Queen Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India, tends to be remembered today as a rather dour, jowled old lady with a stately and rather humourless personality.
Dedicated to her patriotic duty, she is seen as the embodiment of 19th-century (or ‘Victorian’) values at a time when Britain was the leading world power and hub of a vast empire. Yet that’s only part of her story, and some of what we take for granted about her is not as accurate as we might believe.
To begin with, her first name wasn’t even Victoria. Born in Kensington Palace, London on 24 May 1819, she was christened Alexandrina Victoria in honour of Tsar Alexander of Russia, one of her godparents. In the normal run of things, she should never have inherited the throne at all.
Alexandrina Victoria was the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent, who was himself only the fourth son of George III. If any of the king’s elder children had produced a legitimate heir they would have had a better claim to rule, but not one of them did so, so the crown came to Victoria.
It was a considerable surprise to the young heir when she finally realised how close to the throne she was. She immediately burst into tears before promising to be good.
Queen Victoria’s father had died when she was eight months old so her upbringing was presided over by her uncle, the future Leopold I of Belgium, and her mother, Maria Louisa Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, the Duchess of Kent.
Another important early influence was Victoria’s Hanoverian governess, Louise Lehzen. German was the language Victoria spoke as a child and, indeed, she never spoke English perfectly.
It was generally observed that the young Victoria was a slow learner. Though small – she never grew to be more than five feet tall – she was slim and pretty and the Duke of Wellington for one considered her delightful.
She exhibited a frivolous nature and was fond of animals: the most famous of her pets was a King Charles spaniel called Dash, but she also kept horses, two Blue Persian cats and another dog, called Lootie, who was the first Pekinese brought to the West.
Things she didn’t like included bishops, because of ‘their wigs and aprons’, and this was a phobia she never really conquered.
Coronation and Marriage
Having survived typhoid at the age of 16, Victoria became queen in 1837 when her uncle William IV died. The first thing the 18-year-old monarch did was order that her bed be moved out of her mother’s room in Kensington Palace in order to escape her domination.
Shortly afterwards she became the first British monarch to take up residence at Buckingham Palace, then still unfinished.
Though today we imagine Victoria being held in the highest respect during her lifetime she was not popular at the start of her reign. She was hissed by the crowd at the Ascot races on one occasion and survived seven assassination attempts.
More than once she had a narrow escape when shots were fired at her as she passed in her carriage. In 1850 a retired hussar managed to give her a ‘sharp blow’ on the head with his cane.
Victoria had a passionate nature and this sometimes revealed itself in her involvement in public affairs. She had serious clashes with several of her prime ministers, notably Gladstone (whom she called a ‘half-mad firebrand’) and Palmerston.
She even threatened to abdicate when it appeared the government might go to war with the USA. She got on rather better with Lord Melbourne (a surrogate father-figure) and Benjamin Disraeli, whose flattery proved highly effective.
In 1840 Victoria proposed to and married her handsome German cousin Albert. Victoria was head over heels in love and sensitive to any criticism of the match. When her beloved was snubbed by the Tories she wrote in her diary: ‘Poor dear Albert, how cruelly are they ill-using that dearest Angel! Monsters! You Tories shall be punished. Revenge, revenge!’
Victoria was, by her own account, an enthusiastic lover and bore her husband no less than nine children, many of whom married into other royal families. (Their eldest child, also Victoria, was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany.)
Victoria disliked being pregnant and was one of the first women to try chloroform during childbirth, thus silencing church opposition to its use.
Blessed with good health and a hearty appetite, Victoria had various likes and dislikes that emerged during the course of her long reign. As well as the joys of family life, she enjoyed charades, singing and dancing, playing the piano, knitting, painting, reading, going to the theatre, riding (side-saddle) and sea-bathing (though she didn’t put her head under the surface).
Among the things she did not like were smoking, champagne and beer, motor cars (because they frightened her horses) and wearing clothes not made in Britain. She also detested people knocking on doors, and insisted that they scratch on them instead.
As an adult Victoria was much influenced by Albert and he helped her wherever he could, even if only by applying blotting paper when his left-handed wife signed official documents. His death in 1861, aged 42, was a catastrophe. (Typhoid was the official cause, but it may have been cancer.)
Victoria briefly considered suicide, but she told herself that she must ‘still endure’, a phrase that became her motto. Widely referred to as ‘the Widow of Windsor’, she took to wearing mourning black and withdrew from public life.
She had a huge photograph of Albert’s corpse placed over her bed; in the morning a bowl of water was set out for him and in the evening his clothes were laid out on the bed.
Life After Albert
Victoria had always preferred the company of men to that of women and two men in particular eventually persuaded her to resume her public role.
These were Disraeli, who supported her restyling as Empress of India, and her Scottish servant John Brown. Victoria’s closeness to Brown, who was resented by the court for his brusque and familiar manner towards the monarch, was a cause of scandal and there was even a rumour that they were secretly married.
Towards the end of the queen’s life similar scandal surrounded her attachment to an Indian servant nicknamed ‘the Munshi’.
Nonetheless, by the time of the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 she was greatly loved and admired. (She was reported to be much moved when one spectator shouted out ‘Well done, old girl!’)
Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1901, aged 81. Her reign of 63 years 216 days remained unsurpassed until 2015, when it was overtaken by her great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth II.
She was buried alongside Albert in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, near Windsor – together with a picture of John Brown and a lock of his hair.
But Was She Amused?
As for the queen’s lack of humour… her grandchildren (who called her Gangan), and others who knew her well, remembered her laughing a lot. The phrase ‘I was very much amused’ appears frequently in her diaries. ‘I was not amused’ does not appear once.