Two big anniversaries this week – the Queen turning 90 and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – can be seen through the prism of the Belfast News Letter, the oldest of all the English language daily newspapers in the world today.
This paper, which was founded in September 1737, is still going thanks to faithful readers such as you.
We have reported on 10 kings and queens since that very first edition, when George II was on the throne.
The three most remarkable monarchs in that time have been George II’s grandson, George III, the king who in the end ‘lost it’ (mentally) and who lost America, Victoria and our present queen.
In 2013 and 2014, I serialised all the first surviving News Letters from late 1738 and early 1739 on their 275th anniversary. There were excited reports about the infant George (later George III) and the arrival of his younger brother Edward. It was remarkable to read such reports (see below) from almost 300 years ago just as we were reporting about the recently born Prince George (great grandson of our current Queen).
George III served on the throne for almost 60 years, from late 1760 to 1820.
Queen Victoria, born 1819, was monarch 1837 to 1901 (63 years, seven months).
Elizabeth II has been head of state for 64 years and almost three months.
Between them, they have reigned for 187 years of the 278-and-a-half years of the News Letter’s lifespan (the Queen alone for almost a third of that total).
All three served through periods of upheaval, particularly Victoria, who came to the throne early in the industrial revolution, when trains were barely heard of, and almost lived to see flight.
But the Queen has had perhaps the most remarkable reign. Not only is she the longest serving of the kings and queens since 1066, she has skilfully presided over an era of mind boggling change.
Technological change in my life alone, since the early 70s, is almost frightening, let alone when she was born in 1926, not long after the Great War, when TV was unknown.
Some critics find the Queen old-fashioned or stuffy, and I might have agreed when I was young. Now I see her as the perfect riposte to the emotional incontinence and sentimentality of the digital age.
The Queen never reveals what she thinks, yet she is not cold. If she had ever revealed what she thought, she would have alienated people regardless of what those thoughts were – and so the monarchy would be in peril. But she demonstrates a clear willingness to visit every community in Britain, and I don’t doubt she would visit republican areas here if it was considered to be safe.
I have reported on enough royal visits to sense how tedious her role must be. But in an age when sick leave is commonplace, particularly in some government bodies, when did you ever hear that the Queen had cancelled a visit somewhere due to illness?
We now live in times that would not tolerate an unpopular monarch. One day such a monarch will come, perhaps in 20 years or perhaps in 220.
It is a coincidence of time and place that Britain ended up with this head of state. But it is a fortunate one.
The 1738 and 1739 Belfast News Letter reports on Prince Edward and his older brother Prince George (later George III), note the fact that they were born less than 10 months apart – June 4 1738 and then March 25 1739.
This prompted a News Letter of June 1739 to report:
It is very remarkable that in the same Sessions of Parliament his Majesty has received two congratulatory Addresses on the Birth of two Princes, Sons of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
The two princes were son of Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, who was son of George II, but who never made the throne himself, dying before his father.
Father and son were estranged, which is apparent in the News Letter reports of the time but not spelt out. They just seem to keep avoiding the same engagements.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor