Queen Victoria: The woman who redefined Britain’s monarchy

A headstrong head of state

This week marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth.

Queen Victoria restored the reputation of a monarchy tarnished by the extravagance of her royal uncles. She also shaped a new role for the Royal Family, reconnecting it with the public through civic duties.

At just 4ft 11in tall, Victoria was a towering presence as a symbol of her Empire. She and her husband Albert and their nine children came to symbolise a new, confident age.

24 May 1819

A queen in waiting

Alexandrina Victoria was born to the Duchess of Kent. Her father was the fourth son of George III and she was fifth in line to the throne.

However, she had three elderly uncles ahead of her in the succession. So when her father died when she was eight months her prospects of becoming queen were good. The princess, known as Victoria, was raised at Kensington Palace. She was educated by her governess Baroness Lehzen, who taught her languages, arithmetic, drawing and music. Her widowed mother was lonely and depended utterly on John Conroy – a servant of her former husband who was bent on power.

A portrait of a young Princess Victoria and her mother Victoria, Duchess of Kent in 1824.
A portrait of Princess Victoria and her mother Victoria, Duchess of Kent in 1824.

1820 -1837

A controlled childhood

After the death of two uncles, the teenage Victoria became heir to her final surviving uncle King William IV.

But Victoria's youth was dominated by strict rules known as the 'Kensington System'. These rules included sharing a room with her mother and having no time alone. The system was designed by John Conroy, who hoped to manipulate her to gain further power and influence. When Victoria was 13 she was taken on a tour of the Midlands so that Conroy and her mother could show her off to the public. The princess found it exhausting and became increasingly stubborn. She started writing a diary.

An engraved portrait showing Victoria in 1834.
An engraved portrait showing Victoria in 1834. She had a sheltered childhood.

20 June 1837

Victoria becomes Queen

Victoria succeeded her uncle William IV, just weeks after her 18th birthday. Her first request was an hour alone, something denied to her until then.

Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace making it her official royal residence in London. She began exerting her will by exiling her mother to live in distant rooms. She also banned John Conroy the courtier who made her childhood miserable – from her state apartments. The young Queen was charmed by her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who was both fatherly and admiring. She became the richest woman in the world after Parliament granted her an annuity of £385,000.

Picture showing Victoria being welcomed into the City of London for the first time as Queen.
Victoria is welcomed into the City of London for the first time as Queen.

28 June 1838

A slightly chaotic coronation

A crowd of 400,000 gathered on the streets of London to catch a glimpse of the Queen on her Coronation Day. She was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

She wore robes of white satin and red velvet. The five-hour ceremony was a little chaotic as the Dean of Westminster, who had presided over previous coronations, was ill. Victoria was handed the orb at the wrong moment and the Archbishop of Canterbury forced a ring on the wrong finger, which took her an hour to remove. After the ceremony Victoria returned to Buckingham Palace for a family banquet and watched fireworks from her mother’s balcony.

The Queen is shown kneeling in Westminster Abbey on her Coronation Day.
The Queen is shown kneeling in Westminster Abbey on her Coronation Day.

1839

The Bedchamber Crisis

The Queen made some unwise choices early in her reign as she allowed her emotions to sway her judgement.

Victoria believed false pregnancy allegations against her popular lady-in-waiting Lady Flora Hastings, and was booed by the public. She was also engulfed in a political crisis when the Whig government fell and Lord Melbourne resigned. Tory politician Robert Peel agreed to become prime minister provided Victoria replaced some of her Whig ladies-in-waiting with Tory ones. She refused and reappointed Lord Melbourne. The Queen’s act was criticised as being unconstitutional.

Lady Flora Hastings, Queen Victoria's popular lady-in-waiting
Many believed that Lady Flora Hastings had been victimised by the Queen.

10 February 1840

A royal white wedding

Victoria fell in love with her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha when he visited Britain in 1839.

As head of state she had to propose to him. The couple were married the following year. Victoria wore a large white wedding dress and had a tiered wedding cake. This started a new tradition among brides who in the past had worn their Sunday best to the ceremony. The relationship was a passionate one and Victoria often lost her temper with her new husband. Albert took on the role of 'moral tutor' to Victoria, which irritated her but meant she relied more heavily on him.

