Victoria became queen at a time of profound social conflict. Since the French Revolution late in the eighteenth century ideas of social equality had been gaining strength, weakening hereditary monarchy. Almost at the same time the Industrial Revolution began, relying on aspiration to create demand for manufactured goods. And aspiration depended on social division, with those further down the ladder trying to buy products of their supposed betters. Society was driven by this basic contradiction, moving towards equality and inequality at the same time. Victoria became queen when this struggle was at its height.
Victoria was born on 24th May 1819, daughter of Edward, fourth son of George III, and Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg. Edward and Victoire, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, lived with their young daughter at Kensington Palace with little money. Eventually the Kents were forced to move to Woolbrook Cottage, Sidmouth in Devon. Publicly this move was necessary for young Victoria's health: in reality it was a desperate bid to save money. The family moved in on Christmas Day, during the freezing winter of 1819. Edward soon caught a cold which developed into a chest infection, and then pneumonia. His condition quickly declined, and Edward died on 23rd January 1820, less than a week before the death of George III. Reluctantly the new king, Edward's elder brother George IV, allowed Victoire and Victoria to return to Kensington Palace. Little Princess Victoria was now third in line to the throne.
The widowed Duchess of Kent and her daughter continued to live a difficult life with little money. At this time Kensington Palace was something of a rest home for embarrassed royals. Victoire and Victoria shared the palace with the sixth son of George III, Augustus, Duke of Sussex, who spent his life in the library with his collection of clocks. Another suite of rooms was occupied by Augustus's sister Princess Sophia. She'd had an affair with George III's equerry Colonel Garth, and had given birth to a son in 1800. Kensington Palace was a place to hide poor Sophia and her scandal. George IV was not inclined to help the Duchess of Kent in her life amongst royal outcasts. George was no doubt bitter that he had lost his only daughter, Charlotte in 1818, and had no descendents of his own to take the throne. So it was in seclusion and relative poverty that Princess Victoria spent her first eighteen years. She had no room of her own, and slept in a bed beside her mother. Her mother's daughter from a previous marriage, Feodora, slept in the same room.
Formal lessons began at age four. The traditional picture is one of a slow learner, but Victoria's biographer Monica Charlot disagrees. Surviving school work shows good progress. The image of Victoria as a struggler could have come about from false modesty on the part of her mother. It could also be partly due to efforts made by her future husband Albert, and other male members of the establishment, to bring Victoria to heel under male leadership following her marriage. If equality was an increasingly important social phenomenon, we shall see that it certainly did not yet apply to women. So, ignoring later distortions it is probably best to see Victoria doing well in her work, enjoying good reports from her teachers, and throwing herself into lively outdoor pursuits. She loved riding and would go galloping exuberantly across Windsor Great Park whenever she got the chance.
On 26th June 1830 George IV died and his brother William became king as William IV. William was a plain man who had lived an obscure life until he became king in 1830. He pointed the way ahead to dilemmas that would face Victoria. This was apparent from the very beginning of his reign, when William tried to cancel his own coronation to save money. Eventually it was decided that William's coronation would go ahead at Westminster Abbey, as a cut price affair, on one tenth of the budget lavished on George IV's coronation. But while this economy pleased some, it angered others. William's coronation became known as the "half crown-ation" (see Victoria, The Young Queen by Monica Charlot P60). Social division, a sense of specialness to which people could aspire, was still wanted. Victoria meanwhile was continuing her rather humble upbringing, managing to survive an unseemly struggle for influence over her, between her mother and King William. By the time Victoria reached eighteen she was a sensible down to earth girl. On 24th May 1837, Victoria wrote of her eighteenth birthday: "We came home at twenty minutes to two in the morning. The courtyards and streets were crammed when we went to the ball, and the anxiety of the people to see poor stupid me was very great, and I must say I am very touched by it." (Quoted Charlot P70) While Victoria showed the new humility required of monarchs, would she also be able to show the necessary stateliness? It would be a difficult balance to achieve.
By spring of 1837 King William's health was failing. He had seen Victoria reach adulthood, and had been king at a time of significant constitutional change. His reign had also coincided with Charles Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle, during which Darwin made observations on which his Theory of Evolution would be based. Old demarcations were falling away. It was becoming progressively more difficult to see life as a series of separately created species. By extension it was becoming increasingly difficult to see human society made up of groups who sat in preordained hierarchies. By the 1880s, Thomas Hardy would be writing Tess of the D'Urbervilles where a milkmaid was a descendent of what was once one of England's most distinguished families. William died at Windsor Castle on 21st June 1837, making Victoria queen at a time of unprecedented social tension.
Finding herself queen, Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace, which had been largely completed during William's reign. This building represented the new world in which Victoria was queen. Buckingham Palace came in for a huge amount of criticism, the nature of which is highly revealing. Politician Thomas Creevey wrote: "It has lost a million of money and there is not a fault which has not been committed in it. You may be sure there are rooms enough, and large enough, for the money; but for staircases, passages etc I observed that instead of being called Buckingham Palace, it should be called 'Brunswick Hotel'. The costly ornaments of the state rooms exceed all belief in their bad taste and every species of infirmity. Raspberry coloured pillars without end, that quite turn you sick to look at it..." (From A Selection of the Letters and Papers of Thomas Creevey quoted Charlot P 102) Interestingly Creevey's criticism is two sided. First there is the complaint that too much money has been needlessly spent: "It has lost a million of money." But there is also a sense that the palace, rather than being too grand, is not grand enough. In Creevey's opinion it is more hotel than palace.
So Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace and held her first ball. She was criticised not for the ball's expense, but for being too informal. She stood to eat, which she said allowed her to get about and talk to more people. But one of the guests, a Mary Frampton, who wrote an account of the ball, did not approve. Politician Charles Grenville called the ball "a poor affair in comparison with the Tuileries". Nevertheless he praised the new queen for her "cordiality... simplicity and good humour". Somehow Victoria had to please those who admired cordiality, simplicity and good humour, and those who wanted Tuileries grandeur. Victoria's coronation took place on June 28th 1838, and as with the coronation of William IV there were disagreements over cost. The government wanted to limit spending, and agreed a budget of £70,000, slightly more than the £50,000 voted for William IV. Also the traditional coronation banquet attended by rich and privileged guests was not held. Nevertheless a sense of grandeur and spectacle was still required. The banquet may have been cancelled, but the procession, which anyone could attend, was lengthened. There were public firework displays in Green Park and Hyde Park. Hyde Park was also the setting for a four day fair. In many ways, even as monarchy was scaled back, it's outward show was actually given greater emphasis. Monarchy remained important, demonstrated most strongly perhaps by prime minister Lord Melbourne who now formed a close relationship with the young queen, tutoring her in constitutional monarchy. Melbourne was a prime minister who made an art out of doing nothing. In Parliament he acted as a kind of constitutional king, a figurehead of unity who did little except keep the government together. Many prime ministers have acted in this way, which indicates the continuing need for a figurehead committed to unity rather than action.
The same aspects of public display seen at Victoria's coronation were also important in her wedding, which was soon to follow. Victoria's cousin, Albert Saxe Coburg had long been groomed as the queen's husband, and Victoria seemed happy with this arrangement. Parliament debated the level of payment to be made to Albert when he married Victoria, reducing a projected £50,000 to £21,000. Nevertheless the planned wedding was to be presented not as a humble, cut price business but as a public display. While in the previous century royal weddings had taken place in private, Lord Melbourne insisted on a public occasion for Victoria and Albert's wedding, and a fair amount of money was required. The ceremony, which took place on February 10th 1840 at St James's Palace, was rather chaotic. Victoria's train was not long enough, which meant little bridesmaids tripped over each other trying to keep up. Even so a show was put on, and people enjoyed themselves. Demonstrating the power that Victoria had to create fashions and feed industrial demand, her white wedding dress - now kept at Kensington Palace - was widely copied, and set a trend for bridal fashion that endures today.
Now that Victoria was married efforts were made to put her in her place. As I've already said the new age of developing equality did not yet extend to women, even if they were queens. Mrs Stevenson, wife of the American ambassador in London was stating widely held views when she said of Victoria: "I think it is always bad when a woman inverts the laws of Providence by taking the rein in her own hands. You know I never, even in my own palmy days, assented the equality of the sexes. Man is the head of woman, or rather in the scripture phrase 'The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.' " (Quoted Charlot P 189)
It would be a long time before these ideas would change, and Albert, a man of his time, set to work to establish his dominant position over a lively young woman. A.N. Wilson in his famous book Victorians presents Albert as the intellectual power behind a queen of limited abilities. In many ways, if we are to believe the account of Monica Charlot, this image only presents the picture that a male establishment wanted to project. Albert was determined not to be subservient. When Victoria initially refused to allow Albert to share in her government work, she came under pressure to give way. Uncle Leopold, who had been a father figure while Victoria was growing up, was sent in to argue for Albert. Victoria, a strong personality, resisted, and even the prime minister, her good friend Lord Melbourne became involved in trying to change her mind. In the recent past the able Queen Caroline had secretly worked with Robert Walpole to run government business, while cleverly making it appear that her husband George II was in charge. But this option did not seem available to Victoria. Unlike George II, Albert was not suitable for duping by a clever wife and prime minister, and perhaps neither the prime minister nor Victoria wanted to operate in this way. Eventually after a brave fight the queen had to give in. The crucial factor that weighed against her was pregnancy and its associated physical trials. Victoria was pregnant within a week of her wedding, and was to go on to have nine children. Pressure from every quarter, combined with relentless pregnancy was enough to wear her down, allowing Albert, in large measure, to take control. Reading about Victoria you can understand why Elizabeth I refused to get married.
The conventional wisdom is that Albert was now architect of a new constitutional monarchy, with a general role in symbolic rather than political leadership. In Albert's mind this meant organising public events like the Great Exhibition of 1851. Albert, a conscientious, controlling workaholic, was certainly at his best in organising this industrial exhibition housed in a huge glass building in Hyde Park. What Albert did not seem to realise was that the monarch's symbolic role also applied to setting fashions for people to aspire to, providing demand for Britain's emerging industry. George IV with his love of clothes played this part very well, and many people in the clothing trade had cause to thank him. The same was true of Edward VII who was to succeed Victoria. But Albert and Victoria themselves were less good at fashion. Dour Albert would have thought fashion a meaningless frippery. This is ironic given the content and aim of his Great Exhibition, which was to encourage British design. Design was a new concept, partly involved with the function of goods, and partly with their form. In many ways the new role of a designer was to differentiate goods, to produce ranges of aspiration to carry consumers ever upward, spending as they went. The Great Exhibition was a crucial moment in design history, and as part of this process it was important that the royal family remained as symbols of aspiration. Indeed industrialisation and aspiration might explain why Britain escaped the revolutions which had been sweeping through Europe from 1848. Theoretically Britain was ripe for revolution. In France there were around six million landowners at this time, the vast majority of which held less than five acres. By contrast, England and Wales had 500 members of the peerage owning almost half the total acreage, with 1,300 members of the gentry possessing most of what remained. And yet in 1848 the French royal family had to flee to Britain, while Britain itself avoided revolution. The reason for this might have something to do with the fact that Britain was the first country to industrialise. It was the period between 1830 and 1850 when British industry made its biggest advances compared with industry in other countries. Industrialisation depended on social inequality to give a sense of aspiration which drove purchasing, which drove production, which made people wealthy. And contrary to popular belief British people in general found their living standards improving at this time. Techniques of mass production meant that quality goods were more affordable for a wider range of people. In France there were fewer fashions and gadgets to make life on the farm bearable. The simple fact was that in an industrialised country enough people did well enough out of social inequality to make living with it worthwhile. Britain still had a role for a royal family, apparently sitting on top of an aspirational ladder, driving all this industrialisation. And if you doubt the direct role that the royal family played in this sense, you might remember traditional white weddings, a fashion which followed on from Victoria's own wedding, or Christmas trees which adorn British houses at Christmas, a German tradition introduced by Albert. Then there are all the fashions instituted by Edward VII, Victoria's eldest son - the dinner jacket, car ownership, hotels as we know them today, and the Sunday roast, for example.
Sadly the Crystal Palace where the Great Exhibition was held was destroyed by fire in 1936. But the Great Exhibition made so much money, that its proceeds allowed the building of an educational and museum complex in Kensington. This survives as The Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Imperial College London.
1851 was a highpoint for Britain and for its royal family. When not on show as the new public monarchy the family enjoyed life at a new home at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and the soon to be finished retreat in the Highlands, Balmoral. Sadly this time of mid century grandeur would not last long. The Crimean War of 1853 - 1856, and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 saw more difficult times. Victoria's family also faced difficulty. Their eldest son, Albert Edward, or Bertie, was giving his parents endless worry. The heir to the throne did not get on with his homework like a good boy, a fact that dour Albert could not accept. When young Bertie had a fling with a girl in Ireland while on an army positing there, strait laced Albert fell into a major depression. He then became ill, probably with typhoid, and after a period of illness, died at Windsor Castle on 14th December 1861. Victoria still had many decades of her long reign to come, but for large portions of it she was a virtual recluse in permanent mourning. Her retreat following Albert's loss has been suggested by some as contributing to the survival of Britain's royal family at a time when so many other European monarchs were being overthrown. A.N Wilson doesn't mince his words in the Victorians:"... the widow of Windsor, living as a virtual recluse for years and performing almost no constitutional function, helped to lead the monarchy into a position where it was not worth abolishing" (P244).
Perhaps though in an age of radical change it is unlikely that the survival of the monarchy can simply be put down to social inertia. In many ways Victoria's eldest son Bertie, the future Edward VII, stepped into Victoria's vacant shoes, setting the trend in fashion, which the population generally tried to copy. I've already mentioned dinner jackets and Sunday roasts. Bertie was also in great demand by towns and industrial concerns who knew a visit from him would be great for their business. The Tyne Improvement Commission requested a visit for the opening of the New Dock at South Shields. Such was the demand for the prince's presence that the Commission made their request in 1882, two years before the dock was actually finished (see Edward VII Image of an Era by Dana Bentley-Cranch). The monarchy survived not because "it was not worth abolishing" but because it was worth a lot of money to a lot of people. The same is true today. Tourism is Britain's sixth largest industry, and the top five royal attractions, Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Buckingham Palace, and Holyrood Palace are visited by four million people every year. Penny Junor in her book The Firm also points out that the Crown Estates, the royal family's vast land holdings, make roughly £150 million a year, which goes to the exchequer. Around £37 million is then given back to the royal family in the Civil List (figures for 2005). It does not take complex calculations to see that the monarchy is a profitable concern for Britain generally.
Victoria never fully recovered from Albert's death, and wore black for the rest of her life. Perhaps Albert was so successful in suppressing Victoria's independent spirit that she had no resources left when he died. It wasn't until the 1870s that Victoria began to resume her public duties, which she continued to the end, visiting Dublin in 1900. Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on 22nd January 1901. She was buried at the Royal Frogmore Mausoleum at Windsor, alongside Albert.