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  • Ron Davidson

A brief history of Queen Victoria

Victoria’s marriage was the first of a reigning queen of England in 286 years. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding, which took place in St James’s Palace chapel on February 10th, 1840, was the first marriage of a reigning queen of England since Mary I in 1554. Victoria wore an 18-foot-long train carried by 12 bridesmaids and kicked off a modern-day tradition by wearing white. Outside, the nation erupted into huge public celebrations. Victoria recorded how she “never saw such crowds of people… they cheered most enthusiastically”. She reflected on the event as “the happiest day of my life”. Throughout their 21-year marriage, Victoria and Albert had a passionate, if sometimes tempestuous, relationship. Although the couple had blazing arguments, Victoria clearly adored her husband, describing him in her diary as “perfection in every way … oh how I adore and love him”.

Queen Victoria spoke several languages. Perhaps in part due to her strict schooling under the ‘Kensington system’, Victoria proved herself to be a remarkably adept linguist. As well as being fluent in both English and German, she also spoke French, Italian and Latin. As her mother and governess both hailed from Germany, Victoria grew up speaking the language and at one stage reportedly even had a German accent, which had to be erased by tutors. When she later married her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the couple regularly spoke German together. Although Albert was fluent in English, he and Victoria could often be heard talking, and indeed arguing, in German when in private. Later in life, Victoria also experimented with some of the languages from across her vast empire. Following the arrival of Indian servants at Windsor Castle in August 1887, she was taught Hindustani and Urdu phrases by her favourite Indian attendant, Abdul Karim. The Queen recorded in her diary: “I am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me for both the language and the people I have naturally never come into real contact with before”.

Britain’s imperial conquests increased nearly five-fold during Victoria’s reign. Over the course of her reign, Victoria witnessed a mammoth expansion of the British empire. During her first 20 years on the throne, Britain’s imperial conquests had increased almost fivefold. By the time she died, it was the largest empire the world had ever known and included a quarter of the world’s population. As the monarchy was seen as a focal point for imperial pride and a means of uniting the empire’s disparate peoples, Victoria’s image was spread across the empire. The Queen herself took a great interest in imperial affairs. In 1877, prime minister Benjamin Disraeli pronounced her empress of India in a move to cement Britain’s link to the “jewel in the empire’s crown.” The Queen had pushed for the title for several years, but, concerned about its absolutist connotations, Disraeli had been hesitant to agree. By 1877, however, Victoria had become so insistent he felt he could not resist any longer for fear of offending her.

Queen Victoria was known as the “grandmother of Europe.” Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Victoria and Albert raised nine children together. As a means of extending Britain’s influence and building international allegiances, several of their sons and daughters were married into various European monarchies, and within just a couple of generations, Victoria’s descendants were spread across the continent. Her 42 grandchildren could be found in the royal families of Germany, Russia, Greece, Romania, Sweden, Norway and Spain. Warring First World War royals Kaiser Wilhelm (of Germany), Tsarina Alexandra (of Russia) and George V (of Britain) were all grandchildren of Victoria. Kaiser Wilhelm reportedly remarked that had his grandmother still been alive; the First World War may never have happened, as she simply would not have allowed her relatives to go to war with one another. Victoria’s widespread influence had unexpected genetic, as well as political, implications for Europe’s monarchies. It is believed that the Queen was a carrier of haemophilia and had unwittingly introduced the rare inherited disease into her bloodline. Over subsequent generations, the condition resurfaced in royal families across the continent. In an age of limited medical facilities, haemophilia, which affects the blood’s ability to clot, could have disastrous consequences. Victoria’s own son Leopold suffered from the disease and died aged 30 after he slipped and fell, triggering a cerebral haemorrhage. Three of the Queen’s grandchildren also suffered from the disease, as did her great-grandson, the murdered heir to the Russian throne, Tsarevich Alexei.

Queen Victoria survived at least six assassination attempts During the course of her 63-year-long reign, Victoria came out unscathed from at least six serious attempts on her life, some of which were terrifyingly close calls. In June 1840, while four months pregnant with her first child, Victoria was shot at while on an evening carriage ride with Prince Albert. For a moment, it seemed as though the Queen had been hit. Still, Albert spurred the driver to speed away to safety, and the would-be assassin, Edward Oxford, was apprehended. Oxford, who was later acquitted on the grounds of insanity, proved to be the first of many to target the Queen while she was driving in her open-top carriage. In 1850, as the carriage slowed down to pass through the gates of Buckingham Palace, retired soldier Robert Pate ran forward and managed to strike the Queen sharply on the head with a small cane. Although it transpired that the cane weighed less than three ounces, so it could not have done much damage, the incident nonetheless unnerved Victoria. She escaped several more assassination attempts while riding in her carriage in 1842, 1849 and 1872.

Victoria mourned Prince Albert for 40 years. On December 14th, 1861, Victoria’s life was rocked by the death of her beloved husband, Albert. As the prince was aged just 42 and generally enjoyed good health, his death from typhoid was highly unexpected. It came as a huge blow to the Queen, who had been intensely reliant on his support, practically and politically as well as emotionally.

Both Queen Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees were celebrated. Years after her damaging retreat from public life following Albert’s death, Victoria was eventually coaxed back into the limelight. Her golden and diamond jubilees of 1887 and 1897 were crucial to restoring her reputation. Designed to be show-stopping crowd-pleasers, these national festivities reinvented the ‘widow of Windsor’ as a source of national (and imperial) pride and celebration. Grand processions and military displays were jam-packed with patriotic pomp, while Victoria’s face was plastered on all manner of commemorative products. During 1897’s diamond jubilee (marking Victoria’s 60th year on the throne), street parties, parades, fireworks, and cricket games took place across the country. Some 300,000 of Britain’s poor were treated to a special jubilee dinner, while in India, 19,000 prisoners were pardoned. During a royal procession to St Paul’s Cathedral, Victoria was reportedly so overwhelmed by the cheering crowds that she burst into tears.

Queen Victoria was succeeded by Edward VII, her eldest son. Victoria and Albert’s first son and second child were named Albert Edward, although he was known as ‘Bertie’. As Prince of Wales, he had a love of society and ‘good living’ and was known for his hearty appetites; Bertie, who was crowned King Edward VII on August 9th, 1902, defied expectations by proving himself to be a very successful and well-loved monarch.

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