As the Queen becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch tomorrow, sweeping majestically past Victoria’s 63 years and 216 days on the throne, one of the most remarkable achievements of that extraordinary tenure is often overlooked. It is that she remains unknowable, and that may be the key to why the Royal Family has retained its place in the hearts of Britain and the Commonwealth.
No figure of the 20th or 21st centuries can have been more photographed or filmed, or had more words written about them over so great an area of the planet than the Queen.
Yet she remains an enigma. Despite doorstep-sized biographies, countless reported conversations with everyone from flag-waving children to heads of state, and speeches everywhere from plaque unveilings to international summits, we know only snippets.
A steadfast Christian faith, a lively sense of humour, a passion for horses and dogs, a thrifty outlook and that’s about it.
As a sketch of a personality, it is pretty thin. We know nothing of the Queen’s politics, or world view, what she thinks of modern-day Britain, nor of how society has changed in her 63 years as head of state.
It’s a blabbermouth world these days, with public life awash in a sea of verbiage.
Everyone from prime ministers to pop stars jabbers about their inner lives, their feelings, everything from romantic entanglements to what keeps them awake at night, a dreary unending drone of confessional.
Yet the Queen remains inscrutable, and it has been the masterstroke of her reign to maintain an aura of mystery, and not just because of her constitutional obligation to be strictly impartial.
It has made her 63 years – and counting – on the throne magical, giving her universal appeal across age, class, race or political outlook. It has denied anti-monarchists the means to make a case with mass appeal.
All of which offers an insight into the Queen’s personality that is much more profound than her having an impish sense of humour or being supremely knowledgeable about racehorses.
It is that she is formidably intelligent, far-sighted and possessed of an instinctive understanding of her people that has been the envy of the several generations of politicians who have come and gone over the past six decades.
She saw even as a young woman that if the monarchy was to survive and prosper in the rapidly-changing world that followed the Second World War, it must hold a unique place in the affections of the public.
Striking a delicate balance between being accessible to her people and maintaining a regal distance has won that affection and kept it.
Only once in her long reign has the Queen misread the mood of the people, and then only briefly, in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997 when the Royal Family, shut away and trying to come to terms with that shocking loss, were wrongly seen as aloof and uncaring.
Other than that, the Queen has been perfectly attuned to the public, reflecting the hard work of their lives in her own punishing schedule, keeping up a gruelling round of engagements even into old age.
That has been her part of the bargain with her subjects, to be ever-present and visible, a lesson she must have learned from her father, whose refusal to move out of a London under attack during the war years did so much to boost Britain’s morale.
This Elizabethan era is, happily, far from over. Foolish indeed would be the person who bet against Britain and the Commonwealth celebrating the Queen’s 70 years on the throne in seven years’ time, for she remains resolute and robust.
The milestone she will celebrate tomorrow is a moment at which millions will marvel, because for many there simply has never been a time when she was not there.
Each of them has their own image of the Queen, perhaps belonging to a moment when they saw her on a public engagement. It might be the radiant young monarch touring in the 1950s, or the mother of a young family in the 1960s, or the middle-aged Queen marking the first of her jubilees in 1977.
Or perhaps the image they cherish is of the benign great-grandmother with enough merriment in her soul to take part in an elaborate stunt to open the London Olympics in her Diamond Jubilee year, apparently skydiving into the stadium in a theatrical sleight-of-hand that made the world gasp and then applaud delightedly.
Whichever image of the Queen people hold in their hearts, and even though we will probably never know her innermost feelings about the extraordinary milestone she reaches tomorrow, millions will wish her well. She deserves no less.