Queen Victoria

Victoria (1819-1901) was queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901 and empress of India from 1876 to 1901. She presided over the expansion of England into an empire of 4 million square miles and 124 million people.

A woman who gave her name to an age, Victoria was a richly contradictory character. Intensely virtuous, at the age of 11 upon learning she was next in succession to the British crown, she reacted by promising "I will be good, " a promise which she faithfully kept. With innate good manners and a great love of truth, she was also immensely selfish, keeping aged ministers and ladies-in-waiting out in all weathers and up to all hours, and ruining the life and character of her eldest son (later Edward VII) by refusing to allow him any responsibility. Her prudery was famous, yet her letters reveal her completely unafraid to face unpleasant facts, even about her nearest and dearest. Tremendously personal and partisan in her handling of her ministers, she never succeeded in understanding the English party system; she considered that her own view of what would best benefit her country gave her the right to oppose any policy and person, and she frankly preferred coalitions, while accepting that the Crown must be above party. Living all her adult life subject to the guidance of wise men, she remained both innocent and devious, arbitrary and simple, courageous and timid, "unconstitutional in action while constitutional by temperament." In fact she was so completely an expression of the dominant views and characteristics of her time that she truly embodied and interpreted her people throughout her reign. As queen, she saw slavery abolished in the colonies, the Reform Bill passed, the Poor Law reformed, the Corn Laws repealed; she saw her country undertake successful wars in the Crimea, Egypt, the Sudan, and South Africa, acquire the Suez Canal, and establish constitutions in Australia and Canada.

Alexandrina Victoria was born in Kensington Palace, London, on May 24, 1819. She was the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent (1767-1820; fourth son of George III), by Mary Louis Victoria (1786-1861; fourth daughter of Francis Frederick Anthony, reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and widow of Edward, Prince of Leiningen). Victoria was baptized on June 24, 1819, Alexander I of Russia being one of her sponsors, and her uncle, the prince regent (later George IV), the other. She grew up under her mother's care and that of Louisa Lehzen, her German governess, and spoke only German until she was 3. From 1832 Victoria's mother took her on extended tours through England. On May 24, 1837, she came of age, and on June 20, on the death of her uncle William IV, she succeeded to the throne, receiving the news of her accession in a cotton dressing gown at 6 A.M. Her chief advisers at first were the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, a Whig (Liberal), and Baron Stockmar, a German sent to London by her uncle King Leopold of the Belgians as adviser to his 18-year-old niece.


Her Appearance

Queen Victoria had large blue eyes, a cupid-bow mouth, smooth light-brown hair that darkened with age, and a receding chin. She was under 5 feet and as a girl was slender, then plump. By the time she was 26 she was stout and remained so, except after periods of illness, until the end. She had a silvery voice, enunciated excellently, without a trace of the German accent of her eldest son, and had a radiant, though rare, smile. Those she disliked, William Gladstone for example, found her somber and terrifying; her ladies, servants, and grandchildren thought she looked "so dear" and idolized her.

First Years of Reign

Victoria's hand was kissed on her accession by members of her council, which included the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, and Lord Palmerston, with all of whom she was to be closely associated. She opened her first Parliament on Nov. 20, 1837, and read her own speech; Parliament voted her an annuity of £385, 000, plus the revenues of the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, another £126, 000. Victoria proceeded to pay her father's debts. On June 28, 1838, her coronation took place. Next year her initial popularity waned, resulting from her dependence on Lord Melbourne and from her unjust treatment of Lady Flora Hastings, one of her ladies-in-waiting. When Lord Melbourne resigned, Victoria sent for the opposition leader, Sir Robert Peel; but when she refused to change her ladies, as was then the custom on a change of government, Peel refused to take office and Victoria recalled Melbourne.

In October her two first cousins, Ernest and Albert Edward (1819-1861) of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, came to London. Albert had written in his diary at 11, "I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man." Victoria fell in love with him instantly and proposed to him; they were married on Feb. 10, 1840. It was an ideally happy marriage and restored the prestige of the Crown, which had sadly deteriorated during the reigns of Victoria's three inept predecessors. Prince Albert was granted £30, 000 annual income by Parliament, was named regent in the event of the Queen's death in childbirth, and in 1857 was made Prince Consort by Victoria. Albert described his functions to the Duke of Wellington in April 1850 as: "the husband of the Queen, the tutor of the Royal children, the private secretary of the sovereign and her permanent Minister."

