Today in History: Birth of Queen Elizabeth II
Elizabeth II, queen of the United Kingdom and head of the Commonwealth turns 88 today, April 21. She is already the oldest British or English monarch. The second and third oldest monarchs (Victoria and George III) were both 81 when they died.
As an Aside: Great Britain is the union of Scotland and England, which formally happened in 1707. Previous to that, they were independent nations. To call Elizabeth “Queen of England” is technically incorrect.
In September, 2015, she will be England and Britain’s longest reigning monarch, surpassing Victoria, who ruled for 63 years. In 2024, she will become the longest reigning monarch of any major European country after France’s Louis XIV (the “Sun King,” for those of you who have studied European history). That would make her 98, which is certainly doable as her mother lived to 101.
Her husband, Prince Philip, is 92 and is already the longest serving royal consort (spouse of the monarch).
As an Aside: I am often asked why Philip is a prince rather than a king. A king is a monarch. The monarch is the person who inherits rulership. traditionally, that’s most often a man. The spouse of a king is a queen, but a queen can also be the monarch i.e. a woman who inherited rulership. That is Elizabeth’s position. If Philip were titled king, he would be the ruler, and he’s not.
The official celebration of her birthday will not be until June, as is tradition. I suppose it’s similar to us ocelebrating George Washington’s birthday on a day that isn’t his actual birthday. Washington is, however, dead.
Princess Elizabeth was not expected to be queen for the first 12 years of her life. Her uncle was Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1937 without children. The crown then went to his brother, George VI (known to family as Bertie, and who is the subject of The King’s Speech), who is Elizabeth’s father. Elizabeth began praying for a little brother, since boys inherited the crown before girls at the time. (Britain has only very recently changed the law to treat genders equally.)
The royal family considers the crown a heavy responsibility. Many saw Edward’s abdication not as giving up a right but rather abandoning his responsibility. As the niece of the king, Elizabeth would have lived very well without a lot of responsibility. Being queen, however, is a full-time job.
People often ask if Elizabeth will one day abdicate due to old age, and that is extremely unlikely. No other English or British monarch has done so.
World War II
There is a long tradition of military service both in the royal family and the aristocracy in general. Prince Charles has served as has his sons, William and Harry. But women were not allowed to serve during WWII, when Elizabeth came of age. So, despite the objections of her protective father, she became 2nd Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she fixed engines and drove trucks.
Elizabeth was not named after Elizabeth I, who ruled in the 16th century. Instead, she was named after her mother, known after the death of George VI as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Monarchs are not required to use their first name as their regnal name. When Prince Charles becomes king, for example, he is highly unlikely to become Charles III. It is widely speculated that he will take the regnal name George VII, after his grandfather.
When Elizabeth was asked which name she planned to use, she responded, “My own, of course. What else?”
Elizabeth (and the royal family in general) is seen by many as aloof and old fashioned. It should be remembered that Elizabeth heads an institution more than 1000 years old. On top of which, she’s 88. Most 80-year-olds have stopped being hip for some time.
But let’s not forget one of the opening scenes of the London Olympics, when the real Queen met James Bond on camera, and then a stunt man dresses as her parachutes into the stadium.
And then there’s the unintentionally funny moments, like Elizabeth with a machine gun.