VICTORIA, QUEENbackground and childhood
the years with albert (1840–1861)
the years of widowhood
the grandmother of europe
VICTORIA, QUEEN (1819–1901; ruled 1837–1901), queen of the United Kingdom.
The future Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace in the greater London area on 24 May 1819. She became queen of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland on 20 June 1837. After a reign of sixty-three-and-a-half years, the longest in British history, she died on 22 January 1901 at Osborne House, her winter home on the Isle of Wight. Her name became an adjective, "Victorian," because people increasingly associated her life and her reign with such nineteenth-century ideals as a devoted family life, earnestness, public and private respectability, and obedience to the law. As the personal embodiment of her kingdom and her empire, she was ever eager to ensure that her land was held in high esteem by its European neighbors and throughout the world for its economic and military strength and as a model of modern civilization. During her lifetime, Great Britain was noted for its pioneering developments in science, industry, and finance; for its rapid growth of population; and for becoming the first large country in which the majority of the population lived in cities. Queen Victoria was the official head of state not only of the United Kingdom but also of the expanding worldwide British empire, which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and parts of Africa.
Although King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820, had fifteen children, his three eldest sons had no legitimate children who survived. In 1817 his fourth son, Edward Augustus, duke of Kent, married a German noblewoman, Victoire Marie Louise (the daughter of one duke and the widow of another), for the specific purposes of producing an heir to Britain's throne. He brought her to England just in time for little Victoria's birth. When the baby princess was just eight months old, her father died. Victoria's mother, the duchess of Kent, raised her in Kensington Palace with the help of German governesses, private English tutors, and the duchess's brother, Leopold. The last had been married briefly to an earlier heir to the British throne, Princess Charlotte, who had died in childbirth, and in 1831 he became king of the newly independent state of Belgium.
Victoria learned to speak and write German and French as readily as English. She was also taught literature, history, geography, and the Bible. She was given lessons in singing and in playing the piano, as well as in painting, a hobby that she enjoyed into her sixties. On the accession of her uncle, King William IV, in 1830, she became heir apparent to the throne and, at the behest of her mother, she took several lengthy summer tours through England and Wales that included both country estates and city centers. Had King William IV died any sooner, Victoria's mother would have become princess regent, but he lived just long enough—until 20 June 1837—to enable Victoria at age eighteen to inherit the throne in her own right.
Immediately on becoming queen, Victoria began regular meetings with William Lamb, second viscount Melbourne, Britain's prime minister at the time. The two grew very close, and the grandfatherly Lord Melbourne (1779–1848) taught Victoria how the government of her country worked on a day-to-day basis. Britain in the nineteenth century was a constitutional monarchy, and the king or queen was the head of state who was expected to rule by means of a prime minister as the head of government, with the members of his cabinet serving as the heads of administrative departments. They were also members of, and required the support of, the United Kingdom Parliament, made up of an elected House of Commons and a (largely) hereditary House of Lords. When a general election left no single political party with an overall majority, the monarch initiated the process of government formation by inviting a particular parliamentarian to serve as prime minister and "form a government."
In practice, ultimate executive authority no longer lay with Queen Victoria, but a significant degree of influence remained to her—in matters of policy as well as in the appointment of cabinet members, ambassadors, and archbishops and bishops of the Church of England, an institution that the monarch served as "supreme governor." On a daily basis she perused boxes of cabinet papers and diplomatic correspondence, and she conferred regularly by letter and in person with all ten of her prime ministers. In private, Queen Victoria was ever prepared to speak her mind. Much of the queen's time was also devoted to ceremonial activities such as the award of honors and the official opening and (until the 1850s) closing of each year's session of Parliament.
Because Melbourne led the Whig Party (later known as the Liberal Party), Victoria became publicly identified with that party rather than with the opposition Tory (or Conservative) Party. The Whigs were known for their relative sympathy for freedom of speech and of the press and for greater religious liberty for those Britons who (as independent Protestants or Roman Catholics or Jews) did not belong to the established Church of England. They were also becoming increasingly sympathetic to the promotion of international free trade. For the time being, the Tories were more concerned with maintaining the land's established institutions and with keeping the electorate within the limits—one adult male in five—set by the Reform Act of 1832.
The young queen hoped that the Whigs and their parliamentary allies would maintain their House of Commons majority and that Melbourne would remain prime minister. When it appeared in 1839 that he might have to give up the post, the queen successfully used her influence to keep him. In the so-called Bedchamber Crisis, she refused to allow the Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), to change the aristocratic Whig ladies at her court. Peel then gave up the task of "forming a government," and Melbourne continued as prime minister for two more years. A new general election in 1841 resulted in a decisive Tory majority in the House of Commons, however, and Victoria was compelled to accept Peel in his place.
