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The moment the monarchy nearly toppled When Queen Victoria lost her head in grief, she almost triggered a British republic

Queen Victoria during peak mourning. Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Queen Victoria during peak mourning. Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images


March 8, 2021   7 mins

It’s been almost a year since the first lockdown brought normal life in Britain to a halt. Everyone was expecting it, but many of us fooled ourselves into thinking it would be over by summer, like Edwardians who thought the Great War would be over by Christmas. To commemorate this last year of lives suspended, upended and lost, this week UnHerd kicks off a series on other periods in history where business as usual was interrupted — and the lessons we can learn from them. We begin in the Victorian era, supposedly the zenith of Britain’s history, with the death that widowed the Queen — and nearly triggered the end of the British monarchy.

That monarchy is now, obviously, is in decline. Whether it’s Prince Charles’ fondness for alternative medicine, Andrew’s cosy relationship with Jeffrey Epstein or the ever-escalating tsunami of Sussex cringe, our royals are endlessly creative in coming up with new ways to embarrass themselves. The rest of us peer nervously at the increasing age of the one unimpeachable member of the family — Queen Elizabeth II — and wonder what will happen when she is succeeded by one of her eccentric descendants.

But the sober stability and stoicism we celebrate in our ruler was pioneered by the woman who, in the public imagination, embodies good British monarchy. The era over which Queen Victoria presided is thought of as the institution’s pinnacle. Britain was near the height of its imperial power, culturally self-confident, wealthy, innovative. And it wasn’t coincidental that the nation then had an ironclad force of moral uprightness at its heart, in the form of the reliably regal Victoria and her beloved consort Prince Albert.

But Victoria’s power was considerably less sturdy than we imagine today. In fact, the exemplary Queen nearly brought the monarchy crashing down at the very height of her reign, during her lost years of mourning her husband’s death. At first the public was sympathetic to Victoria’s loss, but bereaved people are often expected to ‘move on’ well before their pain has eased — and when the bereaved is a head of state this tension has political implications. As the Queen figuratively lost her head to grief, Britain reached such an anti-royal ferment that Victoria nearly triggered something not seen since Charles I literally lost his head to Cromwell in 1649: a British republic.

Because the British monarchy had actually been on probation ever since Charles I was executed. In 1689, for example, James II was expelled by a cabal of senior statesmen for the crime of being too Catholic and absolutist, in favour of his distant cousin, the Dutch Protestant William of Orange. And after the Stuart line ended without an heir, politicians similarly played fast and loose with sacred succession, leapfrogging 55 Catholic successors to install the German-speaking George I in 1714. Once the taboo on curating our own monarchy to suit the politics of the day was broken, subsequent monarchs discovered that their supreme position was always just a little bit subject to their subjects’ approval.

The Hanoverians pushed the envelope on such approval. They were initially well-behaved and politically emollient, and Britain flourished in the “Georgian” age of art, architecture and fashionable dress — until George III went mad, lost the American colonies, and was replaced as ruler in 1820 by the spendthrift, bed-hopping Prince Regent. The Regency was an age of aristocratic sex scandals, increasingly well-reported thanks to a booming print industry. This was also an age of revolutionary ferment, thrilling with ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that had sent the entire French aristocracy to the guillotine. Taken all together, by the time King George IV died in 1830, he was so unpopular that The Times declared: “there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king”.

Victoria came to the throne seven years later. She was acutely aware of the scandal-dogged nature of the House of Hanover, and the thinning patience of the British public. Her approach to improving matters was novel: unlike her predecessors, who had chafed under the restrictions of “constitutional monarchy”, Victoria leaned into a modern, ceremonial role. She continued to influence policy behind the scene, but with Prince Albert she pursued a new vision for the monarchy, as a moral rather than political leader. Instead of hankering for the days of absolute reign, she and Albert reimagined the monarchy as a template for public-spirited respectability.

In practice, Albert did the heavy lifting. With Victoria frequently indisposed by her nine pregnancies, he took on many royal duties, and proved a natural for the job: serious-minded, public-spirited and indefatigably energetic. He devoted himself to new societies, commissions and institution-building: as his biographer AN Wilson puts it, he was “a civil servant in a coronet”.

Albert is perhaps best known for masterminding the Great Exhibition of 1851, which showcased looted treasures from across Great Britain’s imperial holdings as well as cutting-edge technology, such as a prototype fax machine and an early submarine. The Exhibition was so popular it was visited by over six million people and generated profits of £186,000, equivalent to around £15m today.

