While the world mourns the passing of this remarkable queen, I'd like to take a brief look back through the centuries at her predecessor, Elizabeth I, to compare and contrast the lives of these female monarchs who shared a name.
Age at accession
Both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II were 25 years old when they became queens. A major difference is that Elizabeth II had been married for over 5 years at her coronation in 1953 and was the mother of two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Elizabeth I famously never married, which earned her the nickname "The Virgin Queen."
Age at death
Elizabeth I died in 1603 at age 69. Elizabeth II made it to 96 - a number that's the exact inverse of 69.
Though at first glance it would seem that Elizabeth II lived much longer than Elizabeth I, the picture changes when you factor life expectancies for their time. In 16th to 18th century Britain, the average life expectancy for women was 33 years old, and only 34 years old for men. By that measure, Elizabeth I lived to an amazing old age, just like Elizabeth II did in our modern time.
One of the greatest threats to Elizabeth's monarchy was posed by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who was considered by many influential English Catholics to be the true Queen of England. Mary was suspected of being involved in plots to assassinate Elizabeth and take her crown, and the Scottish queen was popular enough that she just might have succeeded.
The threat Mary posed ended with her imprisonment and beheading in 1587, an execution ordered by Queen Elizabeth.
I suppose that's one way to settle a family feud.
In the 1990s another popular royal relative, this time the Queen's daughter-in-law, caused consternation in royal circles. Princess Diana's sudden, untimely death in 1997 became a problem for the reigning queen when the general public went into a massive nationwide mourning.
The depth of the people's grief was underestimated by the Queen and the royal family, who stayed mainly silent and secluded in Scotland while the public grieved. This seeming indifference to the death of a beloved princess was met with anger and hostility by the grieving nation, very nearly creating a crisis for the monarchy.
This crisis was averted when Queen Elizabeth made a widely televised speech five days after Diana's death, paying tribute to the late princess, calling her an "exceptional and gifted human being" who inspired others with her "warmth and kindness" and admitted to admiring Diana for her "energy and commitment to others."
In this speech the Queen tuned in to the overwhelming loss and grief her people were experiencing, and the Queen's well-chosen words went a long way towards defusing the volatile situation.
No beheadings were necessary!
Both Queens were dedicated to their jobs. Even before she became Queen Elizabeth II made her priorities in life clear in this speech she made in 1947 on her 21st birthday, during her first overseas tour:
"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."
That was a promise she would remain unfailingly committed to throughout her reign.
Queen Elizabeth I had her defining moment as well, in the summer of 1588 when England was threatened by an invasion by Spain. She stood before her troops as they prepared to defend their country. Wearing a white velvet dress adorned by a silver breastplate, Elizabeth inspired them with these words:
"My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people . . . I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm."
"Weak and feeble woman"? I don't think so. She was more like a Warrior Queen, a prototype for Xena, Warrior Princess.
The Armada never stood a chance.
Length of Reign
Queen Elizabeth I reigned for 44 years, a record that stood until Queen Victoria's 63-year reign. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne for an astonishing 70 years, a record that's not likely to be broken any time soon.
The first Queen Elizabeth had a more ornate style. You can see that not only in her heavily decorated clothing, but in her signature as well. Just look at the flourishes and curlicues she adds to her name:
Now, I've written about Queen Elizabeth II many times in this blog, including posts about her Coronation (The Crown - Then and Now) and her and Prince Philip's 70th wedding anniversary (Happy Anniversary to the Queen and Her Prince).
I find it incredibly sad to be writing about her now in the past tense. She, and her reign, wasn't perfect - but then nothing is. However, throughout her long life she worked quietly and steadily to fulfill the vow she made as a young woman to dedicate herself to the service of her people, in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Her life was never about her; it was always about them.
And now, Queen Elizabeth II has earned her final rest and a place in history as one of England's greatest queens.
I believe Queen Elizabeth I would be proud of her namesake.