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Queen Victoria's Empire : Her Majesty : Queen Victoria


Queen Victoria

Portrait of Queen Victoria.
Portrait of Queen Victoria.
The Royal Collection Windsor.
Princess Alexandrina Victoria was not only born to be Queen of England: she was conceived to be Queen. Once Princess Charlotte, the only legitimate child of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, died in childbirth late in 1817, her son stillborn, the nation was plunged into mourning and her unmarried uncles stirred into competition to sire an heir to the throne. With the Prince of Wales, Prince Regent for his insane father, George III, separated from the future (but uncrowned) Queen Caroline, no lawful successor would come that way. To solve the succession dilemma, the royal brothers, princes of the blood, most of them with mistresses and illegitimate progeny, were ordered to marry and beget, with their reward for success a promised cancellation of their heavy debts.

Although William IV, the Duke of Clarence (1830-37), duly married a minor German princess, no child of his survived early infancy. Next in line, Edward, Duke of Kent, would jettison his mistress of many years and marry the widowed Victoire, Duchess of Amorbach, who had proved her fertility during her first marriage. When she became pregnant, it became necessary, once she could travel, to leave her small German dukedom and give birth on English soil to establish unquestionable credentials for the child's likely inheritance. But beset by debt unresolved by the Regent, the Duke encountered delays in raising the money to get his entourage across the Channel. On 28 March 1819, in her eighth month, the Duchess set off, arriving at Dover on 24 April, barely in time for the accouchement. At Kensington Palace, in apartments reluctantly granted by the Regent, who disliked his improvident brother, the future queen was born on 24 May. The new princess was christened a month later, with none of the usual royal names available to her parents because of the Regent's refusal to permit another Charlotte or Elizabeth or Georgina.

Since the Russian tsar, Alexander I, was godfather in absentia, his name was available, and even as late as the morning of her accession, at eighteen, on June 20, 1837, the public was unsure of the official name of the new queen. She had always been known as Victoria, however, and was so proclaimed. Fatherless as an infant-her father had died on January 23, 1820, only six days before his own father, George III-she was dominated by her ambitious mother, who hoped for a Regency for herself if William IV died before Victoria's eighteenth birthday. Stubbornly, the ailing king held on just long enough for his niece to reign in her own right. But she proved wilful and difficult, creating embarrassments at Court that led her advisers, notably the avuncular Viscount Melbourne, the Prime Minister, to press her to marry. A husband might control her, and in any case the nation needed a guaranteed succession.

Victoria's mother and her Coburg brothers arranged to keep the prospective marriage within the family. Yet they were assisted by the dearth of acceptable Protestant candidates among European royals, some of whom the young Queen interviewed to her disappointment. Late in 1839, however, when she met Prince Albert, the younger son of her uncle Ernest, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for only the second time (three years earlier he had been a callow teen-ager), she was smitten. A student at the University of Bonn, he was clearly her intellectual superior-and, she thought, beautiful. She proposed (he could not, as she was Queen), and they were married in February 1840.

At first, Albert only wielded the blotting paper as she signed documents. He was uneasy about his lack of occupation and status; but he had been employed to ensure the succession. Biology thereafter ensured his role. When Victoria became so visibly pregnant that she could not appear ceremonially, Albert assumed her functions. Once she became heavy and listless, he also became, in effect, the senior partner (although five months her junior) in a dual monarchy. After nine children through 1856, he had established himself as her primary adviser, often drafting memoranda that she recopied in her own hand and signed. Impressed by his abilities, the aging Duke of Wellington, eager to retire, even invited him to become chief of the army, but Albert, an honorary field marshal, resisted the temptation, explaining that he had to subsume his personality and his ambitions in the interests of the Queen.
Portrait of young Queen Victoria.
Portrait of young Queen Victoria.
The Royal Collection Windsor.


But for the period of the Crimean War (1853-54), when the couple, especially Albert, were suspected falsely of Russian sympathies, the dual monarchy worked efficiently. England in any case was evolving, after the first Reform Bill (1832), into a constitutional monarchy, with the sovereign's powers becoming more moral and symbolic than legislative. The authority of the throne now rested more and more in popular respect for its occupant. That situation ended abruptly when Albert, at 42 in December 1861, died of what was very likely stomach cancer. His incompetent physicians called it typhoid, but no other cases existed in the area, rendering that diagnosis suspect, and although Victoria knew nothing of his long-standing symptoms, and was prostrated by his death, Albert was aware that he had been suffering from something inoperable.

