Friends, family and rivals: Queen Victoria and the European empires
From the tsars of Russia to the kaisers of Germany, Queen Victoria met some of Europe's most notable figures during her reign. In a time when the personal and political were often inextricably intertwined, Victoria found herself "a little in love" with some of these leaders, but despaired at the "hot-headed, conceited, and wrongheaded" nature of others. Here, John Van der Kiste explores her relationships with characters including Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and more...
In 1876, after reigning over Britain for nearly 40 years, Queen Victoria was finally proclaimed an empress – of India. By then she had long since got to know other emperors on mainland Europe: those of Russia, Austria, Germany and France. Although Victoria travelled throughout Europe at intervals throughout her life, she only paid a state visit to one of these four empires during her long reign – the Second French empire in 1855. She went to Berlin twice: in 1858 (while it was still the pre-imperial capital of the kingdom of Prussia, the German empire not coming into existence until 1871) and in 1888, but both occasions were purely family visits to see her eldest daughter and son-in-law.
Victoria never set foot inside the Austro-Hungarian empire or Russia, meanwhile, and her meetings with the leaders of those empires were either elsewhere in Europe, or on English soil. In fact, Victoria's most regular European destination, mainly in her later years, was the French Riviera, where she sometimes went on holiday in the spring.
As a constitutional monarch, Victoria's involvement with the political affairs of Europe's major empires was very slight. Her personal and political relations were on a closer footing with some than with others. As Walter Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution, published in 1867, the sovereign had “three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn”. Where the interests of England clashed with those of the European empires, she would on occasion do all three, sometimes regretting she could go no further.
During the first 10 years of her reign, Victoria’s only imperial connections were with the tsars of Russia, one future and one present. In May 1839, just a few days after her 20th birthday, the tsarevich, Grand Duke Alexander (1818–81) came to pay Victoria a courtesy visit. As a monarch-in-waiting [he later became Tsar Alexander II], he was visiting other European countries to gain experience of other courts and further Russia’s intentions of establishing friendly relations with the great powers.
Alexander and Victoria got on very well and went riding in Windsor Great Park together every morning. At a state ball at Buckingham Palace given in Alexander’s honour, the queen danced several times with him, and was very excited when he whisked her round the floor. In her journal she noted afterwards how she felt she really loved “this amiable and dear young man, who has such a sweet smile”. Before Alexander left, he told Victoria how grateful he was for all her kindness, that he hoped to return, and trusted the visit would strengthen the ties of friendship between England and Russia. When he departed, Victoria said that she felt more as if she was taking leave of a relation than a stranger, “whom I really think (talking jokingly) I was a little in love with, and certainly attached to; he is so frank, so really young and merry, has such a nice open countenance with a sweet smile, and such a manly fine figure and appearance.” There could however be no question of a romantic attachment between the queen of England and the next tsar of Russia, even though both were still single. Within two years the queen had married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha and Alexander had married Princess Marie of Hesse.
Five years later it was the turn of Alexander’s father, Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855) to come to England. His intentions were mainly political rather than personal. He was apprehensive about the close relationship between England and France, which would affect any designs he and his ministers might have for enlarging Russian territory at Turkish expense. The encounter between queen and tsar proved an amicable one, and she noted afterwards that there was “much about him which I cannot help liking”.
Yet it did nothing to halt Anglo-French unity that would later bear fruit in an alliance against Russia and lead to the latter’s ignominious defeat in the Crimean War in 1856. Nicholas had died of pneumonia the previous year, although it was rumoured that he had killed himself as he was so ashamed at being beaten on the battlefield. During the reign of his successor, Alexander II, a closer family connection was forged with the English monarchy, when Alexander’s only surviving daughter, Grand Duchess Marie, married Victoria’s second son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. However, the union of the hard-drinking duke and his haughty Russian wife who cordially disliked his family would not prove a happy one.
Later in life, Victoria never cared for Alexander III (1845–94) , “a sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentleman”. But when Alexander fell ill and died in 1894 at the early age of 49, she feared for the future. His successor, Nicholas II (1868–1918) was a likeable if weak-willed young man, and Victoria feared that he might not be equal to the burden of governing his vast empire, for which he had been ill-prepared. Nicholas had just become engaged to Princess Alix of Hesse, one of Victoria’s favourite granddaughters. “No two people were ever more devoted as she and he are,” she had written on their betrothal, “and this is one consolation I have, for otherwise the dangers and responsibilities fill me with anxiety.”
