Queen Elizabeth becomes longest-reigning British monarch

As Queen Elizabeth becomes the longest-serving British monarch today, there is little public fanfare to mark the milestone in a reign that has seen her guide a monarchy that has weathered controversy and questions about its relevancy at least a little bit closer to those who live outside palace walls.

House of Windsor may be steeped in tradition, but she has been willing to consider new ideas

WATCH: Historical highlights of the Queen's life

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A quick trip back through the life of Elizabeth

In taking a ride on a steam locomotive in Scotland today, Queen Elizabeth — in her own quiet way — has acknowledged a milestone she had hoped would not otherwise cause too much fuss.

The 89-year-old has become the longest-reigning British monarch, edging past the 63 years and 216 days that her great-great-grandmother Victoria reigned.

Elizabeth reportedly rejected suggestions for any particular celebration. Instead, with the ride to reopen a railway line, the monarch known for her sense of dedication and duty is doing the kind of thing she has normally done so often during her reign.

Still, there could be a subtle acknowledgement of the greater historical significance of the day.

"The people at Buckingham Palace probably thought, 'Well, that is at least a nod to the Victorian age because that was the age of these steam railways,' " says Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty magazine and author of a recently released book, The Queen's Speech.

Seward sees one other interesting parallel with Victoria: the quiet way both women marked or will mark becoming Britain's longest-serving monarchs. Victoria was at Balmoral Castle and the Queen will return there, too, after her ride on the rails, to continue her annual summer holiday in the Scottish highlands.

"I like that comparison," says Seward. "They're both at Balmoral, both writing in their diaries and both probably thinking about how old they are, or how old they were."

For Elizabeth, those years she may reflect upon represent a time of sweeping change outside — and to some extent inside — the House of Windsor. A hallmark of her time at the top has been an ability to see that change and respond to it, and in doing so bring a monarchy that has weathered controversy and questions about its modern-day relevancy at least a little bit closer to those who live outside palace walls.

TV to Twitter

"There's always been a willingness to consider new ideas," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger.

New technologies have been adopted, from the Queen's agreement — even though she had initial reluctance — to have her 1953 coronation televised to the point now where she leads a House of Windsor with an aggressive PR team that doesn't hesitate to take to Twitter to publicize everything from charitable events to royal births.

Queen Elizabeth, who sent her first tweet during a visit to the Information Age Exhibition at the Science Museum in London on Oct. 24, 2014, may not be a frequent tweeter herself, but she has overseen a House of Windsor that has embraced social media. (Chris Jackson/Reuters)

"She doesn't have a great deal of time for social media but she understands it up to a point and she sees the necessity of it," says Seward.

"I think that's quite edgy of her, really, because a lot of people of her age just say: 'I can't cope with it, I don't understand it, I don't like it.' She has embraced it, up to a point."

By being seen to embrace new things, Seward says, Elizabeth has guided the monarchy forward a bit.

"I think it took an awful long time for that old Buckingham Palace machinery to crank into action, but when it cranked into action, it moved quite fast. And the old days of the obsequious courtiers are well over."

Those days, many observers suggest, ended with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which came after years of scandal and disintegrating marriages for three of the Queen's four children.

After Diana, the former wife of Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, died following a Paris car crash in 1997, Elizabeth and the monarchy in general were widely seen as being out of touch with a public that was looking for more visible signs of mourning and appreciation of a woman who came to be known as the "People's Princess."

Look like they cared

"The public overwhelmingly wanted to see the Royal Family caring and sharing in the grief when Diana died," says Harris.

The Queen, who had been at Balmoral with Charles and Diana's sons William and Harry, made a televised address from Buckingham Palace five days after Diana's death.

Queen Elizabeth greets the Manitoba Corgi Club as she tours the Forks Market in Winnipeg on Oct. 8, 2002, as part of her Golden Jubilee tour of Canada. (REUTERS)

"The Queen did respond to that by speaking of her feelings as a grandmother, so once again [she was] trying to respond to what the public wants, while maintaining a certain reserve regarding her own thoughts and feelings," says Harris.

Outside the palace, more up-close-and-personal encounters — albeit of a rather fleeting nature — have also given members of the public a greater chance to see the Queen during walkabouts on royal visits and engagements.

"Elizabeth the Second really popularized that method of meeting as many people as possible during her royal visits," says Harris, who notes the Queen is the most well-travelled monarch in history.

Queen Elizabeth greets Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness on June 27, 2012, in a handshake of historic significance. (Paul Faith/WPA/Getty Images)

"More and more people have a personal encounter with the Queen than would have been possible in any previous reign."

As Ninian Mellamphy, a professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., and a longtime royal watcher, sees it, the Queen's reign has brought "a very, very slight slackening of formality in the relations between the monarch and the people of England and the people of the world."

Other relations have also changed since Elizabeth ascended to the throne on the death of her father, George VI, on Feb. 6, 1952.

'Hands across the water'

In her many speeches, one of her main themes, Seward says, revolves around repatriation or forgiveness, a "hands across the water kind of thing,"

"Presiding over the unification of Northern Ireland and her going and shaking hands with the man that was responsible for the killing of so many of her own soldiers, I think that was probably one of her great moments, although maybe not the most glamorous."

(The glamour moment would be, suggests Seward, the Queen's coronation, a time of pomp and circumstance the likes of which we'll never see again, "ever, ever.")

Queen Elizabeth becomes Britain's longest-reigning monarch

7 years ago
Duration 8:39
Her Majesty's Canadian secretary Kevin MacLeod speaks with CBC News about historic milestone

The handshake with Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's deputy prime minister in Northern Ireland, made headlines in June 2012.

Mellamphy also points to the Irish situation as representative of the Queen's accomplishments.

"There is something unthreatening, reassuring, full of reconciliation, about the way in which she has adjusted to the complexity of the modern world."

Still, there are those who are less impressed by the Queen's reign.

Historian David Starkey grabbed headlines a few days ago when he wrote in the British publication Radio Times that the Queen has "done and said nothing anyone will remember."

Seward says Starkey, who has delved deeply into the more colourful Tudor monarchs such as Henry VIII, has always been of that opinion.

The Queen, Seward says, isn't interested "in self and self-advertisement. She's not of the 'Me Generation.' She's always been very dignified and dutiful, which of course doesn't make it so exciting."

Elizabeth sees her position "as a head of state as not making too much fuss," adds Seward, "which is actually the embodiment of why there isn't a big celebration for her being the longest-reigning monarch."

"It's part of how low-key she is. It's a sadness for us, but she's very good at judging when the timing is right."


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