The fact that you’ve almost certainly never heard of Johann II of Liechtenstein is, from some perspectives, a bit odd. Johann, who succeeded his father Aloys II as prince in 1858 and reigned until 1929, issued the tiny alpine state’s first constitution, oversaw its departure from the German Confederation, and was a major patron of the arts.
Germanic princes who did those sorts of things are ten a penny in European history, of course. No: the reason I’m surprised that he’s not a household name in the UK right now is that, until 8 May this year, he was the third-longest-reigning sovereign monarch in recorded history, lasting for 70 years and 91 days. Even if we weren’t aware of that fact before, surely our patriotic newspapers should have reported the great day when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, overtook his record and leaped into third place. Perhaps they forgot because it was a Sunday.
Said papers have not, after all, been short of royal coverage of late, as this weekend’s Platinum Jubilee approached and the entire nation disappeared beneath a sea of bunting. So patriotic are we feeling that we’ve apparently, as a country, decided not to notice anything that might put a dampener on our patriotic fervour, such as Prince Andrew. It’s all tremendously exciting.
Perhaps, in the warm, platinum afterglow to come, they will at least report the even greater day when the queen overtakes Rama IX of Thailand (70 years and 126 days). He seems to have been notable on the international stage not only for his long reign, but for his immense personal wealth and for presiding over a regime with the habit of exiling or imprisoning those who criticised him (I’m ruining my holiday plans just by writing this). Anyway, he ascended the throne in 1946, so led the Queen in the monarch longevity stakes for most of her reign, but in 2016 helpfully took himself out of contention by dying. Her maj will overtake him on Monday 13 June.
That leaves only one contender still ahead. Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, ascended the French throne in 1643, aged four, and reigned until his death in 1715. In that time, he saw off six British monarchs, a short-lived republic and a couple of Cromwells. More upsettingly/impressively from a dynastic point of view, he also outlived both his son and his grandson, and was succeeded by his great grandson Louis XV, who also reigned for an absurdly long period, nearly 59 years. Come to that, his predecessor, Louis XIII (terrible name drought in early modern France, clearly) was king for precisely 33 years, dying on the very anniversary of his own accession. The French really made their kings last in those days, didn’t they? Still, they made up for it later, I suppose.
I digress: the point is that Louis XIV reigned for 72 years and 110 days, and also that he cheated by ascending to the throne before he was old enough to enter infant school. Liz will overtake him to have the longest verified reign of any sovereign monarch in recorded history on, by my count, Tuesday 28 May 2024. No need to set an alarm: I’m sure if it happens the papers will be ready to tell us.
I’m making a couple of points with all this. One is that I like it when the New Statesman lets me nerd about in history for a bit, because it makes a change from writing about how awful Boris Johnson is. The other is that being monarch for 70 years is actually pretty rare. It’s the regnal equivalent of surviving to 110: we all know it’s theoretically possible, but it’s still pretty unlikely to happen to someone you know.
So if you’re one of the many people currently feeling a bit weirded out by the pageantry, the documentaries, the Union Jack bunting, the spending of money we’re told this country doesn’t have on celebrating a woman who clearly doesn’t need it, the way there’s been so little discussion of the fact that, even after Prince Andrew’s decision to end a civil sexual abuse case by paying a financial settlement rather than prove his innocence in court, he is still by most accounts the Queen’s favourite… if you’re weirded out by all that, take some comfort from this: the celebration is, among other things, a reaction to an event that doesn’t happen a lot and which most of us are vanishingly unlikely to ever live through again.
That, in fact, is almost certainly one reason why this weekend’s festivities have driven certain parts of the country completely doolally. Hanging over this jubilee is the universally known but weirdly under-discussed fact that this is the last time: the next time this country celebrates its queen, it is probable she will not be there to see it. After that, with the passing of a woman who remains personally popular even among many of those who despise the institution she represents – who has, to a great extent, become the institution – she will be succeeded by someone less popular, and less politically capable, than she is.
So if this weekend feels weird, don’t worry: this is the high watermark. In a few years from now, this country’s relationship with its monarchy may look very different.
In the meantime let’s all root for her to out-reign Louis XIV because, come on, that’d be cool.