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Who Was Queen Victoria? What Was She Famous For?

Posted by Melissa Brinks | Aug 21, 2019 7:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Queen Victoria of England is one of the most iconic figures of the British monarchy. Plenty of other kings and queens have captivated attention throughout history, but few have done so with the fervor of Queen Victoria, in part because her reign was one of the longest in British history.

Queen Victoria kept diaries from the age of 13. Because of this, we have detailed records of her thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout her reign in a way that we don’t for many other famous leaders. 

The length of her reign was just one piece of why Victoria is still so famous today. In this article, we’ll cover Queen Victoria facts, including her life story, important events in her reign, the Queen Victoria family tree, and why she remains such a popular figure today.

 

Queen Victoria’s Biography

Victoria, birth name Alexandrina Victoria, was born May 24, 1819 to Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Germany at Kensington Palace.

Victoria was born fifth in line to succeed the British throne, with her father as well as three uncles, George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV, ahead of her. When her father died in 1820, just a year after she was born, she became fourth in line—and, because her uncles were aging and had no legitimate, living children, it became increasingly likely that she would rule the country one day. When young Victoria was told that she would likely become princess, and perhaps even Queen, she responded by saying, “I will be good.”

King George III, Victoria's grandfather, died in 1820 and her uncle George IV took the throne. Frederick, the Duke of York died in 1827, making William IV heir presumptive, or the next person in line for the throne. When George IV died in 1830, William IV took the throne and the role of heir presumptive passed to Victoria.  

A new Act made it possible for Victoria’s mother to rule as regent—a substitute ruler in case the true ruler is sick, absent, or otherwise unable to rule—but William IV doubted her mother’s ability to rule and wanted to live until Victoria’s 18th birthday so she could be the one to take the throne.

In 1837, one month after Victoria turned 18, William IV died. Victoria was crowned on June 28, 1838, and ruled for a total of 64 years, the longest reign in British history until Queen Elizabeth.

 

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Important Events in Queen Victoria’s History

Victoria’s lengthy reign was marked by a number of important events in English history. Early in her time as Queen of England, she made a number of decisions that made her an unpopular ruler. However, as time went on, her strong personality, leadership, and commitment to her ideals won over the public.

 

May 1839 - Bedchamber Crisis

Two years after she took the throne, a series of events led to what would be called the Bedchamber Crisis. Early in 1839, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, began experiencing abdominal pain. After repeated doctor visits, there was no apparent cause, and Hastings' enemies began to spread rumors that she was pregnant with John Conroy’s illegitimate child.

The rumors reached Victoria, who was no fan of Hastings and an especially bitter enemy of Conroy. As the rumor grew, pressure increased on Hastings, and she consented to an invasive examination. The examination revealed that she was not pregnant, but did not cite a cause for her pain and swelling.

Unfortunately, Hastings’ condition worsened. Before her death, she asked that a thorough examination be done, and the results published for the public to see. During her postmortem examination, it was revealed that she had an advanced, cancerous liver tumor.

Victoria’s actions in the case of Lady Hastings were a source of great controversy. Not only had she believed baseless rumors about her lady in waiting, but she’d pushed her toward an invasive medical exam that had failed to detect what was actually wrong with her. The public booed Queen Victoria when she went out on rides, starting her reign off on a poor foot.

Unfortunately, things got worse. Queen Victoria had surrounded herself with Whig supporters. In fact, many Tories believed she was a Whig herself, despite monarchs generally being regarded as non-partisan.

Lord Melbourne, a Whig and Queen Victoria’s longtime friend, was set to resign from his position as prime minister after a series of political defeats. He suggested Robert Peel, a Tory, to take his place. Because the Tories held a minority position in Parliament, Peel hoped that Victoria would make some changes to her household as a mark of confidence in the new party. He suggested replacing some of her Whig ladies in waiting with Tory ladies to signify that she was not showing favoritism toward the Whig party.

Victoria refused to make any changes, and Melbourne, along with many other friends of the queen, suggested that Peel was being unreasonable and pushing too hard. Due to a misunderstanding, they had assumed that Peel wanted Victoria to replace all of her ladies in waiting, effectively stripping her of friends and confidants, rather than just some of them. Peel responded by refusing to form a ministry, as he did not feel that he had adequate support from the queen.

