Yet though she went on to become one of Britain’s most iconic monarchs, Victoria’s birth did not herald national celebration. As the daughter of King George III’s fourth son, at the time of her birth Victoria was only fifth in line to the throne. Expected to be just another minor royal relative who would end up married into a European royal family, Victoria’s arrival slipped under the radar somewhat. Few could have predicted that she would sit on the throne for more than 60 years. By the time Victoria reached her teens, however, the death of her father, his brothers and any other legitimate heirs left the young princess as King William IV’s closest surviving heir.
On 24 June 1819, the princess was christened in a low-key ceremony. Frustrated by his own inability to produce a surviving heir, Victoria’s uncle, the Prince Regent, only allowed a handful of people to attend. Also under the direction of her uncle, she was given the name ‘Alexandrina Victoria’. At the time, Victoria was far from a regal name – it was highly unusual and of French origin. When it became clear that Victoria would indeed accede to the throne, her name was seen to be completely inappropriate for a queen of England. She was advised to change it to something more traditional, but refused.
Victoria spent her formative years at Kensington Palace. However, in many ways the palace proved a prison for the princess, and her childhood there was far from rosy.
Following her father’s death from pneumonia when she was just eight months old, Victoria’s early life was dominated by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her ambitious adviser Sir John Conroy. Keen to establish himself as the power behind the throne in the event of a Regency (in which Victoria’s mother would rule with her if she acceded while still underage), Conroy sought to keep tight control of the princess. Both he and the Duchess had a hostile relationship with Victoria’s uncle, King William, and consequently kept Victoria isolated from the royal court, even preventing her from attending her uncle’s coronation.
The pair imposed a stifling code of discipline on the young Victoria, which came to be known as the ‘Kensington System’. Along with a strict timetable of lessons to improve her moral and intellectual rigor, this suffocating regime dictated that the princess spent hardly any time with other children and was under constant adult supervision. Right up until the time she became queen, Victoria was forced to share a bedroom with her mother. She was forbidden from ever being alone, or even walking down stairs without someone holding her hand.
Later in life, Victoria reflected that she “led a very unhappy life as a child… and did not know what a happy domestic life was”. She retained a deep-seated hatred of John Conroy for manipulating her mother and imposing such rigid rules on her, later describing him as “demon incarnate”.
“I went into my sitting room (only in my dressing gown) alone and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at twelve minutes past two this morning and consequently that I was Queen.”
This is how Victoria recalled the moment that would change her life forever. At 6am on 20 June 1837, the young princess was woken from her bed to be informed that her uncle, King William IV, had died during the night. This meant that Victoria, who was only 18 at the time, was now queen of England.
Although it came as a shock, Victoria took the news extremely stoically. Despite her young age she remained calm and had no need for the smelling salts her governess had prepared for her. In her first meeting with her privy council just a few hours later, Victoria’s new ministers towered over her – at just 4ft 11, she had to be seated on a raised platform in order to be seen. What Victoria lacked in height, however, she made up for in determination, and she quickly made a favourable impression.
Queen Victoria timeline: 9 milestones in the monarch’s life
24 May 1819 – Princess Victoria is born
20 June 1837 – The young princess becomes a queen
1839 – The Bedchamber crisis
10 February 1840 – Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
21 November 1840 – Victoria and Albert start a royal family
14 December 1861 – Prince Albert dies
1 January 1877 – Victoria becomes Empress of India
20 June 1887 and 22 June 1897 – The nation celebrates Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees
22 January 1901 – Queen Victoria dies
Queen Victoria proposed to Prince Albert
Though as a young woman she had many suitors, a key figure throughout Victoria’s life and reign was her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Victoria met the German prince at Kensington Palace when the pair were both just 17. The meeting of Victoria and Albert, who were also first cousins, had been masterminded by Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, who believed he could benefit politically from the match.
Yet despite the marriage brokering that had led the couple to meet, this was most definitely a love match. Victoria’s diary revealed that she found the young prince “extremely handsome”. She wrote, “his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful”. As royal tradition dictated that no one could propose to a reigning monarch, in October 1839 it was Victoria who proposed to Albert.
