Our long-lived Queen is an historic rarity

By Graham Stewart (THE TIMES, 22/04/06):

IT IS AS well that it is a job for life because a high proportion of Britain’s monarchs never reached what would otherwise be considered pensionable age. The point is illustrated by a startling fact — Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the third crowned head in British history to celebrate an 80th birthday. In this, she finds herself equalled by only two of her predecessors, King George III and Queen Victoria.

Of course, there are good reasons why many rulers did not make it to their dotage. Whether or not it was nasty and brutish, life in the Dark Ages had a tendency to be short. The average life expectancy of the Anglo-Saxon rulers was late thirties, although Edward the Confessor struggled on to 62 and Edward the Elder almost lived up to his name by shuffling off this mortal coil at 55.

Even in the dynasties that have followed, periodic occupational hazards have increased monarchical turnover. Yet more than 350 years have elapsed since any of our monarchs died of unnatural causes. Given that they enjoyed more varied diets, roomier domestic arrangements and highly attentive medical service, it remains surprising that they have often failed to outpace the expectations of their subjects.

In all, there have been 41 monarchs (counting William and Mary as two) in the 886 years between 1066 and Queen Elizabeth’s accession in 1952. Their average life expectancy was 54 (although you could add a year to the average by excluding the hapless Lady Jane Grey, executed at the age of 17 after 14 days on the throne). The life expectancy of the four kings who ruled in the half-century preceding the current Queen was 67.

With silver, golden and — in Queen Victoria’s case — diamond jubilees, official celebration has tended to mark longevity on the throne rather than the age of the monarch. For this reason that the Queen is now within reach of becoming the oldest reigning monarch in her country’s history has rarely been noted.

Of the remaining competition, King George III and Queen Victoria were both 81 when they died. And in this context, Queen Elizabeth’s achievement becomes more striking. For, by the time her two venerable forebears were octogenarians, their workload was not remotely comparable to what she continues to carry out day in, day out. Unlike Victoria, her reign has not been marked by a lengthy period of withdrawal from the public glare. Unlike George III, she has not been obliged to take “ time out” in order to regather her mind.

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands abdicated in 1948 at the age of 68. Her successor, Queen Juliana, abdicated in 1980 on the day of her 71st birthday. Yet, Queen Elizabeth II will not go Dutch. “Long live the Queen”, they shouted at her Coronation. And so, happily, it has proved.