Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch in British history. In this concise biography, Lady Longford, long recognized as an authority on the subject, gives a full account of Queen Victoria’s life and provides her unique assessment of the monarch. Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 on the death of her uncle William IV. In 1840 she married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and for the next 20 years they were inseparable. Their descendants were to succeed to most of the thrones of Europe. When Albert died in 1861 Victoria’s overwhelming grief caused her to almost withdraw from public life for several years. This perceived dereliction of public duty, coupled with rumors about her relationship with her Scottish attendant, John Brown, led to increasing criticism. Coaxed back into the public eye by Disraeli, she resumed her political and constitutional interest with vigor until her death in 1901.
About the Author
Elizabeth Longford is the author of Wellington. Her first work on Queen Victoria, Victoria RI, won the James Tait Black memorial prize.
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By Elizabeth Longford
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The Estate of Elizabeth Longford
All rights reserved.
Born to be Queen, 1819–37
Queen Victoria gave her name to a great era. Only the subjects of Elizabeth I and Victoria are known by the name of their Queen. Was Queen Victoria herself great? The presumption is yes. Certainly, with her 9 children, 41 grandchildren and 87 great-grandchildren, her fertility would seem greater than that of English women now alive. They called her the Grandmother of Europe.
Yet she did not quite grow to 5 feet tall nor did she outgrow her childhood's sloping chin. And she gave Europe, through her daughters' marriages, not only the blood royal but also the scourge of haemophilia, carried unknown to all with her own genes. Nor was her conception so much immaculate as competitive, geared to win the 1818 royal marathon race for the throne. Any saintliness that Victorians sometimes saw in their Queen's rotund, ageing image, was never traced from her father the Duke of Kent, who married her mother only months after dismissing Madame de St Laurent, his faithful mistress for nearly twenty-eight years.
It was the death in childbirth in 1817 of Princess Charlotte, heir to the throne, that made Princess Victoria important. Her father, Edward Augustus, fourth son of George III, had made his career in the army. A successful campaigner in the West Indies, he might have reached the top but for his unpopularity due to excessive discipline, culminating in the execution of three mutineers at Gibraltar. He was retired to England, where he lived chiefly on credit until 1815, when he withdrew to Brussels to economise. Princess Charlotte and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg urged him to solve his problems by marrying Leopold's widowed sister, Princess Victoria of Leiningen. After Charlotte's untimely death Edward did so. The handsome pair – he tall with dyed brown hair and whiskers and blue eyes, she with brown eyes and black ringlets – were married at Kew Palace on 11 July 1818. The German-speaking Duchess had her speeches written out for her in phonetic English: '... ei em môhst grêtful for yur congratuleschens end gud uishes....' Nine months later an unwieldy caravanserai consisting of German maids, a female German doctor-midwife, cage-birds and lap-dogs hurried the heavily pregnant Duchess from the Continent to Calais – driven by the Duke himself to save money – so that England's heir might be born on English soil. The Duchess had promised the Duke a son. But it was Alexandrina Victoria who arrived at Kensington Palace in the spring dawn of 24 May 1819.
The family's first months together were cheerful enough. The Duke was a doting father. Intensely proud of his infant daughter, he would hold her up to his friends for their inspection, bidding them look well for one day she would be Queen of England. His friends included Whigs and even radicals like Sir Matthew Wood, populist mayor of London who was to champion the unruly Queen Caroline against George IV; and Robert Owen the socialist of New Lanarkshire Mills.
But when Christmas 1819 was over, so too was the Kents' family life. There was nothing whatever wrong with the baby, for she had been nursed by the practical Duchess, already the experienced mother of two children by her first husband. The Duke was immensely amused and curious about this operation, for most aristocrats hired wet nurses. Unfortunately, when it came to his own health, the Duke took the wrong advice. His boyhood tutor, Dr John Fisher, now Bishop of Salisbury, recommended Devon as a cheap, healthy resort. On the way there the Duke caught a chill in the icy Salisbury Cathedral, and found the winds of Sidmouth whipped it to fever-pitch. He was persuaded to make his will by John Conroy, his equerry, and was visited by Dr Stockmar, valued German secretary-physician of his brother-in-law Prince Leopold.
