Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, celebrated her 90th birthday last week. Despite being the oldest-serving British monarch, she is still going strong: She had 341 official engagements last year and the day after her birthday welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to her home, Windsor Castle.
Elizabeth has become, after a reluctant and tumultuous tenure, the model for the monarchy. As former Prime Minister John Major put it, “If you were designing someone to be monarch, you would design Elizabeth II.” It is a testimony to her dedication that she continues to honor the declaration she made at the age of 21 that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of the great imperial commonwealth to which we all belong.”
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born April 21, 1926, the eldest child of Prince Albert, the duke of York, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She was third in line to the throne, after her father, who was second to his elder brother David, the prince of Wales. By all accounts she was shy and dutiful, content to stay out of the public eye and focus instead on her horses. When the prince of Wales, by then Edward VIII, was forced to abdicate as a result of his relationship with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, Elizabeth’s hopes for a quiet life ended, although she is reported to have prayed for a brother, who would have taken precedence over her when her father died. No brother was born, and when George VI died in 1952, Elizabeth ascended to the throne.
The 64 years of her reign have been marked by the modernization of the British monarchy. Much of that is because she has been the only monarch for most of the postwar era. She was the first queen to send email, open a website, have a Twitter account and offer the public glimpses — carefully scrubbed of course — of the private life of the royal family. Still, she cherishes her privacy and has endeavored to draw sharp lines between her life as monarch and that of the woman who serves as queen.
Sadly, those lines have proven permeable, and the public’s appetite for details of the royals has proved insatiable; indeed it has been whetted by the behavior of her family, which has provided ample fodder for the tabloids. The storybook marriage of her eldest son Charles and Diana imploded, and each of her children has had public divorces, frequently accommodated by scandals. But if those private lives overshadow their public figures, the queen continues to set an example for dedication and probity — although she apparently has a sense of humor as well, as evidenced by her cameo at the 2012 Olympic Games, in which she parachuted into the Opening Ceremonies with James Bond.
The death of Princess Diana was perhaps the most difficult moment of the monarchy, as the queen’s reaction was thought too reserved and too distant, but it was not the only such case of personal hardship. Her husband’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was assassinated in 1979 (along with two others) when the IRA put a bomb aboard his fishing boat. That same year, one of her staff, the surveyor of pictures, was revealed to have been a Soviet spy, a revelation that came at a time of increasing skepticism about the value of the monarchy itself.
But Queen Elizabeth has overcome virtually all doubts about the meaning and significance of the royal family. She has been a pillar of strength and stability for a country that has experienced considerable difficulties during the second half of the 20th century. During her reign, the United Kingdom lost most of its empire, and episodes such as the 1956 Suez crisis made clear the gap between Britain’s ambitions and the reality of its international position. Britain’s status has been steadily reduced, even though some may say it commands outsized influence for a nation its size.
Throughout this long, and sometimes messy process, Elizabeth has been a pillar of strength, the embodiment of the British ideal of service and a stiff upper lip. A 2015 poll showed that she was not only considered the best monarch in British history, but she also had the best “job performance” rating of any British public figure and a whopping 72 percent felt she “does the best job at representing the U.K. abroad” (a mere 6 percent selected then Foreign Secretary William Hague and 5 percent picked Prime Minister David Cameron ). Not surprisingly, large majorities — 71 percent — believe that Britain should keep a monarch as head of state. Her presence is part of the reason that some countries chose to remain in the Commonwealth, rather than severing ties with the former empire.
It is this connection to ordinary citizens that explains the queen’s longevity and is the most important thing to celebrate on her 90th birthday. She remains committed to the pledge she made as a 21-year-old to devote herself to the service of her people. This belief in service ties her to the public and them to her, a remarkable achievement in an age of self indulgence, over-exposure and a growing distance between political institutions and the people they are said to represent.