The Prince Consort's death altered the monarchy irreparably. Victoria was inconsolable, out of shock, out of loss, and out of her realization that she had depended so long upon Albert's advice and support that she was unsure she could be sovereign alone. She went into purdah, for years failing to perform even her ceremonial functions on grounds that she was in perpetual mourning. The monarchy accordingly declined in authority and in esteem, and public perception was summed up by a cartoon in the press that showed the royal robes draped over an empty throne. Twenty at Albert's death-the same age as were Victoria and Albert at their marriage, Albert Edward ("Bertie"), the Prince of Wales was given no compensatory duties to fill some of the void left by his father's death and his mother's disappearance into grief. Just before his father's last illness the young prince had been discovered in a liaison with a lady of the evening, and Victoria believed that the shock and the potential scandal had led to Albert's decline. Bertie was pronounced as unfit to be king, and unfit to assume any national role. Bertie's lack of anything to do, and his incapacity to invent serious work for himself led to his life as playboy prince, despite a marriage that was supposed to settle him down. (Alexandra was beautiful but brainless, with no ability to rein in her husband.) His increasing notoriety as "Edward the Caresser" (in Henry James's phrase) and Victoria's invisibility as sovereign would lead to a decade of republican agitation that ended fortuitously in 1871 when Bertie came down with authentic typhoid fever, and nearly died. The weeks of public agitation over his possible demise, and his seemingly miraculous recovery, exploded the thin but widespread anti-monarchical sentiment in Britain. It did not make the Prince more moral or even more circumspect, but the second ministry of Benjamin Disraeli beginning in 1874 engineered the rehabilitation of the throne by drawing the queen back into public life and in finding acceptable roles for her heir.
Victoria and Albert.
Victoria and Albert.
The Royal Collection Windsor.


The costly Indian Mutiny in 1856-57 had led to reorganization of imperial rule in the subcontinent, and on Victoria's return to visibility in the 1870s she began to yearn for a title that would prevent her eldest daughter, Vicky, married to the heir to the German throne, from-as empress--outranking her proud mother. The Queen wanted to be Empress of India, and as part of the price for her increasing public role pressed Disraeli into arranging an imperial title representing the jewel in her crown. At about the same time, the Prince of Wales, eager for a junket to India with his cronies, to hunt elephants and tigers, convinced the Prime Minister to arrange a royal tour. Despite all likelihood that the princely progress would be a disaster, it was a triumph, demonstrating Bertie's diplomatic and impresario qualities, which he would employ with brio thereafter. As he was embarking home, news arrived that the Queen had indeed been styled Empress of India.

Fortunately for the Queen's reputation, her Scots manservant John Brown had died early in 1883. For Victoria, Brown's much-lamented passing severed a link with Albert in life and in death. He had been the Prince's gillie, and to extricate the Queen from self-imposed purdah her doctors recommended importing Brown from Balmoral to care for her personal horses and get her out riding. The gruff, bearded Scot became her favorite, accompanying her publicly almost everywhere. He also become a barrier -- as she wanted -- to intrusions from staff, and even from her children. (They despised him.) He sat in on table-turning seances in that heyday of spiritualism to help summon up a very dubious hint of the Prince. She despised smoking but Brown could appear before her in a haze of tobacco, and often tipsy as well with whiskey -- and he taught Victoria how to put a nip of Scotch in her tea. Class vanished. In an age of sentimental effusions, she sent him valentines by post, and awarded him a special medal for loyal service to the Queen.

Rumor had it that he was sexually intimate with her, even that they were secretly married, and in 1869 a scandal sheet claimed that the Queen (in her 50th year) had gone to Switzerland to covertly bear his child. Her very openness about Brown belied such intimacies, but without a husband to embrace she seems to have savored being clutched by him as he helped on and off her horses, and in and out of her carriages. When he was dying, protocol forbade her to visit him (contrary to an episode in the film "Mrs. Brown"), and in any event a fall had lamed one of her knees, and she could not have climbed stairs to his quarters. "If he had been a more ambitious man," said Sir William Knollys, the Prince of Wales's comptroller, of Brown, "there is no doubt . . . he might have meddled in more important matters. I presume the family will rejoice at his death, but I think very probably they are shortsighted." Yet Brown's disappearance from the Victorian scene helped restore the Queen's public image. She could better embody middle-class values and become the symbolic mother of her country.
Victoria's Funeral
Victoria's Funeral
Pathe


The 1880s and 1890s were decades of Victoria's increasing visibility as symbol of Britain and of Empire, as-with the Prince of Wales often acting as impresario-she celebrated her Golden Jubilee as Queen, and then, turning it into an imperial festival, she marked her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. She had become an icon of Empire, ironically just as the Anglo-Boer War was about to erupt in South Africa, adding to the red areas on the globe but embarrassing the nation by showing how difficult it was to win and control colonies in a dawning age of nationalism. In her waning years, Victoria, calling herself a soldier's daughter, went out, although wheelchair-bound by age and frailty, to bid departing troops godspeed.

The war was still ongoing when, incapacitated by a series of small strokes, she died in January 1901, the first month of the new century. But Victoria's world of simple values and simple loyalties, and her rigid view of the Crown, had preceded her in death.


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