Victoria’s marriage was the first of a reigning queen of England in 286 years
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding, which took place in St James’s Palace chapel on 10 February 1840, was the first marriage of a reigning queen of England since Mary I in 1554. Victoria wore an 18-foot-long train carried by 12 bridesmaids and kicked off a modern-day tradition by wearing white. Outside, the nation erupted into huge public celebration. Victoria recorded how she “never saw such crowds of people… they cheered most enthusiastically”. She reflected on the event as “ the happiest day of my life”.
Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Victoria and Albert had a passionate, if sometimes tempestuous, relationship. Although the couple had blazing arguments, Victoria clearly adored her husband, describing him in her diary as “perfection in every way … oh how I adore and love him”.
Queen Victoria had nine children… but she hated being pregnant
Just over nine months after their wedding, Victoria and Albert’s first child, Princess Victoria, was born at Buckingham Palace. The queen soon after recorded how “after a good many hours suffering, a perfect little child was born… but alas! A girl & not a boy, as we both had so hoped & wished for”. The royal couple’s wishes were granted less than a year later, however, when Victoria gave birth to a male heir: Edward, known by the family as Bertie. Victoria and Albert went on to have a total of nine children – four boys and five girls.
Surprisingly, Victoria hated being pregnant, and historians have suggested that she may have suffered from post-natal depression. She compared pregnancy to feeling like a cow and wrote that “an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed”.
Many of Victoria’s children were married into the royal families of Europe, yet throughout her life she maintained a close, perhaps even suffocating, relationship with them. She had a notoriously fractious relationship with her eldest son, the charismatic yet quick-tempered Bertie.
The 1839 ‘Bedchamber Crisis’ got Queen Victoria into trouble
Victoria took the throne at a time when the monarch’s role was intended to be largely apolitical. Yet early in her reign, the inexperienced queen got into hot water for meddling in political matters, in an event termed ‘The Bedchamber Crisis’.
The first prime minister of Victoria’s reign was the Whig politician Lord Melbourne, with whom she enjoyed a remarkably close relationship. Melbourne held significant sway over the young queen, who appointed the majority of her ladies-in-waiting according to his advice.
In 1839, Melbourne resigned following several parliamentary defeats. Tory Robert Peel stepped forward to become prime minister, on one condition: he requested that Victoria dismiss some of her existing household – who largely held Whig sympathies and were loyal to Melbourne – and replace them with Tory ladies. As many of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting were also her closest friends, she took offence at Peel’s request and refused.
The queen had already been criticised for her over-reliance on Lord Melbourne, and now she was widely condemned for being not just politically partisan, but unconstitutional. The tense situation was eventually defused by the ever-reasonable Prince Albert, who arranged for some of Victoria’s ladies to resign their posts voluntarily.
Queen Victoria spoke several languages
Perhaps in part due to her strict schooling under the ‘Kensington system’, Victoria proved herself to be a remarkably adept linguist. As well as being fluent in both English and German, she also spoke French, Italian and Latin.
As her mother and governess both hailed from Germany, Victoria grew up speaking the language and at one stage reportedly even had a German accent, which had to be erased by tutors. When she later married her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the couple regularly spoke German together. Although Albert was fluent in English, he and Victoria could often be heard talking – and indeed arguing – in German when in private.
Later in life, Victoria also experimented with some of the languages from across her vast empire. Following the arrival of Indian servants at Windsor Castle in August 1887, she was taught Hindustani and Urdu phrases by her favourite Indian attendant, Abdul Karim. The queen recorded in her diary: “I am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me for both the language and the people, I have naturally never come into real contact with before”.
The queen’s relationship with her prime ministers wasn’t always easy
Over the course of the six decades she sat on the throne, Victoria saw many prime ministers come and go. Yet while she established a remarkably close bond with some, others failed spectacularly to win her favour.
