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Queen Victoria of England - Famous and Infamous Rulers
722    Dibyendu Banerjee    08/06/2019   

Born as Alexandrina Victoria in Kensington Palace, London on 24 May 1819, Victoria was the only child of Edward, the duke of Kent and the fourth son of King George III. Her mother was Princes Victoria of Saxe-Saalfield-Coburg, sister of Leopold, king of the Belgians. Alexandra Victoria lost her father when she was only eight months old and her mother became a domineering influence in her life. She was extremely protective and Victoria was raised largely isolated from her contemporaries and her father’s family. Her childhood was made increasingly unhappy by an elaborate set of rules and protocols devised by the Duchess and her ambitious advisor, Sir John Conroy, a servant of her former husband who was bent on power and rumoured to be the lover of the Duchess. This system was carefully crafted to render her weak and dependent upon them. She had to share a bedroom with her mother and spent her leisure hours with her dolls. At the tender age of 13, Victoria was taken on a tour of the Midlands so that Conroy and her mother could show her off to the public. It was too much exhausting for the young princes and she became increasingly stubborn. During that time she started writing a diary.

However, she survived the designed system, known as Kensington system and supported by her governess Johanna Clara Louise Lehzen, better known as Baroness Louise Lehzen, who taught her different languages, arithmetic, drawing and music. Later, she was taught by Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister and had a clear grasp of constitutional principles and the scope of her own prerogative.

Coronation of Queen Victoria, by Charles Robert Leslie
Coronation of Queen Victoria, by Charles Robert Leslie

On 24 May 1837, Victoria turned 18 and less than a month later, on 20 June 1837, as William IV died at the age of 71, Victoria became the Queen of the United Kingdom. Her coronation ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838, attended by more than 400,000 visitors and she became the first sovereign to take up residence at the Buckingham Palace, where her mother was shifted to a distant set of apartments. Conroy was pensioned off and even her beloved uncle Leopold was politely warned off discussions of British politics. Only Baroness Louise Lehzen, of whom Victoria was still in awe, remained close to the queen.

Coronation portrait
Coronation portrait

The young Queen was very much influenced by her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who was both fatherly and admiring. He guided the politically inexperienced Queen, who relied on him for advice and due to his influence Victoria became an ardent Whig supporter.

During the early part of her reign Victoria was popular, but her reputation suffered in an 1839 court intrigue when Lady Flora Hastings, one of her mother's Ladies-in-waiting, connected to the Tories, developed an abdominal growth and was forced by Victoria to undergo a medical examination for suspected pregnancy by Sir John Conroy. Initially, Lady Flora refused to submit to an intimate medical examination, but eventually she agreed, and was proved to be a virgin. Subsequently, when she died within two months, the post-mortem revealed a large tumour on her liver that had distended her abdomen. Consequently, the Hastings family, Sir Conroy and the opposition Tories organised a press campaign implicating the Queen in the spreading of false rumour about Lady Flora, Victoria was hissed and booed at public appearances. Apart from that unpleasant incident, Victoria also faced a political crisis, when in 1839, Melbourne resigned after the Radicals and Tories voted against a bill to remove political power from plantation owners of Jamaica, who were resisting measures associated with the abolition of slavery. The Queen commissioned Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, to form a new ministry. As it was customary at that time for the prime minister to appoint members of the Royal Household, most of the Queen's bed-chamber were wives of Whigs and Peel wanted to take the opportunity to replace them with wives of Tories. However, as Victoria imperiously refused to oblige him with the encouragement and support of Melbourne, Peel declined to take office and the Queen reappointed Lord Melbourne as her Prime Minister. The Queen’s action in the matter, known as the bed-chamber crisis, was bitterly criticised as being unconstitutional.

Queen Victoria, Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1859.
Queen Victoria, Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1859.

Meanwhile, though she is now the queen, according to social norms, she is to live with her mother, as she is a unmarried young woman. But, Victoria often refused to see her and she complained to Melbourne that her mother's close proximity promised her torment for many years. Melbourne sympathized, but said that, the situation could only be avoided by her marriage.

Victoria met her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, at her 17th birthday party. Attracted by Albert’s good looks and encouraged by her uncle Leopold, Victoria proposed to her cousin on 15 October 1839, after four years of their first meeting and just five days after he had arrived at Windsor on a visit to the British court. They were married on 10 February 1840, in the Chapel Royal of St James’ Palace in London and once they were married, they became attached to each other very much and in the course of time had four sons and five daughters. Victoria never lost her early passion for Albert, but hated childbearing, which she termed as the shadow-side of marriage.

Queen Victoria and her family
Queen Victoria and her family

After their marriage, initially Victoria insisted that her husband should not have any share in the government of the country. However, within six months, on the repeated suggestions of Melbourne, her Prime Minister, Albert was allowed to start seeing the dispatches, then to be present when the queen saw her ministers. Due to her unwanted pregnancies, one after another, soon Victoria became increasingly dependent on her husband, and Albert assumed an ever-larger political role.

As the Melbourne government had been defeated in the general election of 1841, Albert became an important political adviser, as well as the Queen's companion, replacing Lord Melbourne as the dominant influential figure. He came into his own to negotiate with Peel a compromise on the bed-chamber question. Eased by Melbourne’s advice to his successor, the queen’s first interview with Peel also went well. Meanwhile, Victoria's mother was evicted from the palace, to the Ingestre House in Belgrave Square. In 1842, the departure of Victoria’s Governess, Lehzen to Germany, signaled Albert’s victory in the battle between the two for Victoria’s loyalty and for power in the royal household. He became effectively the queen’s private secretary and her permanent minister.

