Born in 1819, Victoria was the only child of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Duchess of Kent. Tragically, her father died shortly after Victoria was born and her mother fell under the alluring spell of John Conroy, her comptroller and personal secretary, a man upon whom the eyes of history have not looked favorably. He was considerably ambitious, apparently plotting alongside Victoria’s mother to keep the young princess locked away in Kensington Palace under the strict tutelage of her governess, Baroness Lehzen. As such, young Victoria had a secluded and lonely life. She was reared to be neither weak nor submissive, in the tradition of the Whigs, but her freedom and joy was very much repressed under what became known as the “Kensington System,” a rigid series of rules intended to keep Victoria a docile puppet in her future queenship, as well as to distance the heir-apparent from the foibles dogging her uncles on the throne. Three of her uncles preceded Victoria in line to the crown –George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV– but none of them had any legitimate children, and so the Crown fell to young Victoria.
As time passed, the aging King William IV had grown to despise the machinations of the Duchess of Kent and John Conroy. He vowed to not let power fall into their hands. Despite failing health, he cleaved tightly to his bloated, frail life until Victoria finally turned eighteen –and thus old enough to claim power of her own right. True to his word, Victoria came of age on May 24, 1837 and the King gave up the ghost less than one month later on June 20, 1837 –thus Victoria was free to rule without the threat of regency. She spent the next several decades avoiding all contact with either her mother or Mr. Conroy. On the morning after the king’s passing, Victoria wrote in her diary that she was awoken in the morning at 6 o’clock and greeted while still in her nightgown by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham who delivered news of the king’s death.
Eight days later her coronation ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey in an extravagant, crowd-filled affair. Early insignias showed her christened name –Alexandrina Victoria or simply “Drina” after Tsar Alexander I of Russia, but she despised the name so it was simply shortened to Victoria.
During her early Queenship, Victoria was the fortunate beneficiary of then-Prime Minister William Lamb Lord Melbourne, an old guard Whig who diligently tutored the young queen. They developed a close relationship and she learned a great deal from his political acuity, however rumors soon spread of an affair or even of an unfounded illegitimate daughter, earning Victoria the unpopular nickname “Mrs. Melbourne.” Gossip about the queen’s affairs persisted when an attendant, Lady Flora Hastings, began to show a protrusion from her stomach. Fearing it was an out-of-wedlock pregnancy at the hands of John Conroy, the Queen swiftly dismissed Lady Hastings, though sadly the large bump was later revealed to be a tumor. Another scandal followed in 1839 known as the “Bedchamber Crisis” when Lord Melbourne resigned as Prime Minister over a clutch of Tories who blocked passage of a bill to abolish the system of plantation slavery in Jamaica. The Queen gave her blessing for a new Tory government to form under Robert Peel (formerly William IV’s chosen Prime Minister), but when Mr. Peel demanded that she dismiss her Whig bedchamber ladies and replace them with Tories, she refused and Mr. Peel promptly resigned allowing for the return of Lord Melbourne.
Any romantic infatuation Victoria may have had with Lord Melbourne was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of her cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Albert was a rational yet optimistic man who was eager to embrace the coming industrial age, an epoch which David Starkey says was predicated upon “mid-nineteenth-century faith in progress and entrepreneurial zeal” (460) in contrast to 18th century governance of monarchical whims. Victoria was immediately love-struck with Albert and not long after their second meeting, Victoria proposed. They were soon married in 1840 at the Chapel Royal of St. James Palace. By all accounts, Victoria and Albert had a loving partnership as well as a vigorous love life behind closed doors (on her wedding night Victoria noted in her diary that they did not sleep much). During the course of their marriage Victoria and Albert bore no less than nine children, despite the fact that Victoria despised young children, she referred to them as “nasty objects.” In addition, Victoria had difficult pregnancies and each delivery was followed by a prolonged period of postpartum depression. As a woman who rarely suffered fools, she found the burden of motherhood to be tedious and demeaning. Around this time, Chloroform began to emerge as a practice to ease the suffering of childbirth though it was despised by a clutch of luddite traditionalists claiming it to be an unnatural and ungodly practice –they changed their tune when the Queen revealed that she was in fact a proponent of the practice. Later in 1858, when asked by her eldest daughter about childbirth, Victoria offered the following response:
“What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own I cannot enter into that; I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments; when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.”