Victoria’s first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, was keen to flatter, instruct and influence the young queen from the very beginning. The pair were so close that Victoria claimed to love him “like a father”. However, this intense friendship with ‘Lord M’ made the queen unpopular with many – she was criticised for being politically partisan and was even mockingly called her “Mrs Melbourne”. Later in her reign, Benjamin Disraeli similarly pulled out all the stops to win Victoria’s favour with charm and flattery. His tactics clearly worked, as the queen told her eldest daughter [also named Victoria] that he would “do very well” and was “full of poetry, romance and chivalry”.
Other ministers, however, received a much less enthusiastic response from her majesty: she found Lord John Russell stubborn and rude and referred to Lord Palmerston as a “dreadful old man”. As foreign secretary, Palmerston had invoked Victoria’s wrath by ignoring Albert’s suggested amendments to dispatches and apparently attempting to seduce one of her ladies-in-waiting. Victoria found Gladstone similarly infuriating, and with her characteristically sharp tongue dismissed him as a “half-crazy and in many ways ridiculous, wild and incomprehensible old fanatic”.
Britain’s imperial conquests increased nearly fivefold during Victoria’s reign
Over the course of her reign, Victoria witnessed a mammoth expansion of the British empire. During her first 20 years on the throne, Britain’s imperial conquests had increased almost fivefold. By the time she died, it was the largest empire the world had ever known and included a quarter of the world’s population. As the monarchy was seen as a focal point for imperial pride, and a means of uniting the empire’s disparate peoples, Victoria’s image was spread across the empire.
The queen herself took a great interest in imperial affairs. In 1877, prime minister Benjamin Disraeli pronounced her empress of India in a move to cement Britain’s link to the “jewel in the empire’s crown”. The queen had pushed for the title for several years, but, concerned about its absolutist connotations, Disraeli had been hesitant to agree. By 1877, however, Victoria had become so insistent he felt he could not resist any longer, for fear of offending her.
Queen Victoria was known as the “grandmother of Europe”
Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Victoria and Albert raised nine children together. As a means of extending Britain’s influence and building international allegiances, several of their sons and daughters were married into various European monarchies, and within just a couple of generations Victoria’s descendants were spread across the continent. Her 42 grandchildren could be found in the royal families of Germany, Russia, Greece, Romania, Sweden, Norway and Spain.
Warring First World War royals Kaiser Wilhelm (of Germany), Tsarina Alexandra (of Russia) and George V (of Britain) were all grandchildren of Victoria. Kaiser Wilhelm reportedly remarked that had his grandmother still been alive, the First World War may never have happened, as she simply would not have allowed her relatives to go to war with one another.
Victoria’s widespread influence had unexpected genetic, as well as political, implications for Europe’s monarchies. It is believed that the queen was a carrier of haemophilia and had unwittingly introduced the rare inherited disease into her bloodline. Over subsequent generations the condition resurfaced in royal families across the continent. In an age of limited medical facilities, haemophilia – which affects the blood’s ability to clot – could have disastrous consequences. Victoria’s own son Leopold suffered from the disease and died aged 30 after he slipped and fell, triggering a cerebral haemorrhage. Three of the queen’s grandchildren also suffered from the disease, as did her great-grandson, the murdered heir to the Russian throne, Tsarevich Alexei.
Listen: Deborah Cadbury shows how Queen Victoria sought to influence the future of Europe through the marriages of her descendants, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Queen Victoria survived at least six assassination attempts
During the course of her 63-year-long reign, Victoria came out unscathed from at least six serious attempts on her life, some of which were terrifyingly close calls.
In June 1840, while four months pregnant with her first child, Victoria was shot at while on an evening carriage ride with Prince Albert. For a moment it seemed as though the queen had been hit, but Albert spurred the driver to speed away to safety and the would-be assassin, Edward Oxford, was apprehended.
Oxford – who was later acquitted on grounds of insanity – proved to be the first of many to target the queen while she was driving in her open-top carriage. In 1850, as the carriage slowed down to pass through the gates of Buckingham Palace, retired soldier Robert Pate ran forward and managed to strike the queen sharply on the head with a small cane. Although it transpired that the cane weighed less than three ounces, so could not have done much damage, the incident nonetheless unnerved Victoria. She escaped several more assassination attempts while riding in her carriage in 1842, 1849 and 1872.
