QUEEN VICTORIA (r. 1837-1901) 

THE EARLY YEARS OF HER REIGN

Queen Victoria remains a remarkable figure in history – not only for having been the longest reigning British monarch, but also as the figurehead of a vast empire, and as the inspiration for a highly complex culture. 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. Her reign lasted almost 64 years, the longest in British history.
Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, London, on 24 May 1819. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III. In 1837, she became Queen at the age of 18.
She’s described as warm-hearted and lively. She had a gift for drawing and painting. Like most monarchs, she was educated by a governess at home. She was a natural diarist and kept a regular journal throughout her life. Until the age of three she spoke only German, but she learned to speak English without a trace of an accent. She also chose to learn Italian because she loved opera. Although her favorite subject was history, she did not realize at first that she was destined to play a major historical role.

In the early part of her reign, she was influenced by two men: her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and 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 use much influence. Victoria’s first prime minister was Lord Melbourne. Lord Melbourne  was twice Prime Minister and had very good relationships with Queen Vicoria. They became close friends and he helped her learn her role as queen. Because of her loyalty to Melbourne, the queen supported his party, the Whigs, early in her reign. As a matter of fact Melbourne was a Whig minister. The Whigs believed that Parliament should be given more power than the King or the Queen. They believed in religious freedom and political reforms. The Whigs were mainly rich businessmen and landowners. Later in the 19th century they became the Liberal Party. Later during her reign, Victoria’s  husband, Prince Albert, persuaded her that the monarch should not favor any particular party.
Queen victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert brought nine children between 1840 and 1857. Because the queen was confined by her multiple pregnancies, Albert undertook many of her responsibilities. Victoria herself said that Albert was king in all but name. In fact, she wished to give him the title « king, » but that was something the English people would not accept. At first Albert was unpopular, but in time his hard work brought him greater acceptance. In 1857 the queen persuaded Parliament to officially grant him the title « Prince Consort. » Albert took an active interest in the arts, science, trade and industry; the project for which he is best remembered was the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Victoria was deeply attached to her husband and she sank into depression after he died, aged 42, in 1861. She had lost a devoted husband as well as her principal trusted adviser in affairs of state. For the rest of her reign she wore black.

Until the late 1860s she rarely appeared in public; although she continued to give audiences to her ministers and official visitors, she was reluctant to resume a full public life. She was widely criticised for living in seclusion and quite a strong republican movement developed.

A CHANGING MONARCHY
Among the great achievements of her reign was the raising of institutional reform – such as the move (in the 1840s and 1850s) to a more constitutional monarchy – above party faction.

During Victoria’s long reign, direct political power moved away from the sovereign. A series of Acts broadened the social and economic base of the electorate. These acts included the Second Reform Act of 1867; the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, which made it impossible to pressurise voters by bribery or intimidation; and the Representation of the Peoples Act of 1884 – all householders and lodgers in accommodation worth at least £10 a year, and occupiers of land worth £10 a year, were entitled to vote. Like many people at the time she opposed giving women the vote but on social issues, she tended to favour measures to improve the lot of the poor, such as the Royal Commission on housing. She also supported many charities involved in education, hospitals and other areas.

Queen Victoria paid attention to her public image. Victoria and her family travelled and were seen on an unprecedented scale, thanks to transport improvements and other technical changes such as the spread of newspapers and the invention of photography. Victoria was the first reigning monarch to use trains – she made her first train journey in 1842.
 
Even if the power of the monarch declined, Victoria showed that a monarch who had a high level of prestige and who was prepared to master the details of political life could exert an important influence. 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. But Victoria herself was not always non-partisan and she took the opportunity to give her opinions, sometimes very forcefully, in private. After the Second Reform Act of 1867, and the growth of the two-party (Liberal and Conservative) system, the Queen’s room for manoeuvre decreased. Her freedom to choose which individual should occupy the premiership was increasingly restricted.

In 1880, she tried, unsuccessfully, to stop William Gladstone – whom she disliked as much as she admired Disraeli and whose policies she distrusted – from becoming Prime Minister. But she did not get her way.
William Gladstone was a Tory politician who later moved to the Liberal Party. He was responsible for many improvements to life in Britain : he made voting secret, he gave most men the right to vote and gave all children the right to an education. He also believed that the countries in the British Empire should govern themselves and that Ireland should have home rule (the government of Ireland by the Irish).

His rival, Disraeli, was a conservative politician who became Prime Minister twice, and had an interest in social reforms. During his premiership he increased Britain’s influence abroad and introduced improvements in housing for poor people.

FOREIGN POLICY

 

In her time the Queen and her parliament faced an Irish uprising, the Boer Wars in South Africa, which was won after bitter fighting, and an Indian rebellion. Continental war was limited to the Crimean, which began in 1853. Danger, however, was never far away, and seven attempts were made on Victoria’s life between 1840 and 1882. Her stoic attitude towards these attacks greatly strengthened her popularity.

In foreign policy, the Queen’s influence during the middle years of her reign was generally used to support peace and reconciliation. In 1864, Victoria pressed her ministers not to intervene in the Prussia-Austria-Denmark war, and in 1875 helped to avert a second Franco-German war. The Boer War in South Africa overshadowed the end of her reign. Victoria reviewed her troops and visited hospitals; she remained undaunted by British reverses during the campaign.

THE EMPIRE

 Victoria’s popularity grew with the increasing imperial sentiment from the 1870s onwards. The main event was the Indian mutiny in 1857. It was a serious revolt by the Indian army against British rule in India. It started in the North of India but spread to the whole country and developed into a general protest. India was defeated by the English Army and therefore placed under the direct control of the British government. It had been previously governed by the East Indian Company. So, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. The position of Governor General was upgraded to Viceroy, and in 1877 Victoria became Empress of India under Disraeli’s government.

During the reign of Victoria, the most notable achievement was probably the expansion of the British Empire, which doubled in size, taking in India, Australia, Canada and parts of Africa and the South Pacific, during Victoria’s long years on the throne. She was a very strong supporter of Empire, which brought her closer both to Disraeli and to the Marquess of Salisbury, her last Prime Minister. In her later years, she almost became the symbol of the British Empire.