Victoria (1819-1901), called Queen Victoria, was Queen of the United Kingdom from 1837-1901, the monarch with the longest reign in British history. She gave her name to an era of British greatness, especially in the far-flung British Empire with which she identified. She played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour.
She was born Princess Alexandrina Victoria, at Kensington Palace, London, on May 24, 1819, the only child of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George III, and Princess Victoria, widow of the prince of Leiningen and daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg in Germany. When she was nine months old her father died, and the princess thereafter led a lonely and secluded childhood at Kensington Palace. Kept away from the court because of a feud between her father and his elder brothers, Victoria became greatly attached to her mother's brother (afterwards King Leopold of the Belgians), who was then living in England, as well as to his secretary Baron Stockmar, and to her Hanoverian governess, Baroness Lehzen. Educated by the latter and by visiting tutors, she always felt that her education had been imperfect.
Early Years of Her Reign
Victoria succeeded to the throne after her two uncles, King George IV and King William IV, died without legitimate issue. She became Queen on June 20, 1837, a month after she had reached her 18th birthday, and thus her majority. Her poise, modesty, and good sense made an immediately favourable impression on the nation. Her coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on June 28, 1838. The Queen increased her popularity by promptly paying her father's considerable private debts. Though affectionate to her mother, she was critical of her. She relied entirely on Baroness Lehzen for the management of her household and the arrangement of her Court. In larger matters Victoria was guided by Baron Stockmar, the confidant of the whole Saxe-Coburg family. In domestic affairs and politics she relied on the shrewd advice and worldly wisdom of her Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (see also Melbourne, Second Viscount). Even in these early days she showed independence and spirit, notably in the Bedchamber Crisis, when she refused to allow Melbourne's successor, the Tory Sir Robert Peel, to change the members of her Court, particularly the ladies of the bedchamber, all of whom were Whig sympathizers.
Marriage to Albert
Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, aged 20, in 1840. A match which had been cherished and planned by King Leopold, it turned out to be a very felicitous one, with a profound love developing on both sides. Albert managed of all of Victoria's affairs, both public and private. The Queen's surrender to his strong, highly intelligent, and matter-of-fact personality was complete. Cynics referred to her scornfully as "Queen Albertine," but she put the matter correctly when she wrote a friend, "My nature is too passionate, my emotions are too fervent, he guided and protected me, he comforted and encouraged me." Albert swung the Queen's political orientation in a more conservative direction, and was largely responsible for setting the tone of moral earnestness and strait-laced propriety which was the superficial characteristic of the Victorian Age.
During the next twenty years the Queen had nine children. Though her family responsibilities left her little time for public appearances, the Great Exhibition of 1851--planned and organized by Prince Albert--was an occasion for pageantry. She worked hard, under the influence of the prince, to make her views on public questions felt by the cabinet and in this she had her successes. She was related to royalty across Europe, and she followed the international news.
The greatest test of the Queen's life came in 1861 when, after a short illness, the prince died on December 14 from typhoid fever. She was bowed with grief and went into the deepest mourning for the remainder of her life. She lived in seclusion, struggling with the many problems of her large family, and with the problem of continuing the political influence which she had exerted under the guidance of the prince. For ten years Victoria found it impossible to make any ceremonial appearances in public. When she was urged in 1866 to open Parliament in state, she wrote that she could not understand how people could want to see "a poor, broken-hearted widow, dragged in deep mourning, alone in State as a show." Sensitive people sympathized with these feelings, but the majority did not and there were some republican mutterings. But with the 1870s her popularity revived.
The Queen always regarded herself as a Liberal in politics--a tribute to the influence of Melbourne--but from the 1870s she found herself more in sympathy with the expansionist and imperialist views of the Conservatives. She strongly supported Benjamin Disraeli's Conservative Ministry from 1874 to 1880, and in 1876 when he made her Empress of India she showed her gratitude to him by opening Parliament in person and by bestowing a peerage upon him. When Disraeli's government lost the 1880 election, the Queen was openly reluctant to send for the Leader of the Opposition, William Gladstone; she thought he was "that dreadful old man." Yet Gladstone always treated her with a courteous respect amounting to reverence, while Disraeli treated her with a mixture of banter and chivalry which seemed unbecoming.