Victoria’s refusal was considered to be unconstitutional, as it seemed that she was throwing her support behind the Whigs even though monarchs were expected to be neutral. Because Peel refused to form a ministry due to her lack of compliance with his wishes, Victoria was said to have denied him his lawful position. In fact, she reinstated Melbourne as prime minister because of Peel’s refusal to form a ministry.

Ultimately, Victoria and Peel were able to settle the disagreement. Victoria accepted a Tory woman into her household, and in 1840, she married Prince Albert, giving her a new companion. In 1841, the Tories won the majority, letting Peel take his position with authority.

 

June 1840 - Assassination Attempts

Queen Victoria was a frequent target for assassination beginning in 1840. The first person to make an attempt on her life was Edward Oxford, a teenager who fired a gun at her as she was on a carriage ride with Albert. The shot missed, and Oxford was seized by people nearby. To show that the royals were still confident in their people, they continued on their ride, smiling at crowds as they went. Oxford was found to be of “unsound mind,” and was sentenced to Bedlam for 24 years, before being deported to Australia.

John Francis made two attempts on the queen’s life within a day of one another. On May 29, 1842, his pistol failed to fire when he pointed it at Victoria while she was on another carriage ride, and, a day later, he tried again. This time his pistol fired, but he was caught by police and sentenced to be hanged until the queen changed his sentence to lifetime banishment.

In 1850, Robert Pate, a former British Army officer, attacked the queen with a cane. He hit her once before being subdued by the crowd. He was sentenced to seven years in a Tasmanian penal colony.

The final attempt on Queen Victoria’s life came in 1882. Roderick Maclean fired his pistol at the queen as she was leaving Windsor Station, and was tackled and beaten by boys from the nearby Eton school. He was found to be mentally unsound and institutionalized.

 

May 1857 - Sepoy Mutiny

The East India Company ruled India as a British colony. Throughout the 1800s, they eroded India’s previous ruling structure, replacing it with British control. In 1840, Lord Dalhousie introduced the doctrine of lapse, preventing a Hindu ruler from appointing a successor to their throne if they didn’t have a natural heir.

Combined with the practice of westernization, which replaced Indian customs with British ones, the erosion of India autonomy pushed the people of India toward revolution. In 1857, Indian soldiers in the employ of the East India Company began to fight back, standing up to the British army by attacking their superior officers, refusing to use rifle cartridges for fear they had been contaminated with animal fat that was against the Muslim and Hindu fighters’ religions, and seizing control of Delhi.

Though some have argued that the Indian fighters started the slaughter by killing the British officers who were oppressing them, some 800,000 Indian lives were lost compared to 6,000 British lives.

To end the bloodshed, the East India Company was dismantled, and rule of India was transferred to the British crown. In 1858, Victoria announced that Indian people would be given similar rights to British subjects and condemned violence on both sides.

Benjamin Disraeli was elected to Parliament in 1874 and took great pains to win over Queen Victoria, as they had had a previously tumultuous relationship. Because England had been pushing their expansive empire even further, Victoria wanted a title to reflect that. In response, Disraeli passed the Royal Titles Act, which gave the Queen the additional title of Empress of India in 1877. 

To celebrate her Golden Jubilee 10 years later, Queen Victoria brought on Abdul Karim, an Indian servant to help teach her Urdu and about Indian culture. Karim became a beloved mentor for Victoria, and as a result became an unpopular figure around the Royal Household, who felt that he should be treated as inferior.

 

June 1887 - Golden Jubilee

Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrated 50 years of her reign on June 20, 1887. The queen dined with 50 foreign kings, princes, princesses, dukes, and duchesses from all around the world. 

A commemorative coin was produced, as well as a bust of the queen’s head, to be spread throughout the empire. During the Jubilee, the queen chose two Indian subjects as waiters, one of whom—Abdul Karim—later became her personal teacher.

 

June 1897 - Diamond Jubilee

In 1896, Queen Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, but elected to hold off on celebrations until the following year, the 60th anniversary of her ascension to the throne.

