Upon her accession to the throne in June 1837, eighteen-year-old Victoria was able to throw off the influence of her mother Victoire and Sir John Conroy, who had formerly exercised so much control over her young life. Conroy was at the time still in the pay of the Queen's mother, but he resigned his post and left the country in 1839 after allegedly impregnating Flora Hastings, one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting. Hastings, in fact, was a virgin, and what had appeared to be the symptoms of pregnancy were in fact those of an unusual fatal illness. The Queen treated the young lady harshly before she died, and the whole business scandalized the public. Later on, Victoria regretted her behavior in the Hastings affair deeply.
The most important figure early in Victoria's reign was William Lamb, Second Viscount Melbourne, who was the first Prime Minister of her reign. Lord Melbourne was a charming, attractive figure, and Victoria came to rely on his guidance heavily. The two often spent hours a day in conversation. He taught her a great deal about constitutional government, lessons which served he well throughout her long reign. Victoria's affection for and reliance upon Lord Melbourne increased her support of the Whig party to which he belonged, and Melbourne made sure that she was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting from good Whig families. The other major influence on her politics in these years was her first Foreign Secretary, Henry John Temple, Third Viscount Palmerston. Lord Palmerston was the chief architect of Victorian foreign policy in the early part of the reign.
In October 1839, Victoria's cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha visited England once again, and this time the Queen fell very much in love with him. The feeling was mutual. She proposed marriage to him, and he accepted. The two were married on February 10, 1840. Victoria desired that Albert receive the title King Consort, but British officials would have none of it, not wishing to see a German prince assume any part of the sovereign power. Indeed, despite Victoria's desire to give her husband a higher title, she herself was at first reluctant even to discuss political matters with him, refusing him access to her state papers. Melbourne convinced Victoria gradually to allow Albert a hand in her political business. With Albert's growing political influence, she came to share his fondness for the Conservatives in the government, such as Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister from 1841–1846, a man she initially disliked immensely, in part because he had tried (though failed) to get her to replace some of her Whig ladies-in-waiting with Conservative ones.
While Victoria's early years as queen were spent learning and developing her understanding of British politics—not to mention adapting to her new life not only as a sovereign but also as a new bride—her kingdom was undergoing great political and social changes. One of the great political concerns of the day was the role of the monarchy itself. When she bacame queen, there was some agitation among political liberals to divest the monarchy of all power and institute a republican form of government. The 1830s and 1840s saw the rise of the Chartist movement, radically liberal for its day, which pushed for universal male suffrage and for the reform of Parliament, and defended the working class interest in an increasingly industrialized and urbanized British society. Chartist riots and workers' strikes occurred around Great Britiain for several yeras, until the movement petered out in 1848. Victoria herself was sympathetic toward, if not actually supportive of, liberal reform efforts, and the Chartists themselves often demonstrated affection toward the Queen, as these lines from one of their songs indicate: "While her affections we do win, And every day fresh tidings bring, Ladies help me for to sing, Victoria Queen of England."
A chief economic point of contention in the early Victorian administrations was free trade and what should be done about the Corn Laws, which penalized foreign imports of grain in order to help domestic British agricultural interests. There was a severe trade depression between 1839 and 1843, and two years later, feeling that the Corn Laws were partially to blame, Prime Minister Peel repealed them. Peel and the Conservatives subsequently lost control of Parliament in 1846. This was also the worst year of the great potato famine in British- controlled Ireland, a disastrous event which caused the death of a million Irish and the emigration of a million and a half more—in total a full quarter of the country's population. The new Whig government in Britain was largely to blame for the length of the famine, as its trade policies encouraged continued exports of grain to other nations while Ireland was starving. The Queen made a brief visit to Ireland during the famine years; the Irish problem would prove a great agitation in British politics later in her reign.
Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to travel her country by train. Indeed, the first decades of her reign were marked by the advent of railways and steam-power all over Britain. Victoria's kingdom was fast becoming the most advanced industrialized nation in the world, and in 1848 Britain was producing half the pig iron in the world, possessed a booming shipbuilding industry, and was home to a greatly expanding and prospering middle class. Towns and cities such as London and Glasgow in Scotland were growing exponentially in population, and Britain was increasingly a country of town-dwellers, factory workers, and shop-keepers as it had once been a nation of farmers. Workers living in the new industrial towns often lived in appalling slum conditions, and had to face the problem no political organization or power in the face of powerful factory owners and an increasingly cut-throat, competition-driven economy.
Victoria had few foreign policy crises to deal with in her youthful days as queen. Early Victorian Britain was blessed with a long period of peace, all the more remarkable considering that the rest of Europe, particularly in 1848, was plagued with anti-monarchical, republican and nationalist violence. Italy, Germany, and the Balkans were all contending with nationalist movements. In 1848 radical republican revolutionaries overthrew King Louis Phillipe of France. Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Louis Napoleon, conducted a coup d'etat in December 1851 and made himself Emperor of the French. Queen Victoria watched these events on the continent with some concern, particularly the anti-monarchical movements. Fortunately, however, her own people were uniquely content with their overall political system, and no threat of violent revolution haunted their island nation.
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