How Queen Victoria remade the British monarchy

She took the throne amid calls to replace the royals with a republic. But Queen Victoria held power through ambitious reforms and imperialist policies, and her legacy endures today.

The Famine Queen. The Widow of Windsor. Grandmother of Europe. Queen Vic. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria earned all those nicknames and more—testaments to the enduring influence of her 64-year (1837-1901) reign over the United Kingdom.

During the period now known as the Victorian Era, she oversaw her nation’s industrial, social, and territorial expansion and became known as a trendsetter who made over European attitudes toward the monarchy. An estimated one in four people on Earth were subjects of the British Empire by the end of her rule. But when Victoria took the throne, the British monarchy was deeply unpopular.

Ascension to the throne

Victoria was the product of a succession crisis in England’s royal family that occurred when Princess Charlotte, the presumptive successor to King George, and her infant son died in childbirth. Charlotte’s brothers—all of whom were single and had given the monarchy a bad name with their profligate spending and messy personal lives—raced to produce an heir. One of those brothers, Edward, hastily married a widowed German princess and became the first to produce an heir. Born in 1819, Alexandrina Victoria was a direct successor to the crown.

Palace intrigue made for a miserable childhood. Victoria’s father died when she was a child, and her ambitious mother allied herself with the scheming Sir John Conroy, a member of the royal household who seized the chance to gain power and influence through the future queen. He created what became known as “the Kensington system,” an elaborate set of rules that isolated the young princess at Kensington Palace and put him in control of her education and upbringing. Designed to keep Victoria dependent and loyal to Conroy and her mother, the system resulted in an unhappy childhood—and a growing sense of resentment.

Victoria broke free in 1837, when she turned 18 and rose to the throne. As soon as she became queen, she banned Conroy from her court and marginalized her mother. In 1840, she married her cousin Albert, a German prince. It was a genuine love match—she wrote that her wedding night was “bliss beyond belief”—and they went on to have nine children.

Early reign

During her early reign, Victoria was heavily influenced by Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, and Albert, who was her closest political advisor and whom some historians believe was “king in all but name.” Together, they pursued an agenda of modernization and stability in an era of political upheaval. The monarchy’s reputation had been badly damaged by Victoria’s predecessors, and the British populace clamored to replace the monarchy with a republic. And in Ireland, the potato famine between 1845 and 1852 fomented outright rebellion.

Together with her husband, Victoria faced those challenges head-on, working to strengthen the position of the monarchy in England and throughout Europe, where there was also a growing distaste for royals who expected the public to foot the bill for their lavish lifestyles. In contrast, Victoria expanded the monarch’s public role, supporting charities, the arts, and civic reform to counter the view that British royalty wasn’t worth the expense. As a result, the queen and her growing family became beloved celebrities and influenced popular culture, introducing England to everything from white wedding dresses to Christmas trees.

In 1861, tragedy struck when Albert died at 42. Victoria was devastated and went into deep mourning. She wore black for the rest of her life and withdrew from the public eye for years. The republican movement grew during her isolation, and she was criticized for her absence from public life.

Later years

Victoria resumed her public duties by the late 1860s. Her later reign was largely devoted to encouraging peace in Europe and expanding and consolidating her massive political empire. She became Empress of India in 1877 and influenced foreign relations closer to home through her children and grandchildren, many of whom married into European royalty.

At the beginning of her monarchy, Britain was seen largely as a trading power. But under Victoria, it became a mighty empire and the world’s most powerful nation. Over the course of the 19th century, it grew by 10 million square miles and 400 million people. Those gains came at a tremendous price: England was almost constantly at war during Victoria’s reign, and the colonialism practiced in her name involved brutal subjugation.

Though Victoria was popular, her subjects still pushed to reform the monarchy. Ultimately, this led to an erosion of the monarch’s direct political power as ordinary British people gained the vote, the secret ballot, and other political reforms in the mid- to late 1800s.  

<p>Queen Elizabeth II opens a session of the Parliament of Canada in Ontario with Prince Philip at her side. Britain's reigning monarch is also Canada's head of state, a government structure left over from when the region was under British rule, and the queen has visited Canada more than any other country during her reign.</p>

Queen Elizabeth II opens a session of the Parliament of Canada in Ontario with Prince Philip at her side. Britain's reigning monarch is also Canada's head of state, a government structure left over from when the region was under British rule, and the queen has visited Canada more than any other country during her reign.

Photograph by Kathleen Revis, Nat Geo Image Collection

Legacy

By her death in 1901, Victoria was an institution, known for her willpower and the vast empire she ruled. The British Empire covered a full fifth of the Earth’s surface and had become the preeminent superpower of its day.

Victoria’s attempts to bolster European monarchies by marrying off her family members achieved short-term peace, but they sowed the seeds of some of the 20th century’s most destructive conflicts. By the onset of World War I in 1914, her grandchildren would turn against each other.

Although the relentless colonialism of the empire she ruled and the devastating war she inadvertently helped seed now cast a shadow over Victoria’s reign, she believed British power and prosperity were paramount. As she wrote in 1899, “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.” For a woman born to rule, there was no room for doubt as to her historic destiny—or the might of the empire built in her name.

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