than 5000 casualties, and in the Falklands War of 1982, where the total dead numbered less than 1000. Yet these are minor compared to Victoria’s body counts (especially when you consider that the 19th century had fewer people, who were harder to mass-slaughter). More generally, Elizabeth has presided over a period remarkable for its amicability between the U.K. and other nations. Remaining inside and outside of Europe seems to have paid off well – the British pound and the London Stock Exchange remain models to the world. Elizabeth gets credit for not blinking in 35 years of the Cold War (the only person who lasted longer at it was Fidel Castro). Elizabeth has presided over welcome changes: she now pays income and capital gains tax, she’s opened many royal residences to the public, and she’s supported ending antiquated rules like male primogeniture and the royal family marring Catholics. She deserves one sentence in this article – this one – for recognizing the importance of popular culture, from the Rolling Stones to J.K. Rowling, because that sort of “soft power” has kept the U.K. vital to the world’s stories.
Some blame Queen Elizabeth, or Britain, for “losing” much of the British Empire since the 1950s. In the cases where Britain really “lost” places, as when Elizabeth kept her 1984 promise to China to cede Hong Kong in 1997, Britain has maintained an economic hegemony that has generally kept British investors happy. While Victoria’s Britain felt compelled to directly annex Hong Kong rather than leave Chinese trade to merchants, and to assert the Crown’s authority in India after the British East India Company botched the job, Elizabeth’s Britain has gone the other way, reducing direct governmental rule and increasing capitalist investment in the old territories.
One must consider the hand Elizabeth was dealt: after World War II, Britain simply no longer had the resources or political will to run the world’s affairs by fiat. In 1949, Ireland commemorated the centenary of the end of “Victoria’s famine” by departing the Commonwealth, but India opted to remain for the sake of the economic privileges, and many nations opted to follow suit – 53 in all. 16 of them, despite their U.N. seats, are still directly ruled from London. The 53 Commonwealth nations make up about a quarter of the world’s land area and about a sixth of its productivity. Yes, this is less than Great Britain at its 19th century peak – but an important difference is that these countries, like Canada, have generally chosen through democratic referendum to remain in affiliation. Under Elizabeth, the Commonwealth nations can leave it anytime they please; what’s remarkable is that the benefits remain attractive enough that they’ve barely exercised that option.
Yet how much did Elizabeth have to do with keeping her own face on 53 nations’ money? More than anti-royalists (like myself) tend to concede. In 1961, for example, Elizabeth supported an equal-racial-rights proviso in the Commonwealth agreement which she knew would prompt South Africa to abandon the Commonwealth immediately – and it did. Despite a distaste for travel, Elizabeth has been peripatetic in the service of the Empire, and in countries where royalty rules (say, Brunei and Tonga) her presence as a complement to their leaders (and not a coercive supplement, as in Victoria’s time) must have been somewhat reassuring. While it’s true that a succession of Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have arguably wielded greater direct influence, Elizabeth is in the midst of a seven-decade clinic in the exact uses of, yes, “soft power,” and Britain is stronger for it.
Perhaps we romanticize the “Victorian Era” less because of what she did and more because of who Victoria was – reserved, blunt, refined, straight-laced, moralistic, and someone who honored family imperatives despite reservations (Victoria hated pregnancy and babies, though she gave birth to nine of them). Perhaps Elizabeth just isn’t quite as appealing to the modern British character, despite the fascinating complexity revealed by Helen Mirren’s performances of her. But isn’t there something atonal about latter-day democrats celebrating a queen as a role model? Perhaps the same question might be asked of this article, to which the answer is: if we must have royalty, let’s respect them when improve the lives of their citizens.
This week, Elizabeth became England’s longest-serving, and the world’s second longest-serving, female monarch of all time. Let’s not weep many tears for the sun setting on her ancestor no longer holding those records. The bottom line is that Victoria presided over a strong economy and an expanding empire that treated its darker subjects like second-class servants, while Elizabeth presided over another strong economy and a sleeker, more economically efficient Commonwealth of happier nations. Start calling it the Second Elizabethan Era already.