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Who is Britain’s Greatest Queen?

As Elizabeth II is set to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, Lottie Goldfinch looks at the ladies who have worn the nation’s

Today is the day I have reigned longer, by a day, than any English sovereign”, wrote Queen Victoria in her journal on 23 September 1896. At the age of 77, the diminutive Queen had overtaken her grandfather George III’s record of 21,644 days on the throne (that’s 59 years, 96 days plus 13 extra leap-year days).

Despite Victoria’s insistence that the occasion should not be celebrated publicly, her delighted subjects could not be silenced. “People of all kinds and ranks, from every part of the kingdom, sent congratulatory telegrams”, she recorded in her diary. These, she continued “were all most loyally expressed and some very prettily...”

Mary (left) and Elizabeth (right) are seen on the edges of this Tudor family portrait. At the time, neither were expected to take wear the crown

Victoria would go on to rule for nearly five more years until her death, on 22 January 1901. Since then, her near 64-year rule has been Britain’s longest. Until this year. For on 9 September, Victoria’s great-great-grandaughter HM Queen Elizabeth II is set to claim that record for herself.

Just like that day in 1896, there are to be no offcial commemorations, but on such a landmark event it is natural to draw comparisons between the reigns of the Queen and her female predecessors. Though the qualities that make for a strong monarch have changed with every era, each Queen has had her own diffculties and victories. Indeed, their extraordinary stories reveal several contenders for the crown of Britain’s greatest female monarch…

BECOMING QUEEN

Born on 21 April 1926, the eldest daughter and first child of the Duke and Duchess of York, the then Princess Elizabeth spent her childhood never expecting to be crowned. Third in line to the throne, it was only on her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 and the accession of her father, George VI, that the she moved up the line of succession. On hearing the news, her younger sister Margaret said to the ten-year-old Elizabeth: “Does that mean you’re going to be Queen? Poor you.”

The current Queen, however, is not alone in her surprising rise to the throne. At her birth in 1819, Victoria was fifth in the line of succession after her father, Edward, and his three older brothers. Her father died shortly after she was born, and her uncles failed to provide living (legitimate) heirs, before two of them passed away, leaving Victoria to become heiress presumptive to her surviving uncle, William IV, in 1830, at the age of 11.

But it is Mary I and her half-sister Elizabeth I who are, perhaps, the most unexpected of Britain’s female monarchs. Both women were stripped of their royal titles, removed from line of succession and declared illegitimate after their father, Henry VIII, ended his marriages to their respective mothers Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. When their half-brother, Edward, was born in 1537, the throne must have looked even farther from sight. Even when the third Act of Succession (1543 put Mary and Elizabeth back in the running, behind their younger brother, the idea of a woman ruling England was not popular.

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The September 2015 issue of History Revealed