(b. May 24, 1819, Kensington Palace, London, Eng.—d. Jan. 22, 1901, Osborne, near Cowes, Isle of Wight)
Victoria was queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1837–1901) and empress of India (1876–1901). She was the last monarch of the House of Hanover and gave her name to an era, the Victorian Age. During her reign the English monarchy took on its modern ceremonial character. She and her husband, Prince Consort Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had nine children, through whose marriages were descended many of the royal families of Europe. By the end of her reign, the longest in English history, she had restored both dignity and popularity to a tarnished crown: an achievement of character, as well as of longevity. She will forever be noted for her high sense of duty, her transparent honesty, and the simplicity of her royal character.
Victoria ﬁrst learned of her future role as a young princess during a history lesson when she was 10 years old. Almost four decades later Victoria’s governess recalled that the future queen reacted to the discovery by declaring, “I will be good.” This combination of earnestness and egotism marked Victoria as a child of the age that bears her name. The queen, however, rejected important Victorian values and developments. Although she hated pregnancy and childbirth, detested babies, and was uncomfortable in the presence of children, Victoria reigned in a society that idealized both motherhood and the family.
She had no interest in social issues, yet the 19th century in Britain was an age of reform. She resisted technological change even while mechanical and technological innovations reshaped the face of European civilization. Most signiﬁcantly, Victoria was a queen determined to retain political power; yet unwillingly and unwittingly she presided over the trans-formation of the sovereign’s political role into a ceremonial one and thus preserved the English monarchy.
Lineage and Early Life
On the death in 1817 of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the prince regent (later George IV), there was no surviving legitimate offspring of George III’s 15 children. In 1818, therefore, three of his sons, the dukes of Clarence, Kent, and Cambridge, married to provide for the succession. The winner in the race to father the next ruler of Britain was Edward, duke of Kent, fourth son of King George III. His only child was christened Alexandrina Victoria. After his death and George IV’s accession in 1820, Victoria became third in the line of succession to the throne after the duke of York (died 1827) and the duke of Clarence (subsequently William IV), whose own children died in infancy.
Victoria, by her own account, “was brought up very simply,” principally at Kensington Palace. An important father ﬁgure to the orphaned princess was her uncle Leopold, her mother’s brother, who lived at Claremont, near Esher, Surrey, until he became king of the Belgians in 1831. Victoria’s childhood was made increasingly unhappy by the machinations of Sir John Conroy, an adviser to her German-born mother, the duchess of Kent. Persuaded by Conroy that the royal dukes posed a threat to her daughter, the duchess systematically isolated Victoria from her contemporaries and her father’s family. Despite this treatment the strong-willed girl carried on, and when she ascended the throne in 1837, she did so alone.
Accession to the Throne
On June 20, 1837, Victoria learned of the death of William IV, third son of George III, and she became queen. As such, she who had never before had a room to herself, exiled her mother to a distant set of apartments when they moved into Buckingham Palace. Conroy was pensioned off. Even her beloved uncle Leopold was politely warned off discussions of English politics. “Alone” at last, she enjoyed her new-found freedom.
She later came to feel that it was “the least sensible and satisfactory time in her whole life”; but at the time it was exciting and enjoyable, the more so because of her romantic friendship with Lord Melbourne, the prime minister.
Melbourne was a crucial inﬂuence on Victoria, in many ways an unfortunate one. The urbane and sophisticated prime minister fostered the new queen’s self-conﬁdence and enthusiasm for her role; he also encouraged her to ignore or minimize social problems and to attribute all discontent and unrest to the activities of a small group of agitators. Moreover, because of Melbourne, Victoria became an ardent Whig.
Her constitutionally dangerous political partisanship contributed to the ﬁrst two crises of her reign, both of which broke in 1839. The Hastings affair began when Lady Flora Hastings, a maid of honour who was allied and connected to the Tories, was forced by Victoria to undergo a medical examination for suspected pregnancy. The gossip, when it was discovered that the queen had been mistaken, became the more damaging when later in the year Lady Flora died of a disease that had not been diagnosed by the examining physician. The enthusiasm of the populace over the coronation (June 28, 1838) swiftly dissipated.
