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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Queen Victoria Dies, January 22, 1901

Today in 1901, Queen Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Her reign was, and still is, the longest of any monarch in British history: 63 years, 7 months and 2 days. Her influence on western society is still felt today, over a century after her death.

Alexandrina Victoria, known formally as Her Royal Highness Princess Victoria of Kent, was born May 24, 1819 in Kensington Palace. European royalty was so intertwined by blood and marriage by the second decade of the 19th century that three of the future Queen’s godparents were from other countries in Europe. Since the royal family was directly related to German royalty both by birth and dominion, Victoria (called Drina by her family) learned German as her first language and was not schooled in English until after her third birthday.

Victoria did not come to the throne because of the death of her father as is the normal line of succession with monarchs. Her father died barely eight months after her birth while her grandfather, George III, was still on the throne. Upon George’s death, Princess Victoria’s uncle, the Prince of Wales, became King George IV. When the Princess was 11, George IV died without leaving a living heir so his brother assumed the throne as King William IV. William outlived both of his daughters and died in June, 1837, leaving Princess Victoria the throne when she was barely 18 years old.

At this time in European history, both Great Britain and Hanover (in Germany) shared a monarch. However, the law in Hanover prevented a woman from ruling, so another of Victoria’s uncles became King Ernst Augustus of Hanover. Had Victoria died before producing an heir, King Augustus would have also assumed the British throne and reunited the shared rule kingdoms.

Queen Victoria did not remain childless for long. In 1840, she married Prince Albert, her first cousin; their first child, a daughter, was born in November of that year. The couple would eventually have nine children and Victoria would outlive three of them. By most accounts, the royal couple had a loving marriage, although some have theorized that Albert’s interest was more in increasing his social position and upholding his family duty.

During her nearly seven decades on the throne, Queen Victoria bore witness to many happy and trying times both personally and nationally. In the second half of the 1840’s, the Irish Potato Famine claimed over one million lives in four years. Although the Queen was supportive of various charities during this time, many in Ireland blamed the British government (and Victoria indirectly) for not doing enough to save Irish lives. In some circles in Ireland, Victoria came to be known as the “Famine Queen”.

The United Kingdom became involved in the Crimean War in 1854 against Russia, which caused something of a stir in British society due to the fact that the royal family was related to the Czar and Czarina. But Victoria was very vocal in her support for British troops and even instituted the Victoria Cross to recognize valor in the face of the enemy.

Prince Albert died in 1861, leaving Queen Victoria heart-broken. She remained out of the public eye for years and wore black for the rest of her life. Her years of seclusion had the unintended consequence of encouraging the growth of a republican movement in the island nation, even though the Queen did perform her official duties during this time.

Much has been made of Queen Victoria’s relationship with her Scottish servant John Brown. Allegations of a romantic relationship and even a secret marriage have existed for generations, but no conclusive proof exists to show that the relationship was in any way improper. It is known, however, that a lock of Brown’s hair and a picture of him (along with one of Prince Albert’s dressing gowns) were laid in the Queen’s coffin at her request.

Many consider Queen Victoria to have been the first modern British monarch. During her reign, the monarchy took on a less direct role in British political life and became more symbolic. Her strong views on family and morality and her personal behavior shaped western thought and mores for generations after her death. She also left a strong personal imprint on all the monarchies of Europe: eight of her nine children married members of other royal families.

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