At about 5.30 on Wednesday 9th September Her Majesty the Queen became the longest serving monarch in English and British history. Surpassing her great-great grandmother Empress-Queen Victoria as the longest serving monarch, the Queen has now reigned for 63 years and seven months or 23, 226 days.
The Queen noted on this anniversary that “inevitably a long life can pass by many milestones,” and indeed her reign has seen fundamental changes envelop Oxford University. In many ways both the British monarchy and Oxford University have faced similar challenges; august institutions, steeped in tradition, confronted by modernity. The Queen’s defining achievement- the constant modernisation and refashioning of the monarchy for the late 20th and 21st century-is one shared with Oxford. As the outgoing Vice-Chancellor is fond of reminding undergraduates at matriculation ceremonies; do not be fooled by ancient surrounding of this University- it is very much a modern institution, equipped for the 21st century.
The course of the Queen’s reign has seen the fruition of a close and at times deeply personal relationship between the monarchy and Oxford University. The Queen’s first visit to the University was in 1949 when, as Princess Elizabeth, she was given a tour of the University. On that occasion the Queen lunched at Brasenose. Clearly something about the visit captured her attention for it was to be the first of many royal trips to Oxford.
The most well-known of the royal sojourns to Oxford is possibly the 1960 visit of the Queen and Prince Philip. No less than the serving Prime Minister and Balliol alumnus Harold Macmillan accompanied the royal couple around the town. On that one visit alone the Queen was taken to Christ Church to view its latest renovations, Lady Margaret Hall to enjoy its new library, the Clarendon building and ate supper at Trinity College. Vast crowds thronged the streets and had to be forcibly restrained by police officers. Most exciting of all, during the marathon visit the Queen stepped but feet away from the Cherwell offices as she entered the Oxford Town Hall.
It is testament to the longevity of the Queen’s reign that she even outlives a handful of Oxford colleges. In fact the the royal couple certainly made their mark during the 1960 visit, the Queen personally laying the foundation stone of St Catherine’s college. The monarch and Prince Philip then met the architect, Professor Arne Jocobsen, and saw the designs. Fortunate perhaps for Jacobsen that the Queen does not appear to hold the same forthright architectural predilections as her eldest son.
The embrace of modernity and tolerance has been the zeitgeist of the reign of Elizabeth II. Take her May 1968 meeting with Zarina Bhatia at Sommerville, the University’s first and then only black female Ugandan student. Fittingly, on this occasion the Queen was introduced to Bhatia by New Zealander Susan Moller, then a student at University college, who would go on to become a renowned feminist and campaigner for multi-cultural feminism.
Fast forward to the present day and there is barely a major landmark in Oxford which has not at one stage or another been touched by the royal presence. Be it ex-prison, refurbished church or renovated college accommodation, the Queen has most likely been-there and cut the ribbon. The Queen returned to Brasenose College again on 2ndDecember 2009 to commemorate the College’s quincentenary. Unfortunately Brasenose’s most famous current alumnus was apparently busy that day.
Royal Jubilees have been keenly celebrated by assorted Oxonians over the past few decades. Back in 2002 Oriel College, of which the Queen is visitor, commissioned the largest portrait of the monarch outside Windsor Castle for its hall. For the 2012 Diamond Jubilee the University combined old and new to pay its respects to the monarch. Oxford University sent a deputation to the Queen to make a ‘Loyal Address,’ just as had been done for Queen Victoria in 1897.
In a reign characterised by relentless service and the promotion of communal and civic values, the Queen’s strong connection to Oxford University is indicative of her practical commitment to education, learning and renewal.
The reign of Elizabeth II has seen the hard power of empire give way to the softer hue of the collaboration and the Commonwealth; the mighty manufacturing industries decline and a services economy rise and a Britain more internationalist abroad and multi-cultural at home. Oxford University, now a beacon of international learning and a centre in the UK’s knowledge economy, embodies this. 63 years may only be a fraction of Oxford University’s 900 year history but, like it or not, this bastion of higher education has become a lodestar of the new Elizabethan age.
Footage of the Queen’s 1960 visit to Oxford may be viewed here: http://www.britishpathe.com/video/queen-and-duke-at-oxford