Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Life Among the Royals: England's Queen Victoria & How She Got There

The English Monarchy, with its family tree gnarled and twisted by various marriages with foreign rulers, went to a German prince when Queen Anne died without an heir in 1714. The closest direct descendant of any previous monarch meant that a German duke of Hanover in what is now northern Germany, became King George I even though he spoke no English. Actually, there were closer blood relatives but they were all Catholics and the British Parliament had passed laws in 1701 that would permit only a Protestant ruler.

And so that is how England has been ruled by monarchs of German descent from 1714 to the present day.


Shortly after King George I's great-grandson, George III (see left) became king in 1760, it was arranged that he should marry a German duchess whom he first met on their wedding day. It turned out to be a happy marriage after all and they had 15 children.

He is best known to us as the King who lost the American Colonies in 1776. Due to the slowness with which news traveled in those days, he had not yet heard about the Declaration of Independence and much fun was later made of his diary entry for July 4, 1776, when he wrote “Nothing of importance happened today.”

Before 1801, the king of England, Scotland & Wales was called “The King of Great Britain and the King of Ireland” but when Ireland was incorporated directly under one crown, he became king of “The United Kingdom.” George III also had a couple of German titles related to the Duchy of Hanover – in 1814, following a treaty after one of the many Napoleonic Wars, Hanover became a kingdom and George III its king, though he had never even visited there much less ruled the country directly.


During the periods of temporary mental illness the king suffered from, his son became Prince Regent (see right), especially from 1811 on. From then on, George III lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle until his death nine years later. There were no provisions to replace a monarch incapable of ruling so he was, at least in name, still King of the United Kingdom and of Hanover until he died in 1820.

This period before his son officially became King George IV was known as “The Regency” and by extension the term is associated with the first period of George III's illness in 1795 to the death of his second son to become king, William IV in 1837. It was an era of British history and culture marked by aristocratic excess on one hand and the fear that the British people, unhappy with such behavior, might do the same thing the French had done to their aristocrats in 1789: overthrow the king and establish a democracy. Despite the public sense of comfort and social elegance – best seen in the novels of Jane Austen – it was also a time of international insecurity with the incessant warfare against Napoleon.

Even though George III had 15 children, there was only one legitimate grandchild who could have succeeded to the throne. When she died in 1817 at the age of 21, it became a race to see which of the surviving children of the old king could produce a new heir.

So when George IV died after officially ruling for 10 years without an heir, his younger brother William IV ruled for the next seven years. When he died in 1837 without a legitimate heir, the crown went to a young princess who was the daughter of the next oldest son of George III, one who had died before he could ascend the throne himself.

And that is how Victoria became Queen of England a month after her 18th birthday.


This portrait (see right) was painted in 1843 when she was 24. She would rule for 63 years until her death in 1901, the longest reign of any British monarch, male or female, and of any woman in Western history.

Victoria is usually pictured as a frumpy matronly grandmother wearing black, an old woman with no sense of humor (her famous comment, “we are not amused,” the follow-up to many failed jokes) and very conservative attitudes. “The Victorian Age” is generally regarded as a more reserved era with high moral standards when people did not openly express their inner emotions (keeping a “stiff upper lip” and all that). It is, in many ways, an extension of those same attitudes typical of the German “Biedermeier” Age.

In 1840, she married Albert, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (yet another of the small German principalities). He was named Prince Consort with no official responsibilities beyond being the Queen's husband. They had nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood. The eldest child, also named Victoria, married the future King of Prussia who united the states of the former German Federations into the German Empire. A second daughter married a German prince and one of their daughters married the future Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.

After Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria remained in mourning the last 40 years of her life.

But in the story of Felix Mendelssohn and his times, Queen Victoria is a young queen recently married.

- Dr. Dick