Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria is associated with Britain’s great age of industrial expansion, economic progress, and especially, empire. At her death it was said, “Britain had a worldwide empire on which the sun never set” (Axelrod-Contrada 23). Queen Victoria set the tone of the British Empire for later monarchs by ruling through a series of powerful prime ministers who took political control of Britain. In the early part of her reign, two men influenced her greatly: her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, as well as 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 wield much leverage. It was during Victoria’s reign that the modern idea of the constitutional monarch, whose role was to remain above political parties, began to evolve. However, Victoria was not always non-partisan, and she would exploit opportunities to express her opinions, sometimes very forcefully, in private. Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, London, on the May 24, 1819. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent. Her father died shortly after her birth, making her heir to the throne because the three uncles who were ahead of her in the line of succession (George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV) had no legitimate children who had survived. Victoria was warmhearted and lively. She had a gift for drawing and painting. Victoria was a natural diarist and kept a regular journal throughout her life. On William IV’s death in 1837, she became Queen at the age of 18. “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here, and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing-gown), and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham (the Lord Chamberlain) then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am now Queen” (Nevill 103). On her first day as monarch, Queen Victoria assured Lord Melbourne that it had long been her “intention to retain him and the rest of the present Ministry at the head of affairs” (Arnstein 37). In practice, she had no alternative because Melbourne’s coalition of Whigs and Radicals outnumbered the opposition Tory (or Conservative) party, headed by Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons and by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords. Before long, the young queen’s primary concern became Melbourne’s retaining his majority in Parliament while she retained Melbourne as her chief minister. Within a very few weeks she had persuaded herself that Melbourne was “a thoroughly straightforward, disinterested, excellent and kindhearted man” (Arnstein 38). Whatever the subject, the prime minister was able to explain it to Victoria “like a kind father would do to his child; he has something so . . . affectionate and kind in him, that one must love him” (Arnstein 38). The partnership that began in June 1837 between the 58-year-old prime minister and the 18-year-old queen remains one of the most unusual and most engaging of political romances in recorded history mostly because their deliberations, their conversations, and the gossip that they exchanged were recorded in detail by Queen Victoria herself in the entries that she made each night in her journal. In the queen’s eyes Melbourne was himself a truly romantic figure. He had served since 1806 as a Member of Parliament. He had survived the Napoleonic Wars and the ‘era of domestic unrest’ that followed. He not only knew personally most of the influential people in the Britain of the late 1830’s, but he had also met, and could vividly describe, their parents and their grandparents. It was through Lord Melbourne that Queen Victoria developed an immediate sense of what it had been like to experience the Regency era. Victoria was aware that Melbourne had endured a difficult family life: his wife, Caroline Lamb, had been guilty of numerous infidelities including a passionate and widely publicized affair with the poet Lord Bryon. She had died mad, and yet he had never deserted her. Their only surviving child, a son, was an epileptic who had died at age 29. A lonely widower, Melbourne possessed both the time and the desire to serve for several years not only as the Queen’s prime minister but also as her private secretary, her riding companion, and often her dinner and after-dinner companion. They spent as many as six hours together on a single day, talking not only about politics past and present but also about clothing and hair styles, about marriages historical and contemporary, and about the presence and absence of personal beauty among member of the court circle and elsewhere” (Arnstein 39). By the standards of the 1830’s, Melbourne at 58 was an old man, but for a time, he was stimulated by the enthusiasm and by the energy of the young queen. As time passed, she necessarily became influenced by Melbourne’s Whig political philosophy, which was tolerant but mildly cynical. Victoria became so partisan a Whig n her private comments that the prime minister felt compelled to remind his monarch at regular intervals that the Tory party also possessed able members who made useful contributions to public debate and who might one day serve as her ministers. Melbourne headed a reform ministry, but by 1837, his main desire became calming the political waters. He supported an ideological position halfway between absolute rule and democracy. On the one hand, he feared the prospect of popular democracy: if the illiterate masses were abruptly granted the right to choose their rulers, then they would in all likelihood fall victim to demagogues. On the other hand, Melbourne much preferred the rule of law and of reason, even as he was fully prepared to accept that most people failed to behave reasonably much of the time. “You had better try to do no good,” he told