Married to Prince Albert, mother to nine children and 42 grandchildren (eventually making the House of Windsor related to nearly every monarchy in Europe), reigning over Britain and its empire for 63 eventful years, the young Victoria as heiress presumptive was groomed for the throne from a tender age. She would describe her childhood as “rather melancholy.” Her mother was ferociously protective and Victoria was raised isolated from other children under the “Kensington System,” an intricate set of rules and protocols for every facet of behavior. She was banned from meeting anyone deemed “undesirable” (which in her mother’s view was just about everybody).
Not surprisingly, the bright young woman – she was extremely well educated by private tutors in the Palace, which she very rarely left – chaffed at all the rules. Upon reaching her majority, the princess made two requests of her father the King: that she be permitted an hour each day to herself free of chaperones, and that her bed be removed from her mother’s suite and she be given a bedroom of her own. In May 1836 AD, she was introduced to Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha, one of many suitors. She was quite taken by him alone, writing to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium who had introduced them, to thank him “for the prospect of great happiness... in the person of dear Albert.” But being just 17 years old, she declined any notion of marriage as yet.
Britain was only saved from a likely unfortunate regency under her mother and her mother’s lover the ambitious Sir John Conroy (a prospect feared by King William, who declared he wished only to live until Victoria came of age to rule) by Victoria’s 18th birthday in May 1837. Her father died less than a month later, and she became Queen of Great Britain. One of her first acts was to banish Conroy from her presence and cut all personal ties with the dowager queen. Albert returned to London to renew his friendship with Victoria; they were married five days later at Windsor Castle in October 1839. Whatever his faults, he had a stabilizing and relaxing effect on Victoria, who was also intellectually bewitched by his beliefs in social reform and “modern” innovations.
Victoria’s long tenure as queen could be seen as a litany of wars in far-away places: Anglo-Afghan Wars, Opium Wars, Anglo-Sikh Wars, Xhosa Wars, Anglo-Burmese Wars, Crimean War, Anglo-Persian War, Indian Mutiny (which brought her the title of “Empress”), Ashanti Wars, Zulu Wars, two Boer Wars, Mahdist War, and Boxer Rebellion besides other military adventures. The reality of Pax Britannica meant a lot of bloodshed. Instead, however, she left all that foolishness to her many prime ministers and Parliament while she spent her days with her own pursuits... repeated pregnancies and, urged on by Albert, social reform for the lower classes.
England was suffering all the ills (and then some) of an industrial society, and the Crown as embodied by Victoria and Albert took a lead in addressing these. Some believed in the philosophy of self-help, whereby the misfortunate “cured” themselves of whatever ailed them, be it drink, drugs, or poverty. But many believed the government and/or the wealthy should look to better the collective lot of the unwashed masses. Hundreds of charitable foundations, many to which Victoria and/or Albert lent their reputations, were created across England. Social “experiments” such as Robert Owens’ utopian communities were launched. Authors such as Dickens and Thackeray brought attention to the plight of the working classes. Since British royalty still had some influence on affairs of government, if simply that of swaying popular opinion, Victoria weighed in on such reforms as the Elementary Education Act (providing free schooling for every child to the age of ten) and the Matrimonial Causes Act (making divorce a legal rather than religious affair, and allowing a woman to have full control of her own civil rights and finances afterward).
Meanwhile, Albert’s interest in science as a way of improving the people’s lot, shared by many of the upper class dilettantes who needed something amusing to do, rubbed off on Victoria. The Crown encouraged and even financed at times all those British adventurers traipsing about the world climbing mountains, trudging across deserts and toiling through jungles, killing or collecting exotic animals, going native with primitive tribes, and generally sticking their collective nose in everywhere. Rationalism was running rampant, and even Victoria was curious whether technology could save the social order and check the moral decay. Thousands flocked to see the displays at the Royal Horticulture Society, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, and the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (1851, the first “world’s fair”). On the practical side, the “Great Stink of 1858” led the Crown to help fund the greatest engineering feat of Victorian England: a sewage system in London.
In December 1861, Prince Albert died of typhoid fever. Heartbroken, the dour and stoic Victoria entered a state of mourning for the rest of her life. Although there were rumors that she took some comfort from John Brown's, her Scottish manservant, devoted and nigh-continuous presence. Whatever their relationship, after Albert’s death Victoria withdrew into seclusion in her castles and palaces, curtailed her public appearances, and rarely set foot in London for the remainder of her life.
By the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, the British Empire was near its apogee. It was the world’s first true “superpower,” its tentacles reaching into every corner of society, culture, finance, and politics around the globe. The celebration, in accordance with Victoria’s wishes, was reserved – and moral – consisting of a procession and thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey. As Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee approached, Victoria surpassed George III as the longest-reigning monarch in English or Scottish (or most anywhere else) history. Again, she insisted that the Jubilee be a festival of the Empire rather than her rule. In early January 1901, the queen regnant Victoria was feeling “weak and unwell”; she died quietly on 22 January, as dignified and reserved in death as in life.