Historian Gordon Lucy examines the reign of Queen Victoria as the bicentenary of her birth approaches
Alexandrina Victoria, the future Queen Victoria, was born at Kensington Palace on May 24 1819.
Her father Edward, Duke of Kent, was the third son of George III. As her mother, Maria Louisa Victoria, was a minor German princess, Victoria actually grew up speaking German as her first language.
At the time of her birth Victoria – Alexandrina was quietly dropped – was only fifth in the line of succession.
In 1820 her grandfather and her father died within a week of each other. By the time of George IV’s death in 1830, only the Duke of Clarence – who became William IV – stood between Victoria and the throne because William had no surviving legitimate issue.
On June 20 1837 William died at the age of 71. Victoria recorded in her diary: “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham [the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household] were here and wished to see me.
“I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.”
Although there was virtually no republican sentiment in evidence in the country, the prestige of the monarchy was at a low ebb on account of the scandalous behaviour of George IV and William IV and the other Royal dukes.
Victoria brought three initial advantages to the monarchy: her youth, her gender and her strength of character allied to her already well-developed sense of duty.
George IV and William IV had ascended the throne in 1820 and 1830 respectively with fairly disreputable pasts which they did not leave behind them, whereas the 18-year-old Victoria brought only the prospect of an unblemished future.
Her gender enabled her to make a special appeal not only to her subjects but to Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister. On the day of her accession she wrote in her journal that she would do her utmost to fulfil her duty to her country.
Her first triumph of character was over her worldly-wise and raffish prime minister.
Fascinated by the girl-Queen, rather as Winston Churchill was by the Queen in 1952, Victoria provided Melbourne with a new and absorbing interest in life and she transformed his manners and conduct. Charles Greville, the diarist, wrote: “I have no doubt he [Melbourne] is passionately fond of her as he might be of his daughter if he had one and the more because he is a man with a capacity for loving without anything in the world to love.
“It has become his province to educate, instruct, and to form the most interesting mind and character in the world.”
In her presence Melbourne moderated his language, sat bolt upright rather than lounged in his chair, and greatly curtailed his range of anecdotes.
After her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha in 1840 he replaced Melbourne as the chief influence on her.
Victoria possessed strong political prejudices. She was favourably disposed towards Melbourne (because he was a Whig), Peel (despite his Toryism and an early dispute over Ladies of the Bedchamber in 1839) and Disraeli (whom she had originally disliked because of his opposition to Peel).
By contrast, despite her natural Whig sympathies she was hostile towards Palmerston (whom Albert and she nicknamed ‘Pilgerstein’) and Gladstone (whom she regarded as ‘half- crazy’).
She bitterly complained that Gladstone addressed her as if she were a public meeting. Disraeli, on the other hand, had the wit to flatter her. She never saw any constitutional impropriety in forcibly expressing her opinions to ministers.
Victoria and Prince Albert’s happy family life was well known and the marriage produced nine children between 1840 and 1857, many of whom colonised the Royal Families of Europe, thereby earning her the nickname ‘the grandmother of Europe’.
Her descendants include Harald V of Norway, Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Margrethe II of Denmark, and Felipe VI of Spain.
For almost a decade after Albert’s premature death in 1861 she lived in seclusion, which fuelled adverse criticism and republican sentiment.
In 1866 and 1867 she was persuaded to open Parliament in person. Disraeli gently coaxed her into resuming public duties, not least by making her Empress of India, and she regained much of her early popularity.
By the time of her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, in 1887 and 1897 respectively, David Starkey contends she enjoyed ‘wider and deeper popularity’ than any previous monarch.
Victoria’s reign coincided with the rapid expansion of Empire, of which she became the embodiment.
Her subjects constituted a quarter of the world’s population and she ruled over a quarter of the land surface of the earth.
It was said that she presided over an Empire on which the sun never set because its global character ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one part of it at any given time.
Although she never visited any of her overseas possession, she took a keen and intelligent interest in a wide variety of Imperial issues.
She appointed Mohammed Abdul Karim (the ‘Munshi’), of whom she was very fond, as her Indian secretary and he taught her some rudimentary Hindustani.
Despite Victoria’s place in nationalist folklore as ‘the Famine Queen’, she was genuinely rather fond of Ireland. Her visit to Killarney in 1861 firmly put the town on the tourist map, a status which it has enjoyed ever since.
She visited Ireland four times: between August 3 and 12 1849; between August 29 and September 4 1853; between August 21 and 30 1861; and between April 3 and 26 1900.
During her first visit she donated £2,000 to help victims of the famine.
The purpose of her final visit was to acknowledge the striking contribution of Irish regiments in the Boer War.
On each and every occasion she was warmly received, just as her great-great-granddaughter was in the Irish Republic in 2011.