On Monday, May 23, we celebrate Victoria Day here in Canada. When I think of Queen Victoria, two things come to mind–her long and successful reign and her devotion to her husband Albert.
Victoria was born at Kensington Palace in London on May 24, 1819. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George III. Sadly, her father died shortly after she was born and since her three uncles who were ahead of her in succession didn’t have any legitimate children who survived, Victoria became heir to the throne.
Her parents proposed to call her Victoire Georgina Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta, but on the instructions of the Duke’s elder brother, the Prince Regent (later George IV), three of the names were dropped. She was baptised Alexandrina, after one of her godparents, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, and Victoria after her mother.
Victoria later described her childhood as “rather melancholy”. Her mother was extremely protective, and Victoria was raised largely isolated from other children under the so called “Kensington System”, an elaborate set of rules and protocols devised by the Duchess and her ambitious and domineering comptroller, Sir John Conroy, who was rumoured, probably wrongly, to be the Duchess’s lover. The system prevented the princess from meeting people whom her mother and Conroy deemed undesirable (including most of her father’s family), and was designed to render her weak and dependent upon them.
The Duchess avoided the court because she was scandalised by the presence of the King’s bastard children, and perhaps prompted the emergence of Victorian morality by insisting that her daughter avoid any appearance of sexual impropriety. Victoria shared a bedroom with her mother every night, studied with private tutors to a regular timetable, and spent her play hours with her dolls and her King Charles spaniel, Dash. Her lessons included French, German, Italian, and Latin, but she spoke only English at home.
Victoria had a gift for drawing and painting and was educated by a governess at home. She was a natural diarist and kept a regular journal throughout her life. According to one of her biographers, Giles St Aubyn, Victoria wrote an average of 2500 words a day during her adult life. On William IV’s death in 1837, she became Queen at the age of 18.
In 1836, the year before she became queen,Victoria’s uncle, Leopold,King of the Belgians since 1831, hoped to marry her to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Leopold , Victoria’s mother, and Albert’s father (Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) were siblings. Leopold arranged for Victoria’s mother to invite her Coburg relatives to visit her in May 1836, with the purpose of introducing Victoria to Albert.
Victoria was very much aware of the plans to marry her and she critically appraised a parade of eligible princes. However one prince stood out for her. ”[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.” Alexander, on the other hand, was “very plain”. Alexander, the prince of the Netherlands was William IV’s choice for Victoria because he disapproved of any match with the Coburgs. Poor Alexander didn’t stand a chance. From the beginning Victoria enjoyed Albert’s company.
Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold, whom Victoria considered her “best and kindest adviser”, 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. 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.” However at 17, Victoria, though interested in Albert, was not yet ready to marry. The parties did not undertake a formal engagement, but assumed that the match would take place in due time.
Her coronation took place on 28 June 1838, and she became the first sovereign to take up residence at Buckingham Palace.
In the early part of her reign, she was influenced by two men: her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and her husband, Prince Albert, whom she married in 1840. Both men taught her much about how to be a ruler in a ‘constitutional monarchy’ where the monarch had very few powers but could use much influence. Politically inexperienced, Victoria relied on Melbourne for advice and it is believed that she saw him as a father figure.
Although Victoria was queen, she had to live with her mother because she was unmarried. However, she complained to Melbourne that her mother’s close proximity promised “torment for many years”. Melbourne sympathised but said this could be avoided by marriage, which Victoria called a “schocking [sic] alternative”. She showed interest in Albert’s education for the future role he would have to play as her husband, but she resisted attempts to rush her into wedlock.
Victoria continued to praise Albert following his second visit in October 1839. Albert and Victoria felt mutual affection and the Queen proposed to him on 15 October 1839, just five days after he had arrived at Windsor. They were married on 10 February 1840, in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, London. Victoria was besotted. She spent the evening after their wedding lying down with a headache, but wrote ecstatically in her diary:
I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert … his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again! His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! … to be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life.
Albert took an active interest in the arts, science, trade and industry; the project for which he is best remembered was the Great Exhibition of 1851, the profits from which helped to establish the South Kensington museums complex in London. He became an important political adviser as well as the Queen’s companion, replacing Lord Melbourne. Victoria’s mother was evicted from the palace, however, after the death of Princess Augusta’s death in 1840, she was given both Clarence and Frogmore Houses. Thanks to Albert’s mediation, relations between his wife and his mother-in-law slowly improved.