Victoria was also infamously targeted by a stalker – a notorious teenager known in the newspapers as ‘The Boy Jones’. Between 1838 and 1841, Edward Jones managed to break into Buckingham Palace several times, hiding under the queen’s sofa, sitting on her throne and reportedly even stealing her underwear, before being caught.
Victoria mourned Prince Albert for 40 years
On 14 December 1861, Victoria’s life was rocked by the death of her beloved husband, Albert. As the prince was aged just 42 and generally enjoyed good health, his death from typhoid was highly unexpected. It came as a huge blow to the queen, who had been intensely reliant on his support, practically and politically as well as emotionally.
Following Albert’s death, Victoria retreated from public life, adopting elaborate mourning rituals that rapidly became obsessive. As time went on, the situation began to spiral out of control as it became clear the queen’s period of mourning would last much longer than the two years that convention dictated. Consumed by grief, Victoria fell into a state of depression and began neglecting her royal duties. As she repeatedly refused to take part in public events, her popularity began to deteriorate. The British people began to lose patience with their queen, questioning what the ‘Widow of Windsor’ did to earn her royal income. It was not until the 1870s that Victoria was coaxed back into gradually engaging in public life once more.
Queen Victoria had a set of clothes laid out for Prince Albert each morning, right up until her own death 40 years later in 1901
Despite the decades that passed, Victoria never fully recovered from the loss of Albert. Although she had other intimate relationships – most notably a close friendship with her Scottish servant John Brown – she never remarried. She continued to wear black and sleep beside an image of Albert, and she even had a set of clothes laid out for him each morning, right up until her own death 40 years later in 1901.
Both Queen Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees were celebrated
Years after her damaging retreat from public life following Albert’s death, Victoria was eventually coaxed back into the limelight. Her golden and diamond jubilees of 1887 and 1897 were crucial to restoring her reputation. Designed to be show-stopping crowd-pleasers, these national festivities reinvented the ‘widow of Windsor’ as a source of national (and imperial) pride and celebration. Grand processions and military displays were jam-packed with patriotic pomp, while Victoria’s face was plastered on all manner of commemorative products.
During 1897’s diamond jubilee (marking Victoria’s 60th year on the throne), street parties, parades, fireworks and cricket games took place across the country. Some 300,000 of Britain’s poor were treated to a special jubilee dinner, while in India 19,000 prisoners were pardoned. During a royal procession to St Paul’s Cathedral, Victoria was reportedly so overwhelmed by the cheering crowds that she burst into tears.
Queen Victoria was buried with a lock of John Brown’s hair
As she entered her eighties, Victoria was still actively taking on her royal duties. Yet, after six decades on the throne, her health finally began to decline. After being diagnosed with ‘cerebral exhaustion’, Queen Victoria died at the age of 81 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, on 22 January 1901. The queen had refused to be embalmed, so part of the preparations that followed her death included preparing the coffin to combat the smell and absorb moisture, by scattering coal across its floor. The queen’s staff also cut off her hair, dressed her in a white silk dressing gown with garter ribbon and star and placed her wedding veil over her face, before summoning members of the queen’s family – the royal dukes, the kaiser and the new king, Edward VII – to lift her body into the coffin.
The family then retired, leaving staff to carry out the queen’s secret instructions that were never to be revealed to her children. The wedding ring of the mother of her personal servant, John Brown, was placed on her finger; a photograph of Brown and a lock of his hair were laid beside her, along with Brown’s pocket handkerchief, all carefully hidden from view.
The queen was buried beside her beloved Prince Albert on 4 February 1901, in the mausoleum the queen had built for her husband at Frogmore, adjoining Windsor Castle.
Queen Victoria was succeeded by Edward VII, her eldest son
Victoria and Albert’s first son and second child was named Albert Edward, although he was known as ‘Bertie’. As Prince of Wales, he had a love of society and ‘good living’ and was known for his hearty appetites, Bertie – who was crowned King Edward VII on 9 August 1902 – defied expectations by proving himself to be a very successful and well-loved monarch.
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Ellie Cawthorne is staff writer at BBC History Magazine.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016