Who Was Queen Victoria?Ascending to the throne at only eighteen years old, Queen Victoria ruled the United Kingdom for nearly 64 years, the longest of any British monarch. During her reign, Great Britain became a powerful industrial nation and boasted an empire that stretched across the globe. Despite the early loss of her beloved husband, Queen Victoria provided a reassuring stability during much of the nineteenth century - an era of great social and technological change. The years of her reign are referred to as the Victorian Era.
Dates: May 24, 1819 - January 22, 1901
Reign: 1837 - 1901
Also Known As: Alexandrina Victoria of the House of Hanover; "the Grandmother of Europe"
The Girl Who Would Be QueenQueen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819 to Edward, the Duke of Kent (and fourth son of King George III) and German Princess Victoire of Leiningen. Although Victoria was fifth in line to the throne - unlikely to become monarch - the duke feared that any future claim to the throne might be challenged if she were born abroad. He ensured that his daughter was born on British soil, moving with his pregnant wife from Germany to England.
Christened Alexandrina Victoria at birth, the child came to be called Victoria. Despite being born into royalty, she did not grow up surrounded by wealth. Edward's spendthrift ways had left him with many debts. The duke and duchess, in an attempt to reduce expenses, moved with their infant daughter to a modest home. Not long after the move, Edward became ill and died of pneumonia on January 23, 1820. Six days later, King George III died as well, thus making George IV King of England.
Victoria was now third in line to the throne behind her two uncles, who had failed to produce heirs.
Victoria's Less Than Royal ChildhoodKing George IV, whose only legitimate child had died in childbirth, was resentful of his brother's daughter. He begrudgingly allowed Victoria and her mother to move into an apartment at Kensington Palace, but would only approve a small allowance. The duchess’s brother, Prince Leopold (later King Leopold of Belgium), agreed to pay for Victoria's upbringing and education.
Tutors were hired to school Victoria in history, math, drawing, and languages. Raised by a German mother who spoke little English, Victoria spoke mostly German the first few years of her life, but readily learned both English and French.
In 1827, when Victoria was eight, her Uncle Frederick, the Duke of York, died, placing her one step closer to the throne.
A Scheming PairWhen newly widowed, Victoria's mother had turned for advice to John Conroy, a colleague of her late husband. In the years following the duke's death, the self-serving Conroy convinced the duchess that she should have herself declared Victoria's regent (an agent acting on behalf of an incapacitated or underage monarch) in the event that Victoria became queen while still a minor. In this way, Conroy - through the duchess - could essentially control the throne.
When King George IV (who loathed Conroy and the duchess) died in 1830, the pair believed they could easily persuade newly-crowned King William IV to name the duchess as Victoria's regent. But King William did not trust the duchess and refused her request. The duchess petitioned Parliament, winning approval as Victoria's sole regent in 1831.
The regency proved unnecessary. On June 20, 1837, a month after Victoria's eighteenth birthday, King William died, making Victoria queen of England.
The Young QueenWeeks after assuming the throne, Queen Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace, where she began the business of ruling the nation. The young queen's composure and confidence impressed the prime minister and the Privy Council (a group of high government officials and advisers to a monarch).
The official coronation was held on June 28, 1838 amid great celebration. The public was enchanted by the new queen, who seemed more eager to please them than her predecessors had. A scandalous incident, however, would soon sway public opinion against her.
The "Lady Flora affair," as it came to be known, was the product of the young queen's immaturity and lack of discretion. Victoria, among others, had noticed that her mother's lady-in-waiting, Flora Hastings - an unmarried woman - appeared to have a bulging abdomen. Queen Victoria jumped to the conclusion that Lady Flora was pregnant, and began to make comments about her to various members of her staff. The rumor circulated beyond palace walls.
Within months, Lady Flora was gravely ill. When she died of an apparent abdominal tumor, the queen was blamed for having started the rumors that had brought dishonor upon a dying woman. The public was outraged; many of her detractors actually booed the queen when she went out in public.
It would take an engagement and marriage for Queen Victoria to regain her reputation.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: Courtship and MarriageVictoria's Uncle Leopold had long favored his German nephew Prince Albert - first cousin to Victoria - as the perfect candidate for marriage to the queen. When the prince and Victoria had met two years earlier, she had been impressed by Albert's looks and demeanor. Upon meeting with him a second time in October 1839, Victoria seemed smitten. Within days, she proposed to him (protocol would not allow him to propose to her), and the engagement was announced.
Even before the wedding a debate arose as to what title Prince Albert should hold. Queen Victoria preferred "King Consort," so that Albert could rule by her side, but members of Parliament were opposed to giving that power to a foreigner. Parliament decided to award the prince no rank or title whatsoever; he was simply made a British subject. Prince Albert was immensely disappointed, and the queen was furious, but could not oppose the decision.
