Her reign was complicated, tumultuous, and anything but typical.
When Alexandrina Victoria became queen on June 20, 1837, her first act was to demand something she’d been denied her entire life: one hour spent alone.
In her first 18 years, Victoria spent every waking minute in the company of her mother and uncle, preparing for the eventual day where she would don a crown and become the ruler of the British Empire. When that day arrived, she became only the fourth woman in history to take on the role. Despite her youth and inexperience, this determined woman changed the world — and how it viewed the British monarchy — forever.
From the beginning, Queen Victoria’s reign was marred by controversy. She famously perpetuated rumors and public shaming about Lady Flora Hastings for appearing to have an out-of-wedlock pregnancy with a married lord (after Hastings died in shame, an autopsy revealed the true cause of her distended “pregnant” belly: a cancerous tumor).
While her role as queen was largely ceremonial in the United Kingdom’s constitutional monarchy, she nonetheless managed to cause a government crisis when she refused to allow a new prime minister to replace the ladies of her court with ones from his political party. The press pounced on the moment, dubbing it “The Bedchamber Crisis.” Unpopular and isolated, Victoria was in need of good news. She found it in Prince Albert.
In 1839, just five days into his second-ever visit, Victoria proposed to her future husband, Belgian Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
At the time, a woman proposing to a man was unheard of. But, as Victoria was the highest authority in the land, it would have been inappropriate for anyone of lower status to propose to her.
On their wedding day, she broke tradition again. Instead of the Sunday best brides wore at the time, she opted to wear a voluminous white wedding gown. It became an instant sensation.
Victoria embraced her reinvigorated popularity with gusto.
Keenly aware of their celebrity, she and Albert revitalized the tradition of royals supporting civic institutions and engaging in service. Victoria alone became the patron of more than 150 institutions across the United Kingdom. They released sets of photos of their daily life, dubbed “Cartes des Visites,” which sold an astonishing 60,000 copies.
At Albert’s insistence, Victoria worked with Parliament to push through a number of child labor laws enforcing a 10-hour workday and restricting factories from employing children under the age of 10. By 1891, law would make school attendance free and compulsory for all children aged 5-13, effectively ending child labor.
Then, in 1861, tragedy struck. Albert died after a short illness, leaving the queen devastated.
For the next 10 years, Victoria mourned, refusing to fulfill all but the most necessary of her royal duties. Yet even in self-imposed seclusion, she could not escape controversy.
Politicians, pundits, and journalists criticized her regularly. They condemned what they felt was a lack of royal interest in crises like the Irish Potato Famine. They attacked her friendship with a Scottish servant, John Brown and accused her of having an extramarital affair. Seven men tried to assassinate her, all failing.
Famed writers, including Ireland’s Jonathan Swift and England’s Charles Dickens satirized her policies mercilessly. While this kind of negative attention is expected for a royal leader, it was steeped in sexism in Victoria’s case. Unlike former kings praised for their steely resolve, Victoria was chided for seeming cold and forbidding, with pundits wondering in the press if she ever even smiled.
If you think that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Australian scholar Julia Baird, writer of a new tome about Victoria, told The Guardian that “Victoria was so tough and stubborn and sometimes rude, and refused to accept defeat. Refused to be told what to do. She was micro reported on every second of the day and she behaved how she wanted to behave. That was quite different — she would’ve been a ‘nasty woman’ in Trumpian terms, without a doubt.”
Not all of the criticism levied against Victoria was unwarranted.
During Victoria’s reign, Britain would expand its empire to encompass lands in Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and northeast Africa. For the British, this meant increased political power and economic clout along with a wealth of new foods, textiles, and culture. For the countries it plundered, it meant war, uncertainty, and the rapid, irreplaceable loss of language, customs, and traditions. If she was aware of the negative implications of her nation’s imperialist actions, Victoria didn’t share them publicly, famously saying of the Boer War, “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.”
Victoria ruled over her massive empire for an incredible 63 years. At her Diamond Jubilee in 1898, she marked two final firsts.
She was captured on film for the first time, and she became the first royal to send a telegram. Her brief message of “From my heart, I thank my beloved people. May God bless them!” was sent to people across the United Kingdom and to all of its colonies.
It can be challenging to view rulers as little more than soundbites or caricatures. But Victoria’s reign, long as it was, deserves nuance.
She was, by all accounts, an extremely private person who felt both love and loss deeply and viewed her role as a duty and a service. She was also an extremely wealthy person whose power and status shielded her from the effects industrialization and imperialism had on her subjects. Victoria’s experience as leader offers a glimpse into how much was different for a female monarch at the time and how little some things have changed.
To learn more about Queen Victoria’s reign, watch “Victoria” on PBS: Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern starting Jan. 15, 2017.