I am lucky enough to have a wife who found an almost complete collection of early Victorian lithographs in a back street of Lymington. They are dated and signed by the lithographer, and the date is 1840. The series starts with William Duke of Normandy and First of England, and ends with rather a pretty portrait of a sad-looking girl. A guest saw this and exclaimed, “This cannot be Queen Victoria you fool! Much too young; she was an old, fat woman with a disagreeable expression.” So much for the study of history; the lithograph was made just three years after Victoria became queen in 1837 at the age of nineteen.
Victoria Alexandrina was the only child of George III’s fourth son and Victoria Maria-Luisa of Saxe-Coburg, herself sister of Leopold of Belgium. She was educated by governesses, and ruled by a governess appointed by her mother until she became queen and threw the Baroness Leisen out, at last gaining control of her difficult mother.
Her first Prime Minister was Lord Melbourne, who ensured that she had a clear grasp of constitutional principles, as well as comprehending the full range of her own monarchical prerogatives. At last Britain had a queen who most certainly knew her place in Britain, the Empire and the world, showed no signs of becoming a tyrant, and prepared to work with her first minister, not squabble with him. Still, even at nineteen she knew what it meant to be queen, and fully expected the correct expression of deference.
In 1839 she showed what stuff she was made of by refusing to accede to a precedent that decreed dismissal of her current ladies of the bedchamber (always closest to a queen throughout history). Sir Robert Peel, an unaristocratic businessman from Birmingham who had pushed this reform forward, was forced to renounce the Premiership which might have been his. Victoria, who preferred titled persons around her, was showing her mettle.
In 1840 she fell head over heels in love with a friendly and astute German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and married him. With Albert she would have nine children,. Those who survived the rigours of unhealthy England, freezing Scotland and Victorian medicine were married into every royal family in Europe, as indeed were their children. Queen Victoria became known as ‘the grandmother of Europe’.
Victoria and Albert worked harmoniously together, though the queen was strongly and usually correctly influenced by him, but he was never healthy, and died suddenly in 1861, after the entirely successful organisation of the Great Exhibition in London, and only twenty-one years of matrimony. Victoria was heart-broken, and for a lengthy period failed in her duties, retiring into reclusion at Balmoral in Scotland or as ‘the Widow of Windsor’. It is true to say she neglected her country, disliked her eldest son Edward, and affected not to notice a serious republican movement across Britain.
She liked and admired Benjamin Disraeli (q.v.) as much as she loathed W. E. Gladstone (q.v.); the pinnacle was reached when she was declared Empress of India (the jewel in the crown, 1887) and celebrations for her golden and diamond Jubilee as queen were welcomed round the world. She never married again, and continued her perpetual mistrust if not actual dislike of her eldest son, who was also her heir. While she was queen he was even forbidden the reading of State Papers.
Though she disliked (and mistrusted) Gladstone, she never allowed this personal option to disturb the bounds of constitutional propriety. There can be no doubt that she exercised a considerable influence over world manners (and perhaps pomposity), and the almost exclusively royal marriage of children and grandchildren had important, as well as dynastic implications across Europe. One of the anomalies caused was the utterly dreadful Great War, fought in effect between a grandson and a great-nephew. She died at a great age in 1901, first year of the twentieth century, and was greatly mourned by her people, which is more than can be said for most British monarchs. She left a new adjective ‘Victorian’ as applied to furnishings and architecture just as much as to morals. She was the great-great-grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth II.