Queen Victoria, Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter 1843
Queen Victoria, Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter 1843

Queen Victoria loved to ride in an open carriage and during her lifetime, she became the target of several attempts to kill or assault her. On 29 May 1842, John Francis aimed a pistol at her, while Victoria was riding in a carriage along the Mall. But, the gun did not fire and the assailant escaped. To provoke him to take a second aim and catch him in the act, Victoria intentionally drove the same route next day and as expected, a man named Francis, was seized by plainclothes policemen, while he was trying to shoot at her. Another man, John William Bean, also tried to fire a pistol at the Queen, loaded only with paper and tobacco. In 1849, William Hamilton, an unemployed Irishman, fired a powder-filled pistol at Victoria's carriage as it passed along the Constitution Hill. In 1850, as Victoria was riding in a carriage, Robert Pate, an ex-army officer, struck her with his cane, crushing her bonnet and bruising her forehead.

During the Crimean War (1854-1856), the queen personally supervised the committees of ladies organized for the relief of the wounded and eagerly seconded the efforts of Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp. She personally visited the crippled soldiers in the hospitals and instituted the famous Victoria Cross for gallantry.

Victoria was at the side of her mother, when she died in March 1861 and after going through her papers Victoria discovered that her mother really loved her very much. She was heartbroken to find this truth and hated Conroy for tactfully estranging her from her mother. During that period of intense grief, Albert took on most of her duties, despite being ill himself with chronic stomach trouble.

Unfortunately, by the beginning of December, Albert became very much sick with fever and other complications. He was diagnosed with typhoid and died on 14 December 1861. This great personal loss made Victoria devastated. She entered a state of mourning and wore black for the rest of her life. She totally avoided public appearances and in the following years, rarely set foot in London. Her seclusion and self exile from the public life earned her the nickname the ‘Widow of Windsor’.

During 1860s, Victoria increasingly relied on John Brown, a manservant from Scotland and slanderous rumours of a romantic affair between them became the subject of a juicy gossip among the mass. Even, the story of a secret marriage also appeared in print and the Queen was referred to as ‘Mrs. Brown’. Though the truth is unknown, but it is said that, in her coffin a lock of John Brown, along with a picture of him, was placed in her left hand concealed from the view.

It may be noted here that in 1887, Queen Victoria engaged two Indian Muslims as waiters, one of whom was Abdul Karim. Soon, he was promoted to the rank of a ‘Munshi’, teaching her Urdu language and also acting as one of her clerks. He was disliked by many and was accused as a spy of the Muslim Patriotic League and biasing the Queen against the Hindus. The Queen dismissed all the complaints as racial prejudice and Abdul remained in her service until he returned to India with a pension, on her death.

During the middle years of her reign, she influenced and used to support peace and reconciliation in her foreign policy. She pressed her ministers not to intervene in the Prussia-Denmark war in 1864 and her letter to the German Emperor in 1875, helped to avert a second Franco-German war. She became Empress of India under the Royal Titles Act passed by Disraeli's government, as the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown after the so called Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Extent of the British Empire in 1898
Extent of the British Empire in 1898

During Victoria's long reign, the modern idea of the constitutional monarch, whose role was to remain above political parties, began to evolve and the direct political power moved away from the sovereign. However, Victoria was not always non-partisan and she took the opportunity to give her opinions, sometimes very forcefully, in private. She was associated with Britain's great age of industrial expansion, economic progress and it was said that the sun never sets in the Worldwide British Empire.

On 17 March 1883, she fell down some stairs at Windsor, which left her temporarily lame until July and she never fully recovered. Rheumatism in her legs had rendered her lame, and her eyesight was clouded by cataracts. Through early January in1901, she felt weak and unwell and by mid-January she was drowsy and confused. Finally, she breathed her last at half past six in the evening, on Tuesday, 22 January 1901, at the age of 81.

Queen Victoria as appeared in 1837 and 1887
Queen Victoria as appeared in 1837 and 1887

Victoria left a hand written instruction for her funeral, where she specifically opted for a white funeral, instead of black. Accordingly, the dominant colours of her funeral were white, purple, and gold rather than black. She was dressed in a white dress, complete with her wedding veil. Her coffin was also draped in a white pal. She was buried with Prince Albert’s dressing gown, a cast of his hand and a cloak embroidered by her daughter Princess Alice, who died in 1878. An array of mementos, which include a host of rings, chains, bracelets, lockets, photographs, shawls and letters, were laid in the coffin with her, at her request. Apart from that, her personal physician, Sir James Reid, secretly put in the coffin a photograph of John Brown, his lock of hair and the wedding ring of John Brown's mother, which Brown gave her in 1883. This was kept secret from everyone, even her children. The funeral Queen Victoria was held in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on 2 February 2001. She was interred beside Prince Albert in Frogmore Mausoleum at Windsor Great Park, after two days of lying in state.

Though she was just 4ft 11in tall, Victoria had a towering presence as the symbol of her Empire. She gave her name to an era, known as the Victorian Age. She was the last of the House of Hanover and served as the monarch of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 and as the Empress of India from 1877, till her death in 1901. During her later years, she was considered as the symbol of the British Empire. Her reign is marked with advancement in industry, science and communications, outstanding cultural expansion and the construction of the London Underground. The Golden Jubilee (1887) and the Diamond Jubilee (1897) of Queen Victoria’s accession was celebrated throughout her Empire with great displays and public ceremonies.

Around the world, many places and memorial monuments are dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria, which include Africa’s Victoria Lake, the great Victoria falls and two states of Australia, namely Victoria and Queensland.

Queen Victoria as appeared in 1837 and 1887
Queen Victoria as appeared in 1837 and 1887
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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