When Alexandrina Victoria was born in Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819, there seemed little chance that she would ever succeed as the ruling monarch of Great Britain and Ireland eighteen years later. Her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, was the fourth son of the reigning King George III. He was one of the less inspiring figures of the populous royal family--a man of somewhat middle-class sensibilities who had been discharged from the army for brutal behavior, accrued large debts, and lived for many years with a French singer before marrying Victoria's mother. King George had other sons who would succeed him--the future George IV and William IV--and it was generally assumed that at least one of them would eventually sire a legitimate male heir to the throne.
Victoria's mother was Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, Princess of Leiningen, a small German principality. The sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and widow of Prince Emich Charles of Leiningen, she married Prince Edward with hopes of providing him with a son. However, "Drina," as young Victoria was called, was their only child (Princess Victoire had two other daughters by her first marriage, Charles and Feodora). Edward died in January 1820 of pneumonia, the same year that his father King George III passed away.
While her uncle King George IV reigned over Great Britain and Ireland, Victoria lived a quiet, secluded childhood in Kensington Palace with her mother and a largely German-speaking household. German was Victoria's first language, though she soon mastered English. Not expected ever to reign as monarch, her upbringing was left largely to her mother, who saw to it that her daughter received a liberal education in music, drawing, natural philosophy, history, and foreign languages. A German governess named Louise Lehzen, who sparked the future queen's life-long interest in reading history, tutored Victoria. Young Victoria showed exceptional talent with French and Italian as well as with her drawing and singing lessons.
As a child, Victoria was described as warmhearted, lively, and occasionally mischievous. She also exhibited a natural gracefulness, carrying herself with unselfconscious dignity. During these early years of her life she began to keep regular diaries, a habit that she never dropped, enabling modern historians to gain a thorough, intimate look at the course of her whole life. In those diaries, Victoria revealed a simple Lutheran piety, which she had inherited from her mother, as well as a contrasting, deeply romantic streak that spoke to her complex, introspective personality.
In 1830, King George IV passed away, and the succession of his brother, William IV, signalled to their eleven-year-old royal niece Victoria that she might play more important a role in British politics than her family had expected. King William had several illegitimate children, and also a legitimate royal daughter, who died in infancy. By Victoria's teen years, it became apparent that she would be heir to the throne, and this circumstance greatly altered the quiet, unassuming life she and her mother had led in Kensington Palace. The princess became the pawn of several unfortunate family feuds.
A feud erupted when the duchess kept Princess Victoria from attending her uncle William's coronation, allegedly over the fact that Victoria was improperly assigned a place in the coronation procession behind the dukes rather than directly behind the king, where his heir belonged. Sir John Conroy, the comptroller of the Duchess Victoire's household, was involved in this decision. In 1832, he organized a series of semi-royal tours during which the princess V was formally presented to the nation. These affairs enraged King William, as they were carried about with certain hostility toward his reign, and because Conroy went out of his way to foster a sort of rival royalty, exploiting the emotions aroused that year by the Reform Bill, which had greatly pitted the Whig and Tory parties against one another. Conroy and the duchess were very friendly toward the liberal Whigs while the King and his household was much more conservative and Tory in cast.
Further tensions arose when Parliament and members of the royal family began debating the possibility of a regent, in the case the king died before Victoria reached the age of majority. Her mother was the probable candidate, though her uncle Ernest, the Duke of Cumberland, was another. Conroy, who had ambitions to become a prominent figure in any future regency, spread false rumors that Cumberland was planning to poison Princess Victoria, killing her, and making himself king. Rumors also began to spread, possibly true, that the princess's mother was involved romantically with Conroy. These events alienated the Kensington household from King William's.
Victoria's teenage years were also spent receiving visits from eligible male cousins and other young men who her mother and uncle, the King, saw as potential consorts for the future queen. Among them were her two cousins named George, sons of two her father's younger brothers, who were next after Victoria in the royal succession. No betrothal took place at this time, however. The princess made many social appearances in London where she loved particularly to see Italian operas. Her mother, with whom Victoria had developed a very poor relationship, usually orchestrated these appearances. Duchess Victoire was wrapped up in her ambitions for her daughter's future as queen, and often treated the princess coldly and flippantly in private, even though in public she made many empty shows of motherly affection toward her royal daughter.
One of the princess's few consolations in these rather grim days of her adolescence were her many letters to and from her uncle Leopold, now King of the Belgians. Victoria came to look upon Leopold as a father figure, and one of her happiest memories from her sixteenth year was his visit to England with his wife, Queen Louise. Leopold offered Victoria much valuable advice, including on political matters. At the end of Leopold's visit in September 1835, however, Victoria fell very ill with fever and remained confined to her room for five weeks. While ill, she mustered strength enough to dismiss entirely John Conroy's opportunistic designs to get her to sign a paper that would have made him her private secretary.
On May 18, 1836, Victoria met her cousin of the same age, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, for the first time. The two got along very well, and Victoria developed a deep affection for him. She confided her feelings for Albert to her uncle Ernest, but any talk of a marriage alliance was put off until she reached the age of eighteen. Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, King William IV passed away. On June 20, 1837, the princess became Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland.