Image credit: Featureflash/
Image credit: Featureflash/

There are without doubt some genuine similarities between Queen Elizabeth II and the monarch she is about to overtake as Britain’s longest ruler, Queen Victoria.

Both grew up knowing they were destined for the throne. Both were trained to be monarchs, with lessons in constitutionalism. Both married young to men they loved dearly, and balanced being mothers of growing families with the demands and difficulties of being queen. And both have been through periods of unpopularity, as well as seeing a number of small wars fought by their governments in their name.

Both queens have also been on the throne during periods of tremendous and profound technological change, dramatically affecting the lives of their subjects and how they understand their world. For Victoria, it was railways and steam shipping, the mechanisation of production processes, photography, the telegraph etc. For Elizabeth, commercial flying, the collapse of traditional industries, popular computing and the internet has transformed daily living. Equally, the popular media changed dramatically in both reigns – with the mass circulation daily press taking off in the 1850s and television as a mass phenomenon from the 1950s – expanding the amount, and the kinds, of information available to the man and woman on the street.

In terms of their characters, public and private, there are – again – some similarities. As well as their strong sense of discipline, both grew up to love dancing, music and parties, and both had a strong sense of humour, in private at least. Victoria very frequently was amused, and we know the Queen enjoys a good joke. And both loved dogs and Scotland – especially Balmoral.

There the similarities end, to a very great extent. The Queen’s sense of duty is very much stronger than that displayed by Victoria. While both married relatively young, Victoria’s personal happiness was devastated by Albert’s death. She wallowed in her great grief, but it is hard to believe that, similarly bereft, the present Queen would have done so. Even when her beloved husband has been in hospital, she has continued to perform her public role. Elizabeth II subordinates her private feelings to her strong sense of duty – being queen requires her to do so, she clearly believes.

In practical terms, Elizabeth has had to work a great deal harder to win and keep the respect of her subjects than Victoria did. The evidence of recent years is that she has, indeed, done just that.

Judith RowbothamJudith Rowbotham
Visiting Research Professor

However, the differences between the two are rooted as much in the differences between the eras in which they reign as in their own characters.

Victoria had – and Elizabeth II has – a human touch. It was as radical for Queen Victoria to publish extracts from her diary as it was for the present Queen to have allowed television cameras in to document it. However, while Victoria’s age was still one of deference, the present queen has seen deference to social and political elites (created by respect for their lineage and wealth) virtually disappear. In practical terms, Elizabeth has had to work a great deal harder to win and keep the respect of her subjects than Victoria did. The evidence of recent years is that she has, indeed, done just that.

Victoria presided over a growing Empire, where she could persuade her politicians that it was appropriate that she acquire the title of Empress (of India) to reflect that. Elizabeth II meanwhile has presided over the decline of the Empire and the evolution of the British Commonwealth, to which she remains devoted. Her Britain has not felt confident enough of itself, and the nature of the British identity, to label itself the New Elizabethan Age. But that has much more to do with the political achievements (or lack of them) over the last half century, accompanied by the challenges to what constitutes ‘Britishness’ in the modern, multi-cultural society over which Elizabeth II presides.

Victorians were also more tolerant than modern Britain would be of a queen showing her opinions too plainly on the hot political topics of the day. It was no secret that Victoria had political favourites and, as far as she could, she displayed a tendency to meddle. We may think we know which of her prime ministers, for instance, Elizabeth II has favoured but that is more what they themselves, or their advisers and other supposedly informed commentators, have said.

Elizabeth II has, like her father and grandfather before her, a very profound constitutional understanding of her position and the importance of her role as symbolic head of state. She comprehends that people need symbols, and the cultural contexts of them, to identify with and she has been very careful not to be self-indulgent and overstep the boundaries of constitutionalism.

All of this means that, like her great-great-grandmother, she will not abdicate. The thought would never have entered Queen Victoria’s head. It has often been suggested to the present Queen but her constitutional duty as head of state, confirmed by the oath she took at her coronation, means she has taken on the job of being symbol of the British state for life. Increasingly, her son – the Prince of Wales – has started taking on more official duties in her name; and it is likely the heir apparent, Prince William, will do the same when his family is a little older.

Queen Elizabeth II may not, as David Starkey has charged, have uttered memorable words. But history is unlikely – in the longer term – to judge her as being lesser than Victoria. She has, as he also admitted, sustained and modernised the monarchy to make it fit for the late 20th and early 21st century. If there is a throne for Prince Charles to inherit, he owes it very substantially to his mother, who has rarely put a foot wrong in acting as the symbolic head of state in Britain in the 63 years, and (on 9 September) 217 days, of her reign.

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