Victoria's early years as queen were filled not only with government papers but also with parties, dances, concerts, and with visits by eligible potential husbands. In 1839 Victoria fell in love with one of these, her first cousin, Prince Albert of the small German duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They were married on 10 February 1840, and Albert soon came to take a keen interest in the government of his new country. He served as his wife's private secretary, and he persuaded her that, even as they both took an intense behind-the-scenes interest in the ministries that governed in Victoria's name, publicly she should stand above party. Albert was an exceptionally serious and studious young prince who was more interested in science, music, and scholarship than in traditional aristocratic sports and pastimes. He served as chancellor of Cambridge University and he became the prime inspirer of the Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations, the first true World's Fair, which was held in London's Hyde Park during the summer of 1851.
Back in 1846 the royal couple had encouraged the efforts of Sir Robert Peel to abolish the Corn Laws and lead Britain toward international free trade, but in the process Peel's Conservative Party split in two. During the 1850s, with a two-party tradition in temporary disarray, the influence of the monarch on the formation of nineteenth-century ministries reached a nineteenth-century highpoint. In 1851, royal initiative led to the dismissal of the popular Henry John Temple, third viscount Palmerston, from his post. The foreign secretary appeared too sympathetic to liberal nationalist groups undermining their fellow European monarchs, and he had failed too often to consult the queen before sending dispatches to British diplomats abroad. Although initially unhappy with the manner in which their kingdom drifted into the Crimean War (1854–1856) against Russia, Queen Victoria became an enthusiastic supporter of the conflict once fighting had begun, and on 5 February 1855 she named Palmerston as wartime prime minister. She personally instituted the Victoria Cross as Britain's highest award for wartime valor.
Although respected by most of his new countrymen, Albert was little loved; he was sometimes criticized as an interfering foreigner, and his heavy German accent did not help. For the emotional Victoria, the stalwart Albert resembled a knight in shining armor, however, and between 1840 and 1857 they became the parents of nine children, all of whom grew to adulthood: Victoria (b. 1840), Albert Edward (b. 1841), Alice (b. 1843), Alfred (b. 1844), Helena (b. 1846), Louise (b. 1848), Arthur (b. 1850), Leopold (b. 1853), and Beatrice (b. 1857). The royal family seemed to be a model family, a family that increasingly enjoyed a private domestic life either at Windsor or at Osborne House (on the English Channel coast) or at Balmoral Castle (in the Scottish Highlands), both of the latter rebuilt on the basis of Albert's designs. Victoria and Albert took an intense personal interest in the upbringing of their children, which they did not leave solely to nannies and governesses.
Queen Victoria never recovered entirely from Albert's death on 14 December 1861 at the age of forty-two. For almost a decade she remained in strict mourning. She rarely set foot in London, and she avoided most public occasions (such as the state opening of Parliament). She made exceptions for the unveiling of statues dedicated to Prince Albert and, after a few years, for attendance at army reviews. During the later 1860s her absence from the public stage caused several respectable politicians as well as radical agitators to propose that the United Kingdom be transformed into a republic. Behind the scenes, the queen continued to peruse papers and to talk and write to her ministers. She also found comfort in a loyal domestic staff headed by her favorite attendant, a Scottish Highlander named John Brown. Her influence determined the appointments of several bishops and archbishops. It also led to the passage of statutes such as an act of 1876 that restricted the right of scientists to experiment on living animals and an act of the same year that proclaimed Victoria empress of India.
In her youth she had been known as "Queen of the Whigs," but in the course of the 1870s she privately came to prefer Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the Conservative Party (1868–1881) to William Ewart Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party (1868–1875, 1880–1894). In Victoria's eyes, Disraeli seemed more concerned with upholding Britain's international prestige and consolidating its empire. She made little secret of her disappointment with the results of the general election of 1880, which left her no choice but to reappoint Gladstone as prime minister. He impressed her as too much the popular demagogue prepared to tamper with the kingdom's institutions. She interpreted Gladstone's unsuccessful proposals in 1886 and again in 1893 to grant "Home Rule" (domestic self-government) to Ireland as a step to break up the British Empire. She was more sympathetic to the Conservative ministries led by Robert Arthur Gascoyne-Cecil, third marquess of Salisbury, that
governed Britain during most of the final fifteen years of the nineteenth century.
During the decades after Albert's death, Queen Victoria remained increasingly concerned with her ever-growing family. All nine of her children married, and eight of them had children of their own. Most of those children and grandchildren married into the nobility of Europe. Thus one granddaughter became the tsarina of Russia and others the queens of Spain, Romania, Greece, and Norway; the aging matriarch become known as the "Grandmother of Europe."
