Princess Victoria is born (24 May 1819)
“Plump as a partridge… more of a pocket Hercules than a pocket Venus”, is how the Duke of Kent described his spirited newborn daughter Princess Victoria on the day she was born at Kensington Palace.
Yet though she went on to become one of Britain’s most iconic monarchs, Victoria’s birth did not herald national celebration. As the daughter of King George III’s fourth son, at the time of her birth Victoria was only fifth in line to the throne. Expected to be just another minor royal relative who would end up married into a European royal family, Victoria’s arrival slipped under the radar somewhat. Few could have predicted that she would sit on the throne for more than 60 years.
On 24 June 1819, the princess was christened in a low-key ceremony. Frustrated by his own inability to produce a surviving heir, Victoria’s uncle, the Prince Regent, only allowed a handful of people to attend. Also under the direction of her uncle, she was given the name ‘Alexandrina Victoria’. At the time, Victoria was far from a regal name – it was highly unusual and of French origin. When it became clear that Victoria would indeed accede to the throne, her name was seen to be completely inappropriate for a queen of England. She was advised to change it to something more traditional, but refused.
The young princess becomes a queen (20 June 1837)
On the morning of 20 June 1837, Victoria was woken at 6am. Still wearing her nightgown, she was informed that her uncle, King William IV, had died during the night. This meant that she was now queen of England. She took the news calmly and simply requested an hour alone.
Victoria had turned 18 less than a month before acceding to the throne. This was a crucial milestone, as it meant that she was able to rule under her own steam, rather than alongside her mother in a regency. Throughout her childhood, Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her manipulative advisor, Sir John Conroy, had held a tight, claustrophobic grip on the young princess. Becoming queen granted the young Victoria freedoms she had never previously experienced.
Victoria began her new life by moving away from her childhood home at Kensington to Buckingham Palace, in part to escape from the controlling influence of Conroy and her mother.
In June the following year, Victoria was crowned in a five-hour-long ceremony at Westminster Abbey followed by a royal banquet and fireworks. “I shall ever remember this day as the proudest of my life” she recorded in her diary.
Victoria’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1837. (Hulton/Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Bedchamber crisis (1839)
Victoria took the throne at a time when the monarch’s role was intended to be largely apolitical. Yet early in her reign, the inexperienced queen got into hot water for meddling in political matters, in an event termed ‘The Bedchamber Crisis’.
The first prime minister of Victoria’s reign was the Whig politician Lord Melbourne, with whom she enjoyed a remarkably close relationship. Melbourne held significant sway over the young queen, who appointed the majority of her ladies-in-waiting according to his advice.
In 1839, Melbourne resigned following several parliamentary defeats. Tory Robert Peel stepped forward to become prime minister, on one condition: he requested that Victoria dismiss some of her existing household – who largely held Whig sympathies and were loyal to Melbourne – and replace them with Tory ladies. As many of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting were also her closest friends, she took offence at Peel’s request and refused.
The queen had already been criticised for her over-reliance on Lord Melbourne, and now she was widely condemned for being not just politically partisan, but unconstitutional. The tense situation was eventually defused by the ever-reasonable Prince Albert, who arranged for some of Victoria’s ladies to resign their posts voluntarily.
Victoria marries Prince Albert (10 February 1840)
A key figure throughout Victoria’s life and reign was her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Victoria met the German prince at Kensington Palace when the pair were both just 17. The meeting of Victoria and Albert, who were also first cousins, had been masterminded by Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, who believed he could benefit politically from the match.
Yet despite the marriage brokering that had led the couple to meet, this was most definitely a love match. Victoria’s diary revealed that she found the young prince “extremely handsome”. She wrote, “his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful”. As royal tradition dictated that no one could propose to a reigning monarch, in October 1839 it was Victoria who proposed to Albert.
Their wedding, which took place in St James’s Palace chapel, 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 celebration. 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”.
Over the course of 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”.
Victoria and Albert start a royal family (21 November 1840)
Just over nine months after their wedding, Victoria and Albert’s first child, Princess Victoria, was born at Buckingham Palace. The queen soon after recorded how “after a good many hours suffering, a perfect little child was born… but alas! A girl & not a boy, as we both had so hoped & wished for”. The royal couple’s wishes were granted less than a year later, however, when Victoria gave birth to a male heir: Edward, known by the family as Bertie. Victoria and Albert went on to have a total of nine children – four boys and five girls.
Surprisingly, Victoria hated being pregnant, and historians have suggested that she may have suffered from post-natal depression. She compared pregnancy to feeling like a cow and wrote that “an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed”.
Many of Victoria’s children were married into the royal families of Europe, yet throughout her life she maintained a close, perhaps even suffocating, relationship with them. She had a notoriously fractious relationship with her eldest son, the charismatic yet quick-tempered Bertie, who later succeeded her as King Edward VII.
Albert dies (14 December 1861)
When she was 42, Victoria suffered a shocking blow. Albert, her beloved husband, friend and advisor, unexpectedly died. After visiting Bertie in an attempt to persuade him against a scandalous affair, Albert had caught a chill, which then developed into typhoid fever.
Albert was an active man in his forties, so his death came as a complete shock to the nation. To Victoria, however, the loss was not just shocking, but earth-shattering. In his role as prince consort, Albert had not only offered her constant emotional support but also shared her workload, continually offering advice and tirelessly helping out with royal duties, especially while she was pregnant. Unable to control her grief, the queen (whose mother had also died earlier the same year) withdrew from public life. She refused to open parliament on several occasions or to take part in royal celebrations. Victoria blamed Bertie for Albert’s death, writing “I never can or shall look at him without a shudder”.
Although the queen was eventually coaxed back into participating in public life, she never truly recovered from losing Albert. She continued to wear mourning dress and plan elaborate monuments to her beloved husband right up until her own death more than four decades later.
Victoria becomes Empress of India (1 January 1877)
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.
A cartoon from Punch depicting Disraeli dressed as Aladdin offering the crown of India to Victoria. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The nation celebrates Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees (20 June 1887 and 22 June 1897)
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.
Crowds lining the streets of London to watch Victoria’s diamond jubilee procession in 1897. (London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Victoria’s reign comes to a close (22 January 1901)
As she entered her eighties, Victoria was still actively taking on her royal duties. Yet, after six decades on the throne, her health finally began to decline. After being diagnosed with ‘cerebral exhaustion’, she died aged 81 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Despite their previous fights, her eldest son and successor, Bertie, was at her deathbed, alongside her grandson, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm.
After a grand funeral procession in which silent crowds lined the streets of London, Victoria was buried beside Albert in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore house. In accordance with her request, Albert’s dressing gown and a plaster cast of his hand – alongside a lock of her Scottish servant John Brown’s hair – were lowered into the coffin with her. Her death heralded the end of an era.
This article was first published by History Extra in September 2016