Women's History Wednesday

Queen Victoria Ascends to the Throne

The King is Dead. Long Live the Queen.

Undoubtedly, the most important event in 1837 England was the death of King William the IV and the ascension to the throne of Queen Victoria, thereby creating the beginning of the Victorian Era. On Tuesday the 20th of June 1837 not long after two in the morning, King William IV died.[1] Three hours later the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Cunningham arrived at Kensington Palace to tell the new Queen the news of her Uncles passing. Victoria received the men in her dressing gown hastily thrown over her night dress, her feet were still in her slippers, and her hair was loose about her head.

Victoria Regina 1880 Henry Tanworth Wells 1828-1903 Presented by the artist’s daughter 1903 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01919

Victoria recorded the event in her diary writing, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Cunningham 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 Cunningham (the Lord Chamberlain) 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. Lord Cunningham knelt down and kissed my hand, at the same time delivering tome the official announcement of the poor King’s demise. The Archbishop then told me that the Queen was desirous that he should come and tell me the details of the last moments of my poor good Uncle; he said that he had directed his mind to religion, and had died in a perfectly happy, quiet state of mind, and was quite prepared for his death. He added that the King s sufferings at the last were not very great but that there was a good deal of uneasiness. Lord Cunningham, whom I charged to express my feelings of condolence and sorrow to the poor Queen, returned directly to Windsor. I then went to my room and dressed.”[2]

 King William IV was not a very popular king, but his subjects did mourn him as the British people should mourn their monarch. The Times reported that “the streets were filled with groups of persons discussing the merits and lamenting the loss of the good old king, who they suddenly, but not unexpectedly bereaved.”[3] Flags were flown at half-mast, the newspapers were printed with black boarders, shops were “half-closed,”[4] and some houses exhibited “marks of mourning which are usually displayed when a relative of their occupier submits to the general lot of mortality”[5] The Times also published “orders for mourning for the army for his Late Majesty King William IV”[6]. The country was officially in mourning for their late King, but also excited about this new young queen.

Victorian made it very clear that she was going to meet with her ministers alone. She did not want her mother or John Conroy to interfere with her meetings. Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her mother’s advisor, John Conroy, had hoped the King would die while Victoria was a child so Victoria’s mother could beinstalled as regent over her daughter and Conroy would rule over them both. The pair wanted to be sure they controlled Victoria and sothe princess was brought up according to a plan that they called the “Kensington System”.[7] A plan that isolated the young princess from her contemporaries and her father’s family. Victoria was closely watched at all times.

Victoria was raised in a very strict environment which she grew up to resent. One of the things that upset her most was that she was forced to sleep in her mother’s bedroom. Right after becoming queen and meeting with her minister’s alone, she informed her mother that she would be moving to her own room. On her first day as Queen, Victoria asserted her independence over her mother and Conroy.

Four hours after the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Cunningham left Kensington palace, Queen Victoria received Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. This would be the beginning of their very close relationship between the two. Victoria was impressed during her first meeting with Melbourne, and she did not think that she could be in better hands.[8] She felt comfortable talking to him, and that she could confide in him. Melbourne was forty years Victoria’s senior, and he became a type of father figure to her.

Victoria’s actual father the Duke of Kent, had died when she was just a baby. She never had a real relationship with her biological father. Malborne filled many holes in Victoria’s life and helped shape the Victorian Era. He became her mentor and taught her about politics, foreign policy, and how to behave with political and royal officials. He also became a role model for her, someone older that she was able to confide in and look up to. Besides Victoria’s governess, Baroness Lehzen[9], Melbourne was Victoria’s only friend. Victoria wrote that Melbourne was “a good, kind hearted, honest, and clever man.”[10] She even named a city in Australia after him.

Yet, this new friendship that had formed between Melbourne and Victoria did not please everyone. Melbourne was a part of the Whig party and people of other political parties where afraid Melbourne would use his influence over Victoria to pressure her into supporting his causes when the monarch was supposed to stay out of party politics. The Times said that this new relationship between Victoria and the Whig party “is an actual trepanning of their innocent sovereign into a course of policy subservient to their own selfish interests, and an abuse most glaring then we have ever before witnessed.”[11] The Times even went so far as to call the men Victoria was surrounded by “a band of unworthy advisors.”[12]

Victoria stayed at Kensington Palace until after her Uncles funeral and then she moved to Buckingham Palace.[13] Due to the social conventions of the time, the young unmarried Victoria could not live in the palace alone. Her mother had to come live with her against Victoria’s wishes, but the Duchess was given her own apartments far away from Victoria and just about all the happenings of the palace. Queen Victoria was the first British Monarch to use Buckingham palace as her official residence, and it has remained the official residence of the British Monarch to this day.

There were some problems with Victoria taking the throne abroad. When Victoria was crowned Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, she should have also been crowned the Queen of Hanover, but under Salic Law, a woman could not rule Hanover inher own right.[14]Therefore, the Hanoverian Crown went to Victoria’s Uncle, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland who was unpopular with his contemporaries. This ended the personal union of Britain and Hanover which had existed since 1714.

Victoria was a queen determined to retain the political power of the throne, yet unwillingly and unwittingly she presided over the transformation of the sovereign’spolitical role into a ceremonial one.[15] When Victoria became queen, the political role of the crown was by no means clear. Monarchs across Europe had an uneasy feeling about their future and permeance within their societies. During a time when many monarchs in Europe had already lost their power, lives, and riches Great Britain had managed to not have a political revolution. Instead, Great Britain had an industrial revolution and passed many reform acts during the 1830’s.

The monarchy in Great Britain had never ruled with an absolute Devine right. There was always parliament that had limited the crown’s power, and the role of the monarchy had been slowly losing their political power ever since the Glorious Revolution when the crown had become a constitution monarchy.[16] It was this slow transfer from a political role to a ceremonial role that preserved the British monarchy and allowed Victoria to become queen in 1837.

Victoria was young. She was only eighteen years old, and now the ceremonial head of one of the greatest powers in the world.  Yet, Victoria had confidence. She was sure that she was going to be a good Queen. She wrote in her diary “I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty to my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, but not all things, unexperienced, but I amsure, that few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.”[17]

[1] “The Late King William IV.” The Times, 21 June 1837.

[2] Victoria. The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majestys Diaries between the Years 1832 and 1840. Place of Publication Not Identified: Adamant Media, 2007.Pg. 183.

[3] “The Late King William IV.” The Times

[4] “The Late King William IV.” The Times

[5] Ibid.

[6] “General Order. House Guards.” The Times, 21 June 1837.

[7] Williams, Kate. “Queen Victoria and the Palace Martyr: Kate Williams Looks at the Scandal That Rocked Court and Parliament in the Early Years of Victoria’s Reign, Resulting in a Personal and Political Crisis for the Young Queen.” History Today, 1 Apr. 2009.

[8] Victoria. The Girlhood of Queen Victoria.

[9] Kate Williams. “Queen Victoria and the Palace Martyr”

[10] Victoria. The Girlhood of Queen Victoria.

[11] “The Court Circular.” The Times, 27 June 1837.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “The Queen: The Court Circular.” The Times, July 1837.

[14] Williams, Edgar Trevor, and Meredith Veldman. “Victoria.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 31 Oct. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Victoria-queen-of-United-Kingdom.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Willis, Kirk. “The Glorious Revolution.” The History of England 1660. 2018, Leconte Hall, The University of Georgia.

[17] Victoria. The Girlhood of Queen Victoria.

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