The Victorian Age saw life-shifting technological advances spread across the world, from the advent of railroads to photographs (Victoria was the first British monarch to ride a train or have her photograph taken). However, with great social transformation inevitably comes a painful period of upheaval and backlash. A new generation of capitalist imperialists formed the new “robber barons” who amassed gargantuan fortunes while the working poor toiled in near-starvation on the streets of London, their plight best characterized in the novels of Charles Dickens. Also new ideas began to emerge in the writings of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. On the Continent, the Napoleonic upheavals caused one of the world’s largest emigrations in world history. The population of Britain nearly doubled in a matter of decades, and new immigrants flooded into the United States and Canada in search of a better life. For those remaining in Europe, the cry for socialism and republicanism was never stronger. In Britain, Victoria and Albert appeared as resolute figures defending the age-old monarchy even as Europe fell into a violent revolutions in the Spring of 1848. Nearly every country saw their monarchies crumble –in France the “Paris Commune” took hold as Napoleon III was carted off by the Prussians, an absolute monarchy was finally ended in Denmark, a representative democracy was founded in the Netherlands, and revolutions also descended upon Italy, Germany, and Austria. The brutal Crimean War (1853-1856) exposed the decaying empires of the Ottomans and Russians. The status quo, it seemed, was unsustainable. Gradually, as is often the case, the revolutionary spirit died out and a new string of vicious dictatorial empires grew, perhaps most notably in the case of Germany which was unified under the leadership of Wilhelm I and his chief minister Otto von Bismarck. Across the Atlantic, the United States seemed on the brink of total collapse when the Southern states seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln, pitting the block of Southern agrarian slave-owning states against the Northern industrialists and financiers. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, ever suspicious of the republican experiment across the pond, was sympathetic to the Confederate cause –despite Britain’s public opposition to slavery– because he recognized the Southern rebellion as an opportunity to fundamentally weaken the United States in the long-term while also preserving the cotton trade for British textile mills. In the end, Britain wisely maintained neutrality but considered invading the South to restore order due to the fear of a bloody race war in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation. Thankfully, Prince Albert intervened and guided Britain toward a more moderate path. After all, Britain was now a massive global empire upon which the sun never set, ruling one quarter of the world’s population, with territories extending as far as Europe, India, South Africa, and Australia. The new mediums of print journalism and photography meant that subjects all across the world were familiar with the visage of Queen Victoria.
While Victoria could be a high energy, moody, tempestuous personality, Albert was stoic, calculating, and diplomatic. He was the architect behind somber images of the perfect, docile royal family as they quietly gathered round the Christmas tree each year. It was a propaganda strategy he introduced to Britain from Germany and it played well to the emerging moralistic bourgeois class who were horrified by Victoria’s uncles whom they saw as immoral, disrespectful, carousing, and all-too indebted. Despite Albert’s natural political skills, he was met with skepticism by his English countrymen –they saw him as too intellectual, too German, and too low-ranking. Parliament squabbled over granting his allowance and dithered on even giving him the title of Prince until 1857, so instead Albert focused his energies on advancing science, technology, and the arts. He was the driving force behind the South Kensington cohort of museums (then known as “Albertopolis”) as well as the Great Exhibition of 1851. He resented his meager role as Consort to the Queen, always believing himself destined for grander political endeavors, but he managed to use his skills in remarkably thrifty fashion. However, his vice was that he often overworked himself. He also fretted over his son Albert-Edward “Bertie” whom he saw as something of a disappointment. When it was rumored that Bertie was keeping a mistress in his dormitory at Cambridge, Prince Albert, already fatigued, traveled via train in December 1861 to sort things out. Sadly he soon fell ill. Much to the surprise of everyone, Prince Albert suddenly died of typhoid in 1861 following this minor excursion, leaving Victoria in utter despondency. She became something of a recluse in mourning for the rest of her life. She dressed in black and continued to have Albert’s clothes laid out for him as if he were still alive. She secluded herself in Windsor becoming known as the “Widow of Windsor” –sometimes she ventured between the two houses Albert had constructed for her: Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight, and Balmoral Castle in the Scottish highlands. When the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to her in comfort stating that despite the loss of Albert, Jesus Christ would now be her true husband, she tartly responded: “That is what I call, Twaddle.”
