Women in History – Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria; 24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) was the Queen regnant of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837, and the first Empress of India of the British Raj from 1 May 1876, until her death. Her reign as the Queen lasted 63 years and 7 months, longer than that of any other British monarch before or since, and her reign is the longest of any female monarch in history. The time of her reign is known as the Victorian era, a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military progress within the United Kingdom.
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Victoria was of mostly German descent, the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and granddaughter of George III and the niece of her predecessor William IV. She arranged marriages for her nine children and forty-two grandchildren across the continent, tying Europe together and earning her the nickname “the grandmother of Europe”. She was the last British monarch of the House of Hanover; her son King Edward VII belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Victoria ascended the throne at a time when the United Kingdom was already an established constitutional monarchy, in which the king or queen held few political powers and exercised influence by the prime minister’s advice; but she still served as a very important symbolic figure of her time. Victoria’s reign was marked by a great expansion of the British Empire. During this period, it reached its zenith and became the foremost global power of the time. Heiress to the throne
Victoria was born in Kensington Palace in 1819. At the time of her birth, her grandfather, George III, was on the throne, but his three eldest sons, the Prince Regent (later George IV), the Duke of York, and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), had no surviving legitimate children. The princess was christened privately by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton, on 24 June 1819 in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace. Her godparents were Emperor Alexander I of Russia, the future King George IV of he United Kingdom (her uncle), Queen Charlotte of Wurttemberg (her aunt, whose sister The Princess Augusta Sophia stood in proxy) and Duchess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield (her maternal grandmother, for whom Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh, the infant princess’ aunt, stood proxy). The princess was named Alexandrina, after Emperor Alexander I of Russia, and Victoria after her mother. The young Princess Victoria was the only legitimate child of the fourth son of George III, the Duke of Kent, who died in 1820.
As such, she became heiress presumptive after the death of George IV in 1830. The law at the time made no special provision for a child monarch. Therefore, a Regent needed to be appointed if Victoria were to succeed to the throne before the age of eighteen. Parliament passed the Regency Act 1830, which provided that Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, would act as Regent during the Queen’s minority, if she acceded to the throne while still a minor. Parliament did not create a council to limit the powers of the Regent.
King William disliked the Duchess and, on at least one occasion, stated that he wanted to live until Victoria’s 18th birthday, so that the regency could be avoided. Victoria later described her childhood as “rather melancholy. ” Victoria’s mother was extremely protective of the princess, who was raised in near isolation under the so called “Kensington System”, an elaborate set of rules and protocols devised by The Duchess and her comptroller and supposed lover, Sir John Conroy, to prevent the princess from ever meeting people whom they deemed undesirable, and to render her weak and utterly dependent upon them.
She was not allowed to interact with other children. Her main companion was her King Charles spaniel, Dash, and she was required to share a bedroom with her mother every night until she became queen. As a teenager, Victoria resisted their threats and rejected their attempts to make Conroy her personal secretary. Once queen, she immediately banned Conroy from her quarters (though she could not remove him from her mother’s household) and consigned her mother to a distant corner of the palace, often refusing to see her.
The Duchess was scandalized by her brothers-in-law’s numerous mistresses and bastard children, and the widespread public contempt for the royal family that resulted; she taught her daughter that she must avoid any hint of sexual impropriety, which has been proposed as having prompted the emergence of Victorian morality. Victoria’s governess, Baroness Ehen from Hanover, was a formative influence for Victoria and continued to run Victoria’s household after she ascended to the throne.
Victoria’s close relationship with Baroness Ehen came to an end sometime after the queen married Prince Albert, who found Ehen incompetent for her authority in the household, to the point of threatening the safety and health of their first child. Victoria was taught only German until she was three years old. She was subsequently taught French and English as well, and became virtually trilingual. Her mother spoke German with her. Her command of English, although good, was not perfect. Early reign Accession On 24 May 1837 Victoria turned 18, and a second British Regency was avoided.