Seven attempts were made on Victoria’s life, between 1840 and 1882 – her courageous attitude towards these attacks greatly strengthened her popularity.
On 21 November 1840, Victoria and Albert welcomed their first child whom they named Victoria. It’s interesting that although Victoria hated being pregnant, viewed breast-feeding with disgust, and thought newborn babies were ugly, she and Albert had eight more children.
The year 1861 was a tragic one for Victoria. In March her mother died with Victoria at her side. It was throuhg reading her mother’s papers that Victoria discovered that her mother loved her dearly and she was heartbroken. She blamed Convory and Lehzen for “wickedly” estranging her from her mother. Being the loving and thoughtful husband he was, Albert sought to relieve his wife during her intense and deep grief by taking on most of her duties, despite being ill himself with chronic stomach trouble.
In August, Victoria and Albert visited their son, Edward, Prince of Wales, who was attending army manoeuvres near Dublin, and spent a few days holiday in Killarney. In November, Albert was made aware of gossip that Edward had slept with an actress in Ireland. Appalled, Albert travelled to Cambridge, where his son was studying, to confront him. By the beginning of December, Albert was very unwell. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever and he died on 14 December 1861.
Victoria was devastated. She blamed her husband’s death on worry over her son Edward’s philandering. He had been “killed by that dreadful business”, she said. 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”.
It was while she was at Balmoral that Queen Victoria became very close to John Brown, a Scottish servant. Victoria’s friendship with Brown caused some concern and rumours began to circulate that the two had secretly married. Hostility towards Victoria increased and some Radical MPs even spoke in favour of abolishing the British monarchy and replacing it with a republic. I watched this movie with Judi Dench.
Victoria’s long reign witnessed an evolution in English politics and the expansion of the British Empire, as well as political and social reforms on the continent. France had known two dynasties and embraced Republicanism, Spain had seen three monarchs and both Italy and Germany had united their separate principalities into national coalitions. Even in her dotage, she maintained a youthful energy and optimism that infected the English population as a whole.
The national pride connected with the name of Victoria – the term Victorian England, for example, stemmed from the Queen’s ethics and personal tastes, which generally reflected those of the middle class.
Victoria’s links with Europe’s royal families earned her the nickname “the grandmother of Europe”. Victoria and Albert had 42 grandchildren. Their descendants include Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Harald V of Norway, Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Margrethe II of Denmark, Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain.
Victoria’s popularity grew with the increasing imperial sentiment from the 1870s onwards. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown with the position of Governor General upgraded to Viceroy, and in 1877 Victoria became Empress of India under the Royal Titles Act passed by Disraeli’s government.
On 23 September 1896, Victoria surpassed George III as the longest-reigning monarch in English, Scottish, and British history. The Queen requested that any special celebrations be delayed until 1897, to coincide with her Diamond Jubilee, which was made a festival of the British Empire at the suggestion of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.
The prime ministers of all the self-governing dominions were invited, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession through London included troops from all over the empire. The parade paused for an open-air service of thanksgiving held outside St Paul’s Cathedral, throughout which Victoria sat in her open carriage. The celebration was marked by great outpourings of affection for the septuagenarian Queen.
Queen Victoria died at her house on the Isle of Wight on 22nd January 1901, leaving an impressive legacy behind. Around the world, places and memorials are dedicated to her, especially in the Commonwealth nations. Places named after her, include the capital of the Seychelles, Africa’s largest lake, Victoria Falls, the capitals of British Columbia (Victoria) and Saskatchewan (Regina), and two Australian states (Victoria and Queensland).
The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War, and it remains the highest British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand award for bravery. Victoria Day is a Canadian statutory holiday and a local public holiday in parts of Scotland celebrated on the last Monday before or on 24 May (Queen Victoria’s birthday).
We salute this woman who survived seven attempts on her life (the first took place when she was pregnant with her first child), married for love and is to this day, the longest reigning monarch with an era named after her.
None of you can ever be proud enough of being the child of such a Father who has not his equal in this world – so great, so good, so faultless. Try, all of you, to follow in his footsteps and don’t be discouraged, for to be really in everything like him none of you, I am sure, will ever be. Try, therefore, to be like him in some points, and you will have acquired a great deal.
The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.