By the time of the Crimean War, the queen had established the warmest of relationships with France's emperor Napoleon III (1808–73) and empress Eugénie (1826–1920). At first, Victoria had reservations about the rise to power of the man who was the nephew of Britain’s greatest enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte, but the emperor’s charm soon won her over.
A very successful state visit by Napoleon and Eugénie to England in April 1855 was succeeded by another visit from Victoria, Albert and their two eldest children to Paris that August. By the time they parted company, the queen was deeply impressed by Napoleon, whom she found “a very extraordinary man, with great qualities” who was “evidently possessed of indomitable courage, unflinching firmness of purpose, self-reliance, perseverance, and great secrecy”. As for Eugénie, the queen considered her “such a dear, sweet, engaging, and distinguishing being”.
In 1870, the glittering French empire was brought down, after defeat at the hands of Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. Napoleon abdicated, and together with Eugenie and their son, settled in exile in England. The former emperor was already ill, and died in 1873. His son joined the British army and died fighting in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. The widowed empress remained a close friend of Victoria and her family and lived to the age of 94, dying in 1920.
In 1871, amid the ashes of imperial France, a new empire was proclaimed – Germany. Europe’s newest emperor was William I, king of Prussia (1797–1888). His only son and heir, Prince Frederick William – who was politically a liberal – was the husband of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, also called Victoria. Their marriage in 1858 had been seen by Prince Albert (who died three years later) as the prelude to a united Germany under Prussian leadership, with ‘Fritz’ and ‘Vicky’ as king and queen.
Such hopes were dashed however, for the arch-conservative William I, aged 73 at the time of Germany’s unification, lived to be 90 years old. By the time he died in March 1888, his successor Frederick was stricken with cancer of the larynx, and survived for only another three months. Queen Victoria had longed for the day when her son-in-law and daughter would reign over a more progressively governed German empire, which could be a staunch ally of Britain, but it had come too late. “None of my own sons could be a greater loss,” she noted in her journal after receiving the news of Frederick’s death. “My poor child’s whole future gone, ruined, which they had prepared themselves for for nearly 30 years!”
The new emperor was Frederick and Victoria’s eldest son Wilhelm (1859–1941), a headstrong prince of 29 years old, born with a withered left arm and hand. He was very much in line with the militarism of his grandfather, and regarded his parents’ liberalism as anathema. Wilhelm treated his widowed mother very badly, and heaped every insult possible on the memory of his father. Queen Victoria had always doted on Wilhelm, her eldest grandchild, but she was exasperated by his arrogance and high-handed behaviour towards his English relations, in particular towards her eldest son and heir, his ‘Uncle Bertie’ (later King Edward VII).
During a protracted family quarrel a few months after Wilhelm’s accession, her patience with him finally snapped. She wrote angrily to her prime minister Lord Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, that she had always treated her grandson with great consideration, and it was “perfect madness” for him to insist “that he is to be treated in private as well as in public as ‘his imperial majesty’”.
Victoria was anxious that a private family issue should have as little impact as possible on matters of state and feared that if matters deteriorated, it would have a detrimental effect on political relations between the British and German governments. “This should not be affected (if possible) by these miserable personal quarrels,” she continued, “but the queen much fears that, with such a hot-headed, conceited, and wrongheaded young man, devoid of all feeling, this may at any moment become impossible.” At length, differences were resolved, but for the remaining 12 years of her life, Victoria continued to be irritated at intervals by Wilhelm’s vanity and unstable behaviour.
Although her political power in Europe was negligible in comparison with that of the other imperial leaders, Queen Victoria was generally admired by most of them. Despite some of his utterances to the contrary, her eldest grandson Wilhelm II never ceased to revere her memory. When she became ill in 1901, he cancelled several pressing engagements in Berlin in order to be with her when she died. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he was filled with bitterness against his cousins, King George V of Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, to whom he had at times been very close. “To think that Georgie and Nicky should have played me false!”, he allegedly said. “If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it.”
John Van der Kiste is the author of Queen Victoria and the European Empires, due to be published in October 2016 by Fonthill media
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in September 2016