An illustration of Victoria and Albert's wedding in the Illustrated London News.
An illustration of Victoria and Albert's wedding in the Illustrated London News.

10 June 1840

Victoria survives an assassination attempt

The Queen – who often rode in an open carriage – was the target of eight attempts to kill or assault her during her lifetime.

In the first attempt a teenager called Edward Oxford fired at her as she was out driving with Albert near Buckingham Palace. The gunman was seized by onlookers. The Queen was shaken but managed to smile at crowds on her return trip through Hyde Park. Oxford was later found to be of ‘unsound mind’ and sent to Bedlam (the state criminal lunatic asylum). He was released in 1867 and deported to Australia. All of the Queen’s assailants worked alone and were judged to have mental health conditions.

A lithograph depicting the first assassination attempt on Victoria.
A lithograph depicting the first assassination attempt on Victoria.

21 November 1840

A new royal family

Victoria fell pregnant soon after her wedding and gave birth to her daughter Victoria nine months later.

The Queen hated childbirth and suffered postnatal depression. Despite this she had nine children with Albert over 16 years. An astute diplomat, she helped them marry into the royal families of Europe. Victoria carried the haemophilia gene, which affected 10 of her male descendants including the son and heir of Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert depicted in 1846 with five of their children.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert depicted in 1846 with five of their children.

1842

Love affair with Scotland

Victoria and Albert visited Scotland for the first time. They thought it romantic and wild. The Highlands reminded Albert of his home in Germany.

The couple bought Balmoral in Scotland and from 1853 to 1856 Albert supervised the building of a new neo-Gothic castle for the family. It remains a private residence for the Royal Family today. Victoria promoted the monarchy in Scotland through frequent visits. She attended several Highland Games and wrote a bestselling book, Highland Leaves, about her experiences, which boosted tourism to the country.

'Scottishness' at Balmoral. Balmoral (BBC Four, 2009).

3 February 1852

A new parliamentary tradition

The Queen began new royal traditions when she attended the first State Opening of Parliament in the new Palace of Westminster.

The original building had been demolished by fire in 1834. The Queen arrived in the Irish State Coach, which had been built the year before and processed through Parliament before making her speech. The protocols and traditions established then have been followed by every British monarch since.

The Irish State Coach that has been used for the State Opening of Parliament since 1852.
The Irish State Coach has been used for the State Opening of Parliament since 1852.

7 September 1858

Victoria and Albert redefine what it means to be Queen

Victoria, with the assistance of Albert, created a newly visible constitutional monarchy to stem a growing republican movement in Britain.

Victoria became patron of 150 institutions, including dozens of charities, while Albert supported the development of educational museums. The couple went on civic visits to industrial towns such as Leeds, and attended military reviews to support the armed forces. Together they helped stem criticism that the Royal Family didn't earn its keep.

The royal procession on its way to open the new town hall in Leeds.
The royal procession on its way to open the new town hall in Leeds. The Illustrated London News.

29 January 1856

The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross was introduced by Queen Victoria to honour acts of great bravery during the Crimean War. It was awarded on merit instead of rank.

The Crimean War was fought by an alliance of countries including Britain against Russia. The Queen was suspected of secretly supporting the Russian Tsar. However, she allayed suspicions by taking an interest in the nursing of wounded soldiers. She also awarded the first Victoria Crosses personally to 62 men at a ceremony at Hyde Park in 1857. It was the first time officers and men had been decorated together.

The Illustrated London News revealing the first recipients of the VC.
The Illustrated London News reveals the first recipients of the VC.

1860

Royal photographs sold to the public

A set of 14 photos, known as Carte de Visites, was created of the Royal Family.

More than 60,000 copies were sold, despite having a hefty price tag of four pounds and four shillings. It marked the beginning of photographic celebrity culture. Women tried to replicate Victoria's fashions while some men copied Albert's hairstyle and moustache.

How Victoria and Albert became celebrities. The World's Most Photographed: Queen Victoria (BBC Two, 2014).