Victoria came increasingly to rely on Albert, deferring to his opinion in everything from diplomacy to clothing choice. And together, the couple cemented an image of the British monarchy as a byword for wholesome family life — for example with the famous 1848 engraving of the Royal Family decorating a Christmas tree. Despite the activism of Chartist campaigners for universal suffrage and (in some cases) a British republic, support for the established order climbed.

Then, on 14 December 1861, Albert died. He was just 42. Within the hour, a telegraph message was sent to the lord mayor, instructing him that the great bell at St Paul’s Cathedral should be rung: a sound that Londoners of the time knew could mean only a moment of national crisis, or the death of a monarch. And church bells across the nation answered, as the news was relayed from village to village. Millions mourned the passing of the Prince Consort who had done so much to restore the British monarchy to the nation’s heart. Even the poorest donned black armbands to mark the death.

But Victoria’s mourning continued well beyond the conventional two year-period. Her withdrawal plunged everything into crisis; the lost years of the Victorian era had consequences for everything, from aristocratic matchmaking to international diplomacy.

All the royal balls normally held for eligible young aristocrats during the London Season were cancelled, shrinking the romantic horizons of a micro-generation of blue-blooded debutantes. Meanwhile, on the grand stage of geopolitics, Britain was embroiled in a tense standoff with the Northern States during the American Civil War, following the Unionist capture of two Confederate envoys from a British vessel. The incident nearly brought Britain and America to war, stoking fears that Napoleon III would take advantage of such conflict to press his interests in Europe. Albert was personally involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation and his death left a yawning gulf that the heartbroken Victoria refused to fill.

Even after relations eased with America, Victoria’s withdrawal from public life caused diplomatic issues. She declined to entertain visiting royalty: on one occasion, the visiting King of Italy had to be given lunch at Windsor’s White Hart pub instead of the castle. Officials begged Victoria to re-engage but she remained withdrawn, unable to face public duties.

Last year, we initially embraced the suspension of business as usual. There was a certain degree of unity on the issue, but as time went on, solidarity dissolved, with great disagreement about how long such suspension can go on. Something not dissimilar happened during Victoria’s lost years. By the end of the 1860s, a growing proportion of the public took the view that an absent monarch might just as well be replaced, more cheaply, by an absence of monarchy. As the republican activist Charles Bradlaugh put it in The National Reformer in 1870: “The experience of the last nine or ten years proved that the country can do quite well without a monarch, and may therefore save the extra expense of monarchy.”

Reformers didn’t argue for deposing Victoria. Rather, they suggested that “Dirty” Bertie, Prince of Wales, a man so merrily scandalous he kept a specially-made sex chair at the famous Le Chabanais brothel in Paris, should simply not be crowned. Even Members of Parliament openly expressed republican views, with Sir Charles Dilke and Henry Fawcett and others challenging the Civil List. Republican clubs flourished, with the founder of one declaring in Birmingham in 1871: “My opinion is that in ten years [
] Great Britain will be a Republic.”

History has tended to focus on the role played by Victoria’s Highland servant John Brown in drawing her out of mourning. But it was also partly luck that rescued the fortunes of the monarchy. First, the lubricious Bertie suffered a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever in 1871, and his miraculous recovery prompted a February 1872 thanksgiving service, the first piece of royal ceremonial in a decade. The flag-waving public lapped it up: 13,000 people crammed themselves into St Paul’s Cathedral for the service, and thousands more lined the street.

Then, three days later, 17-year-old Arthur O’Connor climbed over the railings at Buckingham Palace and raised a pistol at Queen Victoria in her carriage. Reportedly O’Connor’s aim was to demand leniency for Irish independence fighters, and his pistol was in fact broken. But the event was widely interpreted as an assassination attempt, which garnered sympathy for Victoria and triggered a backlash against republican sentiment in Britain.

Victoria never stopped wearing black, but after these events she re-entered public life. She reigned for a further three decades, gaining the reputation that’s clung to her since, as upright, severe, dignified empress and also the ‘Grandmama of Europe’. This was the era in which her subjects began to call themselves ‘Victorians’.

It’s not yet clear what changes will turn out to be irreversible as we emerge from the hushed and frozen pandemic era. Many of us are still grieving, alone or together, for everything lost in that time — whether jobs, ways of life or far too many loved ones. But our fractured and increasingly hyperreal political discourse seems short of space for the kind of public coming-together that helped reignite support for Victoria in 1872.

