On 20 June 1837, King William IV died in his sleep after a reign of seven years. His niece, the 18-year-old Princess Victoria, inherited the throne. Her accession marked the dawn of a new era in Britain’s history, which would come to represent industrial growth, scientific advances and vast imperial expansion.
On a personal level, Queen Victoria is remembered for her passionate relationship with her husband Prince Albert, the grief that engulfed her after his death, and her longevity, with a reign of over sixty-three years. However, had it not been for the infidelities of her grandfather George III’s offspring and the untimely death of her cousin Princess Charlotte, it is probable that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch (to date) may never have been born.
Born to be Queen
George III, commonly remembered as the ‘Mad King’, sired fifteen children, including nine sons, yet among their offspring was only one legitimate heir, Princess Charlotte. Charlotte was the daughter of George III’s oldest son, also called George, who would reign as the Prince Regent and later as King George IV. Charlotte was extremely popular with the British public and made a happy marriage with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, but she died at a tragically young age following the birth of a stillborn son in 1817.
Edward, Duke of Kent, was the fourth son of George III. Charlotte’s unforeseen death forced him (along with his other brothers) to recognise the necessity of producing an heir, since none of them had any surviving legitimate children. In the spring of 1818 he therefore wed Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, sister of the recently bereaved Leopold. It was a harmonious match and on 24 May 1819 the new Duchess of Kent gave birth to a daughter, who was named Alexandrina Victoria. Edward is reported to have said of the infant, ‘look at her well, for she will be Queen of England’. Alas, he died when she was less than a year old, but he had done his duty and the succession was secure.
The Young Princess
The young Victoria had a somewhat solitary childhood, in no small part due to her mother’s wish to distance the princess from her paternal uncles. The influence of Sir John Conroy, who had been the Duke of Kent’s equerry and remained a close companion and advisor of the Duchess, was also paramount in shaping Victoria’s early life. The Kensington system was devised by Conroy and the Duchess to make the princess dependent on her mother, who would act as regent should the throne come to Victoria before she turned 18. Both Victoria’s routine of study and the company she kept were strictly regulated and she had little independence. Nevertheless, she excelled in her academic pursuits and was also a talented artist.
George III died in 1820 and George IV ruled for ten years thereafter, after which the crown passed to another of Victoria’s uncles, William IV. It was around the time that William became King that Victoria was made aware of her place in the succession. Although fully conscious that she was mother to a future monarch, the Duchess of Kent persisted in limiting Victoria’s time at court and did little to endear herself to her late husband’s relatives. Conroy’s personal aspirations of power remained tangible, not least in the autumn of 1835 when he and the Duchess tried to force Victoria, who was severely ill at the time, to sign a document that would make Conroy her personal secretary and mean that she came of age at 21 instead of 18. Demonstrating immense strength of character, Victoria refused to sign.
It appears that William IV (pictured) had some sense of the schemes afoot, for at his birthday celebrations in 1836 he delivered a notorious speech, the gist of which was that he wished to survive another nine months so that a regency could be avoided and that he believed the Duchess of Kent was ‘surrounded by evil advisers’ and acting in an improper manner. It was an embarrassing interlude for both the Duchess and Victoria. The King’s wish that he should live beyond his niece’s 18th birthday was nonetheless realised – but only just. Victoria reached her majority on 24 May 1837. Within a month, William was dead. Victoria was woken early on the morning of his death and informed that she was now the Queen.
Although a mere 18-years-old, the new Queen dedicated herself fully to royal duties and generally impressed her ministers. A year after the death of William IV, on 28 June 1838, her coronation ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey. This lavish affair cost some £70,000 and was a cause for great public jubilation. A gun salute heralded the start of the proceedings at 4am and a firework display concluded coronation day. (Pictured: the coronation of Queen Victoria).
The Globe newspaper reported that ‘her Royal Highness was treated with very unequivocal demonstrations of attachment and respect’ by the masses who had turned out to watch the coronation procession through London en route to the Abbey. Indeed, Victoria was charmed by the positive public sentiment, writing in her journal:
‘It was a fine day, and the crowds of people exceeded what I have ever seen; many as there were the day I went to the City, it was nothing – nothing to the multitudes, the millions of my loyal subjects who were assembled in every spot to witness the Procession. Their good humour and excessive loyalty was beyond everything, and I really cannot say how proud I feel to be the Queen of such a Nation. I was alarmed at times for fear that the people would be crushed and squeezed on account of the tremendous rush and pressure.’
The British public, it seemed, wholly supported their new Queen. This good humour would fluctuate greatly over the next six decades, but it was a promising start to her reign. The sun had risen on the Victorian era and it would not set until the early 20th century.