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Queen Victoria was a symbol of Britain’s people and her Empire

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Thursday, 28 March 2013

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This edited article about Queen Victoria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 215 published on 26 February 1966.

Queen Victoria, picture, image, illustration

A photograph of Queen Victoria taken in 1887 on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee

We now come to the Queen herself who gave her name to a most important period of British history.

This was a remarkable achievement, for the heritage to which she succeeded was certainly not an easy one. The first four Georges had been extremely unpopular, and deservedly so. William IV, the Queen’s uncle and immediate predecessor on the throne, was only a little better. Victoria raised the prestige of the crown to a greater height than for several hundred years.

We have seen that the Victorian Age was very far from being one of uniformity, and as it recedes into the historical background it is easier to distinguish the lights and shades on the canvas. There was a world of difference between the men and women of 1837 and those of 1901, and of this transformation the Queen herself was the outward and visible sign. When she was a child she had known the contemporaries of George Washington and Napoleon; when she died Sir Winston Churchill was already a Member of Parliament. Not only were the material changes during the period immense, but there had been a revolution in outlook. When she came to the throne her subjects were much what they had been under her grandfather, George III; when she died the first whisperings had been heard of the Welfare State.

By the end of the reign the Queen had become a legend, but there had been occasions when she was very unpopular. It was freely stated at the time of her Coronation that this would be the last of such events, and that the country would become a republic. Victoria completely reversed this tendency, and left the monarchy stronger than it had been for a very long time. She was, too, a very different woman when she ascended the throne from what she was when she died, and the change was due to Albert, Prince Consort.

Of the Queen’s devotion to him there can be no question, and she was broken-hearted when he died in 1861. “It was the first grief he caused me,” she used to say in later years; and as she herself lay dying her last words were a cry of “Albert, Albert, Albert.” Yet she was almost alone in her affection for him. He was a man of high ideals and many intellectual interests, and he did much to promote science, learning, philanthropy and public decorum. To too many English people, however, he was an insignificant German princeling, wholly unworthy to marry a Queen of England, and his manners were unhappily stiff and reserved.

He never became really popular with the aristocracy or the working man, but it was otherwise with the middle classes, and they were the dominant factor in the national life in the nineteenth century. His solid qualities appealed to them, and they felt that he understood them. He could talk to them of schools and docks, of architecture and warehouses, and with them he slowly but surely became an undoubted success. He interpreted their point-of-view to the Queen, and with such accuracy that in due course a Prime Minister was to say: “If ever I want to know what the middle-classes are thinking, I always ask Her Majesty’s opinion.”

In foreign affairs the Prince exercised a moderating influence upon both his wife and her advisers, and that this was the case was largely due to the fact that as a foreigner he was able to regard the problems of his adopted country in a far more detached manner than was possible for an Englishman. At the time of the Indian Mutiny there was a good deal of bitter feeling in Britain against the Indians, and the Queen wrote to the Governor-General of India saying that so far as she was concerned: “They should know that there is no hatred to a brown skin – none; but the greatest wish on their Queen’s part to see them happy, contented and flourishing.” Would she have taken quite the same line in the pre-Albert period? It is at least doubtful.

After her husband’s death the Queen withdrew from public life for many years, and this occasioned a revival of her earlier unpopularity – there was even a definite, if short-lived, republican movement. In her recent biography of Victoria, the Countess of Longford gives Disraeli the credit for lifting “the monarchy out of the trough which was its greatest danger”: without him, she goes on: “The Queen might have gone down to the grave an unpopular recluse, carrying with her a discredited British monarchy.”

Within a few years this unpopularity was merely an evil memory, for in 1897 there took place the Diamond Jubilee, when the Empire rallied round the throne in a demonstration of loyalty to Queen and Motherland, such as had never been seen before.

At half-past six on the evening of Tuesday, January 22, 1901, the Queen died, aged eighty-one years and eight months. Although the event was not unexpected, it came as a tremendous shock to the majority of the British people. She had held her high office for so long that popular fancy had begun to regard her as immortal.

Only those people over seventy could remember her predecessor on the throne, and in the sixty-four years which had elapsed since her accession, she had become something more than a monarch; she had become an institution, an enduring symbol of the majesty of her people and an emblem of the unity of an empire which comprised more than one-fifth part of the habitable globe.

The fact that her death occurred within a few weeks of the turn of the century tended to increase the general consciousness that the passing of the great Queen marked very distinctly and emphatically the end of an age and the dawn of a new era.

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