6 Facts to Know About Queen Victoria

Painting of Queen Victoria
Getty Images

Queen Victoria was Britain's monarch for 63 years, from 1837 until her death in 1901. As her reign spanned so much of the 19th century, and her nation dominated world affairs during that period, her name came to be associated with the period.

The woman for whom the Victorian Era was named was not necessarily the stern and remote figure we assume we know. Indeed, Victoria was far more complex than the foreboding image found in vintage photographs.

Here are six things to know about the woman who ruled Britain, and much of the world, for six decades.

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Victoria's Reign Was Unlikely

Victoria's grandfather, King George III, had 15 children, but his three eldest sons produced no heir to the throne. His fourth son, the Duke of Kent, Edward Augustus, married a German noblewoman expressly to produce an heir to the British throne.

A baby girl, Alexandrina Victoria, was born May 24, 1819. When she was only eight months old her father died, and she was raised by her mother. The household staff included a German governess and a variety of tutors, and Victoria's first language as a child was German.

When George III died in 1820, his son became George IV. He was known for a scandalous lifestyle, and his heavy drinking contributed to him becoming obese. When he died in 1830, his younger brother became William IV. He had served as an officer in the Royal Navy, and his seven-year reign was more respectable than his brother's had been.

Victoria had just turned 18 when her uncle died in 1837, and she became queen. Though she was treated with respect and had formidable advisers, including the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, there were many who did not expect much of the young queen.

Most observers of the British monarchy expected her to be a weak ruler or even an interim figure soon to be forgotten by history. It is even conceivable she could have put the monarch on a trajectory toward irrelevance, or she might even have been the last British monarch.

Surprising all skeptics, Victoria (she chose not to use her first name, Alexandrina as queen) was surprisingly strong-willed. She was put in a very difficult position and she rose to it, using her intelligence to master the intricacies of statecraft.

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She Was Very Interested in Technology

Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was a German prince with a great interest in science and technology. Thanks in part to Albert's fascination with everything new, Victoria became very interested in technological advances.

In the early 1840s, when train travel was in its infancy, Victoria expressed interest in taking a trip by rail. The palace contacted the Great Western Railway, and on June 13, 1842, she became the first British monarch to travel by train. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were accompanied by the great British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and enjoyed a train ride of 25 minutes.

Prince Albert helped organized the Great Exhibition of 1851, a massive show of new inventions and other technology held in London. Queen Victoria opened the exhibition on May 1, 1851, and returned a number of times with her children to view the exhibits.

In 1858 Victoria sent a message to President James Buchanan during the brief time when the first transatlantic cable was working. And even after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, she retained her interest in technology. She firmly believed that Britain's role as a great nation depended on scientific advances and the intelligent use of emerging technology.

She even became a fan of photography. In the early 1850s Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, had the photographer Roger Fenton take photographs of the Royal Family and their residences. Fenton would later become known for taking photographs of the Crimean War considered to be the first war photographs.

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She Was, Until Recently, the Longest Reigning British Monarch

 When Victoria ascended to the throne as a teenager in the late 1830s, no one could have anticipated that she would rule Britain throughout the rest of the 19th century.

To put her 63-year reign in perspective, when she became queen the American president was Martin Van Buren. When she died, on January 22, 1901, the president of the United States was William McKinley, the 17th American president to serve during Victoria's reign. And McKinley was not even born until Victoria had been queen for five years.

During her decades on the throne, the British Empire abolished slavery, fought in wars in the CrimeaAfghanistan, and Africa, and acquired the Suez Canal.

Victoria's longevity on the throne was generally considered a record that would never be broken. However, her time was on the throne, 63 years and 216 days, was surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II on September 9, 2015.

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She Was an Artist and Writer

Victoria began drawing as a child and continued throughout her life to sketch and paint. Besides writing in a diary, she also produced drawings and watercolors to record things she had seen. Victoria's sketchbooks contain illustrations of family members, servants, and places she had visited.

She also enjoyed writing and wrote daily entries in a diary. Her daily journals eventually spanned more than 120 volumes.

Victoria also wrote two books about travels in the Scottish Highlands. Benjamin Disraeli, who had been a novelist before becoming prime minister, would at times flatter the queen by making references to them both being authors.

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She Was Not Always Stern and Sullen

The image we often have of Queen Victoria is that of a humorless woman dressed in black. That is because she was widowed at a fairly young age: her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861 when he and Victoria were both 42 years old.

For the rest of her life, nearly 50 years, Victoria dressed in black in public. And she was determined to never show any emotion in public appearances.

Yet in her earlier life Victoria was known as a vivacious girl, and as a young queen, she was extremely sociable. She also loved being entertained. For instance, when General Tom Thumb and Phineas T. Barnum visited London, they paid a visit to the palace to entertain Queen Victoria, who was reported to have laughed enthusiastically.

In her later life, Victoria, despite her stern public demeanor, was said to enjoy rustic entertainments such as Scottish music and dancing during her periodic visits to the Highlands. And there were rumors that she was very affectionate to her Scottish servant, John Brown.

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She Gave the United States the Desk Used by Presidents

The famous desk in the Oval Office is known as the Resolute desk. It was made from oak timbers of HMS Resolute, a ship of the Royal Navy which had been abandoned when it became locked in ice during an Arctic expedition.

The Resolute broke free from the ice and was spotted by an American ship and towed to the United States before being returned to Britain. The ship was lovingly restored to pristine condition at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a gesture of goodwill from the United States Navy.

Queen Victoria visited the Resolute when it was sailed back to England by an American crew. She was apparently deeply touched by the gesture of the Americans having returned the ship, and the seemed to have cherished the memory.

Decades later, when the Resolute was to be broken up, she directed that timbers from it be saved and crafted into an ornate desk. The desk was delivered, as a surprise gift, to the White House in 1880, during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Resolute Desk has been used by a number of presidents and became particularly famous when used by President John F. Kennedy. President Obama has often been photographed at the massive oak desk, which, many Americans would be surprised to learn, was a gift from Queen Victoria.