Unlike the previous jubilee, foreign heads of state were excluded from the event. Victoria and her advisors were afraid that Wilhelm II, Victoria’s grandson and German Emperor, would cause trouble at the event due to his erratic personality.

As part of a 17-carriage procession, Queen Victoria rode through many of London’s most famous landmarks and attended a Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 

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Important Events in Queen Victoria’s Personal Life

Many of the Queen Victoria facts that make her so compelling relate to her personal life. Because she was queen for over 60 years, Victoria lived much of her life in the public eye, and, thanks to her diaries, we have a great insight into what her personal thoughts and feelings were. 

Biographers and contemporaries of Queen Victoria have also chronicled her life and personality. She was known to be particularly stubborn, which, though it made her a resolute ruler, proved difficult in her early reign with issues like the Bedchamber Crisis. Victoria also had a great desire to be well-liked, but was unwilling to change herself or her opinions to suit public opinion—again, this is best demonstrated early in her rule, where public scorn for her treatment of her Lady Flora Hastings nonetheless did not prompt her to apologize until much later in life.

Queen Victoria was also quite invested in expanding the British empire. Throughout her reign, England advanced its economic and colonial interests around the world, expanding colonies in Canada and Australia after the loss of the American colonies in the previous century. A desire to grow the empire shaped Victoria’s personal life as much as her political life, as she was dedicated to advancing England’s cause.

 

Queen Victoria’s Childhood

Queen Victoria’s childhood was a difficult one. Her father died just a year after she was born, and her upbringing was left largely to her mother and Sir John Conroy, her mother’s attendant. Together, they devised the “Kensington System,” named after the palace where they lived in London.

The Kensington System was deliberately designed to keep the young Victoria dependent on her mother. Her mother and Conroy were allied against the House of Hanover, which included Victoria’s father’s family, and aimed to keep the potential power of Victoria inheriting the throne amongst themselves. 

One of the chief principles of the Kensington System was that Victoria was never allowed to be alone. She was always attended by her mother, governesses, and other authority figures, and prohibited from meeting or playing with other children with the exception of her half sister and Conroy’s own daughter. Victoria was almost never allowed to leave Kensington and grew to resent all those involved in her upbringing.

In fact, though the Kensington System was intended to make Victoria dependent on her mother and her associates, it backfired. When they attempted to bully her into taking on Conroy as her personal secretary, she refused. Following her coronation, Victoria requested one single hour alone—something that she had never experienced up until that point—and that her bed be removed from her mother’s room. She later banished Conroy from her apartments, and, after marrying Prince Albert, she evicted her mother from her palace entirely as there was no longer any societal pressure to have her there.

The Kensington System was also partially to blame for her later conflict with Lady Flora Hastings. Hastings had been one of Victoria’s mother’s ladies in waiting, leading the queen to distrust her.

 

Queen Victoria’s Coronation

Queen Victoria was crowned on June 28, 1838. As part of the House of Hanover on her father’s side, she should also have inherited the crown of Hanover in Germany. However, because the Salic Law of Succession prevented a woman from ruling Hanover, the crown instead passed to her uncle, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, who was an unpopular figure.  Ernest also served as her heir presumptive until she had her first child.

Over 400,000 people attended Queen Victoria’s coronation. The ceremony lasted five hours and was uniquely chaotic. The Dean of Westminster, who usually administered the ceremony, was ill that day, and was replaced by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop, unfamiliar with the ceremony, placed the Coronation Ring onto the incorrect finger, which later took an hour to remove. Victoria was also handed the ceremonial orb at the wrong time, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells missed a page in the Order of Service, leading him to later recall Victoria to repeat the process to make it official.

 

Queen Victoria’s Wedding

Queen Victoria met and fell in love with her future husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on one of his visits to Britain in 1839. As head of state, she had to propose to him. Victoria also had other unconventional traditions—she wore a white wedding dress and had a tiered wedding cake, two unique features that later caught on with other brides.

Albert, in marriage, became something like Victoria’s “moral tutor.” His presence softened her somewhat, and she reconsidered some of her earlier stances on things like the Bedchamber Crisis. 

Despite being fully in love with one another, Albert and Victoria’s marriage was not without problems. They fought frequently, and Albert was not initially allowed to participate in governing the country. However, within six months he was taking more of a role in running England, in part due to Victoria’s pregnancy with her first child.

The marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also led to more political conflict with the Tories. Only five Tories were extended invites to the wedding, and the party later responded by rejecting the request to assign Albert rank within the government. The queen responded by saying “Monsters! You Tories shall be punished! Revenge! Revenge!”

 

Queen Victoria’s Family Tree and Children

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had nine children over their marriage, beginning with Victoria, Princess Royal, in 1840. Queen Victoria's other children were Albert Edward (1841), Alice (1843), Alfred (1844), Helena (1846), Louise (1848), Arthur (1850), Leopold (1853) and Beatrice (1857).

Though she had many children, the queen was not fond of being a mother. She despised being pregnant and particularly disliked breastfeeding. Victoria took a stern approach to being a mother, remaining distant from her children, who were primarily raised by Victoria’s own governess, Louise Lehzen.

Victoria also experienced postnatal depression after several of her pregnancies, contributing to her dislike of having children. Her experience after giving birth to Albert Edward was so intense that she experienced hallucinations, and wrote that she was affected for an entire year.

Victoria was also a carrier of hemophilia, which was passed on to 10 of Queen Victoria's children. Her son, Leopold, experienced the disease, and Alice and Beatrice were also carriers. This led to some speculation that Victoria’s father was not actually the Duke of Kent, as her ancestors showed no evidence of carrying the disease, but it’s more likely that her father experienced a spontaneous mutation that caused him to become a carrier, as spontaneous mutations occur more frequently in older men, and he was in his 50s when she was conceived. 

 

Queen Victoria’s Mourning Period

In 1861, Edward, Albert and Victoria’s oldest son, wanted to get some real military experience by spending time at an army camp in Ireland. While there, he spent three nights with Nellie Clifden, an actress. Prince Albert found out about the tryst and, though he was sick at the time, traveled to Ireland to reprimand his son. The two went for a walk in the rain, and, upon his return to England, Albert’s sickness worsened. He was diagnosed with typhoid on December 9, and died just five days later. 

Today, some have speculated that Albert actually suffered from Crohn's disease or abdominal cancer, as he had chronic stomach pain for two years prior to his death.

Albert’s death devastated Victoria, and she blamed Edward’s indiscretion for the loss of his father, writing that he had been “killed by that dreadful business” and claiming that she could not look at Edward without shuddering.

Victoria entered into a period of mourning that lasted the rest of her life. She wore black and stopped appearing in public for many years, earning the nickname the “widow of Windsor” for her reclusiveness. In fact, not appearing in the public eye began to erode the public’s confidence in her. She was criticized for remaining in seclusion, and was accused of having an affair with one of her servants, John Brown. 

Republicans called for her removal in the early 1870s with a rally in Trafalgar Square. In 1871, Edward contracted typhoid himself, and the queen became worried for his safety. He grew increasingly ill, but eventually recovered, and Victoria’s grand return to the public eye was at a thanksgiving ceremony celebrating her son’s recovery in 1872. This appearance helped renew confidence in her leadership, and republican opposition to her absent rule died down.

 

Queen Victoria’s Death

After 64 years as Queen of England, Victoria died on January 22, 1901. She was 81 years old, and beginning to experience health problems, including rheumatism and cataracts. According to her writing, she felt ill throughout January, and the condition, which included being dazed and confused, worsened throughout the month. Edward, her successor, and Emperor Wilhelm II, her grandson, were present at her deathbed.

Her funeral was executed in accordance with her wishes. She was given a military funeral to honor her father, a soldier, and wore a white dress with her wedding veil. She was buried with a variety of mementos from her loved ones, including one of Albert’s dressing gowns and a plaster cast of his hand, as well as a lock of hair from John Brown. The hair was concealed from public view with flower, likely because of the allegations that she had carried on an affair with him. 

 

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Lasting Impacts of Queen Victoria’s Reign

There have been plenty of influential monarchs in English history, but Queen Victoria is one of the most famous. Part of that comes from her lengthy reign, the longest until her great-great-grandaughter, the current Queen Elizabeth II. But Victoria also presided over a great many important events of the 1800s, adding to her legacy.