As Victoria drew inward, the diminution of the Crown continued its long decline. The retreat of the monarchy actually served to increase an upswell in support for a constitutional republic, though practically speaking the idea never gained serious momentum in Parliament. During her queenship Victoria saw no less than ten prime ministers. During that period, the Whig party became the Liberal Party, and the Tories became the Conservative Party. Greater enfranchisement was granted to all adult males, but not a single woman was allowed to vote (a restriction Victoria heartily approved of –the Queen loathed the encroachment of democratic values and preferred the old empire instead). By this point the monarchy was mostly impotent, maintaining only ceremonial offices. The latter half of her time on the throne was benefitted by the work of two chief Prime Ministers: Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish writer who championed the Conservative Party as a “Tory-democracy,” and William Gladstone, a High Tory-turned-Liberal Party leader who championed the values of the working class. Of these two, Victoria preferred Mr. Disraeli, and expressed her distaste for Mr. Gladstone. She strongly hoped to appoint a different member of the Liberal Party as Prime Minister. However, her opinions were mostly tossed aside as Parliament continued its unabated march onward.
For her part, Victoria found friendship in a servant at Balmoral named John Brown. He was a loud Scotsman and brash drinker who was nevertheless compassionate toward the cloistered and lonely queen. Their friendship led to all manner of ribald rumors –once again Victoria found herself with an unflattering nickname: “Mrs. Brown.” She was beside herself when Mr. Brown died in 1883. Now, she put all her maternal affections into her favorite Indian attendant named Abdul Karim.
Victoria’s Golden Jubilee came in 1887 followed by her Diamond Jubilee ten years later in 1897. By then she was the longest reigning monarch of Britain. She became the “Grandmother of Europe” with all her grandchildren married into the finest families in Europe –a grandson became Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, a granddaughter married Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and many others married into ruling dynasties in Greece, Spain, Romania, Sweden, and Norway. As the decaying aristocracies of old reached their apex, so too Victoria quietly met her end. She lay dying in the bedroom of her seaside residence at Osborne with her pillow supported by both her doctor and her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II. She was 82 years old having served nearly 63 years on the throne. She died on January 22, 1901. Her funeral procession through London was followed by a train of two emperors, an heir-apparent, three kings, two crown princes, and members of every royal family in Europe. Never had the ruling aristocracy seemed so strong and united, however in a mere two decades time these very same aristocrats were poised to destroy a generation of young men in what we know today as World War I.
Queen Victoria was buried at Windsor Castle beside Prince Albert. Per her request, she was buried with a nightgown belonging to Albert and a lock of John Brown’s hair. Above the door to her Mausoleum door can be found the following inscription:
“Farewell best beloved, here at last I shall rest with thee,
with thee in Christ I shall rise again”
Despite being a shy, odd, withdrawn, idiosyncratic Queen, Victoria remains an enduring image of the monarchy after having successfully adapted her station to a new era. Gone were the days of the divine rights of kings. Now the reigning monarch sat upon a hollow ceremonial lifelong throne. It became a monarchy of gossip and celebrity, governed by the varying whims of public opinion –now the monarchy was reigning rather than ruling. Victoria and Albert redefined what it meant to be a modern monarch: to present an image of virtue, morality, and strength –a model worth striving toward.
Twenty-four hours after Victoria’s death, Albert Edward delivered his accession speech at St. James Palace, announcing his surprising intent to rule under the name King Edward VII, not Albert I as his mother would have wished. Winston Churchill in his History of English Speaking Peoples, offers the following reflections upon the significance of Queen Victoria:
“In England during the Queen’s years of withdrawal from the outward shows of public life there had once been restiveness against the Crown, and professed republicans had raised their voices. By the end of the century all this had died away. High devotion to her royal task, domestic virtues, evident sincerity of nature, a piercing and disconcerting truthfulness –all these qualities of the Queen’s had long impressed themselves upon the minds of her subjects. In the mass they could have no knowledge of how shrewd she was in political matters, nor of the wisdom she hd accumulated in the course of her dealings with many Ministers and innumerable crises. But they justly caught a sense of a great presiding personages… She represented staunchness and continuity in British traditions, and as she grew in years veneration clustered round her. When she died she had reigned for nearly sixty-four years. Few of her subjects could remember a time when she had not been their Sovereign. But all reflecting men and women could appreciate the advance British power and the progress of the British peoples that had taken place during the age to which she gave her name. The Victorian Age closed in 1901, but the sense of purpose and confidence which had inspired it lived on through the ordeals to come” (611).
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion: The History of England From The Battle of Waterloo.