Victoria on one occasion, “and then you’ll get into no scrapes” (Arnstein 39-40). Even as some of his cabinet colleagues sought to expand the role of the national government, Melbourne preferred a regime that focused on two purposes: to prevent and punish crime and to preserve contracts. Although most historians have credited Melbourne with the best of intentions in the education of his new sovereign, many have been critical about his failure to develop Victoria’s social conscience. He had no desire to abolish England’s reformed Poor Law of 1834, which continued by the means of parish Poor Law unions and workhouses to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the very poor, the very sick, and the very old. Although somewhat reluctant, he also went along with the Factory Act of 1833, which prohibited children under nine from working in cotton mills. Children aged 9 to 13 were to be limited to an 8-hour working day and to be given schooling forced by law. Neither Melbourne nor any other political leader of his day expected to transform Britain into a society resembling the post-1945 welfare state. He took it for granted that although his ministry might pass regulations involving child welfare and public health, it lacked the authority, the personnel, and the financial resources to provide all of Victoria’s subjects with ‘cradle-to-the-grave-security’. On such matters, Queen Victoria found it easy to agree with the wisdom of the day. At the same time, she was quite sympathetic to personal tales of distress when called to her attention. In due time, the question arose of when and how Victoria might appropriately find a husband. The Tories hoped that a husband might cause the ‘Whig Queen’ to become a less partisan monarch while the Whigs realized that without a husband, Victoria could not continue the royal succession. If she married, then Victoria could rid herself of her mother as palace chaperone, but it could also introduce the possibility of disagreements with the new husband. As the queen admitted to Melbourne, she was “‘so accustomed to have my own way. ’ Melbourne responded: ‘Oh! but you would have it still’” (Arnstein 46). Elizabeth was very much aware that since her childhood, her Uncle Leopold had hoped for a marriage with Albert, the younger son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. When Albert and his elder brother came to Windsor for a visit, Victoria found Albert beautiful: “His blue eyes, his exquisite nose, his broad shoulder, and his fine waist, his conversational talents, his love of music, and his ability to dance” (Arnstein 46). Within three days she confided in Lord Melbourne that she had changed her opinion about marriage. In marital matters, a reigning queen had to take the initiative. Two days later, with Melbourne’s encouragement, she proposed marriage to Albert. He accepted. A wedding date was set for February 10, 1840, and another chapter in Queen Victoria’s life was about to begin. A few months before Albert became her husband, Queen Victoria remarked to her Uncle Leopold that “the English are very jealous at the idea of Albert’s having any political power, or meddling with affairs here – which I know from himself he will not do” (Arnstein 67). Albert may not have moved to England to meddle, but he was increasingly absorbed by the affairs of his adopted country, and his intention was to enhance the role of his new wife, the queen. As he was to explain to the Duke of Wellington a decade later, his purposes were “to sink his own individual existence in that of his wife – to aim at no power by himself or for himself – to shun all ostentation – to assume no separate responsibility before the public – to make his position entirely a part of hers – to fill up every gap which, as a woman, she would naturally leave in the exercise of her regal functions – continually and anxiously to watch every part of the public business, in order to be able to advise and assist her at any moment in any of the multifarious and difficult questions brought before her, political, or social, or personal. To place all his time and powers at her command as the natural head of the family, superintendent of her household, manager of her private affairs in her communications with the officers of the Government, her private secretary, and permanent Minister” (Arnstein 67). Albert preferred to see himself always as a servant, but he was obviously an intensely ambitious servant; one whose hope it was to strengthen the influence of the British monarchy not only as a symbol of morality and domesticity, but also as an active player in day-to-day government. In the course of the 1840’s, with Queen Victoria more often pregnant than reigning, Albert did indeed come to play an increasingly important political role. He examined the papers in the dispatch boxes, and to a deepening degree, he added comments to the dispatches themselves. He participated in almost every personal meeting that Queen Victoria held with either her prime ministers or with a member of the Cabinet. He accompanied Victoria to Parliament when she formally opened and closed each annual session, and when she read her ‘Speech from the Throne,’ he sat on a throne of his own next to hers. Occasionally he presided at royal receptions in her palace. In every royal home (Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and later Osborne and Balmoral), Albert and Victoria worked at adjoining desks for many hours each day. Their relationship became as much a political as a domestic partnership. It was Albert who wrote the lengthy memoranda and who in a broadening role, came to draft her letters to her ministers. In fact, if not in name, their partnership became a dual monarchy. By 1845 a close observer of palace procedure took note of the fact that Albert