In our series of 5 defining moments in the history of the British Monarchy, Ellen Couzens takes a look at how Queen Victoria’s struggle to the throne became one of her most defining features that helped shape her reign and the future of the British Monarchy into the Royal Family we see today!
With the exception of George III who was generally liked by the public, having been given the nickname of ‘Farmer George’, all monarchs before 1837 had been rather disliked by their British subjects.
Consider George IV in particular, the creator of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and dubbed by the press as the ‘Prince of Whales’ for his overindulgence while Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and King. The sudden and tragic death in childbirth of his daughter Princess Charlotte in 1817 shocked the public, with whom she was a great favourite. They realised that of all of George III’s children, none had managed to produce a legitimate heir and there was no successor to the throne. Even worse, there were very many illegitimate children! The Prince Regent’s brothers now embarked on a ‘race to the altar’.
One result was the marriage of Edward, Duke of Kent, a brother of the Prince Regent. Princess Victoria was born shortly afterwards and became, after the father and his older brother (who became William IV), heir to the throne. Sadly, less than a year after Victoria’s birth, her father died and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, became desperate to protect her daughter. Being herself not much liked within the royal family, the Duchess imagined that any number of people may want to harm Victoria and remove her from the line of succession.
With the help of her loyal adviser, Sir John Conroy, the Duchess set up the ‘Kensington System’, isolating Victoria within Kensington Palace and enforcing strict discipline and education designed to prepare her for her future role as Queen. The only girls of her own age that Victoria was allowed to play with were Sir John’s daughters and her only real companions were her pet spaniel, Dash, and her loyal governess Baroness Lehzen (fortunately for Victoria, the Baroness was a sworn enemy of Sir John). The regime was brutal and mentally abusive. Victoria was made to hold her governess’s hand every time she ascended or descended the stairs, and she was not allowed a bedroom of her own, being forced to sleep in her mother’s room right up until she acceded the throne. The Duchess insisted Victoria wrote in her diary every day, then read the entries each night, hoping to gain control of her daughter’s thoughts. She constantly undermined Victoria, forcing her to refuse an offer of her own income, made to her by her uncle, William IV. When Victoria was 16, she caught typhoid and became seriously ill. At her bedside, Sir John Conroy tried to force her to sign over her future power to the Duchess, effectively making the Duchess Regent and himself the power behind the throne when Victoria became Queen.
However, Victoria was a wilful child and found the strength and courage to refuse. She hated the Duchess and Sir John and vowed not to give in to them. Inevitably, when she became Queen in 1837, at the age of 18, she cast off the ‘Kensington System’ and asserted her new found independence and authority. Her first act as Queen was to have her bed moved into her own bedroom! Sir John was exiled from Court and she saw as little of the Duchess as was possible in an age when unmarried ladies had to be chaperoned by their mothers at all times.
Victoria’s final act of separation from her mother came with her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. She could finally set up her own household without the Duchess, and together, she and Albert, both of whom had been horrified by the indulgences and excesses of her ancestors, created the ideal royal family. With the advent of photography, the royal family could be portrayed as a happy, stable and moralistic family unit, with Victoria often shown first as a wife and mother (she had 9 children) rather than as Queen. The royals shunned excess and became a model family whom every other family in Britain could look up to and emulate.
This image pervades even today – we expect our royal family to be examples of virtue, even if we do sometimes forget that they are human and make mistakes like the rest of us! It is doubtful whether our monarchy would be what it is today, or even if it would exist at all, without Victoria and her willpower and courage to do things her own way and change how the royal family was perceived. And she probably wouldn’t have been so determined to do things her own way if she hadn’t been hardened by her childhood struggle for power.
It would be difficult for Victoria to be the daughter of both the Duke of York and the Duchess of Kent without being illegitimate. Her father was, in fact, Edward, Duke of Kent. I’m sure this correction can be made to the article.
I would quibble and say that the defining event for the monarchy was not so much Victoria’s “struggle for the throne,” as her particular choice of the intelligent and enlightened Albert as her consort. He worked hard to mould the limited, narcissistic Victoria into an enlightened ruler, in addition to pulling the royal family, the court and society away from the dissolute living of the previous reigns.
More importantly, the weakening of the monarchy by way of George III’s insanity, George IV’s old age and illness, William IV’s short reign in his elder years and Victoria’s long withdrawal into a reclusive widowhood allowed a peaceful transition to a constitutional monarchy where elected government held the real power. It was in part these governmentally passive reigns of the 19th century monarchy that allowed Parliament to pretty fully take over the direction of government. It was also Albert’s direction and Victoria’s willingness to sign away the powers that her son would have inherited that eased the way to parliamentary rule. And I think that part of the transition to a figurehead monarchy is more important that the moral family image of royalty that Albert and Victoria created.
Thanks very much for pointing out the ‘York/Kent’ typo, I have corrected that. I do agree that Albert was highly influential, he was really King in all but name. Certainly an idea for a future blog.
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