The UK has a long tradition of powerful matriarchs – Margaret Thatcher and Boudicca come to mind – but the grandest of them all, at least in the popular imagination, is Queen Victoria. She presided over a period when the sun famously never set on the British Empire, and Britannia ruled the waves – a period when the UK was, in modern parlance, the world’s only hyper power. She might have not had much influence on policy, but the tone of the era and particularly the standard of public morals, were set by her example.
Victoria was born in Kensington Palace in 1819. Though her Uncle, William IV, was the father of ten illegitimate children, he had no surviving legitimate kids, and as a result, the young Princess became heir.
Perhaps thanks to a secluded, cossetted childhood, she displayed a wilful personality marked by strong prejudices, and was notorious for her stubbornness. These qualities might be a detriment in private life but proved useful when she ascended to the throne in 1837, for she won over the hearts of the nation with her straightforwardness, modesty and moral strength.
Though practically speaking she had few powers, she demanded to be kept informed of political matters, and her relationship with Lord Melbourne, prime minister at the time, was warn.
In 1840 Victoria married her cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. Unlike many royal marriages, this was the result of genuine love, and together they had nine children. Unfortunately, Victoria was a carrier for haemophilia, showing no symptoms herself but passing it on. As these many children were married off, the disease was unwittingly spread among the royal houses of Europe.
Prince Albert was the dominant influence in Victoria’s life, and she did nothing without his approval – the British public though, rather disliked him, for being stuffy, domineering, and German. Under his influence, court life became much more rigid and formal. More usefully, he was a keen patron of the sciences, which led the couple to set up the Science Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.
In 1861 Albert died of typhoid, which he caught in the rather unsanitary Windsor Castle.
Victoria was utterly distraught, and entered a period of mourning which she never left – for the rest of her life she wore black. She became almost a recluse, living in her castle retreats and rarely returning to London. This period of obsessive mourning rather infected the public, and perhaps had some influence on creating the morbid streak that seems to have tainted late Victorian values
In 1887 Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, a grand national celebration of her 50th year as Queen, seems to have finally cheered her up, as afterwards she again entered public life. She toured England's overseas territories and became the first English monarch to visit France for four hundred years.
Victoria died in 1901, at the age of 81. She had reigned for a remarkable 63 years, seven months and two days, surpassing her grandfather, George III, as the longest-lived monarch by only three days. She was buried beside Prince Albert in Windsor Park.
Victoria’s long reign had witnessed the huge expansion of the British Empire and the dominance of British industry and invention. With her at the helm, the country seemed to be going forward steadily, firm in its ideals and objectives, in contrast to the strife and discord on continental Europe. Victoria’s upright morality, optimism and can-do spirit set the standard for the entire populace, and it was from her that the so-called ‘Victorian values’, embraced by the new middle classes, were derived – hard work, stiff upper lip, family first. In hindisight, it’s easy to see that she had had the good fortune to preside over the apex of British civilization; never again, it turned out, would the UK experience such unity of purpose, strength and confidence.