and Victoria always met ministers together and began each sentence with ‘We. He went on to say: “The Prince is become so identified with the Queen that they are one person, and as he likes business, it is obvious that while she has the title he is really discharging the functions of the Sovereign. He is King to all intents and purposes” (Arnstein 68). To place Queen Victoria’s reign in its appropriate context, both the era preceding and the era following her reign shall be discussed. The Georgian Era was followed by Queen Victoria’s Era. After her reign concluded, the Edwardian Era was ushered in. The Georgian Era was a period of British history that included the reigns of George I, George II, George III, and George IV. Essentially, the king called the shots for everything that happened during this period. Social reform under campaigners, politicians, and members of the Clapham Sect brought about changes in social justice and prison reform. There was a revival of Christianity and non-conformists. Hospitals, Sunday schools, and orphanages were also founded during this era. The loss of the American Colonies and the American Revolution occurred during the Georgian Era and were looked upon as national disasters. “The expansion of the empire brought fame and sowed the seeds of the worldwide British Empire of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras which were to follow” (Chesney 27). The Victorian Era of the United Kingdom encompassed the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901. It was a long period of prosperity for the British people, including a largely developed middle class. Industrial improvements at home and large profits from oversea trading became major factors to the United Kingdom’s success. The Victorian Era is often characterized as the Pax Britannica, a long era of peace. The House of Commons was run by two major political parties, the Whigs and the Tories; later known as the Liberals and the Conservatives. Gothic revival architecture became increasingly significant during the Victorian Era. As mentioned earlier, Queen Victoria was part of the government, but the Prime Ministers were the ones who ran the country. During the 19th century, Britain went through a rapid population growth almost doubling its size. Wages were kept down and housing was expensive and scarce. In London, large houses were turned into tenements and flats, which later developed into the slums of London. “Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the, metropolis… In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room” (Chesney 54). The Victorian Era was notorious for the employment of young children. Children ages 5 to 15 worked in factories and mines, and they often worked as chimney sweeps. Child labor was mostly brought on by economic hardships; children had to work because their families were put into debtor’s prisons. Queen Victoria’s influence on society was not so great. From a certain standpoint, one could say that Victoria shunned society, leaving everything up to her prime ministers. The Edwardian Era in the United Kingdom was the period of King Edward VII’s reign from 1901-1910. Socially, the Edwardian Era was a period where the British class system was very rigid. There were economic and social changes that created more mobility than what was previously shown during the Victorian Era. Changes in socialism, women’s suffrage, and opportunities caused by industrialization were most prevalent during the Edwardian Era. Upper classes developed leisure sports, which led to fashion outbreaks such as the corset. In conclusion, while Victoria was Queen there was a tremendous change in the lives of British people. Britain became the most powerful country in the world, with the largest empire that had ever existed, ruling a quarter of the world’s population. The number of people living in Britain more than doubled, causing a huge demand for food, clothes and housing. Factories and machines were built to meet this demand and new towns grew up, changing the landscape and the ways people lived and worked. Railways, originally built to transport goods, meant people could travel easily around the country for the first time. It is probably impossible to overestimate Victoria’s importance to the history of the 1800s. The age itself has become known as the Victorian era, both for the supremacy of the British Empire during her reign, and because of her personal reputation. Bibliography • Arnstein, Walter L. Queen Victoria. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. • Aveling, J. C. H, Tindal Hart, M. S. Stancliffe, et al. A House of Kings. Ed. • Axelrod-Contrada, Joan. Women Who Led Nations. Minneapolis: The Oliver Press, 1999. • Carpenter Edward. London: n. p. , 1966. • Duff, David, ed. Queen Victoria’s Highland Journals. Exeter, England: Webb & Bower, 1980. • Fry, Plantagenet S. The Kings & Queen of England & Scotland. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1990. • Hibbert, Christopher. Queen Victoria – A Personal History. Cambridge: First Da Capo Press, 2000. • Hibbert, Christopher. Queen Victoria in Her Letters and Journals. Great Britain: Sutton Publishing, 2000. • Nevill, Barry St. John, ed. Life at the Court of Queen Victoria, 1861-1901: With Selections from the Journals of Queen Victoria. Great Britain: Sutton Publishing, 1997. • Plunkett, John. Queen Victoria – First Media Monarch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. • Saint, Andrew and Gillian Darley. The Chronicles of London. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited, 1994. • Strachey, Lytton. Queen Victoria. McLean: IndyPublish, n. d. • Warner, Marina. Queen Victoria’s Sketchbook. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1979.

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