Seventy Years on the Throne—Europe’s Longest Reigns as Benefit or Burden?

On the 6th of February, 1952, in a treehouse in Kenya, Queen Elizabeth II formally began her long reign, in Britain, in Canada, in Australia, and so on. Few monarchs in world history have reigned for seventy years, and it is interesting to consider whether such long reigns in history have served as beneficial or burdensome. Different examples demonstrate that a long reign can be tremendous anchors for stability, as a kingdom passes through a turbulent or otherwise transformative time in its history. But other examples can be found where an overly long reign can stifle change when change is needed. I think most would agree, in this Jubilee year, even staunch republicans, that the long reign of Elizabeth II has provided useful continuity in a period that otherwise offered swift, and to many frightening, change, from technology to inflation to decolonisation to a deconstruction of the class system as it existed in 1952. Through it all, and in spite of dynastic tribulations—such as the annus horribilis of 1992—there has been a constant presence on the British throne, benevolent and apolitical. This blog never aims to be political, but to reflect on historical precedences and interesting stories, so I won’t say more than that. I was lucky to be in London for the Golden Jubilee in 2002, and enjoyed a rooftop party with friends where we witnessed the Royal Air Force flyover and the sky streaked with red, white and blue. Twenty years later, here’s hoping we can enjoy another uplifting celebration without the divisive intervention of politics.

Elizabeth II after her coronation in 1953, by Cecil Beaton

Several of the longest reigns in British history have been those of its regnant queens: Elizabeth I, 44 years, and Victoria, for nearly 64. Historians of both the Elizabethan Age and the Victorian Age would both argue that the stability offered by these long reigns was of great value to the nation, in both cases overseeing peace and stability in politics and society that translated into great expansion of wealth and economic power. This colonial and imperial expansion is now of course seen more critically as not necessarily something to be celebrated, particularly by those whose lands were being colonised. Domestically, however, the long reigns of Elizabeth and Victoria provided continuity in an era when ordinary people were tired of endless religious upheaval, fear, and even violence in one period, and revolutionary and military disruption and destruction in the other. Rightly or wrongly, the constant presence of Victoria (and her reluctance to meddle overtly in parliamentary politics) meant that British cities could concentrate on industrialisation while much of Europe went from revolution to revolution in the same time period, often leaving destruction and chaos in their wake. The benefits of liberty and equality are of course laudable, and are the highlights of our modern age, but from the perspective of ordinary people living through these tumultuous times, many felt they would rather run their shops and plow their fields without disruption and feed their children in peace.

young Victoria

Long reigns are not an exclusively female prerogative. One of the earliest examples is the Emperor Augustus. His presence at the helm of the Roman state for over forty years allowed it to move out of the turbulent period of civil wars and avoid the disintegration of its empire. Other long and stable reigns from English kings can be seen in Henry III (56 years) in the 13th century, and Edward III (50 years) in the 14th. Long reigns avoid the unpredictability and sometimes violence of a regime change when one monarch dies and another takes his or her place. The transition for Empress Elizabeth to Peter III to Catherine II is a good case study, as Russia careened from one diplomatic alliance to another and back in the space of a few years. And long stable reigns do not always of course mean permanence–the death of Edward III’s first and second sons before his long reign ended in 1377 had long-term effects in the quarrels of the next generation, and ultimately the Wars of the Roses the generation after that.

Edward III as an old man

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, George III reigned for a historic 59 years, and although of course for much of it he was not mentally sound enough to participate in government, it is probably exactly this distance from government, as with Victoria above, and his presence a non-changing, constant representational figurehead, that allowed the British government to weather the storms of the revolutionary era without descending into popular violence or civil war, as happened across the Channel in France.

