Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire for nearly 64 years, having ascended the throne just weeks after turning 18. She was the second longest reigning English royal in history, topped only by her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Although short in stature – she was just 5ft tall – Victoria was a giant in shaping the modern monarchy, leaving her mark on what has come to be known as the Victorian era.
Early life and ascension to the throne
Alexandrina Victoria was born on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace in London to Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George III, and his wife, Princess Maria Louisa Victoria, of German descent. Named for her godfather, Russian Tsar Alexander I, she was fifth in line for the crown at birth.
Before Victoria was 1 year old, Edward died of pneumonia. When King George died, his uncle, William IV, was made king, and as Edward’s brothers had no surviving legitimate heirs, Victoria became the first to ascend the throne. In preparation for her daughter’s reign, Victoria’s mother quickly aligned herself with courtier John Conroy, and the two forced Victoria to follow what came to be known as the Kensington System. The strict and manipulative set of rules was as isolating as it was demanding for the girl, a gifted artist and avid columnist who had to share her room with her mother and was never left alone.
Just weeks after turning 18, Victoria ascended the throne as Queen of England on June 20, 1837, following William’s death, with the coronation taking place a year later on June 28, 1838. She almost immediately dismissed Conroy and, without his mother. , moved into Buckingham Palace, which belonged to William, making her the first monarch to reside on the estate.
“I will do my best to fulfill my duty to my country,” she wrote in her diary shortly after taking the crown. “I am very young and perhaps inexperienced in many of them, but not all of them, but I am sure very few have more good will and more real desire to do what is good and right than I do.”
British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne became her trusted adviser and confidant, and under his reign Victoria began to regain public approval for the monarchy as she worked to modernize the empire, supporting the arts and works charities and defending industrial progress. In fact, she was the first monarch to board a train, in 1842, at the age of 23, writing that “the movement was very light and much easier than a carriage – no dust or great heat” .
WATCH: How the Department’s stories liberated women in the Victorian era
Family and descendants
Victoria married her first cousin, the German Prince Albert, on February 10, 1840, whom she loved very much. “I have never, ever spent such an evening!!” she wrote in her diary after their wedding night: “My dearest dearest Albert… his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness that I could never have hoped to feel previously !”
With Melbourne, Albert was influential in shaping the Queen’s priorities and plans, which largely centered on the arts, sciences, commerce and industry. Among Albert’s projects was the Great Exhibition of 1851, which brought 6 million people to London to celebrate global industry, technology and culture and is considered the first World’s Fair.
Scroll to continue
The couple had nine children from 1840 to 1857: Victoria, Edward, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Léopold and Béatrice. Almost all married into European royal families and many of his 42 grandchildren, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruled monarchies across the continent.
Notable great-great-grandchildren include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, King Constantine II of Greece, King Michael I of Romania, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece. King Charles III is his great-great-great-grandson.
Albert’s death and Victoria’s last years
Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42 from typhoid fever. Devastated, Victoria spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement and wore black as a symbol of mourning for the rest of her life.
While in isolation, her popularity plummeted, but once she returned to public life, her penchant for peace-based foreign policy, support for charities focused on the poor, care health and education, and the wide expansion of the British Empire – with it the survival of at least seven assassination attempts led to her wearing a “bulletproof” chain mail umbrella – conquered public opinion.
Acting on the advice of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India in 1877, extending the imperialist reach of the empire. In 1887, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, which marked the 50th anniversary of her accession, followed by the Diamond Jubilee, which took place a decade later in 1897, on the occasion of the 60th birthday, cemented her image and her popularity among her subjects, earning her the nickname “Grandmother of Europe.
During Victoria’s nearly 64-year reign, the British Empire was at its peak and most powerful. The empire included India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, covered one-fifth of the globe and had about one in four people on Earth. Places around the world, from Victoria, Canada, to Victoria Falls, Zambia, Queensland, Australia, are named in his honor. The Victorian era is known for its advancements in arts and industry, inventions including the telephone and telegraph, and political reform and change.
She also helped shape popular culture: it was Victoria who started the trend of a bride dressed in white on her wedding day and a widow dressed in black in mourning. Albert and Victoria have made decorating Christmas trees a custom. He is also credited with restoring the public’s view of the monarchy.
Victoria died on January 22, 1901 at the age of 81, with her heir Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II by her side. She was succeeded by her eldest son, Edward VII, and was buried next to Albert at Frogmore Mausoleum near Windsor.
“Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901)”, Royal.uk.
“How Queen Victoria Remade the British Monarchy”, National Geographic.
“Queen Victoria: From Pampered Princess to Aged Empress: Wife, Mother and Queen”, Historic Royal Palaces.