 

Industrial Expansion

As the British Empire grew, so too did its industry. This was the Industrial Revolution, which shifted population from rural areas to being concentrated in cities. The poor were notoriously oppressed, with horrific sanitation conditions and incredibly high infant mortality—half of all children died before they reached five years old.

Despite the plight of the poor, the industrial revolution brought a new era of wealth to business owners throughout England, fundamentally changing the relationship between the classes. Though Victoria, as a monarch and therefore a member of the aristocracy, was not particularly involved in this revolution, Albert was particularly fond of technological advancement.

One area that Victoria was invested in was train travel. She found the experience far preferable to traditional travel by carriage, even if she had some reservations, and gave her approval. Because the queen favored trail travel, it grew in popularity regardless of class differences throughout England.

 

Empire and Foreign Relations

Queen Victoria ruled over a rapidly expanding empire. At the end of her reign, almost 25 percent of the world was part of the British Empire, giving rise to the phrase, “the sun never sets on the British empire.” 

Though Victoria herself promoted peace in many 19th-century conflicts, such as the Prussia-Denmark War, the century was far from bloodless. The empire’s relentless expansion led to colonial violence, and Victoria’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict between Bulgaria and Turkey—often referred to as the “Eastern Question” of the declining stability of the Ottoman Empire—indirectly supported the massacre of around 15,000 people.

Victoria believed that England should push the Turkish empire for reforms, but that they should support the existing government rather than those seeking independence from it.

 

Victoria Cross

Queen Victoria established the Victoria Cross, which originally honored acts of bravery during the Crimean War. Since then, the Cross has become the highest award of the British honors system.

Unlike many previous awards in the system, the Victoria Cross was based on merit rather than rank. Soldiers of any rank could receive the award for their actions during the war regardless of their birth or status within the military, and the Cross marked the first time in British history that officers and men were decorated together.

Some suspected Victoria of secretly supporting Tsar Nicholas I during the Crimean War, despite her government’s strongly anti-Russian stance. However, her involvement in the Crimean War, which included nursing wounded soldiers, helped put that suspicion aside. In fact, Victoria awarded 62 of the medals herself in 1857, showing support for the British army.

 

Changing Monarchy

Trust in the monarchy had begun to erode somewhat as people questioned whether the Royal Family earned their keep. During Victoria’s reign, the role of the monarch began to shift, as multiple acts and reforms strengthened the electorate at the expense of the queen.

The Second Reform Act of 1867 granted the right to vote to all men who owned houses in the boroughs as well as renters who paid more than £10 per year in rent. It also allowed more people in counties and agricultural landowners and tenants the ability to vote without such steep land requirements. This effectively doubled the voting populace of England, though women were still not granted the right to vote. Victoria personally opposed women’s suffrage, despite being a woman leader.

The Ballot Act of 1872 further strengthened the electoral base. Thanks to this act, ballots in local and regional elections were no longer public knowledge, and voters could not be punished or intimidated into choosing particular candidates.

The Third Reform Act, also known as the Representation of the People Act 1884, extended voting rights like those of the Second Reform Act to rural people as well as those in the boroughs. However, this still represented just 60 percent of men in England, as 40 percent still could not vote, and women were not yet given suffrage.

 

Social Change

Queen Victoria is remembered as a queen interested in social change, but only under certain circumstances. As previously mentioned, she opposed women’s suffrage despite her own position as a woman leader. And though she supported reformations for the poor, as well as supporting charities for education, hospitals, and poor, her interest was largely focused on England. When the potato famine struck Ireland, efforts from the British government were halfhearted and ultimately ineffective.

Though Victoria donated £2,000 of her own resources as aid, one story suggests that Sultan Abdulmecid intended to donate £10,000 until it was pointed out that this might embarrass the queen. However, Victoria did visit Ireland in 1849, helping ease some of the ill will brewing over the British government’s lackluster response to the crisis.

Though Victoria was patron of some 150 institutions, some of her support of the arts and intellectual communities faded after Albert’s death. But despite this, Victoria’s interest in her people helped restore confidence in the monarchy, even as power shifted away from the king and queen and toward the electorate.

 

What’s Next?

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Melissa Brinks
About the Author

Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.



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