Tomorrow, May 19, is Victoria Day, acknowledging Queen Victoria’s birthday. So for today’s post, allow me to introduce you to Alexandrina Victoria.
She was born on May 24, 1819 (Kensington Palace, London), and died on January 22, 1901 (Osborne House, Isle of Wight) at the age of 81.
The official name for this annual celebration is Victoria Day, and in French it’s called Fête de la Reine. Some also call it May Long Weekend, May Long, May Two-Four, or May Run. It is also informally considered as the beginning of the summer season in Canada. It is celebrated every year on the Monday preceding May 25. This year, it falls on May 19th.
Canada started celebrating the Queen’s birthday on May 24, 1845, when the legislation first passed by the parliament of the Province of Canada.
One year, however, the celebrations were marred by tragedy. In 1881, a passenger ferry named Victoria overturned in the Thames River, near London, Ontario. The boat departed in the evening with 600 to 800 people on board—three times the allowable passenger capacity—and capsized part way across the river, drowning some 182 individuals, including a large number of children who had been with their families for Victoria Day picnics at Springbank Park. The event came to be known as the Victoria Day disaster.
The holiday is colloquially known as May Two-Four in parts of Canada. It’s a double entendre that refers both to the date around which the holiday falls (May 24) and the Canadian slang for a case of twenty-four beers (a “two-four”), a drink popular during the long weekend.
When Alexandrina was but a year old, her father died. Consequently, she was brought up by her mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She later described her childhood as “rather melancholy.” Her mother was extremely protective. Alexandrina was raised largely isolated from other children. She lived by an elaborate set of rules and protocols. Her mother hired an ambitious and domineering comptroller, Sir John Conroy, for her. Together they prevented the princess from meeting people whom her mother and Conroy deemed undesirable, which included most of her father’s family. She shared a bedroom with her mother every night, studied with private tutors on a rigid timetable, and spent her play hours with her dolls and her dog, Dash.
In October 1835, Alexandrina contracted a severe fever, which Conroy dismissed as a childish pretence. While she was ill, Conroy and her mother unsuccessfully badgered her to make Conroy her private secretary. As a teenager, Alexandrina resisted persistent attempts by her mother and Conroy to appoint him to her staff. Once queen, she banned him from her presence, but he remained in her mother’s household.
Her mother’s brother, Leopold, had been King since 1831. Leopold arranged for Alexandrina’s mother to invite her relatives to visit her in May 1836. It was at this time that she first met Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Prince Alexander of the Netherlands, as possible suitors.
According to her diary, she enjoyed Albert’s company from the beginning. After the visit she wrote, “[Albert] is extremely handsome; his hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful.” Alexander, on the other hand, was “very plain”.
Victoria turned 18 on May 24, 1837. On June 20 that year, William IV died at the age of 71, and Victoria became Queen.
In her diary she wrote, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.”
Official documents prepared on the first day of her reign named her as Alexandrina Victoria, but the first name was withdrawn at her own wish and never used again.
She inherited the revenues of the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, and was granted a civil list of £385,000 per year. Financially prudent, she paid off her father’s debts.
At the start of her reign Victoria was popular, but her reputation suffered in 1839 because of an incident involving one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings. She developed an abdominal growth that was widely rumoured to be an out-of-wedlock pregnancy by Sir John Conroy. Victoria believed the rumours. At first, Lady Flora refused to submit to a naked medical examination, until in mid-February she eventually agreed, and was found to be a virgin. Conroy organised a press campaign implicating the Queen in the spreading of false rumours about Lady Flora. When Lady Flora died in July, the post-mortem revealed a large tumour on her liver that had distended her abdomen. At public appearances, Victoria was hissed and jeered.
Though queen, as an unmarried young woman Victoria was required by social convention to live with her mother, despite their differences, and exasperated with her mother’s continued reliance on Conroy. Her mother was consigned to a remote apartment in Buckingham Palace, and Victoria often refused to even meet with her. Victoria complained of her mother’s close proximity, expecting “torment for many years”. It was proposed that could be avoided by marriage. She thought of Albert’s education for the future role he would have to play as her husband, but she resisted attempts to rush her into wedlock.
Victoria continued to praise Albert following his second visit in October 1839. Albert and Victoria felt mutual affection and the Queen proposed to him on October 15, 1839, just five days after he had arrived at Windsor. They were married on February 10, 1840. Victoria was besotted. She spent the evening after their wedding lying down with a headache, but wrote ecstatically in her diary:
“I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert … his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again! His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! … to be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”
Albert became an important political adviser as well as the Queen’s companion. Through Albert’s mediation, relations between mother and daughter slowly improved.
During Victoria’s first pregnancy in 1840, 18-year-old Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate her while she was riding in a carriage with Prince Albert on her way to visit her mother. Oxford fired twice, but either both bullets missed or, as he later claimed, the guns had no shot. He was tried for high treason and found guilty, but was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Victoria’s popularity soared again. Her daughter, also named Victoria, was born on 21 November 1840.
The Queen hated being pregnant. Nevertheless, over the following seventeen years, she and Albert had a further eight children: Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (b. 1841), Alice (b. 1843), Alfred (b. 1844), Helena (b. 1846), Louise (b. 1848), Arthur (b. 1850), Leopold (b. 1853) and Beatrice (b. 1857).
In 1845, Ireland was hit by a potato blight that became known as the Great Famine. In the next four years over a million people died. She personally donated £2,000 to famine relief, more than any other individual donor, and also supported the Maynooth Grant to a Roman Catholic seminary in Ireland, despite Protestant opposition.
In 1853, Victoria gave birth to her eighth child, Leopold, with the aid of the new anaesthetic, chloroform. Victoria was so impressed by the relief it gave from the pain of childbirth that she used it again in 1857 at the birth of her ninth and final child, Beatrice.
In March 1861, Victoria’s mother died, with Victoria at her side. To relieve his wife during her intense and deep grief, Albert took on most of her duties, despite being ill himself with chronic stomach trouble.
By the beginning of December, Albert was diagnosed with typhoid fever. He died on December 14, 1861. Victoria was devastated. She entered a state of mourning and wore black for the remainder of her life. She avoided public appearances. Through the 1860s, Victoria relied increasingly on a manservant from Scotland, John Brown. Before long, there were slanderous rumours of a romantic connection. The story of their relationship was the subject of the 1997 movie Mrs. Brown.
Victoria’s self-imposed isolation from the public diminished the popularity of the monarchy. On the last day of February 1872, 17-year-old Arthur O’Connor (great-nephew of Irish MP Feargus O’Connor) waved an unloaded pistol at Victoria’s open carriage. Brown, who was attending the Queen, grabbed him and O’Connor was later sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. As a result of the incident, Victoria again became popular.
Following a custom she maintained throughout her widowhood, Victoria spent the Christmas of 1900 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Rheumatism in her legs had rendered her lame, after a fall years earlier. Her eyesight was clouded by cataracts. Through early January, she felt “weak and unwell”, and by mid-January she was reported to be “drowsy, dazed, and confused“. She died on Tuesday, January 22, 1901, at half past six in the evening, at the age of 81. Her son and successor King Edward VII, and her eldest grandson, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, were at her deathbed. Her favourite pet Pomeranian, Turri, was laid upon her deathbed as her last request.