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Who Are the Longest-Reigning Monarchs in British History?
Elizabeth II - Now and Then
It happened at 6:30 on the evening of September 9, 2015
Sixty-three years and 217 days earlier, Elizabeth Windsor was just your run-of-the-mill heir apparent to the throne of a commonwealth empire made up of 53 member states. She was 25 and had no way of knowing she'd outlast the last woman who'd found herself England's sovereign at the age of 19. Victoria had been only a few miles away from her uncle when he passed away, leaving her Queen. Elizabeth was two continents and three time zones away when she learned that her father's passing meant she was no longer just a princess.
Victoria was only the sixth woman to rule the kingdom in its history stretching back approximately fourteen centuries. Victoria also had a six year head start on the length of her reign, but the odds were in Elizabeth's favor for beating her record. Modern medicine had increased a woman's life expectancy by 40 years between 1837 and 2015.
That's First and Second. Who Was Third?
George III - 59 years, 3 months, 2 days - England's longest reigning king.
And why should we care? Well, maybe because he was the English king who lost the American colonies leading to the establishment of the United States of America. His reign, especially the final decade, was marked by periods of significant insanity. Losing a continent will do that. But historical scholars have found evidence that he may have had a hereditary condition where the body cannot manufacture haemoglobin for the blood resulting in damage to the nervous system. Still, the trigger for the condition is usually emotional stress.
He officially lost the colonies on July 4, 1776, though his diary entry for that date stated, "Nothing of importance happened today." As much as we Americans find humor in that, we must remember news of the day, in that day, could take weeks to arrive.
Historians have not been any kinder to the third George in a row. Even without being incapacitated by illness, George III is generally remembered as incompetent if for no other reason than his mishandling the American colonies to the point of revolution, resulting in a war he ended up losing. It was also on his watch that Parliament assumed more of the powers to govern, making the monarch virtually a figurehead for the first time. It was Parliament that eventually appointed his son, the Prince of Wales, to serve as Regent until his death in 1820.
In all fairness, George III's last attack and descent into permanent madness had nothing to do with whether or not he had the ability to rule his kingdom. It was the personal tragedy of losing his youngest child, Princess Amelia, aged 27. His successor, King George IV, saw the restoration to great military power of the United Kingdom of Great Brittan and Ireland (as it had become known on 1 January 1801). The accumulation of vast overseas territories during his and his brother William IV's era formed the worldwide empire of the next person to sit on the throne, the second longest-reigning sovereign, Victoria.
Interestingly, the fourth and fifth-longest reigning monarchs were also thirds like George III: Henry III and Edward III. So the odds are, if you want a long reign in Great Britain, either be a woman (three of the top ten were women: Elizabeth II, Victoria, and Elizabeth I) or be Something the Third.
Baroness Mary Soames
In can be concluded that queens and kings who sit on the throne of Great Britain for a long time seem to accomplish historically significant things - both good and bad.
Henry III's 56-year reign was known for advancements in learning, architecture, and art. He was responsible for major renovations of Westminster Palace and Westminster Abbey, and cathedrals at St. Alban's, Salisbury, Lincoln and Wells. He also founded the first colleges in Oxford University, Merton and Balliol universities between 1249 and 1264.
Edward III enjoyed victories over the French at Crecy and Poitiers but died with fewer French holdings than he had at his coronation. His lasting accomplishment was creating The Most Noble Order of the Garter, which exists to this day as the highest honor a sovereign can bestow on an individual for their service to the throne and the country.
In 1987, Queen Elizabeth II decided women should be eligible to be among the 24 holders of the Garter. There are never more than 24 living recipients at a time. Baroness Mary Soames, the youngest daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, was the first, and so far the only, female to hold this honor until her death in 2014.