Victoria (queen) (1819-1901), queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1837-1901) and empress of India (1876-1901). Her reign was the longest of any monarch in British history and came to be known as the Victorian era.
Queen Victoria was the official head of state not only of the United Kingdom but also of the growing worldwide British Empire, which included Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, and large parts of Africa. As the personal embodiment of her kingdom, Victoria was eager to ensure that her country was held in high esteem throughout the world as an economically and militarily powerful state and as a model of civilization. Victoria brought to the British monarchy such 19th-century ideals as a devoted family life, earnestness, public and private respectability, and obedience to the law. During the later years of her reign, the monarchy attained a high degree of popularity among most of its subjects.
Queen Victoria was born Alexandrina Victoria on May 24, 1819, in Kensington Palace, London. Her parents were Victoria Mary Louisa, daughter of the duke of the German principality of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and Edward Augustus, duke of Kent and Strathern, the fourth son of King George III of Great Britain. When Victoria was eight months old, her father died. Victoria’s mother raised her in Kensington Palace with the help of German governesses, private English tutors, and Victoria’s uncle, Prince Leopold (who in 1831 became King Leopold I of Belgium). Victoria learned to speak and write French and German as readily as English. She also studied history, geography, and the Bible. She was taught how to play the piano and learned how to paint, a hobby that she enjoyed into her 60s. Because Victoria’s uncle, King William IV, had no legitimate children, Victoria became heir apparent to the British crown upon his accession in 1830. On June 20, 1837, with the death of William IV, she became queen at the age of 18. 21217ykj92rxf8s
III EARLY REIGN
Immediately after becoming queen, Victoria began regular meetings with William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, the British prime minister at the time. The two grew very close, and Melbourne taught Victoria how the British government worked on a day-to-day basis.
Britain in the 19th century was a constitutional monarchy, and the king or queen ruled through ministers who were members of, and required the support of, the British Parliament. This meant that the monarch had some influence in government, but not a great deal of real power. In the course of her reign, Queen Victoria played a role in appointing some cabinet ministers (and even a prime minister), as well as particular ambassadors and bishops of the Church of England, and she consulted regularly with her prime ministers by letter and in person. In private, Victoria was never afraid to speak her mind. Much of her time, however, was devoted to ceremonial activities such as the official opening and closing of each year’s session of Parliament.
Victoria was very fond of Melbourne, and because he was the leader of the Whig Party (which later became the Liberal Party), Victoria began publicly to support the Whigs rather than the opposition party, the Tories (later the Conservative Party). The Whigs were sympathetic to freedom of speech and of the press and favored greater religious liberty for those people who did not belong to the official Church of England. The Tories were more concerned with maintaining the country’s established institutions and with making no further legal concessions to religious minorities. kx217y1292rxxf
The young queen hoped that the Whigs would continue to keep a majority of seats in the House of Commons (the lower house of the British Parliament) so that Melbourne could 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 Tory leader Sir Robert Peel to change the ladies-in-waiting of her court, all of whom were Whig sympathizers. Peel then felt unable to form a government, and Melbourne continued as prime minister for two more years. A general election in 1841 resulted in a majority of Tory party members in the House of Commons, however, and Victoria was compelled to accept Peel as prime minister.
IV MARRIED LIFE
In 1839 Victoria fell in love with her first cousin, Prince Albert, of the small German principality of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They were married in February 1840, and Albert soon developed a keen interest in the government of his new country. Albert was an unusually studious and serious young man, and he served as his wife’s private secretary. He was an active patron of the arts and sciences, and he was the prime organizer of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first true world's fair, which was held in the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. Albert also favored the expansion of education, and he served as chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He became a great champion of the strengthening and modernizing of Britain's armed forces. Though Albert was respected by most of his new countrymen, he was not loved; many resented him because he was a foreigner, and his heavy German accent did not help.
The Royal Family
For Victoria, however, Albert represented perfection, and the two were very happy together. The royal couple offered an example of family life that contrasted sharply with the images of previous British monarchs. Between 1840 and 1857, Victoria and Albert had nine children. They took an intense personal interest in the upbringing of their children, and they did not leave them solely in the care of nannies and governesses. They increasingly enjoyed a private family life, particularly at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle in Scotland, both of them rebuilt on the basis of Albert’s designs.
B Early Victorian Politics
The royal couple took a sympathetic interest in the efforts of Sir Robert Peel in 1846 to abolish the Corn Laws (acts of Parliament that protected landlords and farmers against foreign competition) and to lead Britain toward international free trade, but in the process he divided his Conservative Party. During the 1850s, with the two-party tradition in temporary disarray, the influence of the monarchy on the formation of ministries reached a 19th-century highpoint. In 1851 royal initiative led to the dismissal of the popular Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, from his post as foreign secretary. He had failed too often to consult the queen before sending dispatches to British diplomats abroad.
