Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in 1859
by Winterhalter
Public domain

Why Victoria?

Victoria would never have existed but for the death in childbirth of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, in November 1817. Her totally unexpected death created a succession crisis. One by one the Prince Regent's brothers discarded their mistresses and looked for wives in an effort to provide a legitimate heir.

In 1817 Edward duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, abandoned his long-standing mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and began to pay court to Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoire was the thirty-year-old widowed elder sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Princess Charlotte's widower. She already had two children, Carl, Prince of Leningen, born 1804 and Fedora, born 1807.

When Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819, her birth went virtually unnoticed. It was by no means certain that she would inherit the throne, as her father had three elder brothers and her parents’ next child might be a son. She was baptised Alexandrina Victoria after her godfather, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and her mother, and in her early childhood was known as ‘Drina’. For a while both names were thought unacceptably foreign.

When she came to the throne with the death of William IC in May 1837, Britain had its first female sovereign since the death of Queen Anne in 1714. One immediate and significant result was the severing of the link with Hanover, which did not allow female succession.

Albert: uncrowned king?

In February 1840 Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The engagement had brought into the open the problems of defining the status of the consort of a reigning queen. The precedents were not happy: Philip of Spain, the husband of Mary I, had been deeply unpopular, and George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, had been a nonentity. The queen reluctantly accepted the advice of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, that Albert should not receive the title of King Consort.
It was not until 1857 that he was given the title of Prince Consort.

Victoria and Albert in 1854

Faced with the discouraging precedents, Albert had to carve out a role for himself. He proved a highly interventionist consort. Victoria's nine pregnancies gave him the opportunity to take on many of her duties, and the two of them worked together at their despatches at adjoining desks. When Sir Robert Peel was struggling for his political life in January 1846, Albert went to the Commons to lend him moral support – retrospectively, a very partisan gesture. He was never popular, and even his key role in the Great Exhibition was controversial.

Had he lived, his political role might have created problems for the monarchy.

Albert’s last action before his death was to help to avert a major diplomatic crisis between Britain and the United States at the start of the American Civil War. In April 1861 a Federal warship intercepted a British packet, the Trent, and removed two agents from the Confederacy. Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, and Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary, declared this a gross breach of international law. On 1 December Albert rewrote the British ultimatum to make the wording more conciliatory. The crisis was averted, mainly because the US government did not want to be fighting wars on two fronts, but Albert had played his part in easing the tensions.

Mourning and seclusion

On 14 December Albert died at Windsor and the Queen retreated into years of mourning that greatly exceeded the traditional period (which decreed one year of full mourning for a husband, followed by a second year of half-mourning and a lifetime of black gowns and white caps).

When the Privy Council met, the Queen sat in one room, the councillors in another, with Arthur Helps, the secretary to the council, acting as intermediary. The Times chose 1 April 1864 to write a spoof leader asserting that the Queen would soon resume her public duties. Doctors kept a constant watch on her mental health, fearing that she might go mad like her grandfather, George III. At the end of 1864 The Times stated: 
‘It is impossible for a recluse to occupy the British throne without a gradual weakening of that authority which the Sovereign has been accustomed to exert.’ 
By 1867 republican sentiment was mounting. She was hissed and booed on the way to the state opening of Parliament.

However, Victoria won back some of her popularity by publishing three books: The Early Years of HRH the Prince Consort, and the two volume Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the HighlandsLeaves sold 20,000 copies, and earned more than £4,000 in royalties. 

Recently the historian A. N. Wilson has published a revisionist account of Victoria's years of seclusion. He points out that she made frequent visits to Germany (especially Albert's beloved Coburg) and that her connections with the European royal families meant that she was more knowledgeable about foreign affairs than many of her ministers. See here for an insightful review of Wilson's book.

Walter Bagehot on the monarchy

The English Constitution by the journalist and businessman, Walter Bagehot, was published from 1865 in the Fortnightly Review over eighteen months and published in book form in 1867. It has since been viewed as the classic statement on the role of the monarch in the British political system.

Bagehot believed that monarchy was a better form of government than a republic because it had more appeal.

  1. Monarchy is ‘an intelligible government’.
  2. Monarchy presents the nation with a family.
  3. ‘Royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions.’

The keynote of Bagehot’s book is the ‘efficient secret’. He divided the constitution into the 'dignified' and 'efficient parts'. Parliament is the efficient part, monarchy the dignified. The role of the monarch is 
‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’.

The ‘secret' lies in the fact that the British people are not aware of what is happening. They see the grandeur and panoply of monarchy and are deluded into believing that the queen has real power. The people are incapable of governing themselves and therefore it is right to deny them a share in the government. Because they are enormously deferential, they welcome the monarch and its apparent powers.

