Who was Queen Victoria? What was her role in the British Empire?

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) by Richard Rothwell (1800-1868) after Thomas Sully
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) by Richard Rothwell (1800-1868) after Thomas Sully. Credit: National Trust Images

Queen Victoria presided over a time of industrial expansion, educational advances, the abolition of slavery and workers’ welfare. She reigned from 1837-1901

Queen Victoria was the matriarch of the British Empire. She epitomised the values of the era and carved out a new role for the monarchy. During her 63-year reign, a length surpassed only by our current Queen, Victoria presided over the social and industrial transformation of Britain, as well as expansion of the empire.

Victoria wasn’t expected to rule. Born on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace, she began life fifth in line to the throne. Her father, Prince Edward, and grandfather, King George III, both died the following year, after which her uncle, George IV, acceded to the throne. She became heir presumptive to her next surviving uncle, William IV, who ruled from 1830. However, he lacked an heir as his four legitimate children died during infancy.

Unhappy childhood

Victoria had an overprotective and unhappy childhood. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her advisor Sir John Conroy, held to the ‘Kensington System’, a set of strict rules named after their Kensington Palace home. So when Victoria became queen upon the death of William IV in 1837, she relished the independence. Britain was already a constitutional monarchy, in which she yielded little power but significant influence – something she did not refrain from using.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Hyde Park
The Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Hyde Park by Eugene Louis Lami. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Her first prime minister was Lord Melbourne. He became a trusted friend, although his influence waned after Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840. Albert was the love of Victoria’s life and became, in effect, her chief adviser and private secretary. He encouraged her to be less partisan with parliament and assume the more ceremonial role that the monarchy performs today. Meanwhile, the Victorian era became associated with industrial expansion, championed by Prince Albert. One of his greatest achievements was organising the Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Hyde Park, which showcased the best in technology and design. He became known as a great reformer, backing educational advances, the abolition of slavery and workers’ welfare.

Happy marriage

Albert and Victoria’s marriage was happy. As parents to nine children, the pair placed a strong emphasis on morality and family values, and thought it was better to set a good example to their children rather than chastise. They enjoyed seclusion at their new residences of Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, and Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands, where they could live a private life not all that different from their subjects.

When Albert died of typhoid in 1861, Victoria was devastated and withdrew from public life, which made her unpopular with the public. She began to fully resume duties between 1874 and 1882, encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and her family.

It was during this later era of her reign that Victoria’s influence helped bring peace and stability to Europe and the British Empire. She encouraged ministers not to intervene in the Second Schleswig War of 1864 between Prussia, Austria and Denmark. A letter to the German Emperor, Wilhelm I, also helped avert a second Franco-German war in 1875. But what really boosted the Queen’s popularity was imperial sentiment.

British empire

Queen Victoria statue
A quarter of the world’s land surface was ruled by Queen Empress Victoria. Credit: Shutterstock

At the height of the empire, a quarter of the world’s land surface was ruled by Victoria. She was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877. By the end of her reign, Australia and Canada were dominions, South Africa was soon to become a united nation, and large parts of Africa, the Far East and Oceania were under British rule. Victoria also exerted a strong, albeit different, influence over Europe. The queen was related to nearly all the ruling houses on the continent, through her own relatives or her children’s marriages, giving rise to the epithet ‘Grandmother of Europe’. Victoria died in 1901, aged 81, having outlived Albert by 40 years.

Key dates

  • 1839 – JMW Turner paints The Fighting Temeraire, often cited as the nation’s favourite artwork
  • 1863 – The Metropolitan line, the world’s first underground railway, opens in London
  • 1876 – Scotland-born scientist Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone

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