Although Victoria and Albert were initially unhappy with the manner in which their country drifted into the Crimean War (1853-1856) against Russia, they became enthusiastic supporters of the conflict once fighting had begun, and in 1855 Victoria appointed Palmerston as wartime prime minister. The queen personally instituted the Victoria Cross as the highest British award for wartime valor.
Queen Victoria never truly recovered from Albert’s death in December 1861 at the age of 42. For almost a decade she remained in strict mourning. She rarely set foot in London, and she avoided most public occasions, including the state opening of Parliament. She made an exception, however, for the unveiling of statues dedicated to Prince Albert and, after a few years, for attendance at army reviews.
Behind the scenes, she continued to correspond with and talk to her ministers, and she took comfort in the company of her favorite servant, a Scottish Highlander named John Brown. By the late 1860s, the queen’s absence from the public stage caused her popularity to decline, and there was talk of replacing the monarchy with a republic. In the course of the later 1870s and the 1880s, she gradually returned to the public arena, and her popularity rose once more.
Late Victorian Politics
Although in her youth she had been known as the “Queen of the Whigs,” in the course of the later 1860s and 1870s she came to prefer Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the Conservative Party, to William Ewart Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party. Disraeli impressed Victoria as being more concerned with Britain's international prestige and with the strengthening of its empire. She strongly supported Disraeli's government from 1874 to 1880. In 1876, when Parliament made her empress of India, she showed her gratitude to Disraeli by opening Parliament in person and by creating him earl of Beaconsfield.
When Disraeli's government was defeated in the general election of 1880, Victoria made little secret of her disappointment in being compelled to name Gladstone prime minister for a second time. Gladstone impressed her as too much a popular demagogue and too ready to tamper with the kingdom's institutions. When in 1866 he proposed home rule (domestic self-government) for Ireland, the queen felt that he was undermining the British Empire. Despite Victoria’s dislike, Gladstone continued to treat the queen with courteous respect.
During the last 15 years of her reign, the Conservatives dominated Britain’s government most of the time under prime minister Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Victoria was sympathetic to Salisbury’s views on foreign affairs and the empire. She strongly supported her government’s involvement in the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, even though the anxieties of the struggle and the criticism that Britain received from other European powers took their toll on the queen.
The Grandmother of Europe
During the years after Albert’s death, the queen remained concerned with her ever-growing family. All nine of her children married, and eight of them had children of their own. Some of Victoria’s children and grandchildren eventually married the heirs to thrones of Spain, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Romania. Because of her many descendents, Victoria became known as the “Grandmother of Europe.”
The most important of these marriages occurred when Victoria’s eldest child, also named Victoria, was married at age 17 to Crown Prince Frederick, the heir to the kingdom of Prussia (and, as of 1871, the German Empire). Victoria and Albert had hoped that the marriage would strengthen the bonds of Anglo-German understanding and would help transform Prussia into a constitutional monarchy like that of Britain. In the long run their hopes were disappointed as Frederick’s son (and the queen’s oldest grandchild) went on, as Emperor William II of Germany, to lead the anti-British coalition during World War I (1914-1918).
By the 1880s Victoria had again become the popular symbol of dutiful public service. She appeared in public more often. Excerpts from her private journals that she published in 1868 and 1884 helped to humanize her in the eyes of her subjects. Her personal identification with late-19th-century empire building and the sheer length of her reign also enhanced her popularity. In 1887 her Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of her accession to the throne, was celebrated with great enthusiasm. The Diamond Jubilee of 1897 brought representatives of all the different parts of the British Empire to London and led to the first meeting of the prime ministers of Britain’s colonies; it was then that Victoria’s popularity reached its peak. Four years later, after a reign of 63 years, she died on January 22, 1901, in Osborne House.
The length of Queen Victoria’s reign gave an impression of continuity to what was actually a period of dynamic change as Britain grew to become a powerful industrialized trading nation. The queen sympathized with some of these changes—such as the camera, the railroad, and the use of anesthetics in childbirth. She felt doubtful about others, however, such as giving the vote to many more people, establishing tax-supported schools, and allowing women into professions such as medicine. During her reign, the popularity of the British monarchy underwent both ups and downs but ultimately increased. Victoria was important because she brought morality, good manners, and a devotion to hard work to her role as constitutional monarch. She took pride in her role as formal head of the world’s largest multiracial and multireligious empire, and her honesty, patriotism, and devotion to family life made the queen an appropriate symbol of the Victorian era.