On 20 June 1837, William IV died from heart failure at the age of 71, and Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom. In her diary she wrote, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma … who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Cunningham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) alone, and saw them. Lord Cunningham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning and consequently that I am Queen… All the official documents (proclamation, oaths of allegiance, etc) prepared on the first day of her reign described her as Queen Alexandrina Victoria but at her first Privy Council meeting she signed the register as Victoria; thus, although she was supposed to reign as Alexandrina Victoria, the first name was withdrawn at her own wish. Her coronation took place on 28 June 1838, and she became the first monarch to take up residence at Buckingham Palace. Under Salic law, however, no woman could be monarch of Hanover, a realm which had shared a monarch with Britain since 1714.
Hanover passed to her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland and Teviot dale, who became King Ernest Augustus I. (He was the fifth son and eighth child of George III. ) As the young queen was as yet unmarried and childless, Ernest Augustus also remained the heir presumptive to the throne of the United Kingdom until Victoria’s first child was born in 1840. At the time of her accession, the government was controlled by the Whig Party, which had been in power, except for brief intervals, since 1830.
The Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, at once became a powerful influence in the life of the politically inexperienced Queen, who relied on him for advice-some even referred to Victoria as “Mrs. Melbourne”. However, the Melbourne ministry would not stay in power for long; it was growing unpopular and, moreover, faced considerable difficulty in governing the British colonies, especially during the Rebellions of 1837. In 1839, Lord Melbourne resigned after the Radicals and the Tories (both of whom Victoria detested at that time) joined together to block a Bill before the House of Commons that would have suspended the Constitution of Jamaica.
Victoria’s principal advisor was her uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (her mother’s brother, and the widower of Victoria’s cousin, Princess Charlotte). The Queen then commissioned Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, to form a new ministry, but was faced with a debacle known as the Bedchamber Crisis. At the time, it was customary for appointments to the Royal Household to be based on the patronage system (that is, for the Prime Minister to appoint members of the Royal Household on the basis of their party loyalties). Many of the Queen’s Ladies of the Bedchamber were wives of Whigs, but Peel expected to replace them with wives of Tories.
Victoria strongly objected to the removal of these ladies, whom she regarded as close friends rather than as members of a ceremonial institution. Peel felt that he could not govern under the restrictions imposed by the Queen, and consequently resigned his commission, allowing Melbourne to return to office. Marriage Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854 Marriage of Victoria and Albert by Sir George Hayter Princess Victoria first met her future husband, her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, when she was just seventeen in 1836.
Some authors have written that she initially found Albert to be rather dull. However according to her diary, she enjoyed his company from the beginning. After the visit she wrote, “Albert is extremely handsome; his hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful. She also wrote to her maternal uncle Leopold I of Belgium to thank him “for the prospect of great happiness you have contributed to give me, in the person of dear Albert …
He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. Prince Albert’s father was one of her mother’s brothers, Ernest, who approved the match. However at seventeen, the Princess Victoria, though interested in Albert, was not yet ready to marry. Victoria came to the throne aged just eighteen on 20 June 1837. Though queen, as an unmarried young woman Victoria was nonetheless required to live with her mother, with whom she was quite angry over the Kensington system.
Victoria gave her mother a remote apartment in Buckingham Palace and usually refused to meet her. Lord Melbourne advised Victoria to marry in order to be free of her mother. Her letters of the time show interest in Albert’s education for the future role he would have to play as her husband, although she resisted attempts to rush her into marriage. Though initially Victoria was quite popular, her reputation suffered somewhat in an 1839 court intrigue when one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, developed an abdominal tumor that resulted in her death in July 1839.
Lady Flora at first refused to submit to a physical examination by a doctor, and her abdominal growth was widely rumoured to be an out-of-wedlock pregnancy by Sir John Conroy, who was long rumoured to be the lover of Victoria’s mother. Victoria hated Conroy for his role in constructing the Kensington System that had rendered her childhood so unhappy, and believed the rumours. Lady Flora eventually submitted to an examination and was found to have a terminal tumour. When she died several months later, Conroy and Lady Flora’s brother organised a press campaign accusing the Queen of spreading false and disgraceful insults about Lady Flora.
