She gave her name to an era of British greatness, especially in the far-flung British Empire with which she identified. She played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour. A conservative woman who rejected the wild hijinks of previous monarchs, she set the tone of moral earnestness and strait-laced propriety which characterized the Victorian Age.
To date she is Britain's longest-serving monarch. On December 22, 2007 she was overtaken by Queen Elizabeth II as Britain's oldest monarch to date (Victoria came to the throne at 18, Elizabeth II at 25).
She was born Princess Alexandrina Victoria, at Kensington Palace, London, on May 24, 1819, the only child of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George III, and Princess Victoria, the daughter of the duke of the German country of Saxe-Coburg. When she was nine months old her father died, and the princess thereafter led a lonely and secluded childhood; she was only fifth in line to the throne. Kept away from the court because of a feud between her father and his elder brothers, Victoria became greatly attached to her mother's brother (afterwards King Leopold of the Belgians), as well as to his secretary Baron Stockmar, and to her Hanoverian governess, Baroness Lehzen. She was home schooled by Baroness Lehzen, who emphasized language skills; Victoria spoke good German and French as well as English.
Early Years of Her Reign
Victoria succeeded to the throne after her two uncles, King George IV and King William IV, died without heirs. Both had notorious reputations for immorality and the crown was in disrepute. Her goal was to restore its reputation.
Victoria became queen on June 20, 1837, a month after she had reached her 18th birthday, and thus her majority. Her poise, modesty, and good sense made an immediately favourable impression on the nation. Her formal coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on June 28, 1838. Victoria increased her popularity by promptly paying off her father's considerable private debts. She relied on Baroness Lehzen for the management of her household and the arrangement of her court. In larger matters Victoria was guided by Baron Stockmar. In domestic affairs and politics she relied on the shrewd advice and worldly wisdom of her Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Even in these early days she showed independence and spirit, notably in the "Bedchamber Crisis", when she refused to allow Melbourne's Tory (Conservative party) successor, Sir Robert Peel, to change the members of her court, particularly the ladies of the bedchamber, all of whom were Whig sympathizers.
Marriage to Albert
Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, aged 20, in 1840. A match which had been cherished and planned by King Leopold, it turned out to be a happy one, with a profound love developing on both sides. Albert, who had the title of prince, not king, managed of all of Victoria's affairs, both public and private. His strong, highly intelligent, and matter-of-fact personality was dominant. Albert swung Victoria's political orientation in a more conservative direction, and was largely responsible for setting the tone of moral earnestness and strait-laced propriety which characterized of the Victorian Age.
During the next twenty years Victoria had nine children. Though her family responsibilities left her little time for public appearances, the Great Exhibition of 1851—planned and organized by Prince Albert—was an occasion for pageantry. She worked hard, under the influence of the prince, to make her views on public questions felt by the cabinet and in this she had her successes. She was related to royalty across Europe, and she followed the international news.
The greatest test of the Queen's life came in December 1861 when, after a short illness, the prince died from typhoid fever. She was overcome with grief and went into formal mourning for the remainder of her life. She lived in seclusion, focused on child rearing and giving up much of the political influence which she had exerted with Albert. For ten years Victoria made no ceremonial appearances in public, saying the public did not wish to see "a poor, broken-hearted widow, dragged in deep mourning, alone in State as a show." Her popularity revived in the 1870s.
The Queen and Albert had been close to Britain's Whig party, but after 1870 she came around to the expansionist and imperialist views of the Conservative party. She strongly supported Benjamin Disraeli's Conservative ministry from 1874 to 1880, and in 1876 when he made her Empress of India she showed her gratitude to him by opening Parliament in person and by bestowing a peerage upon him. When Disraeli's government lost the 1880 election, the Queen was reluctant to send for William Gladstone, whom she ridiculed as "that dreadful old man." Nevertheless Gladstone treated her suitable courtesy that stood in contrast to Disraeli's unbecoming mixture of banter and chivalry.
Victoria eagerly promoted the progress of the British Empire. In 1876 Parliament made her Empress of India, a controversial decision engineered by Disraeli. Already in the 1840s she intervened in the acrimonious debates over the military administration of India; in 1858 she and Prince Albert helped to bolster the position of the native Indian princes as the authority of the British East India Company was ended. By the late 1860s she thought and spoke of herself as empress of India. India offered her and Albert opportunities to try to protect and perhaps even extend royal prerogative during a period in which royal authority was becoming more circumscribed.
Victoria endorsed Disraeli's move into Egypt through the government's purchase of part ownership in the Suez Canal. She was annoyed by Gladstone's failure to relieve Gen. Charles Gordon at Khartoum, in the Sudan, south of Egypt. Gordon had gone there to evacuate Egyptian garrisons when the Sudanese revolted. When Khartoum fell to the rebels and Gordon was killed (1885), the Queen publicly rebuked Gladstone.
Victoria supported Disraeli's successor Lord Salisbury in foreign and imperial affairs, notable the Boer War which began in 1899. In domestic politics, however, she remained in step with liberal opinion, but she was a strong opponent of revolutionary change, such as women's suffrage. In 1870 she said she had, "the strongest aversion for the socalled & most erroneous 'Rights of Woman'".
Toward the end of her reign, the Queen had become popular as the symbol of Britain's greatness. The nation and empire celebrated her golden and diamond anniversaries in 1887 and 1897. Millions cheered for her and for the empire.
Victoria was short and fair-skinned, with the striking blue eyes of the English royal family; her beautiful speaking voice was remarkable. Her bearing was regal. She appreciated wit. The dour put-down, "We are not amused" was in response to an off-colour joke that was inappropriate.
Victoria was brought up by strict, old-fashioned German Lutherans, and remained a devout Protestant. Although head of the Church of England, she disliked both the high church and the evangelical wings. She believed in the occult, in second sight, psychic phenomena, the power of magnetism, and even conducted séances.
After widowhood she came seldom to London.
Victoria's strength was based on her good common sense and directness of character; she expressed the bold, forthright energy of the British nation which made it pre-eminent in the world.
Politically she guarded her limited rights, especially her right to be informed of major government decisions, the right to refuse a dissolution of parliament, the right to choose the prime minister, and the right to praise or criticize her ministers. Victoria used her powers wisely, and secured widespread respect for the monarchy.
As a symbol of domesticity, endurance and Empire, and as a woman holding the highest public office during an age when middle- and upper-class women were expected to beautify the home while men dominated the public sphere, Queen Victoria's influence has been enduring. Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.
Her surviving letters have been published; however her crucial correspondence with her son the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) was destroyed, probably because their reveal her disgust with his immoral behaviour. Princess Beatrice, her youngest daughter, rewrote and censored her mother's diaries as queen and burned the originals.
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