Even so, last summer’s protests suggest that mass outbreaks of powerful public feeling have a way of happening, whether officially convened or not. As we inch closer to life after Covid, then, our leaders might reflect on whether some kind of public ritual or ceremonial could have the power to rekindle the embers of public solidarity, after so many months of stasis. But then, the culture war surrounding Boris’ proposed “Festival of Britain” in 2022 suggests this is a fragile hope. Perhaps the O’Connor incident will end up being the pertinent lesson: that is, the galvanising power of a common enemy.

If anyone can convene a positive, rather than antagonist, mood of unity, it’s probably our reigning monarch. Let us hope, then, that she can find a way to draw on the Victorian legacy of personal courage, and of moral leadership. For if Victoria’s near-disaster and ultimate recovery teaches us anything, it’s that even after all is lost, life still goes on.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

A very interesting article. I knew that Victoria went into extended mourning when Albert died, but I never realized it went on so long or that her withdrawal from public life potentially endangered the monarchy.
I think the real value of this article, though, is that it addresses the question of how the UK–and, by implication, all Western nations–might come together again after the long interruption of normal life due to covid. Inevitably, that question requires the West to ask how it can come together in the face of so much hatred, by so many of its own citizens, of its history and accomplishments.
Much of the journalism and commentary on Unherd is directed to describing the phenomenon of ‘wokeism’, its origins and its excesses. That’s fine because first you have to understand a problem before you can address it. Hopefully, Unherd contributors will now turn more attention to how to fight back against these extreme beliefs and reestablish pride in our society and all the good it has done.
The author of this article suggests that perhaps a common enemy might bind the nation. That strategy is an old one but I’m not sure it will work today. There are plenty of potential enemies out there (China seems happy to assume that role) but still Western society prefers to tear at itself rather than look outward. I hope subsequent essays in this series will stimulate creative thinking by all of us.

Last edited 3 years ago by J Bryant
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The ‘West’ has been hating itself since 1918 when the compact between Ruler and Ruled was broken as a result of the catastrophe that was 1914-18.
The virus of Marxism was allowed to flourish and quickly infected the intellectual/ academic class with appalling results, producing a sort of top down marxist/socialist orthodoxy that was to be further exacerbated by 1939-45.

Oxbridge in the 50’s and 60’s was a veritable cesspit of pseudo marxist drivel, primarily because it was thought Intellectually and Socially ‘smart’ to espouse its cause, just as it had been in the 1920’s.
An UnHerd contributor recently mentioned that even the ‘sainted’ Michael Palin just couldn’t resist making pejorative remarks about the British Empire in one of his lauded TV Rail adventures.
This virus runs deep and I admire your determination to fight back, good luck

Christopher Wheatley
Christopher Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

To me, ‘wokeism’ is like any generational change – there will always be an older generation looking back on the halcyon days of pre-woke, when everything seemed to be so free. I am in the older generation and find woke to be sad and silly but also interesting as a generational change. Like all such changes, parts will die out and parts will be incorporated into our society for the next 50 years. Some parts of woke are probably fair, other parts laughable.
I just finished reading Andrew Doyle’s new book on Free Speech – not a demanding read but well written. He makes the point that the older generation fought against the wave of realism and nudity in theatre and television by trying to ban things from public view – but the new generation won by insisting that its views were correct.
Bearing in mind that all statements can be seen differently by different people, I am angry that our primary school children are being taught to feel guilty about our history, but the other side is that we were happy at one time when German people were taught to feel guilty about WW2. We were also angry when Japan refused to feel guilty.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

Viewing the woke movement as a generational change is an interesting perspective. My impression is it’s an ideology pushed by a very vocal minority, although it certainly finds support in many public institutions. I’m not even sure that the majority of young people truly buy into it or whether they just make the appropriate noises so they’re not accused of being racist or worse.
Andrew Doyle’s book sounds like it’s worth a read. Thanks.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I though it was just a loosely connected collection of stray anecdotes.

David Owsley
David Owsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Nick Faulks

Indeed, interspersed with hints at the author’s real thoughts, e.g. “which showcased looted treasures from across Great Britain’s imperial holdings…”

Stuart Harris
Stuart Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

That’s as far as I got before I stopped reading. Even that jibe was incorrect as this country has been the United Kingdom since 1801.