Victoria continued to praise Albert following his second visit in October 1839 after she had become Queen, when she wrote of him: “… dear Albert… He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides, the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see. Albert and Victoria felt mutual affection and the Queen proposed to Albert just 5 days after he had arrived at Windsor on 15 October 1839. The Queen and Prince Albert were married on 10 February 1840, in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, London.
Albert became not only the Queen’s companion, but an important political advisor, replacing Lord Melbourne as the dominant figure in the first half of her life following Melbourne’s death. Victoria’s mother was evicted from the palace, and Victoria rarely visited her. During Victoria’s first pregnancy, eighteen-year-old Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate the Queen while she was riding in a carriage with Prince Albert in London. Oxford fired twice, but both bullets missed. He was tried for high treason, but was acquitted on the grounds of insanity.
The first of the royal couple’s nine children, named Victoria, was born on 21 November 1840. Further attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria occurred between May and July 1842. First, on 29 May at St. James’s Park, John Francis fired a pistol at the Queen while she was in a carriage, but was immediately seized by Police Constable William Trounce. Francis was convicted of high treason. The death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. Then, on 3 July, just days after Francis’s sentence was commuted, another boy, John William Bean, attempted to shoot the Queen.
Prince Albert felt that the attempts were encouraged by Oxford’s acquittal in 1840. Although his gun was loaded only with paper and tobacco, his crime was still punishable by death. Feeling that such a penalty would be too harsh, Prince Albert encouraged Parliament to pass the Treason Act 1842. Under the new law, an assault with a dangerous weapon in the monarch’s presence with the intent of alarming her was made punishable by seven years’ imprisonment and flogging. Bean was thus sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment; however, neither he, nor any person who violated the act in the future, was flogged.
During the same summer as these two assassination attempts, Victoria made her first journey by train, travelling from Slough railway station (near Windsor Castle) to Bishop’s Bridge, near Paddington (in London), on 13 June 1842 in the special royal carriage provided by the Great Western Railway. Accompanying her were her husband and the engineer of the Great Western line, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Queen and the Prince Consort both complained the train was going too fast at 20 mph (30 km/h), fearing the train would derail. Early Victorian politics and further assassination attempts
Peel’s ministry soon faced a crisis involving the repeal of the Corn Laws. Many Tories-by then known also as Conservatives-were opposed to the repeal, but some Tories (the “Peelites”) and most Whigs supported it. Peel resigned in 1846, after the repeal narrowly passed, and was replaced by Lord John Russell. Russell’s ministry, though Whig, was not favoured by the Queen. Particularly offensive to Victoria was the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, who often acted without consulting the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, or the Queen.
In 1849, Victoria lodged a complaint with Lord John Russell, claiming that Palmerston had sent official dispatches to foreign leaders without her knowledge. She repeated her remonstrance in 1850, but to no avail. It was only in 1851 that Lord Palmerston was removed from office; he had on that occasion announced the British government’s approval for President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup in France without prior consultation of the Prime Minister. The period during which Russell was Prime Minister also proved personally distressing to Queen Victoria.
In 1849, an unemployed and disgruntled Irishman named William Hamilton attempted to alarm the Queen by firing a powder-filled pistol as her carriage passed along Constitution Hill, London. Hamilton was charged under the 1842 act; he pleaded guilty and received the maximum sentence of seven years of penal transportation. In 1850, the Queen did sustain injury when she was assaulted by a possibly insane ex-Army officer, Robert Pate. As Victoria was riding in a carriage, Pate struck her with his cane, crushing her bonnet and bruising her.