On 23 January 1820 the Princess Victoria lost her father to what had become virulent pneumonia. He was followed to the grave six days later by his father George III, the Prince Regent becoming George IV. As Victoria's uncle, he had shown bad-tempered jealousy at her christening, having refused to allow the tiny intruder to be called Georgiana after him or Charlotte after his dead daughter. She could be called after her mother. So she was christened Alexandrina after the Tsar of Russia and Victoria after her mother; but the grand 'Alexandrina' was shortened, and she became the humble 'Drina' for the first years of her life.
The new King could at least have paid for the royal exiles to return from Sidmouth but that labour of love was left to Uncle Leopold who brought them back to Kensington Palace. Admittedly Parliament had endowed Prince Leopold with £50,000 a year on marrying Charlotte. Victoria was almost certainly the heir, for what stood in her way? 'Uncle King', as she called George IV, would have no more legitimate children after Charlotte, and his successor William IV, another marathon runner like Edward, produced only four legitimate children, who all died. Immediately after Victoria in the line of succession came the Duke of Cumberland who was also King of Hanover, but this villainous-looking 'wicked uncle' was unthinkable as England's king. So Victoria it must be. Before she became Queen, however, there were plenty of opportunities for her royal uncles to influence her, if not to finance her.
What had she inherited from her father? Nothing in the way of wealth. Only debts. And this would be one of the difficulties her mother had to cope with in her upbringing. (One of Queen Victoria's very first acts on ascending the throne was to pay off Papa's debts.) Mentally and emotionally she owed much to Edward. There was his strong sense of duty and discipline, often unpopular, but balanced by humanitarian instincts: he abolished flogging in his unit and founded the first regimental school. Victoria was to show both traits – the strictness and the sympathy – though she disliked schooling, regimental or otherwise, and adored the ballet. He was artistic and loved his sketchbook. So did she. His exaggerated sense of military discipline was balanced by an admirable personal sense of duty, which she and her descendants shared. At heart he was a true Hanoverian: so was she – until she married Albert.
During her first years Drina did not speak and hardly heard a word of English. All around her were musical German voices, notably those of her mother, her half-sister Princess Feodore and Fraulein Lehzen, Feodore's governess. Lehzen's services were passed on to Drina after Feodore got married in 1828 and left for the Continent. Princess Victoria was three before she began to learn English as a second language. It is often asked whether Queen Victoria had a German accent: the answer is no. She had a very good ear as part of her musical endowment. However, there was a certain precision about her speech that told the true story of her early linguistic experience.
What of her destiny? Her household apparently believed that she passed her childhood in total ignorance. However, even if the German attendants never breathed a word, it is hard to credit her English nurse, Mrs Brock, with such inhuman restraint. Nor did Sir Walter Scott, for example, reject the legend that a little bird had whispered to Victoria the truth. Contemporary anecdotes suggest that she must have known something. Says Princess Victoria to her little friend while playing at Kensington: 'You must not touch those; they are mine; and I may call you Jane, but you must not call me Victoria.'At least she knew she was different.
Another day, while visiting Royal Lodge, Windsor, with Mama, her 'Uncle King' dashed up in his phaeton, ordered them to 'Pop her in' and was off again. It was exhilarating. She did not flinch from the rouged royal cheek, and laughed at Mama's fear of her falling out. In reality the Duchess was terrified lest the King, put up to it by Cumberland, should kidnap the child heir. Why did the Duchess fall for the rumour of a Cumberland Plot to supersede Victoria? She was fed it by her ambitious majordomo, Sir John Conroy, who had a plot of his own. Under the delusion that his wife, Lady Conroy, shared the blood royal, Sir John treated the Duchess and Princess with familiarity, regarding himself as semi-royal. His secret plan was to become Victoria's private secretary the moment she ascended the throne. To this end he would have to isolate Kensington completely from Windsor.
His spectacular power-plan was to have three separate results. First, Victoria always felt that her childhood was sad and lonely, cut off as she was from her natural associates in the royal family. Second, the Duchess's reputation was unjustly and permanently besmirched by Conroy's familiarities. Many influential people such as the Duke of Wellington and Charles Greville the diarist interpreted Conroy's behaviour as the possessiveness of a lover. Third, an unbridgeable abyss opened in Kensington Palace between the two factions: on one side the Duchess supported by and supporting Conroy, Charles Leiningen (Victoria's half-brother) and the spinster Princess Sophie, another Palace inhabitant; on the anti-Conroy side, Princess Victoria herself, supported solely but slavishly by Baroness Lehzen.
By the time George IV had died (1830) and William IV was on the throne, Conroy had worked out a scheme for dealing with the ever more recalcitrant Victoria. The ailing William IV would die, Conroy hoped, before Victoria was eighteen (her majority), whereupon her mother would rule as regent with Conroy at her elbow. However, two incidents had already showed the stuff of which Victoria was made.
On 11 March 1830, at the age of eleven, she was 'accidentally' shown by Lehzen during a history lesson her exact place in the succession — much nearer than she thought. After a storm of tears she gave her hand as if in solemn pledge and pronounced the famous words, 'I will be good.' (Queen Victoria was later to confirm that she had indeed spoken thus.) Five-and-a-half years later, in October 1835, she was lying at Ramsgate sick with typhoid, having collapsed after one of those strenuous countrywide tours organised by Conroy to show her to the people. Conroy decided this was the psychological moment to force the sixteen-year-old invalid to sign a statement that he, Conroy, should be private secretary when she became Queen. After she was indeed Queen, she told Lord Melbourne her first Prime Minister how she fought Conroy off: 'I resisted in spite of my illness.' 'What a blessing!' smiled the Prime Minister.
The run-up to her accession was unendurable. Her birthday on 24 May 1837, when she attained her majority, brought no joy, though her poor old uncle gave her a piano and tried to give her money, which Mama made her refuse. As the miserable days passed she saw nobody but Lehzen. Conroy had subjugated all Kensington but these two. Even Prince Charles Leiningen believed that Victoria must somehow be made to sign away her freedom to Conroy: 'she must be coerced', he said. But Conroy knew in his heart that the Duchess would never have the courage to lock up her daughter, as he and Charles wished.
And so on the early morning of 20 June 1837 Victoria was descending the awkward little staircase at Kensington Palace, having slept in her mother's bedroom for the last time. Her Uncle William had died at twelve minutes past two, and she was Queen at eighteen years and twenty-seven days. For a glorious year her heart bubbled up in spontaneous happiness. Above all it was wonderful always getting her own way. When Mama and Lord Melbourne insisted, for propriety's sake, on her attending a review at Hyde Park in a carriage rather than on horseback, she refused. The amused ballad-makers put her point of view in verse:
I will have a Horse, I'm determined on that,
If there is to be a review.
No horse, no review, my Lord Melbourne, that's flat,
In spite of Mama and of you.
She loved her work, even the endless communications from her ministers, and having her hands kissed nearly 3,000 times at a levee. Moneywise, she kept intact her sense of economy instilled over the years by Lehzen, putting aside the whole of her first Privy Purse to paying off Papa's debts. Her Civil List was an unbelievable £385,000. It was indeed her annus mirabilis. The diarist Thomas Creevey saw her at Brighton Pavilion, laughing so loud that she showed her not very pretty gums.
Crowned in Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838, she ran straight upstairs immediately afterwards to give Dash, her spaniel, his bath.
The man whose looks and words by now haunted her imagination was Lord Melbourne, whom she wrote about so much in her journal that he quickly became 'Lord M'. Lonely and hitherto rather cynical, he took a unique pleasure in offering a new, sophisticated vision of life to the young Queen. 'What happened to those poor Irish who were evicted by their landlords?' she once asked. (The Whigs under Melbourne had recently applied coercion and martial law to suffering, rebellious Ireland.) 'They become absorbed somehow or other,' replied Lord M. – which made the Queen and Prime Minister laugh 'amazingly'. The great Whig was not altogether a good influence, but she desperately needed love and self-confidence, and he gave her both.
After the coronation, Queen Victoria's relations with the Duchess deteriorated and so did her own peace of mind. She now called Lehzen her 'mother'. In revenge, the anti-Lehzen set spread hurtful rumours of 'foreign influences' at Court. One peculiarly damaging story concerned Mama suddenly entering Victoria's room to find her Uncle Leopold's secretary-doctor Stockmar sitting with her and all her state boxes open in front of him! The rift between mother and daughter ran through all the ladies of both households, but Melbourne stubbornly insisted that such rifts were common. He rejected all the Duchess's offers to dismiss Conroy – well provided for, of course. Victoria's personal actions were continually criticised by Mama: she had failed to give her mother due precedence at the coronation.
