Monday, April 8, 2013

Monarch Profile: Queen Victoria of Great Britain


In the history of the British and previously English monarchy there are several great names that stand out, just as in the royal annals of any country. However, there are some monarchs that stand out in the world at large. Names such as Peter the Great, Charles V, Louis XIV, Genghis Khan or Suleiman the Magnificent are known all over the world for standing out on the pages of history. The British Queen Victoria is another such figure. The length of her reign, the accomplishments of the United Kingdom during that time, the transitions that occurred, the victories that were won, the progress that was achieved all worked together to make Queen Victoria lend her name to an age and one of the most dynamic eras in British history at that. When she came to the throne, the British monarch wielded considerably more influence than would later be the case, yet this was still beyond the time when monarchs actually governed or provided the driving force behind national initiatives. Yet, her presence was formidable. Through her many offspring she became known as the “Grandmother of Europe” and that was a fact rather than an idle boast. The British Empire would not reach its peak in terms of sheer size until well after her reign, yet the Victorian era is still often seen as the zenith of the most glorious stage in British imperial history. Under Queen Victoria, the British Empire was still ahead of everyone else and Britain had a “presence” under Queen Victoria that it had never had before and, to some degree, would never quite have in the same way again.

Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819 to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (fourth son of the prolific King George III) and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and sister to the future King Leopold I of the Belgians. Her parents wanted to name the baby girl Victoria but the Prince-Regent (soon to be King George IV) insisted that she be named after her godfather Tsar Alexander I of Russia. So, the new addition was given the first name ‘Alexandrina’ but was invariably known by her second name Victoria. Within a few months though, the Duke of Kent died leaving little Victoria to be brought up by her very strict mother who quickly fell under the domination of the Controller of her household Sir John Conroy, a brutish and scheming Irish officer who many suspected of planning to be the power-behind-the-throne in the event that the monarch, King William IV (who had succeeded his brother George IV) died before Victoria came of age. It was widely put about that King William IV was determined to live long enough to see his niece turn 18 so that her mother, and by extension Conroy, would not be able to get their hands on the government.

The old “Sailor-King” managed to do it, passing away less than a month after Victoria reached adulthood. With his death on June 20, 1837 Victoria became Queen and immediately sent Conroy packing (to the joy of most everyone but the duchess) and she made it clear to her rather domineering mother that she would no longer be dominated by anyone. That said, she was still a very young woman and had lived a very sheltered and protected life. Because of this, she came to rely probably too heavily on her German governess and the prime minister Lord Melbourne; a Whig politician very comfortable with the status quo. This was at a time when the industrial revolution was causing serious social problems in Britain which generated discontent. This became serious enough that an attempt on the life of the young Queen Victoria was made in 1840, the first of many, none of which, thankfully, were successful. However, Lord Melbourne was inclined to do nothing and the Queen always followed his advice.

Unfortunately, Lord Melbourne seemed perfectly willing to take advantage of the na├»ve young Queen and the result was a scandal in which his enemies became her enemies and brought into question the impartiality of the monarchy. Once adoring crowds began to jeer Queen Victoria and refer to her as “Mrs. Melbourne”. Fortunately, Queen Victoria had other advice as well, particularly from her uncle, the Belgian King Leopold I, who was also anxious to see his niece marry a Coburg to help ensure British support for Belgium. He encouraged Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to call on the Queen and she was quickly in love with the handsome, young prince. It proved to be a perfect match, though perhaps slightly uneven. Prince Albert loved and respected Victoria but Victoria positively worshipped Albert. Fortunately, he was a good influence on the Queen and like her uncle Leopold tended to give beneficial advice, rescuing her from the partisanship of Lord Melbourne. The two were married in February of 1840, beginning a very happy marriage that produced nine children.

They had their differences as any couple does, but these were few and far between and they worked together closely in the business of remolding the British monarchy. After the rather libertine period of the regency, the monarchy under Queen Victoria would set an example for Christian morality, national service and solid traditional family values. The Queen met and encouraged anti-slavery campaigners and finally signed into law the total abolition of slavery in the British Empire. She also took an interest in the plight of orphans and the working class, supporting causes to improve their lives. When the Tories came to power she was persuaded by Prince Albert to give Peel a chance and became the first English sovereign since Henry VIII to meet a foreign monarch when she visited King Louis Philippe of the French in 1843, doing her part in the diplomatic campaign to reconcile France and Britain. Later she also exchanged visits with the Emperor Napoleon III and seemed rather flattered by the dapper Frenchman despite having the surname of Bonaparte. However, she did often clash with Lord Palmerston over his support for liberal or revolutionary forces on the continent, first in the Portuguese civil war and later in the revolutions of 1848.

In many ways, the Queen shared similar views and she had many harsh words for the more autocratic monarchies of Austria and Russia but she still believed in royal solidarity and supported a ‘united front’ against rebellion. She was not impressed, for example, with the outpouring of popular support amongst both commoners and aristocrats for the visiting Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi on the grounds that he was a revolutionary, though she still credited him with being “Brave and honest”. Tensions with Palmerston reached their height prior to the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 which Prince Albert, as usual, tried to prevent. However, once started, the Queen was an enthusiastic supporter of the war effort, writing, “I feel so proud of my dear noble troops”. Her opinion of Palmerston improved because of the conflict but tensions renewed over the war between Denmark and the German states with Palmerston supportive of Denmark and Queen Victoria being sympathetic toward the Prussians. The greatest trial in the long life of Queen Victoria, however, came in 1861 when Prince Albert died of typhoid fever (not long after narrowly averting British intervention in the American Civil War). The Queen was devastated and went into the deepest mourning, wearing black for the rest of her life and staying mostly in seclusion for many years afterward, in spite of all efforts to persuade her to show herself to the public on occasion.