Between the two phases of the Hastings case “the bed-chamber crisis” intervened. When Melbourne resigned in May 1839, Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative leader and Melbourne’s apparent successor, stipulated that the Whig ladies of the bedchamber (household “ladies in waiting” to the queen) should be removed. The queen imperiously refused, not without Melbourne’s encouragement, and Peel therefore declined to take ofﬁce, which Melbourne rather weakly resumed. “I was very young then,” wrote the queen long afterward, “and perhaps I should act differ-ently if it was all to be done again.”
Marriage to Albert
Attracted by Albert’s good looks and encouraged by her uncle Leopold, Victoria proposed to her cousin on Oct. 15, 1839, just ﬁve days after he had arrived at Windsor on a visit to the English court. She described her impressions of him in the journal she kept throughout her life: “Albert really is quite charming, and so extremely handsome . . . a beautiful ﬁgure, broad in the shoulders and a ﬁne waist; my heart is quite going.” They were married on Feb. 10, 1840, the queen dressed entirely in articles of British manufacture.
Children quickly followed. Victoria, the princess royal (the “Vicky” of the Letters), was born in 1840; in 1858 she married the crown prince of Prussia and later became the mother of the emperor William II. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was born in 1841.
Then followed Princess Alice, afterward grand duchess of Hesse, 1843; Prince Alfred, afterward duke of Edinburgh and duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 1844; Princess Helena (Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein), 1846; Princess Louise (duchess of Argyll), 1848; Prince Arthur (duke of Connaught), 1850; Prince Leopold (duke of Albany), 1853; and Princess Beatrice (Princess Henry of Battenberg), 1857.
The queen’s ﬁrst grandchild was born in 1859, and her ﬁrst great-grandchild in 1879. There were 37 great-grandchildren alive at her death.Victoria never lost her early passion for Albert: “Without him everything loses its interest.”
Despite conﬂicts produced by the queen’s uncontrollable temper and recurrent ﬁts of depression, which usually occurred during and after pregnancy, the couple had a happy marriage. Victoria, however, was never reconciled to the childbearing that accompanied her marital bliss—the “shadow-side of marriage,” as she called it.
At the beginning of their marriage the queen was insistent that her husband should have no share in the government of the country. Within six months, on Melbourne’s repeated suggestion, the prince was allowed to start seeing the dispatches, then to be present when the queen saw her ministers.
The concession became a routine, and during her ﬁrst pregnancy the prince received a “key to the secret boxes.” As one unwanted pregnancy followed another and as Victoria became increasingly dependent on her husband, Albert assumed an ever-larger political role. Victoria, once so enthusiastic about her role, came to conclude that “we women are not made for governing.”
The Albertine Monarchy
The prince came into his own to negotiate with Peel a com-promise on the bedchamber question after the Melbourne government had been defeated in the general election of 1841. The following year Albert became effectively the queen’s private secretary—according to himself, “her permanent minister.”
A visible sign of the prince’s power and inﬂuence was the building of the royal residences of Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, and Balmoral Castle in Scotland between 1845 and 1855. Victoria described Osborne as “our island home” and retreated there frequently; it was, however, at Balmoral that she was happiest. She liked the simpler life of the Highlands, and she took delight in the plain speech of John Brown, the Highland servant who stalked with Albert and became her personal attendant.
The royal couple’s withdrawal to Scotland and the Isle of Wight bore witness to a new sort of British monarchy. In their quest for privacy and intimacy Albert and Victoria adopted a way of life that mirrored that of their middle-class subjects, admittedly on a grander scale.
Although Albert was interested in intellectual and scientiﬁc matters, Victoria’s tastes were closer to those of most of her people. She enjoyed the novels of Charles Dickens and patronized the circus and waxwork exhibitions. Both Victoria and Albert, however, differed from many in the middle class in their shared preference for nudes in painting and sculpture. Victoria was not the prude that many claimed her to be.
