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.
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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.