The Queen spent much of her time in the Scottish highlands where she came to rely a great deal on John Brown, one of her servants. Rumors and gossip spread that hurt the reputation of the Queen and it certainly did not help that many courtiers and even family members resented the friendship the Queen had with Brown. Treasonous radicals also seized the moment and began to call for a republic, demanding to know why the public was paying for what was essentially an absentee monarch. However, loyalty was more than skin-deep for most people back in those days and the republican movement flared up quickly and faded away just as quickly. It was not an easy time for the Queen and was not made better by the coming to power of the liberal William E. Gladstone. Of her many prime ministers, Gladstone was the one Victoria found it most difficult to endure. She disliked him personally but, more than that, she opposed almost every major action his government undertook such as extending the franchise, cutting back the authority of the House of Lords (though the Queen generally had a low opinion of the aristocracy), home rule for Ireland, imperial expansion and so on. She was much more pleased when Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister, a man she got along with exceedingly well. Known as a flatterer, it was Disraeli who, in 1876, had Parliament pass the Titles Bill which made Queen Victoria “Empress of India”.

Empress Victoria of India was very fond of the title and took a great interest in the subcontinent. Even in the wake of the mutiny of 1857 she had urged British officials to show restraint and compassion and she refused to tolerate any hint of racism toward the Indians on the part of any British officer or administrator who crossed her path. She had Indian servants at the palace and was extremely fond of them and the vociferous opposition of the Queen to any racism also helped reconcile her to the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa. The origins of the conflict can be seen as rather unsavory but the Queen was able to get behind the effort after being told about how the Black Africans fared at the hands of the Boers. In foreign affairs, Queen Victoria always supported the success and achievement of the British Empire but she did not always agree with the actions of her government, especially that of Gladstone. With Disraeli, on the other hand, she applauded his support for the Ottoman Turks against Imperial Russia and she viewed the Congress of Berlin as a great achievement in blocking Russian expansion on the part of the western European powers. This caused some consternation given the behavior of Turkish officials toward many of the Balkan peoples, most of whom were Christian and eager for liberation at the hands of the Russian Empire.

The Queen endured Gladstone in power again and was particularly outraged at his handling of the rebellion in the Sudan and the subsequent heroic death of General “Chinese” Gordon -as were most British people everywhere. Despite the occasional grumbling, the long absence of the Queen seemed to make the hearts of her people grow fonder and when she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee the public outpouring of respect and devotion was immense to an unprecedented degree. Queen Victoria had reigned longer than any other British monarch, passing the record previously held by her grandfather King George III, and the Queen seemed to embody all the best qualities of the British people. She was dedicated to her country, principled, upright, honest and compassionate but never one to be taken advantage of; she was a tough lady too. Most Britons could not remember a time when Victoria had not been their Queen and she symbolized a British Empire that was the single most dominant power on earth. In her final years she remained as vigilant as ever in keeping track of politics and foreign policy. She was sufficiently pleased to see Kitchener deliver a drubbing to the Sudanese rebels who had struck down Gordon and she was a staunch supporter of the war in South Africa, never tolerating defeatist talk even during the days when the British cause seemed lost. Such discipline was not in vain and the Queen lived long enough to celebrate the relief of Mafeking and Ladysmith in the middle of 1900.

However, though the Queen must have seemed immortal to some, she was not to last much longer. She went to Ireland to acknowledge the service of Irish regiments in South Africa but was deeply saddened by the death of Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, her second son, in July. She became mildly ill but still kept up with her tradition of spending Christmas on the Isle of Wight. It became clear that she had not much time left and in the presence of her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, and eldest grandson, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, she passed away on January 22, 1901 at the age of 81 having reigned 63 years, 7 months and two days making her the longest reigning female sovereign in world history to date. Her funeral was held at Windsor Castle as all Europe and much of the world mourned her passing before she was laid to rest alongside her beloved husband.

Queen Victoria, the first Queen-Empress, had been from first to last a great monarch, despite the occasional misstep. Even when she seemed absent to the public at large, she never neglected her official duties and was always very cognizant of her responsibilities as a monarch. She also made it her duty to look after the welfare of all her subjects and was just as concerned about the peoples of India, South Africa or Ireland as she was about those of England or Scotland. Not everyone around her measured up to her very strict standards but she embodied values which most Britons appreciated and liked to consider British values. For Queen Victoria, who disliked overt displays of absolutism, a constitutional monarchy that was paternalistic, guiding the way of free and liberal people was the ideal system. She disliked democracy and thought the idea of women voting absurd, yet she strongly opposed oppression, cruelty or bigotry wherever she found it. An upright, moral people, as Queen Victoria always tried to encourage, would not need a harsh monarch or a democratic talking shop to have a prosperous society in which individuals ruled themselves properly. She was a Queen of great dedication and service, a Queen who stressed the importance of family and family ties (particularly for royalty) and she gave her name to an era the exuded British greatness. Truly, Queen Victoria was one of a kind.

2 comments:

  1. I, for one, am glad she passed when she did. I don't think she could bear to hear abt the tremendous suffering the Princess Royal endured, both from her illness & her boorish son.

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  2. Although if she had been around just a little longer... maybe Willy wouldn't have the problems with Uncle Edward that ended up pulling Britain and Germany apart.

    Although I prefer the style of paternalism of a Nikolai I or Alexander III, Victoria does stand out as an example for all those "modern" "liberal" monarchs to aspire to, I suppose. You can't help but respect her.

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