Young George III

It is in France where we see counter-examples, where long reigns are not necessarily beneficial to the state or to its people. Most people remember that the majority of French kings are named Louis. In a sense, this is itself the idea of continuity—to many people, most unable to read, the fact that the king was always named Louis (regardless of the actual number) was a comfort, much like the unchanging rituals of religion, or the repetition of the seasons. And there was a remarkable continuity of the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, just two reigns, stretching from 1643 to 1774. This hides of course much of the turbulent political struggles and foreign wars that damaged the Kingdom, and in many ways led France directly to revolution in 1789. And this love of continuity by much of the ruling classes in some sense also stifled necessary development and change. If we look at the reign of Louis XIV in particular, his 72 year reign witnessed the coming and going of two complete generations, and the birth of a third, where political and military figures eager for change and improvement were never given their chance, as the old king preferred to rule through people  and methods that he knew. Commentators at the time recognised this: writers like the Duke of Saint-Simon and the Archbishop Fénelon both noted that Louis XIV preferred to govern with men he had been raised with in the 1640s-50s, or their offspring and protégés: the Colberts, the Le Telliers, the Phélypeaux, the family of the duke of Villeroy (see my blog post on the Villeroy) and so on. By the turn of the 18th century, there were already two generations waiting in the wings: those born in the 1650s-60s, the generation of the King’s son, the Dauphin Louis, who never got his chance to rule (which included Fénelon); and those born in the 1670s-80s, the young guns who formed a cabale around the King’s grandsons, the dukes of Burgundy, Anjou and Berry, and to which Saint-Simon himself belonged. There was palpable relief when Louis XIV finally died, aged 76, in 1715. The new king, Louis XV, was a child, so Saint-Simon’s generation eagerly seized the moment under the command of one of their own, the Duke of Orléans (b. 1674), who acted as Regent of France, and ushered in a new age of Enlightenment.

Louis XIV and three generations of heirs

A similar scenario can be seen in Austria-Hungary, where by 1916, two generations of political leaders were anxious to modernise the Empire, and perhaps prevent its destruction. Emperor Franz Joseph had been ruling since December 1848. At the time, he was seen as a breath of fresh air, a handsome youth to rescue Austria from the chaos of the revolutions of 1848; someone who could sweep away the memory of the oppressive anti-revolutionary regime of old men like Prince Metternich and other ancient survivors of the Napoleonic age, half a century before. He married a beautiful Bavarian princess, ‘Sisi’, who even charmed the Hungarians and learned their language, thus facilitating in a small way the transformation of the Austrian Monarchy into the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. But it was not enough for this multi-ethnic state in an era of ever-increasing nationalism: the Poles, the Serbs, the Croats, all wanted their status in the Empire recognised on equal footing too. Franz Joseph did not see it that way. His generation still believed that the power of dynasticism was stronger than the power of nationalism. To him, the Habsburg dynasty was the only thing needed to form the nucleus of the state. Crown Prince Rudolf and others of the generation born in the 1850s, had more liberal ideas, and were drawn to the idea of a more loosely confederated empire, but they were kept away from power and turned instead into bored rich playboys. The equivalent can be seen in the eldest son and eldest grandson of Queen Victoria, ‘Bertie’ and ‘Eddie’. Rudolf had no children, and died of suicide, so the heirs of the increasingly elderly Franz Joseph became his nephews.

Franz Joseph in 1851

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is not remembered today as a liberal reformer, and he did push for an increasingly centralised military force, but he did indeed support plans for federalising the Empire and giving increasing devolved powers to the Croats, Serbs, Czechs and so on. It is ironic therefore that Serb nationalists brought about his death, and of course with it, World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and over 600 years of Habsburg rule. But old Franz Joseph soldiered on, pursuing the war no one wanted and which could probably have been prevented. He and his elderly advisors were unable to see that an ultimatum versus a small state like Serbia would bring the full weight of the Russian Empire down upon them. With Franz Ferdinand dead, the heir became the Emperor’s great-nephew, from the next generation, Carl (b. 1887). Carl and his generation also saw federalisation as the way forward, but were even stronger advocates of peace over sabre-rattling. When Carl finally succeeded as emperor in 1916, he tried at once to make peace, particularly with France, but it was too late, and his dynasty lost everything in November 1918. There are those who still believe today that a pan-Danubian federated state would be much more beneficial to the people of this region than fragmented states governed along ethnic and nationalist lines—and with nationalism ever on the rise in this region today, there is certainly nostalgia for a period when prime loyalties were to a dynasty that floated above ethnic division.

Franz Joseph at his desk, 1912, an untiring toiler

In 2022, the age of any monarchy in Europe wielding more than just symbolic power is past. Yet people from Denmark to the Netherlands do enjoy raising a glass to celebrate those figures who are always there in the national consciousness, when ministers and policies come and go. Today, many of the monarchs on European thrones are relatively young, and grew up in a modern media age. We shall see what the long-term legacy is from people like Felipe VI or Willem-Alexander (both born in the late 60s), or those who will take over in the coming years, like Victoria or Sweden or Haakon of Norway (both born in the 70s).

Crown Princess Victoria

(images Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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