by The Laird o’ Thistle
November 19, 2016
It has been some time since I wrote, not since before the Queen surpassed her great-great-grandmother to become the longest reigning monarch in British history, and before she surpassed the personal milestone of her 90th birthday. Coverage of these and other royal events in Britain has been well handled, and I really have not seen what I might usefully add to the mix. That said, there is something that I would like to point out about the upcoming twelve months.
On Sunday, 20 November, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip observe their 69th wedding anniversary, beginning their 70th year of marriage. From that mark, beginning in December 2016, there are a significant number of British royal milestones coming up in the next year. There is a centenary. There are a couple of important eightieth anniversaries. And, there is a series of important seventieth anniversaries, culminating on 20 November 2017. All of them are closely tied to HM Queen Elizabeth II, who also marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of her reign in 2017.
First, the Centenary of the House of Windsor: On 17 July 1917, toward the end of the third full year of World War I, the British royal family changed its name. At the instance of King George V, the briefly tenured House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which began in 1901 when Edward VII succeeded Queen Victoria, the last Hanoverian, assumed a new identity as the House of Windsor. The stories of that change, in the face of wartime anti-German sentiment, are familiar to many. Also familiar is the fact that other branches of the extended British royal family were compelled to follow suit, including the members of the Battenberg family, who became Mountbattens.
In the century since, obviously, those two particular families have come together. Although officially a member of the Danish-Greek branch of the House of Oldenburg, Prince Philip assumed his maternal line surname when he was naturalized as a British subject in March 1947… seventy years ago. Upon Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, under pressure from Queen Mary (her grandmother) and Winston Churchill, it was announced that despite custom the official name of the British royal house and family would remain Windsor. (Lord Louis Mountbatten’s indiscreet boasting is said to have provoked Queen Mary.) In 1960 the Queen somewhat ameliorated this with the declaration that the actual surname of her descendants, apart from any royal titles, was to be “Mountbatten-Windsor”. The surname was first officially used by Princess Anne in 1973, in signing the register at her marriage to Captain Mark Philips. It has cropped up occasionally since then.
On 17 July 2017, then, the ninety-one-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, and her ninety-six-year-old husband will observe the 100th anniversary of both their families. So far as I know, no plans have yet been announced for how the anniversary will be marked, but given the Queen’s personal memory of, and deep connection to, her royal grandparents, and Prince Phillip’s corresponding attachment to his Mountbatten kin, it will doubtless be commemorated… perhaps at St. George’s, Windsor.
Second, come two significant eightieth anniversaries: On 11 December 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated and was succeeded by King George VI. At the same moment, of course, 10 ½-year-old Princess Elizabeth became Heiress Presumptive to the throne. In the following spring, on 17 May 1937, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mum) were crowned at Westminster Abbey. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret both took part in the coronation and balcony appearances afterward, under the stern gaze of their granny, Queen Mary.
The anniversaries of her father’s accession and her parents’ coronation will, doubtless, be more personal than public for the Queen. Nonetheless, they also mark her own entry into official public life in the United Kingdom, some fifteen years prior to her own accession.
Third comes a series of seventieth anniversaries: We have already quietly passed the anniversary of the private consent of King George VI that his daughter could wed Prince Phillip, which occurred in the summer of 1946. The king’s stipulation, however, was that the engagement not be made public until after Princess Elizabeth’s twenty-first birthday on 21 April 1947.
That birthday, most famously, was marked by the “my whole life, whether it be long or short…” speech given by the Princess. Broadcasting to the entire Empire/Commonwealth from South Africa, where the family was on an official tour, the Princess dedicated herself to the service of “our great imperial family, to which we all belong.” In a way, this may be the most important of all the 2017 anniversaries. It is remarkable that seventy years on, she still lives out that commitment daily.
The other anniversaries in this series relate to the Queen and Prince Phillip’s marriage. As noted, the Prince became a British subject, assuming the Mountbatten surname, in March 1947. Their engagement was publicly announced on 10 July 1947. On the eve of their wedding, Philip… along with Princess Elizabeth… was made a Knight of the Garter. He was also made Duke of Edinburgh (etc.) and designated a Royal Highness by King George VI. The royal couple was then married on 20 November 1947 in Westminster Abbey.
Seventieth wedding anniversaries are much more common at present than once seemed imaginable, given the combination of younger ages at marriage in that time, together with increased longevity, and the greater long-term stability of marriages from that generation (than current). That the Queen and Prince Phillip will… God willing… reached this milestone is, nonetheless, a great achievement for them both as spouses and as working partners.
Finally, in tenure: On 6 February 2017, Queen Elizabeth II will quietly mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of her beloved father, and her own accession to the throne. Sadly, for her, shortly on the heels of this will come the fifteenth anniversary of the deaths of both her beloved sister and their mother.
As the Queen said in September last year (2015), a long life means passing many milestones. Some are things that have simply occurred, others are things achieved. More than anything else, in my opinion, 2017 marks the seventy years of “devoted service” by Queen Elizabeth II to the “great family” of former Empire and current Commonwealth. Seventy years of service to the century-old House of Windsor, and the Mountbatten-Windsor family. Seventy years of commitment and life together with a beloved husband and partner. Her whole, now long, life of devoted service is an achievement, possibly never to be matched.
Whether 2017 proves to be the culminating year… not in the sense of final, but perhaps in the sense of climatic significance… of the reign of an increasingly elderly and frail couple remains to be seen. The time, for them… and all of us… is not just moving on but counting down. Prince Phillip, over the years, has said that it is really rather obscene to try to create or define a legacy for oneself. But in a way his wife did so, lang syne, back in her own so-called “salad days”, with a speech from a Cape Town garden on a sunny April day…