Victoria’s delight in mingling with the Scottish poor at Balmoral did little to raise the level of her social aware-ness. Although in 1846 she and Albert supported the repeal of the Corn Laws (protectionist legislation that kept the price of British grain artiﬁcially high) in order to relieve distress in famine-devastated Ireland, they remained much more interested in and involved with the building of Osborne and foreign policy than in the tragedy of Ireland. Victoria, moreover, gave her full support to the govern-ment’s policy of repression of the Chartists (advocates of far-reaching political and social reform) and believed the workers in her realm to be contented and loyal.
For both the queen and the prince consort the high-light of their reign came in 1851, with the opening of the Great Exhibition. Albert poured himself into the task of organizing the international trade show that became a symbol of the Victorian Age. Housed in the architectural marvel of the Crystal Palace, a splendid, greenhouse-inspired glass building erected in Hyde Park, the Great Exhibition displayed Britain’s wealth and technological achievements to a wondering world.
By tradition the sovereign had a special part to play in foreign affairs and could conduct them alone with a secre-tary of state. Victoria and Albert had relatives throughout Europe and were to have more. Moreover, they visited and were visited by other monarchs. Albert was determined that this personal intelligence should not be disregarded and that the queen should never become a mere ﬁgure-head who represented the will of the foreign minister. The result was a clash with Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, who could look back on a career of high ofﬁce beginning before the royal couple was born.
Even after Victoria insisted to Palmerston in 1850, “having once given her sanction to a measure, that it be not arbitrarily altered or modiﬁed by the minister,” the foreign secretary continued to follow policies disapproved of by both Albert and Victoria, such as his encouragement of nationalist movements that threatened to dismember the Austrian Empire. Finally, after Palmerston expressed his approval of the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III) in 1851 without consulting the queen, the prime minister, Lord John Russell, dismissed him. Within a few months the immensely popular Palmerston was back in ofﬁce, however, as home secretary. He would serve twice as prime minister.
On the eve of the Crimean War (1854–56) the royal pair encountered a wave of unpopularity, but there was a marked revival of royalist sentiment as the war wore on. The queen personally superintended the committees of ladies who orga-nized relief for the wounded and eagerly seconded the efforts of Florence Nightingale: she visited crippled soldiers in the hospitals and instituted the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
With the death of Prince Albert on Dec. 14, 1861, the Albertine monarchy came to an end. Albert’s inﬂuence on the queen was lasting. He had changed her personal habits and her political sympathies. From him she had received training in orderly ways of business, in hard work, in the expectation of royal intervention in ministry making at home, and in the establishment of a private (because royal) intelligence service abroad. The English monarchy too had changed.
After Albert’s death Victoria descended into deep depres-sion. Even after she conquered her depression, she remained in mourning and in partial retirement. She balked at performing the ceremonial functions expected of the monarch and withdrew to Balmoral and Osborne four months out of every year. After an initial period of respect and sympathy for the queen’s grief, the public grew increasingly impatient with its absent sovereign.
Although Victoria resisted carrying out her ceremo-nial duties, she remained determined to retain an effective political role and to behave as Albert would have ordained. It was despite, yet because of, Albert that Victoria suc-cumbed to Benjamin Disraeli. Albert had not liked him, but he was able to enter into the queen’s grief, ﬂatter her, restore her self-conﬁdence, and make the lonely crown an easier burden. Behind all his calculated attacks on her affections there was a bond of mutual loneliness, a note of mystery and romanticism, and, besides, the return to good gossip.
Disraeli, moreover, told the queen in 1868 that it would be “his delight and duty, to render the transaction of affairs as easy to your Majesty, as possible.” Since the queen was only too ready to consider herself overworked, this approach was especially successful. On the other hand, the queen’s former prime minister, William Gladstone, would never acknowledge that she was, as she put it, “dead beat,” perhaps because he never was himself; Disraeli, however, tired easily.
The contrast between Disraeli’s lively, often malicious, gossipy letters and Gladstone’s 40 sides of foolscap is obvious. And there was no Albert to give her a neat précis. The queen had no patience with Gladstone’s moralistic (and, she believed, hypocritical) approach to politics and foreign affairs.