Victoria was always interested in the progress of the British Empire. In 1876 the Royal Titles Bill made her Empress of India, a controversial decision engineered by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Already in the 1840s she intervened in the acrimonious debates over the military administration of India; in 1858 she and Prince Albert helped to bolster the position of the Indian princes as the authority of the British East India Company was ended. By the late 1860s she thought and spoke of herself as empress of India. India offered her and Albert opportunities to try to protect and perhaps even extend royal prerogative during a period in which royal authority was becoming more circumscribed.
Victoria warmly approved of Disraeli's positive action in purchasing shares in the Suez Canal, but she was from the first critical of the failure of Gladstone's government--when the United Kingdom was the power behind the Khedive (ruler of Egypt)--to take action to relieve Gen. Charles Gordon at Khartoum, in the Sudan, south of Egypt. Gordon had gone there to evacuate Egyptian garrisons in the face of an effective revolt against Egyptian suzerainty. When Khartoum finally fell and Gordon was killed (1885), the Queen sent an open, uncoded telegram of rebuke to Gladstone.
She strongly supported Disraeli's successor Lord Salisbury in foreign and empire matters, and was undaunted by the Boer War which began in 1899, though the anxieties of the struggle undermined her remarkably robust constitution. In domestic politics--even as she grew older--the Queen remained to a considerable extent in step with liberal opinion, but she was a strong opponent of anything savouring of revolutionary change, such as women's emancipation. She maintained to the last a very comprehensive and active surveillance over all aspects of official life.
Toward the end of her reign, the Queen's popularity was revealed by the Golden and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1887 and 1897; her capacity for symbolizing in herself the feelings of the nation was also demonstrated by the popular acclamation she received when she drove to the inner City of London at the time of the relief of the besieged town of Mafeking during the Boer War.
The Queen was short, but she had great dignity and grace of movement. She was fair-skinned, with the striking blue eyes of the English royal family; her beautiful speaking voice was remarkable. Contrary to general belief, she appreciated wit, and her laughter--which was unrestrained and prolonged--was familiar to her private circle. The remark "We are not amused," although attributed to her, has never been authenticated.
In religious matters, Victoria, having been brought up in rather narrowly Lutheran doctrines, had little sympathy with the High Church movement within the Church of England, which gathered momentum during her reign. In fact she caused some offence to strict Churchmen by worshipping at the Presbyterian Church when she stayed in Scotland; nowadays it is customary for English royalty to attend Presbyterian services when in Scotland.
After widowhood she came seldom to London. She divided her time between Windsor Castle and Osborne House, the seaside home on the Isle of Wight which she and the prince had built; this was apart from the period which she regularly spent each year at Balmoral in the east Highlands of Scotland. She died at Osborne on Jan. 22, 1901. Her body rests with the Prince Consort in the mausoleum at Frogmore close to Windsor.
The strength of Queen Victoria lay in her good common sense and directness of character; she expressed the qualities of the British nation which at that time made it pre-eminent in the world.
Politically she was jealous of her limited rights, notably the right to be informed of significant government decisions, the right to refuse a dissolution of parliament, the right to decide whom she would choose as prime minister from the party that held a majority in Commons, and the right to encourage and warn ministers of their actions. Victoria used her powers well and secured for the monarchy a respect from both politicians and the public.
As a symbol of domesticity, endurance and Empire, and as a woman holding the highest public office during an age when middle- and upper-class women were expected to beautify the home while men dominated the public sphere, Queen Victoria's influence has been enduring. Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.
Her surviving letters have been published; however her crucial correspondence with her son the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) was destroyed; Princess Beatrice, her youngest daughter, rewrote and censored her mother's diaries as queen and burned the originals.
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