'He treats her with unbounded respect', wrote the diarist Charles Greville, of the behaviour of her first Prime Minister, the Whig Lord Melbourne, towards the 18-year-old Queen Victoria. 'He consults her tastes and wishes and puts her at her ease by his frank and natural manners, while he amuses her by his quaint, queer, epigrammatic turn of mind, and his varied knowledge upon all subjects.'
Victoria basked in Melbourne's skilful flattery. Her shyness, he assured her, was not only appealing, it was indicative of a sensitive temperament. Her smallness, of which she was continually conscious, was a positive advantage to a queen; her inexperience was all to the good: she came to her duties fresh and unprejudiced.
Melbourne endeavoured to curb her tendency to intolerance, and to a truthful directness that verged on tactlessness, but the advice was given in such a kind and fatherly way that she never resented it. Nor did she mind when he warned her that, having inherited a tendency to plumpness from her German forebears, she was liable to grow very fat.
While the Queen's feelings for Melbourne, as Greville suggested, may have been sexual, 'though she did not know it', she herself said that she loved him 'like a father'. She forgave him when he began talking to himself and when he fell asleep after dinner, snoring loudly, as he often did in chapel.
She listened to him carefully when he instructed her about the political problems of the day, about the workings of Parliament and the Cabinet, and about the mysteries of the constitution. It cannot, however, be said that Lord Melbourne aroused the conscience of the young, naïve girl whom it was his duty to educate and instruct. Indeed, he assured her, for instance, that attempts by Lord Shaftesbury to improve the conditions of children working in the mines were quite unnecessary.
Nor did he give her sound advice when a court lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, dying of cancer of the liver, was falsely accused of becoming pregnant by Victoria's 'bête noir', Sir John Conroy. The young queen was at first inclined to believe the worst of Lady Flora, as she did of Conroy. When the matter became a public scandal, the Queen's early popularity began to fade away. Her carriage was stoned at Lady Flora's funeral, and she was hissed at while she was at the theatre. She was also under attack at Ascot, where two ladies in the crowd shouted 'Mrs Melbourne!' at her.
Sir Robert Peel
The Queen became embroiled in the first serious constitutional crisis of her reign when, at the beginning of 1839, she heard the alarming news that Melbourne's Whig government, facing defeat on a colonial issue in the House of Commons, would have to resign. The Duke of Wellington was shocked by her petulance at the time, and by her tearful distress at the prospect of having to deal with Tories, which were one of the things, she said, like insects and turtle soup, she hated most in all the world.
Although he was a confirmed Tory, the Queen could have tolerated Wellington as Melbourne's successor; but he protested that he was too old and deaf, and told her that she must summon the Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel. She was mortified by this: Peel was so difficult to talk to; his extreme shyness in her presence made her feel shy too, while his nervous mannerisms, his irritating habits of pointing his toes and thrusting out his hands to shake down his cuffs, reminded her of a dancing master.
When he tentatively asked for some changes in her household, in which most of her ladies were Whigs or married to Whigs, she refused to consider the matter. Faced by her stubborn pertness, Peel was compelled to give way, and Melbourne remained in office.
In 1841, however, after a general election, the Tories came to power under Peel and the Queen, by then married to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was persuaded to take a less hostile view of her new Prime Minister. Indeed, under the influence of Prince Albert, she came to share her husband's high opinion of Peel's character and attachments, and to approve his policies. He, for his part, in his dealings with the queen, did all he could to follow the advice of Melbourne, who asked Charles Greville to pass it on for him:
Some time later, on this occasion through Prince Albert's private secretary, Sir George Anson, Melbourne added another piece of advice for Peel: 'Don't irritate her by talking at her about religion'. Peel took care to follow this advice also, and, when he was forced to resign, she was as sorry to part with him as he was to leave her. It was, he said, 'one of the most painful moments' of his life. And when he died in 1850, she deeply lamented the loss of 'a kind and true friend', her 'worthy Peel, a man of unbounded loyalty, courage, patriotism and highmindedness'.
