Victorian Age: Political Background


Queen Victoria in 1887. Vintage engraving circa late 19th century. Digital restoration by Pictore.

Queen Victoria became the queen of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland in 1837 after the death of her Uncle, King William IV, and continued her reign until her death on January 22, 1901. She was also the Empress of India (1876-1901). She was the last Hanoverian Monarch to rule the United Kingdom. Her reign is also known as the Victorian age, and is one of longest in the British history. She and her husband, Prince Albert had nine children through which descended many of the Royal Families in Europe.

During Victoria’s reign British monarchy transformed into its modern ceremonial character. When she became queen, the political role of the crown was not clear. Even the permanence of British throne itself was doubtful. When William IV died, George III had left no legitimate heir among his fifteen children. One of his son Edward, duke of Kent, fathered his only child, Alexandrina Victoria. However, when Edward died, George IV became king in 1820, and Victoria became third in the line of succession to the throne after the Duke of York (who died in 1827) and the Duke of Clarence (who later became king William IV) whose children died in infancy. Thus, when William IV died, Victoria accessed the British throne. However, because of the Salic law in Hanover, which prevented woman to become ruler, the crown of Great Britain and Hanover became separated. The Hanoverian throne passed to William IV’s eldest surviving brother, Ernest Augustus, the unpopular Duke of Cumberland.

The prime minister, Lord Melbourne was an important influence on Victoria and she became an ardent Whig under his influence. Her unconstitutional biasness to one political party led to the first two crisis of her reign in 1839. Due to her mistaken suspicion about the pregnancy of a maid honour, Lady Flora Hastings, her popularity was influenced just after her coronation. After the “Hastings” affair, there occurred a “bedchamber” crisis, when Robert Peel, the conservative leader, declined to take office after Melbourne’s resignation in 1839. In 1840,Victoria married her first cousin, Albert, prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Her marriage to Albert nullified Melbourne’s influence on her as well as lessened her enthusiasm for the Whigs. Albert shifted Victoria’s political sympathies and became the dominant figure and influence in her life. Gradually, she became increasingly dependent on Albert. She was now ruling with her husband.
During 1845 and 1855,Victoria and Albert build royal residences of Osborne, on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they frequently retreated with privacy and intimacy. Their withdrawal to Scotland and Isle of Wight bore witness to a new sort of British Monarchy, in which Albert and Victoria led a life that mirrored that of their middle class subjects. Victoria enjoyed the novels of Charles Dickens and patronized the circus and waxwork exhibitions. In 1846, the couple supported the repeal of the Corn Laws, a protectionist legislation that kept the price of British grain artificially high, in order to relieve distress in Ireland badly influenced by famine. However, they were more interested and involved in the building of Osborne and foreign policy. Many of Victoria’s people lived in “untold misery”— a fact Victoria rarely confronted.

The culmination of Victoria’s reign came in 1851, with the opening of the Great Exhibition—an international trade show that became a symbol of the Victorian Age. The Exhibition was organized in Crystal Palace, a greenhouse-inspired glass building in Hyde Park. The Great Exhibition was organized to display Britain’s wealth and technological achievements to the world.

Victoria and Albert had relatives throughout Europe. They visited and were visited by other monarchs. Albert was determined that the queen should never be dominated and controlled by the ministers. This resulted into a clash with the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, a powerful figure in the contemporary politics. The prince distrusted Palmerston’s character, disapproved of his methods, thought his policies shallow and disagreed with his concept of the Constitution. After Albert’s death, Victoria’s disapproval of Palmerston diminished. Her views concerning domestic and foreign policies also changed and was in accordance with those of Palmerston.

During the Crimean War (1854-56), the Royal pair witnessed a wave of unpopularity, and Albert was ungroundedly suspected of trying to influence the government in favour of the Russian cause. This unpopularity soon withered as the war ended. With the death of Prince Albert on December 14, 1861, the Albertine monarchy ended. However, Albert’s influence of the queen was lasting. Albert had changed her personal habits and her political sympathies. From him, Victoria received the training of maintaining order and balance in her approaches to deal with private and public matters. Under Albert’s influence, the British monarchy has changed. In the words of G. M. Young, the historian, British monarchy had become an “indefinable” yet “potent” influence in place of a “definite” but “brittle” authority.

After Albert’s death, Victoria entered into a phase of deep depression. She resisted to perform ceremonial functions expected of the monarch. Her subjects, after an initial period of respect and sympathy for Queen’s grief, grew increasingly impatient with the queen absence. Although, the queen always remained determined to retain an effective political role as Albert would have expected of her. Soon, the queen became interested in the most famous political rivalry of the 19th century.

She became a partisan (devotee) of Benjamin Disraeli, a powerful figure in the Conservative Party (i.e, Tory Party), and supported his ideologies, against those of Gladstone, Disraeli’s political rival whom the Prince had approved. Victoria was entranced by Disraeli’s imperialism and by his assertive foreign policy, but was least interested in his program of social reform. The addition of the title of the “Empress of India” in 1876 to the Royal title thrilled the queen even more. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, Disraeli demanded the Britain enter the war against Russia. After this war, Russian influence in the Balkans was reduced, and the British gained control of a crucial location, island of Cyprus. The queen was very glad.

In 1880, however, the Conservative (Tory) Party was defeated and Gladstone became the Prime Minister, whom Victoria abhorred (hated). She disliked Gladstone’s lack of Disraelian vision of Britain’s role in the world. She was convinced that Gladstone’s government was dominated by Radicals and was a threat to nation’s stability. In 1884, a third parliamentary reform was enacted which was made possible with queen’s crucial mediating influence to enable a compromise between the two houses. This parliamentary reform limited the role of monarchy as a necessary cabinet maker. The queen was reluctant to accept her more limited role. Thus, in 1886, she tried to avoid a third Gladstone ministry but failed.

With Salisbury as her Prime Minister (1895 – 1902), Victoria found a ministry with which she was comfortable during the last years of her reign. During her final years she was influenced by the South African war (1899-1902). The sufferings of her soldiers in South Africa inspired the level of Queen’s activity and public visibility that she had avoided for decades. She finally became a symbol of a modern Monarch with her demanding schedule of troop inspections, medal ceremonies and visits to military hospitals.

Victoria’s long reign in a time of swift change raised her symbolic value which, in turn, grew her popularity. With each advancing year her popularity upsurged among her middle and poorer class subjects. Nevertheless, she mostly remained unattached or in opposition to many of the important political, social and intellectual ideologies of the later Victorian period. She never welcomed innovation although, her reign was shaped by the new technology like the advent of railroad and telegraph. Until very end, Victoria maintained her habit of hard work that Albert had taught her. She remained passionate and strong-willed.

Victoria made monarchy in England respectable and thereby guaranteed its continuance—not as a political power but as a political Institution. The queen died after a short and painless illness. She was buried beside Prince Albert in Windsor. With her long reign, the longest in British history until that of Elizabeth II (1952-2022). Queen Victoria had restored the dignity and popularity of the withering British crown. She is remembered for her high sense of duty, transparent honesty and the massive simplicity of her Royal character.


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