The Public Image of Queen Victoria

  By Act of Oblivion, 2007; Revised

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria, born on the 24th May, 1819, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland (1837-1901) and Empress of India from 1877 to 1901 and also the longest reigning monarch in British history. Her popularity and image has been one of scrutiny and her reputation a subject of some debate. However, there is no denying her impact upon Britain and its Empire, as well as her role as a ‘matriarchal’ figurehead for the population. Her part as a role model and heir to the most powerful Empire ever seen was not lost on Victoria. On the 11th May 1830, on being shown a chart of the line of succession, she looked and pondered, and said briefly, “I will be good”. Her influence reaches even the current English monarchy with an opinion that “the Victorian Queen haunts the English Royal imagination, she has long shaped the idea of how good Queens behave”. Victoria seemed to reflect the general opinion of her subjects and was keen to appear liberal in her attitudes; however, the public reception of Victoria was varied and at times unique for royalty. At the extreme level, some individuals took a drastic dislike to the Queen. On the 10th of June 1840, an eighteen year old called Edward Oxford fired a gun at Victoria whilst she was in the Mall.  All in all, there were seven attempts on Victoria’s life during her reign. Hatred or deranged behaviour? Certainly not love, and the seriousness belies any indifference. Generally speaking, Victoria was a monarch who felt the affections of her people and was respected by the majority as a Queen who understood. Perhaps it was because “Victoria embedded herself so firmly in the history of what she herself called the ‘people’ that she has seemed indistinguishable from them”.

In February 1840, Victoria married her cousin, his full title being Prince Francis Charles Augustus Albert Emmanuel of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and he never achieved the same popularity as his wife.  However, married life set about introducing the public to a Victoria obviously enamoured with the responsibilities of family life. Victoria was devoted to her husband. Against the stereotypical image of a royal marriage, this one contained the notion of obvious love and care. Victoria and Albert had nine children, four sons and five daughters; Victoria, Bertie, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. Victoria’s descendants would, eventually, succeed to the thrones of Germany, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia, a family which brought about the birth of the European monarchy. The idea of a large family was something many Victorian families could readily relate to. Victoria’s devotion to her children found the Queen being cherished as a mother who recognised her responsibilities to the country without neglecting her immediate family. If anything, Victoria found the affairs of state quite irksome believing women should not be involved in such matters. In fact, issues of gender fairness never seemed to be of a consideration for the Queen who, perhaps, felt her sex irrelevant to the important position she held. It has been suggested that “a woman on the throne seems to be of particular significance during a century in which women were increasingly discouraged from taking part in the public life of the country”. Victoria may have been the mother of all monarchs, but it was something she believed was the duty of all women. Personal disaster was to strike Victoria when, on the 14th December, 1861, her beloved Prince Albert died. Victoria was devastated by her loss and her subjects were to see a dramatic change in the image of their Queen, “never had England seen a reigning monarch so matrimonially devoted, so excessively maternal (nine children) and then so emphatically widowed”. More poignantly, Lytton Strachey notes “with appalling suddenness, Victoria had exchanged the serene radiance of happiness for the utter darkness of woe”. After Albert’s death, Victoria remained in self-imposed seclusion for almost ten years with her behaviour of obsessive mourning being an influence and playing an important role in the mentality of the Victorian age, dark, disciplined, and dutifully respectful. While Victoria mourned, she began to neglect her duties and practically disappeared from the public eye.

After Albert’s death, there started “widespread and growing dissatisfaction at the Queen’s non- performance of her public duties”. Opinions of the monarchy began taking a downhill slide, most severely with the attitude that “since the monarchy had effectively disappeared from sight already, it should now be closed down altogether and a republic instituted instead”. Victoria’s mourning took on such depth that sometimes it was difficult for the people to really understand and they would question a Queen who appeared to be neglecting them, their matriarch was forgetting her responsibilities towards her greater ‘extended family’. As time passed, Victoria was encouraged to resume a public life and satisfy the demand for a more ‘operational’ monarch, she needed to be seen to reign. With some personal motivation from Prime Minister Disraeli, Victoria began to emerge from her dark exile and once more took up a prominent position in the minds of her British subjects. For the last thirty years of her life, she resumed making public appearances, although always wearing clothes of mourning, and her popularity soon reached unprecedented heights. By the time of her golden jubilee in 1887 and her diamond jubilee in 1897, Victoria’s popularity was assured and the ceremonial role of the British monarchy was firmly established.

When Victoria died on the 22nd January 1901, the nation seemed to be numbed by the loss of a Queen whose reign had felt almost eternal. One commentary suggests, “the vast majority of her subjects had never known a time when Queen Victoria had not been reigning over them”. The impact on the people of Britain was of a deep sense of loss; “astonished grief had swept over the country”. A special train carried the Queen’s body to Victoria Station and in the fields “as the train rumbled slowly east, people knelt”. The route taken by the gun carriage from Victoria to Paddington was flanked by the mass of silent crowds, “ popular reaction was that her passing was a personal tragedy, the nation had lost the head of the family”. Everyone was affected by Victoria’s departure, tellingly, Stanley Weintraub states that “even prostitutes walked London streets dressed in mourning, and crossing sweepers carried crepe on their brooms”. After her death, Prime Minister Salisbury described Victoria in terms of having “been a kind of barometer of the people”. However, not long after the turn of the century, her character seemed to become a symbol of discontent for the Victorian era. There was a marked turn against Victoria and all that she stood for. Victorian values and morals, as Elizabeth Longford notes, “became regarded as boring, stuffy, prudish, dated”. The tide would, yet again, change in the 1920’s when judgements and attitudes were revised with a renewed interest in all things connected to the Victorian age.

Queen Victoria reigned in a time that saw an evolution in English politics and the expansion of the British Empire, and it appears that Victoria managed to maintain a level of energy, along with a sense of optimism, that infected the English population as a whole. A sense of national pride was connected with the name of Victoria, and Victorian England embraced the Queen’s own ethics and the image of Victoria’s family values. By the end of her reign Queen Victoria had for many “ become a shorthand for the firm virtues named for her age, family values, integrity of ones word and earnest disapproval of levity”. Victoria’s role as a figurehead for women may not be as well appreciated but she was an exceptional woman, “exceptional in her occupation, exceptional in her longevity, exceptional in her historical significance”. As David Cannadine points out, England saw “Victoria’s re-emergence during the last decades of her reign as a public icon, a national symbol, and an imperial totem”. By the time of her death, she had transformed the standing of the monarchy, its image and reputation perhaps the best it has ever been in Great Britain. Victoria can easily be seen as the matriarch of European monarchy. Internationally, she re-emerged as “an imperial matriarch, presiding with maternal devotion over the greater British family spread around the globe”. Throughout her career, Victoria would have experienced a considerable amount of love from her subjects, a degree of puzzling indifference, and, as with all forms of popularity, a certain level of hate, but, as Elizabeth Longford states, “still, she was a very great Queen”.