Queen Victoria

Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, London, on 24 May 1819. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III. Her father died shortly after her birth and she became heir to the throne because he three uncles who were ahead of her in succession - George IV, Frederick, Duke of York, and William IV - had no legitimate children who survived. On William IV's death in 1837, she became Queen at the age of 18.

Queen Victoria is associated with Britain's great age of industrial expansion, economic progress and - especially - empire. At her death, it was said, Britain had a worldwide empire on which the sun never set. In the early part of her reign, she was influenced by two men: her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and her husband, Prince Albert, whom she married in 1840. Both men taught her much about how to be a ruler in a 'constitutional monarchy' where the monarch had very few powers but could use much influence. Her marriage to Prince Albert brought nine children between 1840 and 1857. Many of her children married into other royal families of Europe.

Victoria was devoted to her husband and she sank into depression after he died aged 42 in 1861. For the rest of her reign, she wore black. During the 1860s, she grieved continuously and neglected her public duties. Although she was persuaded to open Parliament in person in 1866 and 1867, she was widely criticized for living in seclusion and quite a strong republican movement developed. With time, the private urgings of her family and the flattering attention of Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister in 1868 and from 1874-80, the Queen eventually resumed her public duties.

Her popularity grew with the increasing imperial sentiment from the 1870s onwards. After the Indian Mutiny of 1858, the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown; and in 1877 Queen Victoria became Empress of India under the Royal Titles Act passed by Disraeli's government.

Victoria was a good 'constitutional monarch' but she took the opportunity to give her opinions - sometimes very forcefully - in private. After the Second Reform Act of 1867, and the growth of the two-party (Liberal and Conservative) system, the Queen's room for maneuver decreased. In 1880, she tried, unsuccessfully, to stop William Gladstone - whom she disliked as much as she admired Disraeli and whose policies she distrusted - from becoming Prime Minister. She much preferred the Marquess of Hartington, another statesman from the Liberal party which had just won the general election. She did not get her way. She was a very strong supporter of Empire, which brought her closer both to Disraeli and to the Marquess of Salisbury, her last Prime Minister. Although conservative in some respects - like many at the time she opposed giving women the vote - on social issues, she tended to favor measures to improve the lot of the poor, such as the Royal Commission on housing. She also supported many charities involved in education, hospitals, and other areas.

During Victoria's long reign, direct political power moved away from the monarch. A series of Acts broadened the social and economic base of the electorate. These Acts included the Second Reform Act of 1867, the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 which made it impossible to pressurize voters by bribery and other means, and the Representation of the Peoples Act of 1884 which reorganized representation in the constituencies.

Her period of seclusion apart, Victoria and her family travelled and were seen on an unprecedented scale, thanks to transport improvements and other technical changes such as the spread of newspapers and the invention of photography. Victoria was the first reigning monarch to use trains - she made her first train journey in 1842.

In her later years, she became almost the symbol of the British Empire. Both the Golden (1887) and the Diamond (1897) Jubilees, held to mark the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Queen's accession, were marked with the great displays and public ceremonies. Despite her advanced age, Victoria continued her duties to the end - including an official visit to Dublin in 1900. She died at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, on 22 January 1901 after a reign which lasted almost 64 years, the longest in British history.

Thomas Sully, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jwslubbock, CC BY-SA 4.0

Victorian Ball

During the Season, dances and balls of all sizes were given almost every night but Saturday and Sunday. The most exciting was the grand balls such as the ones given twice a year by the Prince and Princess of Wales and some of the other possessors of houses with large ballrooms. At these great events, all ages and ranks of the Upper Ten Thousand mixed, and it was here that a successful young debutante might hope to be introduced to an appropriate older man who was of her class if not her set. Married women had their own circle of respectful admirers, and often could be seen to be as much a belle as their younger, unmarried daughters. Men not actively searching for a wife often preferred the older woman's knowledge of the world to the younger one's still-shy schoolroom manners.

Balls were not given as frequently in the country, but masquerades, hunt balls, squire's balls, and others gave those who loved dancing, opportunities to keep their steps polished. The four most popular dance was the Quadrille, the Lancer's, the polka, and the waltz. The Quadrille and the Lancer's were both square dances with a series of complicated steps that the dancers memorized. The polka was energetic and in polite society, the dancers were to be spirited but not boisterous. The waltz was the new Viennese waltz, considered to be much superior to the German kind.

Victoria kept Albert up late dancing it; the guests at the Duke of Marlborough's coming-of-age party danced it until dawn; and Jennie Jerome Churchill went into premature labor with her son Winston, the future prime minister, while waltzing at Blenheim Palace. To keep the dancers refreshed a light (by Victorian standards) midnight supper was served - champagne, oyster patties, lobster and chicken salad, cakes, jellies, ices, shrimps, meringues, tongue, and small hams - after which the dancing continued until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.