Monday, April 8, 2013
Monarch Profile: Queen Victoria of Great Britain
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.