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Queen Victoria

A Monarchy in Transition

The Years of Mourning

The Age of Disraeli and Gladstone

Victorian Britain was marked by its move toward more popular government. Several republican movements grew up under Queen Victoria's watch, the most significant of which arose in the 1860s, when the Queen was secluded in mourning for the late Prince Albert and rarely appeared in public. Though she appeared publicly to open Parliament in 1866 and 1867, she was criticized from various quarters for having been absent from the public eye for so long. Many people questioned not only her performance as their queen, but also the purpose of the monarchy itself.

Victoria's relationship with her eldest son, Albert Edward, affected popular opinion about the role of the monarchy. After dropping out of college both at Oxford and Cambridge, the Prince made a reputation for himself as a young man of poor judgment and questionable companions. While in the Army, his relationship with an actress named Nellie Clifden scandalized his mother. He also associated with many gamblers and adulterers, and was known not to be intelligent. Looking out at the growing democratic and republican sentiments of her people, Victoria feared that her son's known lack of decorum risked the future of the Crown. She was often very critical of the Prince, and their strained relationship fed popular dissatisfaction with the monarchy.

Between 1870 and 1871, Queen Victoria's popularity was at the lowest point it ever reached. Calls for a republican form of government sounded loudly, with fifty Republican Clubs forming all over the nation. However, the tide changed dramatically in late 1871. In November, the Prince of Wales grew very ill from the bad drains at Sandringham Palace. It was the tenth anniversary of his father Prince Albert's fatal illness from similar causes. On December 14, the exact anniversary of Prince Albert's death, the Prince of Wales made a stunning recovery. The British people rallied around him and his mother the Queen, offering prayers of thanksgiving for their young prince's health. In February 1872, a great thanksgiving service was held at Saint Paul's Church in London, and crowds lined the streets demonstrating affection for the royal family. Two days later, an Irish revolutionary approached the Queen with a pistol outside Buckingham Palace. The gun did not fire (indeed, the pistol was found to be unloaded), but the event affected the British public so deeply that it quelled the republican movement altogether.

While direct political power was moving away from Queen Victoria throughout her reign, she was still able to exert a powerful influence over her ministers during important political moments. Her mediation between the two houses of Parliament during the 1869 debate over the controversial Irish Church Disestablishment Act, and during the 1884 debate over the Third Reform Bill both demonstrated her power. Though she often sided with the Conservatives in government during these years, Victoria's actions established a modern precedent that the monarch shouldignore partisan politics. Also, as far as the Queen's indirect influence over foreign affairs is concerned, the importance of eight of her children marrying into the royal houses of Europe cannot be underestimated for their political implications. Spouses of the Queen's children hailed from Prussia, Denmark, Russia, and the principalities of Hesse, Schleswig-Holstein, Waldeck, Battenberg.

Victoria's ready acclimation to a role as queen which was much more symbolic than directly powerful over the government was crucial for the relative stability of nineteenth-century British politics, and the equally smooth transition of her government into its modern, present-day form. During the late 1860s—when Britain's great political controversies were over whether or not to expand the voting population with the Second Reform Bill, whether to disestablish the Protestant religion in predominantly Catholic Ireland—other nations in Europe were facing violent nationalist movements and the new threat of socialist revolution. Parts of Victoria's Britain were dissatisfied with their political and economic situations, but sustained domestic peace was one of the achievements of the Victorian age, setting Britain apart from the war-torn European continent.

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