This week, Queen Elizabeth II, 89, has surpassed the 63 years, 7 months, 2 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes that her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria spent on the throne and has become Britain’s longest serving monarch.
The occasion was marked by flag-waving crowds on the street, bells ringing out in Westminster Abbey and solemn messages in Parliament but Elizabeth, who is also the nation’s oldest ever monarch, wanted little fuss.
Initially Elizabeth did not intend to mark the event publicly at all, believing it represented little more than the fact that her father King George VI died early and that she herself has lived a long life, although she eventually bowed to public pressure and agreed to officially reopen the Borders Railway in Scotland. Prince Andrew said that this would be “business as usual” for her.
Her Majesty only made a brief reference to the momentous day when speaking to the expecting crowd at Tweedbank Railway Station in the Scottish Borders. Thanking the crowd for their welcome, she said:
“Many … have also kindly noted another significance attaching to today, although it is not one to which I have ever aspired.”
“Inevitably a long life can pass by many milestones – my own is no exception – but I thank you all and the many others at home and overseas for your touching messages and great kindness.”
Since becoming Queen, she has seen 12 Prime Ministers, starting with Winston Churchill, and there have been 12 U.S. Presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama.
As a young Princess, Elizabeth had not expected to become monarch as George VI only took the crown when his elder brother Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
She was 25 when she ascended to the throne on 6 February, 1952, following George’s death from cancer. The year she became queen, the Korean War was raging, Joseph Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union and Britain announced it had the atom bomb.
That made her the 40th monarch in a royal line that traces its origin back to Norman King William the Conqueror who claimed the throne in 1066 with victory over Anglo-Saxon Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.
In London, political leaders heaped praise on a head of state who became monarch at a time when Britain was still emerging from the ravages of World War Two and she has witnessed massive political change, social upheaval and the end of the British Empire during her longstanding reign.
“The Queen is our Queen and we could not be more proud of her,” Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament in London calling her a “rock of stability”.
“She has served this country with unfailing grace, dignity and decency and long may she continue to do so.”
In central London, the royal barge Gloriana led a flotilla of boats down the River Thames and past a four-gun salute from the battleship HMS Belfast, which is now permanently moored on the river.
Not only has Elizabeth reigned the longest but according to a poll in the Sunday Times this week, Britons also think she is the country’s greatest monarch, ahead of her Tudor namesake Elizabeth I and Victoria, who was queen for much of the 19th century when Britain became ‘Great’ with the dramatic growth of her Empire.