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A débutante on the throne: Young Victoria

Updated Monday, 6th October 2008
What do we know about the young woman who would become Queen? Historians Juliet Gardiner and Simon Skinner of Oxford University discuss Victoria's early years.

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Juliet Gardiner: There was a rush to marry when Princess Charlotte, who is the daughter of George IV and his estranged wife Caroline, she died in childbirth and the baby was stillborn, the son was stillborn so there was no natural heir to the throne. So all the existing children of George III, of whom there were twelve living at that time, there had been fifteen, all who were in irregular unions, they were either with mistresses or they had illegitimate children or they were married to people who were not of royal blood, so there was an absolute panic for everybody to acquire a legitimate wife and acquire a legitimate child who could be heir to the Throne of England.

Simon Skinner: 1819, of course the year of Victoria’s birth, is the annus horribilis in all this. It’s on 16th August of that year when fretful Magistrates send in nervous and half drunken yeomanry to disperse a mass reform meeting at St Peters Field in Manchester. Their sabres are drawn and eleven people are killed, two of them women. In the aftermath more are killed and several hundred are injured and this becomes memorialised thereafter as the Peterloo Massacre in ironic allusion, of course, to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The Prince Regent inflames the popular agitation by swiftly sending a message of congratulation to the Magistrates for their preservation of the public peace. The Government in response to all this swiftly passes the so-called Six Acts which are directed principally at inhibiting further reform meetings and at gagging the political press. This is a time of revolutionary political thought, of dramatic population growth colliding with economic depression, and in consequence of all that you have very serious political militancy, much of it overtly republican, and in consequence of all that you have very serious political repression.

Juliet Gardiner: Captain John Conroy was an Irish, he’s of Irish descent, and he had been in the Army. Not particularly successful actually, he hadn’t fought at Waterloo, he hadn’t had much of a career in the Army and he became the Equerry to the Duke of Kent. And when the Duke of Kent died, of course, less than a year after marriage he became, he joined the household of the Duchess of Kent, Victoria’s mother. He was, as I say, of Irish descent. He was supposed to be quite a charming man. He was quite a persuasive man, he was quite a talker. He was actually quite a crude man and quite a sort of rough man, and he was very ambitious, and in the end he turned out to be very, very manipulative. He was married himself, he married the daughter of the Bishop of Salisbury and he had six children, but he did become very close to the Duchess of Kent. She was supposed to have been in love with him, whether he was in love with her seems very unlikely.

John Conroy having not made much of a success of the Army I think saw his future in being, as it were, the éminence grisebehind the throne. Because, after all, Victoria was young, the chances are that if she did come to the throne, if she did actually manage to survive – because that was what it was a question of, whether she would sort of survive to the end and nobody else would, then she would probably come to the throne as a young girl, inexperienced because she was not being brought up at court, quite deliberately, she was being brought up in Kensington Palace, and so he very much saw, his ambitions became centred on becoming the power behind the throne.

Simon Skinner: Victoria is groomed for the succession by her governesses, principally Louise Lehzen. When she’s only eleven, in 1830, the Duchess invites two senior Bishops to examine Victoria and to pass comment on her education to date, and when she’s deemed to have acquitted herself with distinction then her royal destiny is disclosed to her. And thereafter, from 1830, her uncle, who’s then Prince Leopold of Belgium, really bombards her with reading on the right conduct of monarchs, history on current and especially foreign affairs. So I think that she is always much more interested in politics and state craft than ever were George IV and William IV as heirs.

Juliet Gardiner: The Kensington system did benefit Victoria. I think they benefited her in two ways. One was the fact that actually she was kept away from court, and the reputation of the court at Windsor and Buckingham Palace was not high, all her scurrilous uncles, her disgraceful uncles, and the idea of a young girl coming to the throne without that sort of baggage, of course she had it, I mean she was the heir to their throne but I mean without that sort of baggage, a fresh young girl, a new start for the monarchy I think was hugely important. But the other thing was, of course, which her Uncle Leopold, who was very hot on constitutional matters, pointed out was she’d had invaluable lessons at Kensington Palace. She had learnt how to disport herself with dignity, with politeness, with correctness and yet stick to her own last, you know, to keep what she wanted and keep her will and her way but without actually behaving badly or having tantrums or any of these things. And that was an invaluable lesson for a queen.

Simon Skinner: It’s that year, 1832, that the first cholera epidemic hits Britain. In 1833 events in Ireland necessitate a Coercion Act, and in 1834 you have the prosecution and then transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, agricultural labourers in Dorset who seek to establish a trade union, and then the passage of the new Poor Law with its hated workhouses, the Bastilles. And what all this seems graphically to demonstrate is in fact how little the Great Reform Act has actually improved the lives of ordinary people.

Juliet Gardiner: I think that Victoria’s really very difficult childhood had a number of effects on her when she became Queen. I think on the one hand the iron entered her soul and she was, all the disputes and difficulties and the way that her mother and Conroy tried to influence her made really very resolute that she knew what she wanted and she was going to be steely and ice cold in getting it, and she was going to aim for her goals. And the other thing was I think that the tension between Kensington Palace and Court and the example of the dissolute royals and her uncles and all these sort of machinations and things, that made her determined to be a very moral and a very straightforward and a very strict Queen and a disciplinarian with herself, if you like.

And I think the other thing was this really melancholy childhood, which is how she described it. I mean she had a half sister, Fedora, and she was quite close to her but really it was a very lonely childhood. And she didn’t feel, of course, close to her mother. I think it gave her a very strong sense of family. And, of course, when she married she had nine children and she very much I think had the idea of a family on the throne, which is how the constitutionalist Walter Bagehot put it, and that gave a new turn to the monarchy, which is one in a sense which is still with us today, the idea of a royal family as opposed just to a, as had been for some time, an old roué, a rake, a madman on the throne. You had a respectable, dare I say it, middle class value family on the throne.


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