Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

Queen and Empress

More that eighteen centuries and a half ago a Roman Emperor, Claudius by name, came over and began the conquest of the Island of Britain. So pleased was he with the achievement, with which, however, he had not much to do, that he took the title of Britannicus and gave it to his son. Claudius had a most unhappy reign, unhappy both for himself and for the people over which he reigned. He was weak rather than cruel, but many wicked things were done in his name. He came to his death by poison, which was given to him by his wife. And his son, who was always known by this name of Britannicus, was poisoned also when he was in his fifteenth year.

With these unhappy events I may contrast the glorious reign of this island's ruler, Queen Victoria. On the day on which I write this (September 24, 1896) she has reigned longer than any of the sovereigns before her, longer, in fact, if we reckon the time of actual rule, than any sovereign since the birth of Christ.



Queen Victoria was born in Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819, the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent (fourth son of George III.) and his wife, Victoire Marie Louise of Saxe-Coburg Saalfield. (She was, I may say in passing, thirtieth in descent from the good King Alfred.) She received the name of Alexandrina, after her godfather, Alexander I. of Russia, and of Victoria, as an English form of her mother's name Victoire. Her father died when she was eight months old.

Her bringing up by her mother was most careful and most simple. Everything was managed in the most perfect way, not less from inclination than from necessity. The Duchess was poorly provided for, and for a time had the burden of her husband's debts upon her. Yet nothing that was needful was wanting, and the education that the Princess received was of the best. She, too, was both clever and industrious, though not too good to live, for some amusing stories are told of an occasional rebellion against good order. Of Court the Princess saw but little. Its manners were not quite to the Duchess's taste, and the two childless uncles were a little jealous of the niece who was one day to succeed them. She first learnt the greatness to which she was born when she was twelve years old. A paper containing a pedigree was put within the leaves of a book of history which she was reading. "I never saw this before," she said to her governess. "It was not thought necessary that you should," was the answer. She studied the paper more carefully, and remarked, "I see I am nearer to the throne than I thought." "I will be good" was the resolve which she made and expressed at the time, and which she certainly kept as well as any sovereign that ever lived.

The greatness to which she was then taught to look forward came on June 23, 1837. King William IV. died in the early morning of that day, and two great dignitaries (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain) started for Kensington Palace to tell the Princess that she was Queen. It was scarcely light when they got there, and they were kept waiting, first at the door, and afterwards, when admitted, before they could see her. "The Princess must not be awaked," said the maid to the visitors. "We are come on business of State to the Queen," said the Archbishop, "and even her sleep must give way." She came down in her dressing gown, with her hair falling over her shoulders. The two dignitaries knelt to kiss her hands. "I beg your Grace to pray for me," were her first words to the Archbishop. A few hours later she received the homage of a number of great persons, members of the Royal family, ministers and officers of State. "She blushed," says one who watched her closely that day, "when her two uncles, the Dukes of Cumberland and Sussex, knelt to kiss her hand." The next day she was proclaimed Queen from a window in St. James' Palace. "The tears ran down her face," says a writer of the time, "when Lord Melbourne, standing by her side, presented her to the people as their Sovereign." Lord Melbourne was then Prime Minister. The next day she presided for the first time at a Council, "with as much ease as though she had done nothing else all her life." A writer who was very sparing of his praise said, "She appears to act with every sort of good taste and good feeling, as well as good sense." Various stories are told of these early days. One I may repeat here. The young Queen had to sign the death warrant of a soldier who had been condemned for desertion. She asked the Duke of Wellington whether he had anything to say on the man's behalf. "Nothing; he has deserted three times," said the Duke. "O, your Grace, think again." "Well, your Majesty, some one spoke to his good character. He may be a good fellow in civil life." And she wrote "Pardoned" on the warrant. Now the warrants are not signed by the Sovereign.

On June 28, in the year after her accession, she was crowned, and about twenty months after that married to her cousin, Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.

The Queen has had great sorrows. She lost her husband after nearly twenty-two years of happy married life. Her second daughter, the Princess Alice, died on December 14, 1878, and her fourth son, Leopold, Duke of Albany, on March 28, 1884. But the fortunes of her family have been wonderfully prosperous. She has, what no English Sovereign has had before, an heir to her throne in the third generation. A grandson is Emperor of Germany; a grand-daughter is Empress of Russia; the Grand Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha is her son; the Grand Duke of Hesse is a grandson; another grand-daughter will be Queen of the Hellenes. Her peoples too have not escaped various calamities during her reign. There have been great wars, times of scarcity, and heavy visitations of disease. But they, too, have mostly prospered. The population of the United Kingdom, according to the first census of her reign, was about twenty-seven millions; by the last (fifty years later) it was thirty-seven millions. The public revenue was a little more than fifty millions in 1837-8; in 1895-6 it was above one hundred millions. Her dominions have greatly increased. In India, of which she is now Empress, and in South Africa, territories far larger than Great Britain have been added to them. The great colonies of Australia and North America have become populous and wealthy. Her subjects everywhere feel for her affection and loyalty. Among foreign nations she is regarded with a respect that no English Sovereign before has ever inspired. It has been, indeed, a marvellous advance in all that is most to be desired from Claudius, Emperor, to Victoria, Queen and Empress.