Pate was later tried; he failed to prove his insanity, and received the same sentence as Hamilton. Ireland The young Queen Victoria fell in love with Ireland, choosing to holiday in Killarney in Kerry. Her love of the country was matched by initial Irish warmth towards the young Queen. In 1845, Ireland was hit by a potato blight that over four years cost the lives of over a million Irish people and saw the emigration of another million. In response to what came to be called the Great Famine (in Irish, An Gorta Mor), the Queen personally donated ? ,000 sterling to the Irish people. However, when Sultan Abdulmecid I of the Ottoman Empire declared that he would send ? 10,000 in aid, Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only ? 1,000, because she had sent only ? 2,000. The Sultan sent the ? 1,000 but also secretly sent three ships full of food. British courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors. However, myths were generated towards the end of the 19th century that she had donated a maximum of ? 5 in aid to the Irish, and on the same day also gave ? pounds to Battersea Dog Shelter. This was false, as she in fact contributed ? 2,000, substantially more than many Irish Catholic Bishops, one of whom donated ? 1,000 pounds to a charity for the hungry and ? 10,000 to a University project. Additionally, the policies of her minister Lord John Russell were often blamed for exacerbating the severity of the famine, which adversely affected the Queen’s popularity in Ireland. However Victoria was a strong supporter of the Irish; she supported the Maynooth Grant and made a point, on visiting Ireland, of visiting the seminary.
Victoria’s first official visit to Ireland, in 1849, was specifically arranged by Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland-the head of the British administration-to try to both draw attention from the famine and alert British politicians through the Queen’s presence to the seriousness of the crisis in Ireland. Despite the negative impact of the famine on the Queen’s popularity she remained popular enough for many Irish nationalists at party meetings to finish by singing “God Save the Queen”. She became known in Ireland as “The Famine Queen”, and was much vilified then, as now.
In 1853 she visited the Great Industrial Exhibition which was the biggest international event held to date in Ireland. Over one million attended and Victoria knighted the architect of the exhibition, John Benson. By the 1870s and 1880s the monarchy’s appeal in Ireland had diminished substantially, partly because Victoria refused to visit Ireland in protest at the Dublin Corporation’s decision not to congratulate her son, the Prince of Wales on both his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark and on the birth of the royal couple’s oldest son, Prince Albert Victor.
Queen Victoria had also felt deeply hurt after Dublin Corporation had returned a bust of her beloved late husband Albert, which she sent as a gift to the people of Dublin. In addition, she had felt hurt by the indignation at the suggestion to place a statue of Albert on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, and to rename it ‘Albert Green’. It has been theorised that these perceived ‘insults’ to her beloved Albert’s memory hardened her views of the Irish people. Victoria refused repeated pressure from a number of prime ministers, lords’ lieutenant and even members of the Royal Family, to establish a royal residence in Ireland.
Lord Midleton, the former head of the Irish unionist party, writing in his memories of 1930 Ireland “Dupe or Heroine? ” described this decision as having proved disastrous to the monarchy and the union. The Queen paid her last visit to Ireland in 1900, when she came to appeal to Irishmen to join the British Army and fight in the Second Boer War. Nationalist opposition to her visit was spearheaded by Arthur Griffith, who established an organisation called Cumann na nGaedhael to unite the opposition.
Five years later Griffith used the contacts established in his campaign against the Queen’s visit to form a new political movement, Sinn Fein, which ultimately brought about the establishment of the Irish Free State. Empress of India After the Mughal Emperor was deposed by the British East India Company, and after the company itself was dissolved, the title “Empress of India” was taken by Victoria from 1 May 1876, and proclaimed at the Delhi Durbar of 1877. The title was created nineteen years after the formal incorporation into the British Empire of Britain’s possessions and protectorates on the Indian subcontinent.
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is usually credited with creating the title for her. Victoria began learning Hindi and Punjabi in 1867. Widowhood Portrait of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes and wearing the State Diadem The Prince Consort died of typhoid fever on 14 December, 1861, due to the primitive sanitary conditions at Windsor Castle. His death devastated Victoria, who was still affected by the death of her mother in March of that year. She entered a state of mourning and wore black for the remainder of her life. She avoided public appearances, and rarely set foot in London in the following years.
Her seclusion earned her the name “Widow of Windsor. ” She blamed her son Edward, the Prince of Wales, for his father’s death, since news of the Prince’s poor conduct had come to his father in November, leading Prince Albert to travel to Cambridge to confront his son. Victoria’s self-imposed isolation from the public greatly diminished the popularity of the monarchy, and even encouraged the growth of the republican movement. She did undertake her official government duties, yet she also chose to remain secluded in her royal residences-Balmoral Castle in Scotland, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle.
