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The death of Queen Victoria, Episode 72 - 23/05/06


The funeral cortege of Victoria (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

The funeral cortege of Victoria
(Getty Images)
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Queen Victoria, Empress of India, died on 22 January 1901. Her 440 million subjects felt safe while Victoria was on the throne; but with her passing, the empire settled uneasily after the official and popular mourning. The empire was, as one sermon preached ex cathedra in South Africa, reflected, "burying the Great White Queen beloved and revered by races, diverse from our own, within the sway of her sceptre."

Hardly any event in those or any other times could have expected to touch so many millions of different race as did the death Victoria. When mourning finished, that same empire contemplated its own mortality. The Anglo-Boer War, had shown that the British were not so invincible as previously thought. The war demonstrated an often hopelessly incompetent military and a political system lacking in direction.

Moreover, Victoria's death was coincidental with the change to a less confident era of British politics that within a few years would need to introduce reforms in India, contemplate losing Ireland, face the challenge of a recalcitrant House of Lords and be surrounded by the new element in Westminster politics, socialism. There would be a world war to confirm Britain's imperial vulnerability and a series of events in Russia that would signal the biggest single change in world politics that the 20th century would witness. Henry James confessed a grief he had not expected for the running down of an old used-up watch. The death of his "little mysterious Victoria" had "let loose incalculable forces for possible ill".

But then that was perhaps because he loathed the thought of the Prince of Wales being king. Edward thought that almost everyone had been afraid of Victoria. In a sense, that summed up the Victorians. Until the 1890s, everyone was afraid of them. In that exaggeration is the image of the imperial rule of those six decades. It was a reign of no compromise. Bertie, Prince of Wales now Edward VII meant a new era.

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Historical Figure

Edward Vll (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Edward Vllx
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Edward Vll 1841-1910

Edward was created shortly after his birth, Prince of Wales. Much of his life, with no onerous duties, he enjoyed a high time for which he was often and certainly later, criticized. Like his Hanoverian predecessors as POW, Bertie (as the family called him) established his own set, which critics in royal circles, suggested made him a less than ideal heir to the throne. For this reason, he wasn't allowed to see important Cabinet papers. He married, in 1863, the popular Alexandra of Denmark. The prince also had other lady friends. As king, his personality strengthened the monarchy. Although a political light-weight, Edward VII refused in 1910 to be bullied into creating new peers so that the government could force through the Parliament Bill. He insisted that first there had to be a general election.

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Did You Know...

While they waited for Victoria's funeral to start, the Kaiser and the kings of the Belgians and Portugal stood in the corridor at Windsor Castle smoking their cigars. They would never have dared do that when she had been alive.

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Contemporary Sources

Queen Victoria's death - reactions from the Empire
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister, addressed the Canadian House of Commons

"In the first year of the Queen's reign there was rebellion in this very country. There was rebellion in the foremost colony of Great Britain, rebellion in Lower Canada, rebellion in Upper Canada, rebellion against the pernicious system of government. This rebellion was put down by force, and if the question had been put "What shall be the condition of these colonies at the end of Victoria's reign?", the universal answer would have been "Let the end of the reign be near or let it be remote, but when it ends these rebellious colonies shall have wrenched their independence, or they shall be sullen and discontented, kept down by force."

But, sir, today the rebellious colonies are, in the nation of Canada, acknowledging the supremacy of the Crown of England, maintaining that supremacy not by force of arms, but simply by their own affection, with only one garrison in Canada at this present moment, and that garrison manned by Canadian volunteers. What has been the cause of that change? The cause is primarily the personality of Queen Victoria. If the people of England had not been ruled by a wise Queen, if they had not possessed parliamentary Government in the truest sense of the term, if the British parliament had been as it had been under former kings in open confrontation with the sovereign, then it is quite manifest that Canada could not have enjoyed the development of constitutional government which she enjoys today."

Queen Victoria's death - reactions from the Empire
Theodore Wirgman, canon of Grahamstown Cathedral in the eastern Cape.

"This day the whole Empire is in sympathy with that simple and solemn ceremony in the historic Chapel of Windsor. The Empire is mourning throughout its length and breadth, and this afternoon the thunder of the guns of our Navy, which the Queen loved so well, will be heard girdling the world with their solemn note of grief and mourning. Our hearts are beating in unison this day with those of our brothers and sisters throughout the Empire...

We are burying the Great White Queen, beloved and revered by races, diverse from our own, within the sway of her sceptre. Think how the Empress of India is mourned this day by millions of her faithful subjects in that distant land. Think of our own South African natives, and the natives of New Zealand and our other colonies and dependencies, who are this day mourning in sympathy with us of the ruling class. I do not believe that any event in the world's history has so moved and touched men of different races and occasioned such sincere, true, and sympathetic mourning as the death of Her Majesty the Queen has done. As we think today of our own South Africa scourged by war, and torn by bitter dissensions and race feuds, we feel that we can forget for a time our sorrows and troubles in sympathy with the universal sorrow of the Empire."

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