200 years of Queen Victoria

There is now not a single person on the entire planet who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria.

She was born two hundred years ago in May 1819. It was a different world then. Napoleon  Bonaparte and Beethoven were both still alive. The Peterloo massacre occurred in Manchester that summer.

Victoria died in January 1901. By that time her funeral procession was able to be filmed and thus seen by more people than any who had witnessed the funerals of all previous English kings and queens combined. There were 1.6 billion people alive on the Earth then. Every one of them has since died, the last of which probably in 2017. 7.7 billion others have now replaced them.

Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born in the last year of the reign of her grandfather, George III, who despite being incapacitated by madness by that point, was the longest reigning king in English history. Victoria would herself exceed his record of sixty years on the throne by the end of the century. Some of her subjects such as the composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stephenson and the playwright Oscar Wilde lived their lives entirely within her reign. In 1819, however, her own succession looked uncertain.

With fourteen grown-up children, George III’s legacy should have been secure. But following the sudden death of his granddaughter, the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte in 1817, it became apparent not one of his children had produced a legitimate heir to succeed them. Victoria, the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, was the result of the subsequent “baby race.” She was fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, but by 1837, when her uncle William IV died, Victoria became Queen at the age of eighteen.

Perceptions of the Victorian era have changed steadily as society has gradually transformed in the years since 1901. Arguably,  little really changed until 1914, but the trauma of the First World War did much to undermine the Empire and accelerate social change. One day in January 1924, the King, George V wrote in his diary. “Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died,” he wrote. “I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government”. By the 1920s, women could vote, and motor cars were becoming more prevalent. In 1926, the General Strike occurred. Old traditions persisted, however. George V enjoyed a warm public response to his Silver Jubilee in 1935, an event that doubtless evoked nostalgic memories of Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in anyone then older than their forties or fifties and thus able to remember them. Victoria, herself, had in fact, not celebrated her own Silver Jubilee, there being no tradition of celebrating them in 1862. She had at any rate been grief-stricken following the death of her beloved Prince Albert in December 1861.

November 1936 saw the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The timing seemed apt: the monarchy was now in its most serious crisis of the post-Victorian era. George V had died in January, his son Edward VIII abdicated in December: a major trauma for the Royal Family, the wounds of which would not heal for decades.

1937 was thus a coronation year with the reluctant George VI being crowned, a century after his great-grandmother had started her long reign. The line of succession now strongly suggested, Britain would have a new Queen one day. That was assuming the King’s wife, Queen Elizabeth didn’t now give birth to a son. This was quite possible: she was only 36 at the time of the coronation and until the 21st century, a son always overtook a daughter (in this case, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) in the line of succession. But this didn’t happen.

Incidentally, the year 1937 also saw the release of Victoria the Great starring Anna Neagle. Although very reverent in its portrayal of the monarch’s early years, the Lord Chamberlain initially banned the play it was based upon as it used a member of the Royal Family for its subject matter.

The years ahead would see more change. Although the war, reinforced notions of patriotism and led to a rise in support for the monarchy, by the half way point of the century with the empire fast unravelling, Britain’s Victorian heritage was increasing looking like a thing of the past, perhaps unsurprisingly fifty years after Queen Victoria’s death.

But then in 1952, her great-great granddaughter succeeded to the throne, accompanied by her husband, himself one of Victoria’s great-great-grandsons. Elizabeth II was only the sixth ruling female monarch in English history. Any Briton in his fifties or over would have seen five new kings or queens come to the throne in the previous fifty years. As we know, this has not happened again in the nearly seventy years since. At the start of the Queen’s reign, both the Prime Minister and Opposition leaders, Churchill and Attlee had been young men at the time of Victoria’s death.

Harold Macmillan who was Prime Minister at the start of the sixties, was the last PM to be born during Victoria’s reign. The Sixties, more than any other decade, for good or ill, would see much of the residual spirit of the Victorian age vanish forever.

Probably, it was inevitable. Even by the early Sixties, only people of retirement age could remember the closing years of Victoria’s reign at all. Even then, these memories were likely to have been eclipsed by memories of bigger events since, such as the two World Wars and Great Depression.  But even allowing for that, with the rise of tower blocks, the Beatles, free love, the contraceptive pill, decolonisation and the liberalisation of laws on divorce, and homosexuality – the pace of change was too great for any Victorian sensibility to survive.

Today, we view the Victorian age with mixed feelings: a golden age of literature and change undoubtedly although our other opinions might well be determined by our political outlook, However, what cannot be denied is that it was a decisive, transformative and crucial period in British history.

We would not be the same people without it.