February 6th, 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne of England. With the exception of her ancestor, Queen Victoria, no other monarch has served as long on the throne of the British Empire.
While Queen Victoria occupied the throne for 63 years, she really only reigned for twenty, because as soon as her consort Prince Albert died, she went to ground and spent the rest of her life, fully 40 years, as a pampered and self-indulgent recluse, neglecting her duties as Queen and flaming the always nascent republican sentiment in the land. She was a dour, joyless woman whose only contributions were the naming of an era and populating the thrones of Europe with her progeny. Not a lot of return for the vast amounts of wealth she and her large brood took from the British treasury over her lifetime.
Her great-great grand-daughter is a very different story. Queen Elizabeth was not born to succession and, had history played out differently, she would have been a mere member of the royal family, an interesting cousin to the King, perhaps, and could have chosen her own path in life. When her uncle Edward the Eighth abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth’s father was thrust on to the throne with no preparation or training. He ruled for only sixteen difficult years, including all of World War II, before succumbing to cancer at just 57. His daughter has now been Queen for longer than he was alive.
The story of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is the story of modern Great Britain. A study of her reign is a study of the evolution of society as expressed through politics, morality, the class system in the UK, and an institution which has always had to adapt or die. While many of the adaptations the monarchy has had to make have been painful, this Queen has been masterful in understanding what needed to be done, and implementing change with care and sensitivity, ensuring that the institution stays relevant as the world inevitably changes.
Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith is a very readable narrative description of the life of Queen Elizabeth. It details her reign from the beginning to now and is really the story of her “job” and her life as told though the events in her life between 1952 and the present day. Because Bedell Smith is an American, she spends much time discussing the Queen’s interactions with various American diplomats, presidents, and luminaries. The author relies heavily on other published works as well as interviews and, while there is nothing new or startling in this book, it will be appealing to American readers who are interested in the quotidian details of the work of the monarch, and her family, and the devotion to duty which is embedded in Queen Elizabeth’s DNA.Both Ben Pimlott and Sarah Bradford published biographies of the Queen to commemorate her seventieth birthday in 1996, and unlike Bedell Smith’s approach, they both wrote of the life and times of the the Queen. Pimlott’s work is The Queen: A biography of Elizabeth II and Bradford’s is Elizabeth. Each has provide historical and constitutional context for the events surrounding the life of the Monarch and, as both authors have intimate knowledge of the English aristocracy, they provide both insight and color (read gossip) in to the rather arcane world inhabited by the hereditary ruling class, and the implications of their dynastic worldviews. They have both chosen to locate the monarchy within the broader context of the Commonwealth and the world, which is very instructive in understanding the role of this Queen as a global leader, albeit a quiet one. As the monarchy is at the intersection of the military, the political and the aristocratic life of the country, understanding those elements is key to understanding the brilliance of the reign of this Queen.
While both these books are excellent, and highly recommended, there is little to choose between them, as each is organized chronologically, is very well researched and unfailingly interesting. While each of the three biographies above dwells on the important role of Prince Philip, the royal Consort, the recently published Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Years by Philip Eade helps provide insight into this complex and remarkable man who has been at the Queen’s right hand for 64 years. While he started out as a dashing but impoverished Greek emigre with connection to the House of Windsor, he became one of the most influential but unsung men of the last century. His path to this pinnacle was often painful, but he is truly a man of steel, facing adversity head-on, keeping calm and carrying on, and speaking his mind as plainly as you like (much more plainly than many of the courtiers like, actually).
To fully understand and appreciate this remarkable Diamond Jubilee, it is necessary to understand the role Prince Philip has played, and Eade’s book is a look into the circumstances and decisions that shaped the man.