Queen Victoria

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: While striving to assert a greater role for the sovereign in British constitutional government, Queen Victoria accepted a gradually diminishing role. Her personal moral force lent such prestige to the Crown, however, that she made it possible for her successors to play a creative part in the continuity of government.

Early Life

On November 6, 1817, Princess Charlotte, the only child of George, Prince of Wales, died in childbirth, her infant son dying with her. That meant that of the twelve surviving children of King George III, not one could claim legitimate offspring. Stained by debauchery, the monarchy had lost its prestige. Consequently, 1818 became the year in which three of King George III’s unmarried sons were called upon to marry and beget royal progeny.

Leopold of Saxe Coburg Saalfeld, the widower husband of the late Princess Charlotte, served as matchmaker, presenting his sister Victoria as a bride for Edward, Duke of Kent. Victoria was thirty years old, the widow of Prince Emich Charles of Leiningen, and unquestionably fertile, having borne her late husband a son, Charles, and a daughter, Feodore. The prospective parents of an heir to the British throne were married on July 11, 1818. On May 24, 1819, their daughter was born. The child was christened Alexandrina Victoria, the first name ultimately abandoned, being a tribute to Czar Alexander I of Russia, the infant’s godfather. The Duke of Kent died of pneumonia on January 23, 1820, but he had already served his country by producing the heiress presumptive to the throne.

Thus, the Princess Victoria grew to womanhood under the smothering watchfulness of her mother. Victoria of Leiningen shielded her daughter from too much contact with her uncles, King George IV and William IV, regarding their courts as hopelessly dissolute. Closeted at Kensington Palace, the two Princesses Victoria shared a chaste bedroom every night until the daughter became queen and could command her mother to give her some privacy. The young Victoria entered adolescence almost entirely deprived of the companionship of children her own age and surrounded by adults maneuvering to advance their own self-interest. Under these abnormal conditions, observers may perceive the sources of three seemingly contradictory lifelong attitudes of Queen Victoria: She had a strong aversion to the physical aspect of sexuality, she overidealized male perfection, and she desperately needed a series of strong male figures whom she could dominate even as she was dominated by them. Understanding these elements is the key to grasping her complex relationship with her Uncle Leopold, who became King of the Belgians in 1831, with Baron Ernest Stockmar, with Prime Minister William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne, with her husband, Prince Consort Albert, with Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and with her Scots servant John Brown. In reverse, those men who did not choose to master the fine art of simultaneously dominating and being dominated ended in very stormy relationships with the queen. One need only remember Prime Ministers Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston, Lord John Russell, William Ewart Gladstone, and most tragically, her son and heir the future King Edward VII.

Life’s Work

At six o’clock on the morning of June 20, 1837, the eighteen-year-old Princess Victoria received word that she was queen, at the death of her uncle, William IV. She was fortunate in two ways. As she was past her eighteenth birthday, no regency council was required. Her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, established an excellent rapport with her from the start, training her unobtrusively in the delicate matter of understanding the limits placed on royal power under the unwritten British constitution.

Understanding British constitutional limits, always difficult, was particularly challenging in 1837. Until the onset of George III’s final, nightmarish, ten-year illness in 1810, the old king had personally controlled patronage and appointments. This meant that through the disposition of thousands of lucrative posts and sinecures, Victoria’s grandfather had been able to create a political machine which ensured that he could choose his own ministers. The king had no need to dirty his hands with the purchase of parliamentary seats. That could be left to borough mongers who owed the king their positions in society and government. Consequently, the king did not ordinarily have to fear a confrontation with his ministers, since nothing was likely to get through Parliament unless it had royal approval beforehand. From 1810 to 1837, all that had changed. George IV and William IV, Queen Victoria’s uncles, had allowed power to slip from their hands. Ambitious politicians had taken over the all-important power of patronage, though the sovereign was consulted, and usually heeded, if he chose to assert his will. The fact is that Victoria’s two predecessors lacked the skill and the will to operate such a delicate mechanism. By the time that Victoria came to the throne, it would have taken such enormous strength to retrieve what had been squandered in the previous twenty-seven years that the politicians would not have tolerated it. A constitutional crisis would have resulted. In the low state of royal prestige following the reigns of three sick, debauched, or ineffective kings, the British might have toppled the throne itself, rather than allow an eighteen-year-old queen to assume powers last exercised by her grandfather in 1810.

Working to press Queen Victoria toward her proper constitutional role was her Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, and his confidential agent Baron Ernest Stockmar, a physician turned political philosopher. These two very able men began to inculcate in the young monarch their own view of the British constitution as seen...

(The entire section is 2394 words.)