In June 1842 Victoria made her first railway journey from Slough, the station nearest Windsor Castle, to Paddington, and in that same year she first went to Scotland, traveling by sea. In 1843 Victoria and Albert visited King Louis Philippe. She was the first English monarch to land in France since Henry VIII visited Francis I in 1520. King Louis Philippe's return visit was the first voluntary visit to England of any French ruler. In 1845 Victoria, with Albert, made the first of many trips to Germany, staying at Albert's birthplace, Rosenau.


Her Ministers

In 1834, after Lord John Russell had failed to form a ministry (principally owing to Victoria's opposition to Palmerston as foreign minister), Lord John "handed back the poisoned chalice, " as Disraeli put it, to Peel. But Peel's ministry fell on a measure for Irish coercion, and by 1847 the Irish famine, in which 1½ million people died and 1 million emigrated, postponed Victoria's planned visit there, which did not take place until 1849, when she landed at Cove, changing its name to Queenstown. In 1846 Victoria tangled with Palmerston over the marriage of the Spanish queen Isabella, and in 1850 she informed him that he " (1) should inform her of the course of action he proposes, and (2) should not arbitrarily modify or alter a measure once it had received her sanction." Lord Palmerston "affected pained surprise" at these injunctions but did not alter his ways. In 1851 the Whig government was outvoted and Lord John resigned, but as Lord Derby, the Conservative (Tory) leader refused to form a government, Victoria again sent for Lord John Russell. She was at this time so happy and blessed in her homelife that she wrote, "Politics (provided my Country is safe) must take only 2nd place." In 1844 she had Osborne Palace built for her on the Isle of Wight and in 1848 Balmoral Castle in Scotland; thereafter until the end of her life she spent part of each spring and fall in these residences. In 1851 she and Prince Albert were much occupied with the Great Exhibition, held in London, the first of its kind.

In 1851 Victoria was furious with Palmerston for informing Walewski, the French ambassador to London, that he approved of the coup by which Prince Louis Napoleon made himself Emperor Napoleon III. Victoria was largely instrumental in compelling Lord John Russell to demand Palmerston's resignation. In 1852 the Whigs finally fell, and Lord Derby led a Tory Government. But in July the Tories were beaten in the general election, and in December Lord Derby resigned. At Victoria's request, Lord Aberdeen made a coalition government, with Palmerston relegated to the Home Office. In 1853 Victoria and Albert suffered unpopularity for their apparent pro-Russian stand but regained public approval after the British declared war on Russia Feb. 28, 1854. In January 1855 the government was defeated on their conduct of the war, and Palmerston formed an administration. On March 30, 1856, Victoria admitted that she admired Palmerston's winning of the war. In 1856 Victoria and Albert visited Napoleon III in Paris, and in 1857 the Indian Mutiny against British rule, as represented by the East India Company, led to Victoria's writing that there now existed in England "a universal feeling that India [should] belong to me." In 1858 the East India Company was abolished. That same year Victoria's eldest child, Victoria, married Prince (later Emperor) Frederick of Prussia. In March 1861 Victoria's mother died, and her eldest son, Albert Edward, while in camp in the Curragh in Ireland, had an affair with an actress called Nelly Clifden, distressing Victoria and Albert, who were planning his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Prince Albert, already ill, went in icy weather to Cambridge to remonstrate with his son; Albert was suffering from typhoid and died on Dec. 14, 1861, aged 42.

The widowed Victoria held her erring son as partly the cause of his father's death and never forgave him. She retired into complete seclusion and wore mourning until her death.