The wedding was held on February 10, 1840. Despite rainy weather, large crowds lined the streets to watch the procession from Buckingham Palace. Later, the crowd cheered as the newly-married couple rode past in their carriage.
The Royal OffspringQueen Victoria and Prince Albert welcomed the birth of their first child, Princess Victoria in November 1840. However, the queen was not happy that she'd become pregnant so soon after the wedding, and often complained in her journal about the difficulties of motherhood.
Queen Victoria gave birth to a male heir, Albert ("Bertie"), a year later. Between 1843 and 1857, the queen had seven more children, completing her family of five daughters and four sons. All survived to adulthood, a rare outcome at a time when many children did not survive infancy.
The queen's fourth son Leopold, born in 1853, was diagnosed at an early age with hemophilia, a genetically-transmitted bleeding disorder. He died in his thirties of the disease. Through the marriages of Victoria's children, hemophilia later re-emerged in several European royal families, most notably in the son of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife Alexandra (Victoria's granddaughter). It was later determined that Queen Victoria and two of her daughters (as well as Alexandra) were carriers of the gene, which was passed on to their sons.
Prince Albert's RolePrince Albert enjoyed being a father and found that having children had necessitated that he take on more responsibilities in the royal household. Queen Victoria increasingly relied upon him for advice, and he welcomed this new role. The prince was widely praised for organizing palace finances and eliminating wasteful spending.
Prince Albert earned the admiration of the British public following an assassination attempt upon the queen in 1840. When a gunman shot at the royal carriage, Albert acted quickly, pushing his wife to the carriage floor to avoid the bullet. (Queen Victoria would survive seven assassination attempts.)
After initial reservations about Albert's capabilities, Parliament appointed him regent in July 1840 during the queen's pregnancy. As regent, Prince Albert would be in charge of the heir if Queen Victoria were to die in childbirth, or otherwise. The prince was not awarded the title of "prince consort" until 1857.
War and RebellionThe British became involved in the Crimean War from 1854 to 1856. Most of the fighting took place in Russian-held Crimea, where bitter cold and disease took as many lives as battle wounds. The queen, lacking any power in military situations, felt compelled to help. She organized relief efforts, knitted socks and mittens, and visited soldiers in hospitals. In her official capacity, Queen Victoria wrote letters of condolence to war widows.
British presence in India stirred up a rebellion of Indian soldiers, called "sepoys," in 1857. The uprising resulted in the deaths of hundreds of European civilians. When the rebellion was finally subdued by British troops, all of India came under the control of the Crown of England. Queen Victoria proudly referred to India as a "jewel of her crown." She was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877, when Parliament passed the Royal Titles Act.
The Death of Prince AlbertQueen Victoria endured the darkest year of her life in 1861, beginning with the death of her mother in March. Later in the year, her oldest son, Bertie - first in line to the throne - created a scandal by becoming romantically involved with an actress. Prince Albert traveled to Cambridge to chastise his son, despite feeling weak and feverish. He returned to Windsor Castle, where his condition deteriorated over the next few weeks. Prince Albert died on December 14, 1861 from probable stomach cancer.
A widow at forty-two, the queen was devastated. Faced with her official duties as well as the care of her children, she felt incapable of carrying on. Queen Victoria became a recluse, avoiding public events and social engagements and even refused foreign visitors.
Victoria's children suffered as well. They had lost their father; now their mother, too, seemed to abandon them in her grief. Some of the younger children became depressed and withdrawn, and Bertie became the object of his mother's anger. The queen blamed the twenty-one-year-old prince for his father's death. She felt that her son's misbehavior had compelled Prince Albert to make the trip to Cambridge, worsening his illness.
The public and Parliament began to lose patience with the queen, who neglected her duties and remained in mourning for more than three years.
Queen Victoria and John BrownDesperate to help the grieving queen, the royal physician suggested that she go horseback riding to improve her health. He sent for the groom from the queen's stables in Scotland. John Brown arrived in early 1865.
The handsome thirty-nine year old sported a kilt and had a straightforward, somewhat rough way of talking with the queen. She responded well to him and began venturing out in public for the first time in years. Although it was clear that the queen was in better spirits since Brown's arrival, he was unpopular with both the queen's family and the public. Rumors abounded that the two were having an affair, but no proof has ever been found to support that notion.
John Brown remained the queen's servant until 1883, when he died of a streptococcal infection.
Later YearsOver the years, Queen Victoria regained her popularity by making more of an effort to attend public functions and by becoming involved in charitable causes. She kept close contact with an ever-changing roster of prime ministers, always ready with an opinion on the issues of the day.
The queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, marking sixty years as monarch. She was proud of the many jubilee biographies that were written about her, several of which described her as a virtuous woman who set a good example.