Last edited 3 years ago by Stuart Harris
D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

Yes, that annoyed me

Richard Brown
Richard Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

Great Britain is a geographical statement – the name of the island that most of us live on. It’s interesting to see what the rest of the world describes us as in, for example, international sporting events. Most of the time it’s GB & NI, rather then UK.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago
Reply to  Nick Faulks

Yeah, I noticed that the conclusions of the article didn’t really land. The author seemed to want to draw a parallel between how the monarchy reinvented itself, and stimulated a sense of national unity, after Victoria’s long absence from public life and how the UK can again come together after extended lockdown. I’m not sure the analogy is strong though and the notion of finding a common enemy seemed to come out of nowhere. I guess I read into the article what I wanted to see.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

Edward VII was ok when he became king. Libidinous, yes, but he seems to have been quite good at diplomacy, and very popular when on tour. He may have liked his fun, but his heart was in the right place.

If only Harry had that sort of blood in him, rather than the “bow to Meghan” mentality he has now.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

“Let us hope that the Queen can find a way to draw on the Victorian legacy of personal courage, and of moral leadership”
The Queen has shown plenty of both in her life. There are, of course different kinds of leadership. But I can’t think of many who have surpassed her in moral leadership. Maybe Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter come close but they were “here today,gone tomorrow” politicians. This time next year Elizabeth R will have been exercising her quiet but incredibly consistent moral leadership for 70 years.
Of course a leader needs followers and this country has chosen to ignore our Queen’s example to run after the way of selfishness. None more so than her own family as exemplified by the Oprah Winfrey interview.
To be sure no human being can transform a nation’s moral quality. Only a spiritual awakening of soul shattering proportions not seen in this country for over a 100 years will do that. Her Majesty nor I will live to see it but our grandchildren and great grandchildren will, pray God.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

Many thanks for a fascinating article, Mary. Especially for displaying the value of humour in discussing a serious topic. I love the idea of the King of Italy being fed at a Windsor pub and trust that they gave him something better than microwaved lasagne. It shows how fragile apparently bombproof institutions often are.

For a taste of how a society can reach even worse states, I recommend watching “The republic of King Jesus” on YouTube. Professor Alec Ryrie is an excellent lecturer and recounts the chaos of England in a period to which Mary refers – the 1640s and 1650s when the King was executed and Cromwell reigned.

One factor in restoring the monarchy in 1660 was the spread of religious nuttery. If it was not bad enough having Cromwell and his hencemen ruling, you had the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters and, worst of all, the Quakers. How the Quakers were perceived as terrifying and subversive makes enthralling and hilarious viewing. Even the worst monarch could be viewed with nostalgic affection after this assortment of freaks had risen to prominence.

johnmckenna538
johnmckenna538
3 years ago

The man in a quandary here is Justin Welby . He the man who brought over an American Episcopalian Bishop to wow the audience at Meghan and Williams glitzy wedding ( apparently the Bishop was unknown to bride and groom) Meghan more fond of arch Secularist and Marxist Chomsky who’s book she had recommended to her Twitter fans in an earlier incarnation , than the good Lord . Welby of course on record for his devout admiration for the Queen and Monarchy at this point presumably in seventh heaven being a friend to both Queen and Princess . Then the Princess turns on the Monarchy scorned and vengeful seemingly intent on destroying in her words the ‘Firm ‘ . How does Justin react a discreet silence perhaps. ? That though is fraught with danger , if the Monarchy goes then the Anglican church becomes disestablished and the church and of course himself more or less finished in that the platform that gave them credibility indeed a platform of itself gone in the twinkling of an eye. My guess is he and his Bishops know where their bread is buttered and will in their usual expedient fashion act entirely out of the noble end of self-preservation by standing with the Monarchy .

Last edited 3 years ago by johnmckenna538
Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
3 years ago

Not really relevant to the thrust of the article but I’ve never thought before, I wonder how much Victoria’s extended grief was exacerbated by the perimenopause. For those not in the know, it can really send your emotions into the toilet and she’d have been about the right age. Not something much discussed in those days or in that household, I imagine.

Clay Trowbridge
Clay Trowbridge
3 years ago

I remember the day of Elizabeth II”s coronation, a cloudy day when her carriage was suddenly the distinct sunlit object; joyful color and light in a darker world around it.She has been steady in the years since, even as the world has been spinning into chaos as it attempts to rebuild Babylon. And just look at those trying to accomplish that goal!