14 December 1861

The death of Albert

Prince Albert died at the age of 42. The Queen was inconsolable with grief and wore mourning for the rest of her life.

Victoria withdrew from public life after Albert's death, but kept up with her correspondence and continued to give audiences to ministers and official visitors. She decreed that monuments to honour Albert should be built across the country and Empire – including the Albert Memorial. She became very close to John Brown, a servant at Balmoral Castle, even though her children resented him. Victoria was called ‘Mrs Brown’ in the press but despite this she refused to give up her friendship.

Exploring the close relationship of Queen Victoria and John Brown. The World's Most Photographed: Queen Victoria, BBC Two, 2014

February 1871

Victoria returns to the public eye

The Queen was frantic with worry after her son and heir Edward fell ill with typhoid.

It came a year after the founding of the French Third Republic, which had provoked anti-monarchist feeling in Britain. When Edward recovered, the Queen used a carefully orchestrated event to boost royal support. She gave a public thanksgiving service and appeared to crowds on the Buckingham Palace balcony. It marked the queen's gradual return to public life.

The Queen rides with her son to a thanksgiving service after he recovers from typhoid.
The Queen rides with her son to a thanksgiving service after he recovers from typhoid.

2 January 1877

The Queen who became an Empress

Victoria became the Empress of India to tie the monarchy and Empire closer together.

She accepted the title on the advice of her seventh prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose political advice she relied on. She approved of his imperialist policies, which established Britain as the most powerful nation in the world. Her popularity in Britain soared as she became a symbol of empire towards the end of her reign.

Prime Minister Disraeli offers the queen an imperial crown in a satirical cartoon.
Prime Minister Disraeli offers the queen an imperial crown in a satirical cartoon.

June 1887

A new favourite from India

The Queen received Indian servants to mark her Golden Jubilee year. She promoted one, Abdul Karim, to become her personal teacher or ‘Munshi’.

Karim instructed Victoria in Urdu and Indian affairs and introduced her to curry. He was just 24 but Victoria was fascinated by India, the country she ruled but would never visit. Politicians and members of the royal household resented his position but despite this, Victoria gave him honours and lands in India and took him with her on visits to the French Riviera.

Victoria and her 'munshi'. Queen Victoria's Letters: A Monarch Unveiled (BBC Four, 2014).

20 June 1887

The Golden Jubilee defines 'brand Victoria'

Victoria's Jubilee bolstered her reputation. Her face was emblazoned on products from mugs to jars of mustard to mark the occasion.

The Jubilee celebrations focussed on the Queen but also affirmed Britain's place as a global power. Soldiers from the British Empire marched in processions through London. Victoria held a feast, attended by 50 foreign kings and princes, along with the governing heads of Britain's overseas colonies and dominions.

The Queen as she appeared in 1837 and 1887, from a colour supplement.
The Queen as she appeared in 1837 and 1887, from a colour supplement.

22 June 1897

The Diamond Jubilee celebrates Empire

A day of global celebrations was planned for Victoria. The elderly Queen presided over a number of events though her mobility was limited.

Victoria embraced technology by sending a telegram thanking her subjects across the empire. She attended a procession to St Paul's Cathedral. Street parties were held across Britain, while Sydney Harbour in Australia was lit up with illuminations. In India, 19,000 prisoners were granted a pardon.

The first moving footage of Queen Victoria in 1896. The World's Most Photographed: Queen Victoria (BBC Two, 2014) (silent footage).

22 January 1901

The end of the Victorian age

Victoria died after weeks of ill health. Her son and heir Edward VII and her grandson Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany were at her deathbed.

The Queen ruled over an Empire that covered a quarter of the globe with 400 million subjects, but she never forgot the men who supported her. She requested that Albert's dressing gown and a plaster cast of his hand be placed in her coffin. She also asked for a lock of John Brown's hair and his picture to be put in her hand. Lastly she left orders that Abdul Karim be among the principal mourners at her funeral. She was an indomitable monarch who, even at the end, was adept at getting her own way.

Victoria's funeral procession leaving Windsor Castle.
Victoria's funeral procession leaves Windsor Castle.

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