House of Brunswick, Hanover Line -- Reigned: 1837-1901
Victoria, born May 24, 1819, was the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Edward died when Victoria was but eight months old, upon which her mother enacted a strict regimen that shunned the courts of Victoria's uncles George IV and William IV.
She married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840; the union produced four sons and five daughters. She died at eighty-one years of age on January 22, 1901, after a reign of sixty-three years.
She ascended the throne upon the death of William IV. Barely eighteen, she refused any further influence from her domineering mother and ruled in her own stead.
Popular respect for the Crown was at low point at her coronation, but the modest and straightforward young Queen won the hearts of her subjects. She wished to be informed of political matters, although she had no direct input in policy decisions. The Reform Act of 1832 had set the standard of legislative authority residing in the House of Lords, with executive authority resting within a cabinet formed of members of the House of Commons; the monarch was essentially removed from the loop.
She respected and worked well with Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister in the early years of her reign, and England grew both socially and economically.
Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, who replaced Melbourne as the dominant male influence in Victoria's life. She was thoroughly devoted to him and completely submitted to his will. The public, however, was not enamored with the German prince; he was excluded from holding any official political position, was never granted a title of peerage and was named Prince Consort only after 17 years of marriage.
Victoria did nothing without her husband's approval. His interests in art, science and industry spurred him to organize the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, a highly profitable industrial convention. He used the proceeds, some £186,000, to purchase lands in Kensington for the establishment of several cultural and industrial museums.
Her husband's death from typhoid in 1861 deeply affected Victoria's psyche -- she went into seclusion for more than 25 years, not emerging until the Golden Jubilee of 1887, the celebration of her fiftieth year on the throne. An entire generation was raised without ever having seen the face of their Queen. [Related Story]
The reform of government allowed England to avoid the politically tumultuous conditions sweeping across Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. The continent experienced the growing pains of conservatism, liberalism and socialism, and the nationalistic struggle for political unification.
England focused on developing industry and trade and expanding its imperial reach; during the reign of Victoria, the empire doubled in size, encompassing Canada, Australia, India, and various locales in Africa and the South Pacific. Her reign was almost free of war, with an Irish uprising (1848), the Boer Wars in South Africa (1881, 1899-1902) and an Indian rebellion (1857) being the only exceptions.
Victoria was named Empress of India in 1878. England avoided continental conflict from 1815 through 1914, the lone exception being the Crimean War (1853-56).
The success in avoiding European entanglements was, in large part, due to the marriage of Victoria's children: either directly or by marriage, she was related to the royal houses of Germany, Russia, Greece, Rumania, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Belgium.
Nicholas II of Russia was married to Victoria's granddaughter Alexandra, earning him the nickname "dear Nicky", and the dreaded Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was her grandson "Willy". During her seclusion, she ruled her family with the iron hand that was denied her by the English constitutional arrangement.
The old political parties of England, the Whigs and the Tories transformed during the reign of Victoria. John Peel's support of the Corn Law Repeal splintered the Tories into two camps. Peel's supporters joined with Whigs to create the Liberal Party and the anti-Peel Tories became the Conservative Party.
Unlike most of Europe, English politicians agreed on the larger issues of governmental structure and political ideology, but differed on the smaller issues of policy practicality and implementation. Liberals represented traders and manufacturers, with Conservatives representing the landed gentry. Victoria's role after this political realignment was one of mediation between departing and arriving Prime Ministers (the Prime Minister was chosen by the party in control of the House of Commons). She was particularly fond of Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, who, by linking Victoria to the expansion of the empire, garnered respect for the monarchy that had been lacking since Victoria's seclusion.
She despised the other prominent Prime Minister of the day, the Liberal William Gladstone, whose party dominated Parliament from 1846-1874.
Even in the throes of grief during her seclusion, Victoria gave close attention to daily business and administration, at a time when England was evolving politically and socially. Legislation passed in the era included the Mines Act (1842), The Education Act (1870), The Public Health and Artisan's Dwelling Acts (1875), Trade Union Acts (1871 and 1876) and Reform Acts in 1867 and 1884 which broadened suffrage.
The national pride connected with the name of Victoria -- the term Victorian England, for example, stemmed from the Queen's ethics and personal tastes, which generally reflected those of the middle class.
The Golden Jubilee brought her out of her shell, and she again embraced public life. She toured English possessions and even visited France (the first English monarch to do so since the coronation of Henry VI in 1431). When she died of old age, an entire era died with her.
Victoria's long reign witnessed an evolution in English politics and the expansion of the British Empire, as well as political and social reforms on the continent. France had known two dynasties and embraced Republicanism, Spain had seen three monarchs and both Italy and Germany had united their separate principalities into national coalitions. Even in her dotage, she maintained a youthful energy and optimism that infected the English population as a whole.
Lytton Strachey chronicled her last days with the sentimentality that had developed by the end of her reign, in the biography, Queen Victoria:
Victoria's was the longest reign in English history. [Elizabeth II has reigned since 1952 and appears capable of breaking the record.]
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