Queen Victoria had such an immense impact on British history that we sometimes forget that she rose to the throne at a time when the royal family’s reputation was desperately low. By the end of her reign she had not only transformed people’s perceptions – garnering widespread adulation and affection from her subjects in the process – but she was seen as the personification of the nation’s confidence and power. In light of this great turn around, this article examines the question of whether we can say that she was responsible for saving the monarchy.
The house of Hanover: George III
Queen Victoria’s reign has to be understood in the light of those who preceded her. At the end of the eighteenth century the monarchy was in relatively good health, thanks to the long-serving George III (1738-1820, reigning from 1860). Although he is often depicted differently in America, because of his involvement in the Revolutionary war, he was a devout and popular King. Nevertheless, this was by no means the reputation of his family as a whole, as he was appalled by the loose morals of his brothers. Indeed, after Prince Henry married a commoner in 1771, he passed an unpopular law banning royalty from marrying without the monarch’s consent. In his later years, he became increasingly unable to rule effectively, as he suffered from recurring bouts of mental illness, culminating in almost permanent insanity. This led to the Regency Act being passed (1811), which allowed his son to take over.
Although he shared the same name as his father, George IV (1762-1830) could hardly have been more different. Known as the ‘first gentleman of England’, the fashion-loving Regent was the first monarch to have little personal influence over either of the political parties, as he was viewed as irresponsible, unreliable and selfish. His extravagant lifestyle, which involved a great deal of drinking and womanising, inevitably led to financial difficulties, but his father refused to help him unless he married an appropriate wife. As a result, despite having had one unsanctioned (unofficial) marriage and many mistresses, he was eventually forced to marry Caroline of Brunswick. Unsurprisingly, the ill-suited couple soon separated, but not before they had produce an heir, Charlotte, a popular princess through whom it was assumed succession would continue. Such was the strength of feeling against the King, that when he finally died in 1830, The Times declared that ‘there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures’.
The succession race
It was the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn son, that set off a succession race amongst the royal dukes. Up until that point, it had been assumed that the monarchy would pass down her line, which is one of the reasons why some of the subsequent Kings had what you might call ‘colourful’ pasts, as they were simply not expecting to reach the throne. The next oldest Prince, Frederick, had had a short-lived marriage that produced no heirs, nor would he succeed to the throne, as had already passed away (1827) by the time George died.
In 1830, the crown passed to William (1763-1837), the third of George III’s sons, who was unsurprisingly seen as an upgrade from his brother. The former sailor had not expected to be King and spent much of his early life with an Irish actress, Dorothea Bland, with whom he had ten illegitimate children. When it became apparent that he was best-placed to produce an heir to the throne, he married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Although she was half his age, they enjoyed a happy life together, but were unable to produce any successors, as they had two short-lived daughters and a number of miscarriages. Although the King presided over a number of important reforms, his reputation was badly tarnished at the end of his reign, when he refused to create more Lords in order to push through electoral change. He ended up trying to reinstate a political faction that lacked sufficient support, thereby achieving the dubious distinction of being the last monarch to appoint a Prime Minister against the wishes of parliament.
A young Queen of hearts
Despite only being the fifth in line to the throne when she was born, it was Victoria, aged eighteen, who, against all the odds, became the next monarch in 1837 (her father having died in 1820). It is easy to forget how unusual she was, as she was not only a woman, but also very young. John Plunkett has pointed out how the former was an important part of her popularity, as she was seen as not only a Queen, but also subsequently a wife and a mother. Furthermore, her age not only ensured that she did not come with some of the previous ‘baggage’ that many of the older Princes were renowned for, but it also gave her the potential for the kind of long reign that her grandfather had enjoyed.
A reign of three parts
Historians sometimes divide Victoria’s reign into three distinct parts. During her early years as Queen (1837-1861), she settled not only into her royal duties, but also into family life with her relationship with Albert contributing to the ideal of domesticity that was becoming prevalent at the time. The second part of her reign was one of withdrawal, after she entered a protracted period of mourning, following the death of Albert (in 1861). The final part of her life (from around 1872 onwards) was one of gradual rehabilitation, as she returned to the limelight, culminating in a number of public events to celebrate her life, most notably her golden (1887) and diamond (1897) jubilees. Indeed, David Cannadine argues that this transition towards shows of pomp and grandeur was an important part in elevating the popularity of the monarchy.
Reining in a revolution?
Although there is no doubt that the Queen greatly improved the reputation of the royal family, it does not mean that she necessary ‘saved’ the monarchy. Whilst there was a lot of popular radicalism sweeping across Europe in the early part of her reign, there were many reasons why Britain did not experience a French-style revolution, including the influence of evangelical religion (such as Methodism), electoral and social reforms, economic growth and working class activism being channelled into different areas. The domestic threat posed by Chartism had dissipated by the 1850s and although Victoria’s subsequent retreat from public life encouraged some republican sentiment, as Kate Williams points out, she successfully reconnected the royal family to the people, by forging a new public role involving civic duties.
An endearing exception or a lasting legacy?
If we are to give Victoria the credit for restoring the reputation of the monarchy, it is also fair to ask what legacy she left. After all, the Queen was succeeded by her son, Edward, whose extravagant living and persistent womanising seems to have been a throw-back to the earlier generations of Princes. Perhaps this should lead us to the conclusion that, when it came to the private behaviour of the royal family, Victoria was more of an endearing exception to the rule, in the mould of her grandfather, rather than someone who established an enduring standard that her successors adhered to. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Edward and the future Kings and Queen of Britain had much to thank their iconic predecessor for, as Victoria not only did much to restore the monarchy’s reputation, but she also established practices that left a lasting legacy that helped them to maintain their on-going popularity.