May 24 marks precisely 200 years since the birth of Queen Victoria. The biographer and historian A. N. Wilson assesses her life, personality, marriage to Albert, her later years and her extraordinary impact on the nation.
Bismarck crudely, but accurately, described Coburg as the stud farm of Europe. Victoria and Albert’s grandmother Auguste had done her best to marry off her children — one daughter to a Grand Duke of Russia and one son, Leopold, to the heir to the throne of England, Princess Charlotte.
When Charlotte died in 1817, it was essential that someone could be found to place another Coburger on the throne of Britain. Another daughter, Victoire, who had been on the shortlist of second wives for Napoleon after he discarded Joséphine, was selected for the role and married the Duke of Kent, one of George III’s sons, in 1818.
Their only daughter, Victoria, was born in Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819. It was always as a Coburger, destined to marry her cousin Albert, that she was regarded both by her German relations and by the hostile English Court of William IV.
Sure enough, when Victoria and Albert were married, when scarcely out of their teens, Baron Christian von Stockmar, who had been the constant companion and adviser of Leopold and Charlotte, came back into the frame, urging Albert to become a sort of enlightened despot.
This was never going to happen quite as Stockmar imagined, but there was always an interesting tension between Victoria and Albert’s intense interest in the political process and the politicians’ desire to marginalise the monarchy or make it basically a ceremonial role.
As is well known, after 22 years of marriage, Victoria was left a widow and had to spend the following 40 years essentially on her own. For the whole of this period, she was very much alone among the world leaders, alone among the British Establishment, the sole woman in the corridors of power.
In the latter years of her marriage, she had relied upon Albert for everything — he had even decided what clothes she should wear each morning. Although she had resisted it at first, he had developed more and more political influence, even if he didn’t have executive power. Disraeli said Albert had been ‘king in all but name’ when he died on December 14, 1861.
From the depths of heartbreak, Victoria managed to surface and to compel herself to carry out what duties were emotionally and physically possible. A key factor in her emotional recovery was her friendship with Albert’s Highland gillie, John Brown. Quite what this friendship was, no one knows. Norman Macleod, the Minister at Crathie Church near Balmoral, told his sister that he had performed a wedding ceremony for them, but no one would ever replace Prince Albert, the ‘Angel’, in her affections or esteem.
Victoria frequently referred to her husband as an angel both before and after he died. There is no doubting the sincerity of her love for him, but there was one great deficiency in the relationship. Whereas Victoria’s sense of humour was very pronounced, Albert did not possess one, although he did have a sense of fun. All Victoria’s intimates — Lord Melborne, John Brown, Lord Rosebery, Disraeli — are conspicuous for their marked sense of humour.
One of the things the Court and the royal children detested about the relationship with Brown was that the Queen and her friend were so often to be seen roaring with laughter, particularly when whisky had been consumed.
The politicians, especially the Liberals under the leadership of Gladstone, hated the Queen’s withdrawal from public life and her refusal to do even quite minimal ceremonial duties as the Garter Ceremony or the State Opening of Parliament. Victoria, however, managed political life in her own way.
It was by no means the case that she did nothing. She continued to promote Albert’s vision for Europe and his belief in a benign federal Germany that could spread through Europe their broadly liberal religious and political values.
To this end, they had married their first-born, Vicky, to the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858. Vicky would become the German Empress, for a very short time (because her husband had throat cancer and died aged 56), and then watch, horrified, as her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, led the newly formed German Empire into ever madder extremes of militaristic nationalism.
Albert’s legacy could, therefore, be seen to have failed here, despite Victoria’s best efforts. At home, however, whatever the politicians believed, the monarchy and the Queen grew in popularity, as was witnessed by the enormous enthusiasm shown by the London crowds, in both 1887 and 1897 for the two Jubilees.
By then, guided in part by her deep friendship with the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria had thrown herself wholeheartedly behind late-Victorian, jingoistic Imperialism. Ever proud of being the daughter of a soldier (Edward, Duke of Kent), Victoria had always taken a close interest in the army. She instituted the Victoria Cross after the Crimean War and it was Victoria who thought up the brilliant, simple motto of ‘For Valour’. Also typical of her was the idea that it was to be awarded to ordinary soldiers, as well as to officers. In her frail old age, she took a passionate, day-to-day interest in the Boer War.
She revelled in the title Empress of India and, although she never visited the sub-continent, she learnt Hindi and Urdu and scandalised her Court by installing halal butchers at Windsor Castle and treating her servant Abdul Karim — ‘the Munshi’ — as an equal.
Thanks to the internet, everyone can now easily access Queen Victoria’s journals, which are among the most remarkable records of the entire 19th century. We see how observant, passionate, funny and emotionally intelligent she was. The eccentric, wholly original Victoria defied many of the conventions of her time. She was blind to class and to colour and this was a key ingredient in the inclusiveness of British monarchy that it retains to this day.
Although republicans like to say that monarchy perpetuates the class system, Victoria demonstrated that the opposite is the case, as she cared nothing for it.
Pessimists often wrote off the monarchy in the early years of her reign. Despite their gloomy predictions, as well as her shyness and reclusiveness, Victoria passed on to her son Bertie, Edward VII, an institution that was stronger than it had ever been in its history.
The present Royal Family owes an immeasurable debt to her heritage.
A. N. Wilson is a biographer, novelist and journalist who has written dozens of volumes of both fiction and non-fiction. His 2014 book, Victoria: A Life, is regarded as one of the finest biographies written about Queen Victoria.