The Lords Russell and Palmerston
Victoria felt Peel's loss even more keenly since his successor was the Liberal Lord John Russell, son of the Duke of Bedford. He was a short and emaciated man, not noticeably taller than his dumpy monarch - who found him stubborn, opinionated and graceless.
Worse than this, he either could not or would not curb the excesses of his tiresome, high-handed Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, who provided her with drafts of despatches after the originals had been sent, took no notice of her or her husband's suggested amendments to them, and, having agreed to mend his ways, carried on as before. The Queen told Russell more than once that the day would come when she would have to insist on Palmerston's dismissal.
This, however, was not to be; and in 1855, during the war against Russia in the Crimea, Palmerston came to power as the only one of her ministers considered capable of leading the country to victory. The Queen was horrified: the rude old man was over 70 by then, deaf and short-sighted with wobbly false teeth and dyed hair.
Palmerston, moreover, had greatly shocked Prince Albert by stumbling into the bedroom of one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting at Windsor, in the unfulfilled hope of seducing her. Yet, against all expectations, difficult as he had been as Foreign Secretary, Palmerston proved perfectly amenable in office, polite and accommodating.
Prince Albert agreed that of all the Prime Ministers they had had, Lord Palmerston was the one who gave the least trouble. It was fortunate that he had mellowed, for it was he who had to deal with the queen when she was overwhelmed with grief at the death of her beloved husband in 1861. She was inconsolable at her loss, and retreated from the affairs of state into a lonely purdah from which, for many years, it proved impossible to entice her.
At first in her distress she feared she would go mad. She felt she could not bear to see her ministers alone, and she told the Prime Minister that they would have to conduct their business either through one of her daughters or through General Grey, her Private Secretary.
When Lord Palmerston pressed her to accept the fact that this method of conducting business was impossible, she gave way with great and tearful reluctance. But she insisted that she was not up to the strain of attending meetings of the Privy Council. In this difficulty a strange compromise was reached.
The recently appointed Clerk of the Council was Arthur Helps, an astute and tactful man whom the Queen came to like and to trust; it was agreed that he and the requisite number of councillors should stand in one room while the Queen should sit in the next with the door between them open. She would then authorise Helps to give her assent to the matters laid before the councillors for their approval.
Disraeli, Gladstone and the later years
Six years later the Queen's misery was much alleviated by the appointment of the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. From the beginning Disraeli set out to woo and flatter her with an infallible instinct for the phrase, the gesture, the compliment, the overture that would most delight her. He was later to tell a colleague who had asked for advice how to handle the Queen, 'First of all, remember she is woman'.
He never forgot this himself. 'The present man will do well', she told her eldest daughter. 'He is very peculiar, thoroughly Jewish looking ... but very clever and sensible ... He is full of poetry, romance and chivalry. When he knelt down to kiss my hand, he said "In loving loyalty and faith."'
All this was in marked contrast to Disraeli's great rival, the Liberal, WE Gladstone, who, she said, addressed her as though she were a public meeting. She could not bear Gladstone, that 'mischievous firebrand, arrogant, tyrannical and obstinate', a 'half-crazy and in many ways ridiculous, wild and incomprehensible old fanatic'. She had to put up with him intermittently from 1868 until 1894; and when he died in 1898 she could not - truthful and obstinate as ever - bring herself to say that she was sorry.
Her final years were far more tranquil. The Tory Lord Salisbury, who formed his first cabinet in 1885, was infinitely more understanding than Gladstone, and well understood that Victoria 'was not to be overpressed, never dictated to'. Lord Rosebery, Salisbury's Liberal rival, was equally amenable, although not always reliable: he required, and was given, frequent lectures as though he were a schoolboy.
A criticism by him of the House of Lords, for instance, provoked a stern rebuke: he should never have spoken in a manner calculated 'to flatter useless Radicals' without first consulting the queen and obtaining her sanction.
Throughout Victoria's reign she had held to the belief, inculcated in her by Prince Albert's German mentor, Baron von Stockmar, that the Prime Minister was merely the 'temporary head of the Cabinet', while the monarch was the 'permanent premier'. It was a supposition that the monarchy in the next century was obliged to abandon.