In 1862 Victoria's daughter Alice married Prince Louis of Hesse, and a year later her eldest son, now created Prince of Wales, whom his family called "Bertie, " married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Victoria supported Prussia during its war with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein, whereas her daughter-in-law, her ministers, and her people openly upheld Denmark. She approved Russia's brutal suppression of Poland's national uprising in 1863. In 1865 in the Seven Weeks War between Prussia and Austria, which ended in Prussia's victory at Sadowa, Victoria was again pro-Prussian. In 1867 Victoria entertained the Khedive of Egypt and the Sultan of Turkey. In 1868 Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister but was defeated by William Gladstone over the disestablishment of the Irish Church. Disraeli offered to resign, but Victoria kept him in office for six months after his defeat. Victoria, though she thought him "odd" and his wife odder, much appreciated Disraeli because he treated her as a woman. Gladstone, she complained, treated her as though she were a public department. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Victoria was still pro-Prussian, though she welcomed the exiled French empress Eugénie and allowed her and the Emperor to live at Chislehurst. In 1873 Gladstone resigned, and in 1874, to Victoria's delight, Disraeli became prime minister. He called the plump, tiny queen "The Faery" and admitted he loved her—"perhaps the only person left to me in this world that I do love." That same year Victoria's son Prince Alfred married Marie, daughter of the Russian czar, who insisted she be called Imperial, not Royal, Highness. This encouraged Victoria to make "preliminary enquiries" about officially assuming the title Empress of India, which she did on May 1, 1876. In 1875 Disraeli, with the help of the Rothschilds, bought the majority of the Suez Canal shares from the bankrupt Khedive of Egypt, to Victoria's delight. That same year Gladstone roused the country with stories of "Bulgarian atrocities": 12, 000 Bulgarian Christians had been murdered by Turkish irregulars. In 1877 Russia declared war on Turkey; Victoria and Disraeli were pro-Turk, sending a private warning to the Czar that, were he to advance, Britain would fight. Disraeli complained that Victoria "writes every day and telegraphs every hour." In 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, Disraeli obtained, as he told Victoria, "peace with honour."

In 1879 Victoria visited Italy and Germany. In the fall Gladstone's Midlothian campaign led to the government's defeat in April 1880. In 1882 a third attempt was made on Victoria's life. Africa gave trouble, the Zulu killed Empress Eugénie's son, and the Sudanese killed Gen. Gordon in Khartoum before Lord Wolseley, sent at Victoria's urging to relieve him, arrived. In 1885 Victoria went to Aix-les-Bains; she thought Gladstone a humbug, and "he talks so very much." In June he resigned, but Lord Salisbury, who became prime minister, lost the ensuing general election. Gladstone, pledged to Irish home rule, came in again, to Victoria's unconcealed annoyance. When he was defeated on this issue, Lord Salisbury returned to power.


Last Years

In 1887 Victoria's golden jubilee was celebrated, and in 1888 she actually approved of Gladstone—when he persuaded Parliament to vote £37, 000 annually for the Prince of Wales' children. In 1889 the German kaiser, Victoria's grandson, visited England; in 1892 Gladstone again became prime minister. His Home Rule Bill was passed in the House of Commons but thrown out by the House of Lords. Gladstone resigned, to be succeeded by Lord Rosebery. In 1897 Victoria's diamond jubilee was magnificently celebrated, the apotheosis of her reign and of her empire. In 1897 the repression of the Sudan culminated in Lord Kitchener's victory at Omdurman on September 2. Victoria was joyful; "Surely Gordon is avenged, " she wrote. In 1899 the Boer War broke out, and in 1900 Victoria went to Ireland, where most of the soldiers who fought on the British side were recruited. In August she signed the Australian Commonwealth Bill and in October lost a grandson in the war. On Jan. 22, 1901, she died in the arms of the Kaiser. Her last word was "Bertie." She was the mother of four boys and five girls, all of whom had issue. In her lifetime she had 40 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren. During Victoria's reign the British crown ceased to be powerful but remained influential.


Further Reading on Queen Victoria

An authoritative biography, enriched by records unavailable to older biographers, is Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed (1965). Other biographies are Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria (1921); J. A. R. Marriott, Queen Victoria (1934); Edith Sitwell, Victoria of England (1936); Hector Bolitho, Queen Victoria (1948); and Roger Fulford, Queen Victoria (1960). Studies of the Victorian age include Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867 (1959); Ernest Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (1938; 2d ed. 1962); and R. J. Evans, The Victorian Age, 1815-1914 (1950; 2d ed. 1968). Joan Evans, The Victorians (1966), is a handsome picture-and-document history of Victorian England.


Additional Biography Sources

Sharp, Geoffrey B., Byrd & Victoria, Sevenoaks: Novello, 1974.