On September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest serving British monarch eclipsing her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria. This date is also notable in British monarch history for another reason; it’s the four-hundred and seventy-two year anniversary of Mary Queen of Scotland’s coronation, and both Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria are directly related to Mary Queen of Scots. Being a queen may have been their birthright, but through their actions, these three women have become cultural and historical icons.
Victoria served as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901 and as the empress of India from 1876 to 1901. Today many view “Victorian England” and Queen Victoria herself as “prudish” or “old fashioned,” and in comparison to contemporary society, this is certainly true. Queen Victoria was not a supporter of Women’s Rights, and is quoted as saying, “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights.'” However, when it came to marriage, she took matters into her own hands and proposed to her future husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. She was a uniquely powerful symbol of feminine power and authority in a time of expanding ideas and significant progress in terms of science, technology, philosophy, religion, and culture.These progress times were often politically turbulent, and this is apparent in the rapid succession of British prime ministers. During her nearly sixty-four years of service, Victoria worked with ten different prime ministers in Great Britain and more than twenty other prime ministers in the British Empire. While her powers of governance were limited – she was a constitutional monarch – she helped to define what this meant in a time of rapid change and growth. A constitutional monarch is supposed to be politically neutral, and Queen Victoria became the impartial and stable face of the British Empire which helped to unify disparate parts into a whole.
She was mostly successful at this and patriotic pride was evident at both her Golden and Diamond Jubilees celebrating the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her service as queen. On the night of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal, “The streets, the windows, the roofs of the houses, were one mass of beaming faces, and the cheers never ceased.”
Queen Victoria’s legacy is also notable for her social responsibility. She and her husband became the patron of one-hundred and fifty public and charitable institutions during their tenure. Additionally, she introduced the “Victoria Cross,” a merit badge of honor for great acts of bravery during the Crimean War.
Her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, is probably the most recognized woman in the world, and like Queen Victoria, she continues to be the stable symbol of Great Britain no matter who the prime minister is, and has served alongside twelve different prime ministers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron.
She is also committed to charitable service. At the age of 18, she became the first female member of the Royal Family to enter the armed services after begging her father to let her join the war effort. During WWII she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service where she trained as a mechanic and military truck driver. On her 21st birthday, during her first overseas tour in southern Africa, she made the following broadcast, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” Since she became Queen at the age of 25, she has expanded the service duties of the Royal Family, and they now officiate over 2000 service engagements a year. The Royal Family is listed as a patron or president of over 3000 charitable organizations.
Unlike Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, Mary Stuart was an absolute monarch. She was crowned Queen of Scotland in 1543 when she was still a baby, and her short life was rife with palace intrigue, scandal and tragedy. She spent her youth in France where she was raised in the Catholic faith. She married the King of France, but he died within the first year of marriage, and Mary returned to her native Scotland. Instead of finding friends, she was surrounded by enemies, for her Scottish advisors were not Catholic but Protestant. She married a second time to her unpopular and temperamental cousin Lord Darnley. Their union was an unhappy one, and it ended with Darnley’s assassination very soon after Mary gave birth to her heir. Mary’s role in his death is not fully known, but she quickly married the chief murder suspect, the Earl of Bothwell. Her reasons for doing so are also a mystery and there is much debate among historians — some believe it was a forced marriage, for he kidnapped her after the death of her husband. Others assert that the abduction was planned and they shared a deep connection. Whatever the case, her third marriage created a major scandal and she was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne to her infant son James. Mary fled to England seeking refuge and protection from her cousin Elizabeth I. Instead Elizabeth I imprisoned her for eighteen years and then executed her for treason.While jailed, Mary embroidered, “In the End is my Beginning,” and this statement is her significant to her legacy. After Elizabeth I died in 1603, Mary’s son King James I became the King of not only Scotland but also England. He moved his mother’s burial place to Westminster Abbey, and now she rests in an impressive tomb directly across the hall from Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth II may very well be the most famous women alive today. Her face is on currency, newspapers, tee-shirts, and coffee cups, and her longevity of service is admirable. It is both ironic and fitting that she should share her first day as longest serving monarch by remembering the legacy of her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria and her 10th great grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots.