Biography of Queen Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India

She ruled during a time of economic and imperial expansion

Victoria, Queen and Empress, 1882
Hulton Royals Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819–January 22, 1901), was queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and empress of India. She was the longest-ruling monarch of Great Britain (until Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her record) and ruled during a time of economic and imperial expansion known as the Victorian Era.

Fast Facts: Queen Victoria

  • Known For: Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (r. 1837–1901), Empress of India (r. 1876–1901).
  • Born: May 24, 1819, Kensington Palace, London, England.
  • Parents: Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoire Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg.
  • Died: January 22, 1901, Osborne House, Isle of Wight.
  • Published Works: "Letters," "Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands," and "More Leaves."
  • Spouse: Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (m. Feb. 10, 1840).
  • Children: Alice Maud Mary (1843-1878), Alfred Ernest Albert (1844–1900), Helena Augusta Victoria (1846–1923), Louise Caroline Alberta (1848–1939), Arthur William Patrick Albert (1850–1942), Leopold George Duncan Albert (1853–1884), Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore (1857–1944).

Queen Victoria's children and grandchildren married into many royal families of Europe, and some introduced the hemophilia gene into those families. She was a member of the house of Hanover, later called the house of Windsor.

Early Life

Queen Victoria was born Alexandrina Victoria at Kensington Palace, London, England on May 24, 1819. She was the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent (1767–1820), the fourth son of King George III (1738–1820, r. 1760–1820). Her mother was Victoire Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg (1786–1861), sister of Prince (later King) Leopold of the Belgians (1790–1865, r. 1831–1865). Edward had married Victoire when an heir to the throne was needed after the death of Princess Charlotte, who had been married to Prince Leopold. Edward died in 1820, just before his father did. Victoire became the guardian of Alexandrina Victoria, as designated in Edward's will.

When George IV became king (r. 1821–1830), his dislike for Victoire helped isolate the mother and daughter from the rest of the court. Prince Leopold helped his sister and niece financially.

Heiress

In 1830 and at the age of 11, Victoria became heir-apparent to the British crown on the death of her uncle George IV, at which point the parliament granted her income. Her uncle William IV (1765–1837, r. 1830–1837) became king. Victoria remained relatively isolated, without any real friends, though with many servants and teachers and a succession of pet dogs. A tutor, Louise Lehzen (1784–1817), tried to teach Victoria the kind of discipline that Queen Elizabeth I had displayed. She was tutored in politics by her uncle Leopold.

When Victoria turned 18, her uncle King William IV offered her a separate income and household, but Victoria's mother refused. Victoria attended a ball in her honor and was greeted by crowds in the streets.

Queen

When William IV died childless a month later, Victoria became Queen of Great Britain and was crowned June, 20, 1837.

Victoria began to exclude her mother from her inner circle. The first crisis of her reign came when rumors circulated that one of her mother's ladies-in-waiting, Lady Flora, was pregnant by her mother's adviser, John Conroy. Lady Flora died of a liver tumor, but opponents at court used the rumors to make the new queen seem less innocent.

Queen Victoria tested the limits of her royal powers in May 1839, when the government of Lord Melbourne (William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, 1779–1848), a Whig who had been her mentor and friend, fell. She refused to follow established precedent and dismiss her ladies of the bedchamber so that the Tory government could replace them. In the "bedchamber crisis" she had the support of Melbourne. Her refusal brought back the Whigs and Lord Melbourne until 1841.

Marriage

Neither Victoria nor her advisers favored the idea of an unmarried queen, despite or because of the example of Elizabeth I (1533–1603, r. 1558–1603). A husband for Victoria would have to be royal and Protestant, as well as an appropriate age, which narrowed the field. Prince Leopold had been promoting her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819–1861) for many years. They had first met when both were 17 and had corresponded ever since. When they were 20, he returned to England and Victoria, in love with him, proposed marriage. They were married on Feb. 10, 1840.

Victoria had traditional views on the role of wife and mother, and though she was queen and Albert was prince consort, he shared government responsibilities at least equally. They fought often, sometimes with Victoria shouting angrily.

Motherhood

Their first child, a daughter, was born in November 1840, and the Prince of Wales, Edward, in 1841. Three more sons and four more daughters followed. All nine pregnancies ended with live births and all the children survived to adulthood, an unusual record for that time. Although Victoria had been nursed by her own mother, she used wet-nurses for her children. Though the family could have lived at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, or the Brighton Pavilion, they worked to create homes more appropriate for a family. Albert was key in designing their residences at Balmoral Castle and Osborne House. The family traveled to several places, including Scotland, France and Belgium. Victoria became especially fond of Scotland and Balmoral.

Government Role

When Melbourne's government failed again in 1841, he helped with the transition to the new government to avoid another embarrassing crisis. Victoria had a more limited role under Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet (1788–1850), with Albert taking a lead for the next 20 years of "dual monarchy." Albert guided Victoria to an appearance of political neutrality, though she didn't become any fonder of Peel. Instead she became involved with establishing charities. 

European sovereigns visited her at home, and she and Albert visited Germany, including Coburg and Berlin. She began to feel herself part of a larger network of monarchs. Albert and Victoria used their relationship to become more active in foreign affairs, which conflicted with the ideas of the foreign minister, Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, 1784–1865). He didn't appreciate their involvement, and Victoria and Albert often thought his ideas too liberal and aggressive.

Albert worked on a plan for a Great Exhibition, with a Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Public appreciation for this construction completed in 1851 finally led to a warming of the British citizens toward their queen's consort.

Wars

In the mid-1850s, the Crimean War (1853–1856) engrossed Victoria's attention; she rewarded Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) for her service in helping protect and heal soldiers. Victoria's concern for the wounded and sick led to her founding Royal Victoria Hospital in 1873. As a result of the war, Victoria grew closer to the French emperor Napoleon III and his empress Eugénie. Napoleon III (1808–1873) was president of France from 1848–1852, and when he was not reelected, seized power and ruled as an emperor from 1852–1870.

The unsuccessful revolt of Indian infantrymen in the army of the East India Company known as the Mutiny of the Sepoys (1857–1858) shocked Victoria. This and subsequent events led to British direct rule over India, and Victoria's new title as empress of India on May 1, 1876.

Family

In family matters, Victoria became disappointed with her eldest son, Albert Edward, prince of Wales, heir presumptive. The eldest three children—Victoria, "Bertie," and Alice—received better educations than their younger siblings did, as they were most likely to inherit the crown.

Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal Victoria weren't as close as Victoria was to several of the younger children; the princess was closer to her father. Albert won his way in marrying the princess to Frederick William, son of the prince and princess of Prussia. The young prince proposed when Princess Victoria was only 14. The queen urged delay in marriage to be sure that the princess was truly in love, and when she assured herself and her parents that she was, the two were formally engaged.

Albert had never been named prince consort by parliament. Attempts in 1854 and 1856 to do so failed. Finally in 1857, Victoria conferred the title herself.

In 1858, Princess Victoria was married to the Prussian prince. Victoria and her daughter, known as Vicky, exchanged many letters as Victoria attempted to influence her daughter and son-in-law. 

Mourning

A series of deaths among Victoria's relatives kept her in mourning much 1861. First, the king of Prussia died, making Vicky and her husband Frederick crown princess and prince. In March, Victoria's mother died and Victoria collapsed, having reconciled with her mother during her marriage. Several more deaths in the family followed, and then came a scandal with the prince of Wales. In the middle of negotiating his marriage with Alexandra of Denmark, it was revealed that he was having an affair with an actress.

Then Prince Albert's health failed. He caught a cold and couldn't shake it. Perhaps weakened already by cancer, he developed what may have been typhoid fever and died on Dec. 14, 1861. His death devastated Victoria; her prolonged mourning lost her much popularity.

Death

Eventually coming out of seclusion in February 1872, Victoria maintained an active role in government by building many memorials to her late husband. She died on Jan. 22, 1901.

Legacy

Her reign was marked by waxing and waning popularity, and suspicions that she preferred the Germans a bit too much diminished her popularity. By the time she had assumed the throne, the British monarchy was more figurehead and influence than it was a direct power in the government, and her long reign did little to change that.

Queen Victoria's influence on British and world affairs, even if often as a figurehead, led to the naming of the Victorian Era for her. She saw the largest extent of the British empire and the tensions within it. Her relationship with her son, keeping him from any shared power, probably weakened the royal rule in future generations, and the failure of her daughter and son-in-law in Germany to have time to actualize their liberal ideas probably shifted the balance of European history.

The marriage of her daughters into other royal families and the likelihood that her children bore a mutant gene for hemophilia affected the following generations of European history.

Sources

  • Baird, Julia. "Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire." New York: Random House, 2016.
  • Hibbert, Christopher. "Queen Victoria: A Personal History. " New York: Harper-Collins, 2010.
  • Hough, Richard. "Victoria and Albert." New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
  • Rappaport, Helen. "Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion." Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003.