The most important of such dynastic marriages involved Victoria's eldest child, also known as Victoria, who in 1858 at age seventeen wed Crown Prince Frederick, the heir to the kingdom of Prussia and (after 1871) also the German Empire. Albert and Victoria hoped that the marriage would strengthen Anglo-German relations and help transform Prussia into a liberal constitutional monarchy
like that of Britain. Such hopes were to be disappointed as the crown prince was to be limited by cancer to a reign of ninety-nine days in 1888. Frederick's son (Queen Victoria's eldest grandson), the German emperor William II, was to lead the Central Powers during World War I (1914–1918) against the Allied coalition formally headed by another grandson (King George V of Great Britain) and by the husband (Tsar Nicholas II of Russia) of a granddaughter. Queen Victoria was often disappointed in her own immediate heir, Albert Edward, a slow learner who generally preferred play to work. His marriage in 1863 to the beautiful Alexandra of Denmark was popular, however, and the prince and princess of Wales enjoyed their role as social arbiters.
The prince of Wales had to wait patiently to inherit the kingship, as during the 1880s his mother become more visible again and regained her earlier popularity. Excerpts from her private journals published in 1868 and 1884 helped humanize her in the eyes of her subjects. Her Golden Jubilee (the fiftieth anniversary on the throne), which brought monarchs from all over Europe to London, was celebrated with great enthusiasm in 1887, and her Diamond Jubilee of 1897 evoked an even greater spirit of national and imperial pride. British political leaders and military regiments from five continents marched in London; the gathering provided the occasion for the very first meeting of colonial prime ministers—a precedent for the twentieth-century Commonwealth. After the Boer War (1899–1902) began, the aged queen became a single-minded champion of the British war effort, which included a state visit to Ireland in April 1900 (only the fourth of her reign) to thank Irish soldiers in the British army in Africa for their bravery. She both endured military defeats and celebrated victories before her own life ended on 22 January 1901 at Osborne House. A week-and-a-half later, after an elaborate military procession from Osborne to Windsor by ship, train, and horse-drawn gun carriage, her funeral was followed by a burial next to Albert in the Frogmore Mausoleum.
The very length of Queen Victoria's sixty-three-and-a-half-year reign gives a deceptive impression of continuity and stability to what proved a period of dynamic change within the British Isles and the world. The queen sympathized with many of these changes such as the railroad, the camera, and the use of anesthetics in childbirth. She was more doubtful about others, such as the rapid increase in the size of an electorate that by 1901 included most men and (in local government elections) some women. She preferred to see women preside over the home and to serve as matchmakers, hostesses, and volunteer social workers rather than as doctors or lawyers. A more disciplined political party system diminished her political influence only a little in the course of her reign, and by the time of her death she had become the world's best-known and most admired ruler and its most famous woman. She also remained a symbol of strict morality, good manners, and devotion to duty. She took great pride in her role as the formal head of the world's largest multiracial and multireligious empire, and (unlike some of her ministers) she believed in the civil rights of all her subjects. Thus she became the first modern British monarch to confer a hereditary peerage on a Roman Catholic and the first ever to confer one on a professing Jew. In a world familiar with authoritarian rulers, she remained a symbol of the type of constitutional government in which change came by election and by parliamentary legislation rather than by revolution.
Hibbert, Christopher, ed. Queen Victoria in Her Letters and Journals. London, 1984. A chronological compilation of many of the queen's own writings that enables the reader to see the world through her eyes.
The Letters of Queen Victoria. First series edited by Arthur Christopher Benson and Viscount Reginald Baliol Brett Esher, London, 1908; second series edited by George Earl Buckle, London, 1926–1928; third series edited by George Earl Buckle, 1930–1932. The single largest series of letters, nine volumes in all, by and to the queen. Emphasizes her political roles rather than her family life.
Arnstein, Walter L. Queen Victoria. Basingstoke, U.K., and New York, 2003. Focuses on the monarch's political, military, and religious roles.
Hibbert, Christopher. Queen Victoria: A Personal History. London, 2000.
Longford, Elizabeth. Victoria, R. I. London and New York, 1964. The first biography to make full documented use of the unpublished Royal Archives at Windsor. A sympathetic yet balanced account.
Strachey, Lytton. Queen Victoria. London, 1921. The single most widely read life and a notable example of biography as a work of literary art.
Vallone, Lynne. Becoming Victoria. New Haven, Conn., 2001. The fullest account of the queen's early years.
Warner, Marina. Queen Victoria's Sketchbook. London and New York, 1979.
Weintraub, Stanley. Victoria: An Intimate Biography. New York, 1987.
Williams, Richard. The Contentious Crown: Public Discussion of the British Monarchy in the Reign of Queen Victoria. Aldershot, U.K., 1997.
Woodham-Smith, Cecil. Queen Victoria from Her Birth to the Death of the Prince Consort. London, 1972. The most detailed fully documented account of the first half of Victoria's life.
Walter L. Arnstein