On May 1, 1851, tens of thousands of people lined the streets of London along the way to the Crystal Palace, a monumental iron and glass building which housed 100,000 exhibits of modern art, science, and technology. Queen Victoria was present in all her regalia to open up this unique Great Exhibition. Of the nearly 14,000 exhibitors present to show their wares, almost half of them were foreign—inventors and artisans from the United States, Germany, and many other countries. London became the focus of the whole world that May.
The Great Exhibition was largely the result of Prince Albert's vision, and it is the event for which he is most remembered. The profits from it were directed toward the establishment of the South Kensington museums complex in London. The Crystal Palace exhibit successfully advertised British supremacy in manufactures and the nation's booming trade. Prince Albert gained tremendously in popularity after this event, and the remembrance of it aided the popularity both of Victoria's reign and of the British monarchy generally. The Crystal Palace stood as a monument for proud Victorians pleased with their nation's achievements. Unfortunately, it perished in a fire in the 1930s.
Not long after the Great Exhibition, Victoria had to contend with her first major foreign policy crisis: the Crimean War. In 1853, the Russians moved into Turkish-owned areas of the Balkans, effectively taking control of the Dardanelles, an important eastern Mediterranean trade route. The Turks went to war with Russia, and many in Britain desired to enter the war on Turkey's side. Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen, urged by Lord Palmerston, prepared a British fleet to enter the Black Sea without consulting the Queen. Prince Albert was furious, but eventually he and the Queen sanctioned the increasingly popular call for war. As Britain had not fought a war since the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, war fever was spreading throughout the country, particularly in the newspapers and among the middle classes. The British fleet entered the Dardanelles in October 1853, and the Crimean War lasted through 1856. The Russians eventually pulled out of the Balkans.
The Crimean War gained Britain no real advantage except to postpone the break-up of the Turkish empire. The war was famous for the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade, during which a brigade of 600 lightly armed cavalry, after mishearing their command, charged over an open plain against heavy Russian artillery. This disaster, along with the loss of 16,000 men to cholera and starvation, demonstrated that the British Army badly needed reform and to be modernized. The Crimean War was also the war where Florence Nightingale revolutionized the care taking of hospitalized troops near the front, and essentially invented the modern nursing profession.
At home in Britain during the Crimean War, great changes were occurring as far as religious toleration was concerned. Between 1854 and 1856, dissenters of all creeds were admitted to the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. Dissenters were members of radical religious groups—such as the Unitarians and the Deists—who rejected the dominant Protestant faiths of Great Britain. Queen Victoria herself, who grew up as a pious Lutheran, was very tolerant in her attitudes toward different faiths. Many in her husband's family were Roman Catholic, and the Queen was not averse to employing men of dissenting creeds for the education of her children. She was not fond of the Church of England or its bishops, and occasionally complained about their formalities in her diaries.
In 1860, the breakout of the American Civil War affected British politics. The chief issue debated among Victoria's ministers was whether or not to recognize the Southern Confederacy or to side with Lincoln's Union by issuing no formal recognition. The working classes of Britain were very much in favor of the Northern cause to abolish slavery, but many in the ruling classes—especially cotton mill owners and merchants—sympathized with the South and wished to establish formal trading relations with the Confederacy. Britain's basic diplomatic problem during those years was whether or not to recognize the Confederacy. Queen Victoria's sentiments were generally with Lincoln, as were those of Lord Palmerston, who urged his fellow ministers to hold out on recognizing the Confederacy. Recognition was never granted, as the Union victory seemed assured as time went on.
As the push toward the Crimean War attests, Queen Victoria's influence on policy matters was neither very direct nor strong. The nineteenth century was marked in Britain by the rise to authority of the Parliament over the monarchy. However, the Queen's personality and her relations with her ministers were not unimportant factors in the shaping of policy. Indeed, after the Crimean War, she used her influence greatly to avoid further conflicts in the European continent while some of her ministers were eager to get involved. In 1864, she urged her ministers not to get involved in the Austro-Prussian war. Later on in 1874, after Otto Von Bismarck had consolidated the German Empire, a personal letter of the Queen's to the German Emperor Wilhelm I helped to avert a war between Germany and France. The Queen's eldest daughter the Princess Royal Victoria, in fact, had married the Emperor's son, the future Emperor Friedrich III, in 1858. Such marriages of her children were sometimes crucial in the shaping of international relations.