As time went by, Victoria began to rely increasingly on a manservant from Scotland, John Brown. A romantic connection and even a secret marriage have been alleged, but both charges are generally discredited. However, when Victoria’s remains were laid in the coffin, two sets of mementos were placed with her, at her request. By her side was placed one of Albert’s dressing gowns, while in her left hand was placed a piece of Brown’s hair, along with a picture of him. It was learned in 2008 that Victoria’s body wore the wedding ring of John Brown’s mother, placed on her hand after her death.
Rumours of an affair and marriage earned Victoria the nickname “Mrs. Brown”. The story of their relationship was the subject of the 1997 movie Mrs. Brown. Later years Golden Jubilee and an assassination attempt In 1887, the British Empire celebrated Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Victoria marked the fiftieth anniversary of her accession on 20 June with a banquet to which 50 European kings and princes were invited. Although she could not have been aware of it, there was a plan-ostensibly by Irish anarchists-to blow up Westminster Abbey.
This assassination attempt, when it was discovered, became known as the Jubilee Plot. On the next day, she participated in a procession that, in the words of Mark Twain, “stretched to the limit of sight in both directions”. By this time, Victoria was once again an extremely popular monarch. Diamond Jubilee On 25 September 1896, Victoria surpassed George III as the longest-reigning monarch in English, Scottish, and British history. The Queen requested all special public celebrations of the event to be delayed until 1897, to coincide with her Diamond Jubilee.
The Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, proposed that the Diamond Jubilee be made a festival of the British Empire. The Prime Ministers of all the self-governing dominions and colonies were invited. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession included troops from every British colony and dominion, together with soldiers sent by Indian princes and chiefs as a mark of respect to Victoria, the Empress of India. The Diamond Jubilee celebration was an occasion marked by great outpourings of affection for the septuagenarian Queen.
A service of thanksgiving was held outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. Queen Victoria sat in her carriage throughout the service; she wore her usual black mourning dress trimmed with white lace. Many trees were planted to celebrate the Jubilee, including 60 oak trees at Henley-on-Thames in the shape of a Victoria Cross. The VC was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War, and its modern Commonwealth variants remain to this day the highest British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Commonwealth award for bravery.
Death and succession Following a custom she maintained throughout her widowhood, Victoria spent the Christmas of 1900 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She died there from a cerebral haemorrhage on Tuesday 22 January 1901 at half past six in the evening, at the age of 81. At her deathbed she was attended by her son, the future King, and her eldest grandson, German Emperor Wilhelm II. As she had wished, her own sons lifted her into the coffin.
She was dressed in a white dress and her wedding veil, and the coffin was draped with the Royal Standard that had been flying at Osborne House; it was later given by Victoria’s grandson, George V, to Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Her funeral was held on Saturday 2 February, and after two days of lying-in-state, she was interred beside Prince Albert in Frogmore Mausoleum at Windsor Great Park. Since Victoria disliked black funerals, London was instead festooned in purple and white. When she was laid to rest at the mausoleum, it began to snow. Statue of Victoria in George Square, Glasgow
Flags in the United States were lowered to half-mast in her honour by order of President William McKinley, a tribute never before offered to a foreign monarch at the time and one which was repaid by Britain when McKinley was assassinated later that year. Victoria had reigned for a total of 63 years, seven months and two days-the longest of any British monarch-and surpassed her grandfather, George III, as the longest-lived monarch (since surpassed by Elizabeth II) by just four days. Victoria’s death brought an end to the rule of the House of Hanover in the United Kingdom.
Her husband belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and her son and heir Edward VII was the first British monarch of this new house. Later, in 1917, her grandson King George V changed the house name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the (currently serving) House of Windsor. Victoria outlived 3 of her 9 children, and came within seven months of outliving a fourth (her eldest daughter, Vicky, who died of spinal cancer in August 1901 aged 60). She outlived 11 of her 42 grandchildren (3 stillborn, 6 as children, and 2 as adults).