Why did not Uncle Leopold guide his niece and sister in this imbroglio? He was no longer Victoria's essential father-figure after Lord M. came along. Moreover, Leopold had married again and acquired a new family and a new job – King of the Belgians. His niece desperately needed a totally fresh guide, though she did not yet realise it. When Leopold sent Stockmar to be a liaison, it served only to step-up the hostile propaganda. Stockmar left in 1838.
Yet despite everything, Victoria had never lost her early popularity. Her 'Royal Progresses', as William IV sarcastically called her tours of England and Wales, had left her family rifts virtually unknown. Though wilful, she still seemed deliciously innocent, blushing at her first Privy Council. And it was an advantage to follow two 'wicked uncles' – Monarchs are so often judged by comparisons and contrasts. However, even with all her advantages, things could and did get worse.
It began as usual with 'Ma & J.C.', as Victoria now curtly referred in her journal to her mother's partnership with John Conroy. Victoria was already sad and indignant at the thought of Melbourne's future and the Whigs' inevitable defeat by the Tories, when it became apparent that Lady Flora Hastings, Mama's lady-in-waiting, was showing a swollen stomach. Lady Flora came from a great Tory family. Lehzen and Victoria, and probably also Melbourne, jumped to the conclusion that Lady Flora was 'with child!!' by J.C. The Queen forbore to mention even in her journal the name of the 'Monster & demon Incarnate' whose mistress Lady Flora surely was, but his initials appeared, she said, as the first words of the second line of that page. The horrific initials were J.C. The Queen was to assure the Prime Minister that neither she nor Lehzen had ever confided their suspicions to anyone. Nevertheless Queen Victoria and her foreign baroness were responsible for the spreading of the scandal in the public mind.
During the next few months things were to get worse for the Queen both in Parliament and the Palace. The political disaster she dreaded above all – losing her Whig government – seemed to be at hand. On 22 March 1839 the Whig policy of reform of plantations in Jamaica was defeated in the House of Lords. The emotional Queen burst into tears at the thought of 'ALL ALL my happiness being at stake' and could hardly stop crying. As she sat with Melbourne nearly a month later, 17 April, both of them lamenting the situation in Parliament and the Palace, a sudden thought came to her: at least there was an alternative to the latter, to life with Mama and that wretched Lady Flo. Marriage. Yes, she could marry Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, as Mama and Uncle Leopold wished. But it was a 'schocking [sic] alternative'. Suppose she married Albert and he took Mama's side? She dismissed the 'schocking' alternative from her mind.
Three days after the 'schocking' alternative had presented itself, 'new horrors' connected with the Jamaica Bill loomed up. Sure enough on 7 May Melbourne came to her with news of his resignation, together with two pieces of thoroughly bad advice for her as Queen. First, she should send for the old Duke of Wellington and persuade him to become Tory leader, and so the new Prime Minister, in place of Sir Robert Peel, the actual party leader. Wellington, of course, declined. Melbourne's bêtise showed how far even professional politicians were from understanding the way the party system would develop. No wonder Queen Victoria was to make mistakes.
Excerpted from Queen Victoria by Elizabeth Longford. Copyright © 2011 The Estate of Elizabeth Longford. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Born to be Queen, 1819-37 1
2 Prince Albert: A Safe Haven 13
3 The Age of Improvement, 1849-56 27
4 Death Comes for Albert 37
5 Seclusion, 1861-9 52
6 Royal Renaissance, 1870-86 69
7 Jubilees Golden, Diamond and White, 1887-1901 95
8 Queen of the Victorian Age 112
Family Tree 119
Notes and References 120
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a good introductory biography that covers Queen Victoria's life and reign; however, if you are looking for a thorough history, this is not it. Longford outlines facts and dates, but does not give much insight into the significance of the events described.
What a disappointment! It is short and provides little or no context. I consider it a waste of my time and money. I could have found more information merely by reading a wickipedia entry for Queen Victoria.