His persistent and often tactless attempts to persuade her to resume her ceremonial duties especially enraged her.Over the problem of Ireland their paths separated ever more widely. The queen (like the majority of her subjects) had little understanding of, or sympathy for, Irish grievances. In all, she made but four visits to Ireland. The news of Gladstone’s defeat in 1874 delighted the queen.
One of the bonds shared by Victoria and Disraeli was a romantic attachment to the East and the idea of empire. The queen was entranced by his imperialism and by his assertive foreign policy. She applauded his brilliant maneuvering, which led to the British purchase of slightly less than half of the shares in the Suez Canal in 1875 (a move that prevented the canal from falling entirely under French control), especially since he presented the canal as a personal gift to her: “It is just settled; you have it, Ma’am.” The addition of “Empress of India” in 1876 to the royal title thrilled the queen even more.
Victoria and Disraeli also agreed on their answer to the vexing “Eastern question”—what was to be done with the declining Turkish empire? Both held that Britain’s best interests lay in supporting Turkey, the “Sick Man” of Europe. The fact that Gladstone took the opposing view, of course, strengthened their pro-Turkish sympathies.
With the outbreak of a Russo-Turkish war in 1877, however, Disraeli had to restrain his bellicose sovereign, who demanded that Britain enter the war against Russia. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 Disraeli emerged triumphant: Russian inﬂuence in the Balkans was reduced, and Britain gained control of the strategically located island of Cyprus. The queen was ecstatic.
Victoria’s delight in Disraeli’s premiership made further conﬂict with Gladstone inevitable. When the Conservative Party was defeated in 1880, she made no secret of her hostility toward Gladstone. She hoped he would retire, and she remained in correspondence with Lord Beaconsﬁeld (as Disraeli had become). Despite her feelings about lead-ing what she scornfully called a “Democratic Monarchy,” Victoria did act as an important mediating inﬂuence between the two houses to bring about the compromise that resulted in the third parliamentary Reform Act in 1884.
Victoria never acclimatized herself to the effects of the new electorate on party organization. No longer was the monarchy normally necessary as cabinet maker. Yet the queen was reluctant to accept her more limited role. Thus, in 1886 she sought to avoid a third Gladstone minis-try by attempting to form an anti-Radical coalition. Her attempt failed.
In the Salisbury administration (1895–1902), with which her long reign ended, Victoria was eventually to ﬁnd not only the sort of ministry with which she felt comfortable but one which lent a last ray of colour to her closing years by its alliance, through Joseph Chamberlain, with the mounting imperialism that she had so greatly enjoyed in Disraeli’s day when he had made her empress of India.
The South African War (1899–1902) dominated her ﬁnal years. The sufferings of her soldiers in South Africa aroused the queen to a level of activity and public visibility that she had avoided for decades. With a demanding schedule of troop inspections, medal ceremonies, and visits to military hospitals, Victoria ﬁnally became the exemplar of a modern monarch.
She remained, nevertheless, either aloof from or in opposition to many of the important political, social, and intellectual currents of the later Victorian period. She never reconciled herself to the advance of democ-racy, and she thought the idea of female suffrage anathema.
The sufferings of an individual worker could engage her sympathy; the working class, however, remained outside her ﬁeld of vision. Many of the movements of the day passed the aged queen by, many irritated her, but the stupendous hard work that Albert had taught her went on—the meticulous examination of the boxes, the regular signature of the papers. To the very end Victoria remained a passionate and strong-willed woman.
Those nearest to her came completely under her spell; all from the Prince of Wales down stood in considerable awe. Those who suffered her displeasure never forgot it, nor did she. Yielding to nobody else’s comfort and keeping every anniversary, she lived surrounded by mementos, photographs, miniatures, busts, and souvenirs in chilly rooms at the end of drafty corridors, down which one tiptoed past Indian attendants to the presence.
Nobody knocked; a gentle scratching on the door was all that she permitted. Every night at Windsor Albert’s clothes were laid out on the bed, every morning fresh water was put in the basin in his room. She slept with a photograph—over her head—taken of his head and shoulders as he lay dead. When she died, after a short and painless illness, she was buried beside Prince Albert in the mausoleum at Frogmore near Windsor.