The monarchy recovers

In stressing the importance of a visible monarchy, Bagehot was well aware that at the time of writing, its future lay with ‘a retired widow and an unemployed youth’. This had serious political implications. In 1870 her Prime Minister, Gladstone, wrote, ‘the Queen is invisible and the Prince of Wales is not respected'. However, when Bertie survived a severe typhoid attack in 1871 and the Queen survived what looked like an attempted assassination the monarchy dramatically recovered its popularity.

John Brown

The Queen's relationship with her Balmoral servant, John Brown, is one of the most intriguing aspects of her life. It caused scandal at the time and there is some (emphasis on some!) evidence that they might have contracted a secret marriage. It has been suggested that, if Brown was no more than a servant, it is hard to explain the hostility of Victoria’s family.  Cards in the late 1870s were addressed ‘to my best friend J. B. From his best friend V.R. I.’  In December 1878 he was deputed to bring her the news that her daughter Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, had died of diphtheria on the anniversary of Albert’s death. No-one else could be trusted to convey such distressing information.

Queen Victoria and
John Brown at Balmoral 1863

When Brown died in 1883, Victoria wrote to her grandson, Prince George of Wales,  
‘I have lost my dearest best friend whom no one in this World can ever replace’.
In 1884, using his diaries, she wrote a memoir of Brown for private circulation. This was apparently destroyed. Is the destruction has been taken as evidence of an affair (or marriage?) or does it support the innocence of the relationship? 

She was buried with mementoes of Albert - and Brown.

The Queen and her Prime Ministers

The relationship of the young Queen and her first Prime Minister, the Whig Lord Melbourne was like a pupil and a teacher. Her hostility to his successor, the Tory, Sir Robert Peel, led to his resignation in 1839 over the Bedchamber Crisis (when she refused to dismiss her Whig ladies in waiting). However, when he was returned to power in the election of 1841, she was forced to accept him. Under Albert's tutelage, she came to have a high opinion of Peel.

When she came out of retirement, the Queen’s best spin-doctor was Disraeli, Prime Minister from 1874-80, who flattered her shamelessly and used her for his own political purposes. In 1876 he conferred on her the title Empress of India.

'New Crowns for Old' depicts Disraeli as Abanazer
from the pantomime Aladdin,
 offering Victoria an imperial crown in exc
hange for a royal one.

Such was her dislike of his Liberal opponent, Gladstone, that after he won the election of 1880, she did all she could to prevent him becoming Prime Minister.  On her first meeting with him she told him that on no account should he change the foreign policy of his defeated Conservative opponent, Disraeli. Her many attempts to undermine Gladstone show that she never really understood the role of a constitutional monarch.

The Munshi

Abdul Karim
Public domain
Following her Golden Jubilee in 1887 the queen acquired two Indian servants of her own. One of these, Abdul Karim, soon made it clear that he was no mere domestic. He had been a munshi, or clerk, in India and he began to teach the Queen Hindustani.

He replaced John Brown as her devoted servant - much to the horror of her household and children.

The Diamond Jubilee

On 23 September 1896, Victoria surpassed George III as the longest-reigning monarch in English, Scottish, and British history. 
She 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 the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. The prime ministers of all the self-governing dominions were invited. It was the grand climax of her reign.

Official Diamond Jubilee
Plate commemorating the Diamond Jubilee


Queen Victoria has to be seen as an important character, if only because of her long life (81 years) and reign (64 years – making her the second-longest reigning British monarch). She is also important because in many respects she was quite an ordinary person. Her ministers wryly commented that they always knew the feeling of the people on a given question because the queen herself mirrored it so exactly. 

Her large family made her the centre of a huge web of marriage diplomacy. Through her daughters Vicky, Alice and Beatrice, she was the grandmother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Tsarina Alexandra and Queen Ena of Spain. However, her family connections could be extremely problematic, as in the war between Prussia and Denmark in 1864 when her daughter (Vicky) and her daughter-in-law (Alexandra) were on opposite sides. 

Her reign saw a decline in the power of the monarch. Victoria wrote, 
‘It is a miserable thing to be a constitutional queen and to be unable to do what is right’. 
Her uncle William IV was the last monarch who was able to sack a Prime Minister (Melbourne in 1834). The growth of political parties meant that it was much more important for a Prime Minister to have a majority in the Commons than to have the monarch’s favour. 

Conclusion: reputation

Her accession in 1837 was welcomed, if only because she prevented her uncle, Ernest Duke of Cumberland, from succeeding to the throne. There was also a great deal of enthusiasm to have a young woman as monarch after her elderly, unpopular uncles (George IV and William IV).

During her middle years she was criticised for her income, her large family, and her neglect of her public duties. This is the time when  republicanism was at its height. However, by the time of her Jubilees she had come to symbolise the nation. Most of her subjects had never known another monarch and she represented stability in a rapidly changing world. Her son, Edward VII, gave her an elaborate state funeral at Windsor and she was sincerely mourned.