Queen Victoria’s Power

“Victoria was routinely praised for embodying the qualities of the ideal constitutional monarch. But what constituted this ideal behavior?”

Mike Bartlett’s verse play King Charles III, which finished an extended run at Wyndham’s Theatre in London this past January, stages a near-future crisis for King Charles III. Parliament has put forward a bill that will enable Whitehall to regulate the press. In deep distress, Charles pores over a copy of Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867)Can the king use the royal prerogative to prevent the bill’s passage? Bagehot’s Victorian-era judgments might help guide him. The new king sweats.

Bagehot, an early editor of the Economist, famously assigned the English constitutional sovereign three distinct rights: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”1 The argument was meant to appease Britons skeptical of retaining the Crown. The preceding century, of course, had seen considerable republican experimentation elsewhere, in the United States and on the Continent. If the British monarchy were to survive, Bagehot calculated, the king or queen would need to serve a primarily ceremonial function, with only nominal involvement in state affairs.

Yet Mike Bartlett is right to see broader possibilities for the monarch, even in Bagehot’s rather restrictive formulation. As his King Charles III cries out, “It’s Bagehot from the ancient archive here / It does enlighten on the changing way / The monarchy has influence over / The State. It is a thing of quiet beauty.”2 Charles sets out to exercise that discreet power. In the end, the king refuses to put his name to the bill and the British government comes to a temporary standstill.

Bagehot receives no mention in A. N. Wilson’s new biography of Queen Victoria—straightforwardly titled Victoria: A Life—but Wilson, like Bartlett, is keen to show that even the constricted sovereign can wield a surprising degree of influence. Toward the end of her long reign (1837–1901), Victoria was routinely praised for embodying the qualities of the ideal constitutional monarch. But what constituted this ideal behavior?

While the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had rejected absolutism, the concept of constitutional monarchy remained very much a work in progress, even as late as the 19th century. The Bill of Rights (1689) had made clear that the king or queen ruled with the consent of parliament, but the precise terms of this relationship would come to be dictated more by custom than by written law. Many of Victoria’s subjects seem to have assumed, like Bagehot, that constitutionalism meant that the sovereign would now be part of the “dignified” rather than “efficient” part of government. As a reporter for the Standard gushed at Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Festivities in 1887, “Perhaps only a woman, only a female Sovereign, could successfully, and without friction, have accommodated herself to the steady and persistent curtailment by the tendency of the times, of what used to be regarded as part of the appanage of the Sceptre.”3 The novelist Margaret Oliphant put it much more succinctly at the turn of the 20th century: the Queen had “resisted every impulse to join the fray.”4

If many Victorians regarded their sovereign as embodying one version of Bagehot’s paradigm, however, the Queen herself always seems to have had a much more capacious (even if at times shaky) grasp of modern constitutionalism. Deeply informed by the views of her German husband, Prince Albert, Victoria strove to influence domestic and foreign policy from the 1840s on, intervening when necessary. True, she never vetoed legislation or contested election results. But she did go on record as ambivalent about democracy,5 and reprimanded her ministers when she disagreed with their courses of action, especially on questions of empire, where she tended toward hawkish positions.

Frustrated by Benjamin Disraeli’s vacillations concerning whether or not to declare war on Russia in 1877, two months into the Russo-Turkish War, for example, Victoria complained to the prime minister that his “delay” was causing Britain to lose its “prestige” abroad. “The government,” she warned, “will be fearfully blamed and the Queen so humiliated that she thinks she would abdicate at once. Be bold!”6 During William Gladstone’s administrations, of which she famously disapproved, Victoria became even more obstreperous, especially on the question of Irish Home Rule. To the extent, then, that so many Victorians came to see their queen as a “mere” figurehead, this was due to a combination of willful misreading (especially by a dominant faction that struggled to conceive of a woman taking an active interest in politics) and careful stage management by her court and Cabinet.


This more energetic Queen comes into full relief in A. N. Wilson’s account. His first chapter establishes the framework for the interpretation that follows: “The Victorians liked to tell one another that the monarch was simply a figurehead … This was not really the case.” As Wilson explains it, Victoria, under Albert’s tutelage, came to see her role as fundamental to the British state. Deeply informed by the German liberalism of Baron Stockmar, the royal couple’s advisor, Victoria and Albert worked together from their marriage in 1840 until Albert’s untimely death in 1861 to reinvent the Crown as a “workable modern political institution, strong enough to resist the forces of revolution which, since 1789, had threatened Europe.”

Their vision turned on a desire to place the monarchy above political party, but not above politics; when necessary, they felt that the Crown must intervene in the name of protecting the principles of free trade and the parliamentary system. At the same time, they were committed to making the royal family, rather than just the reigning king or queen, central to the nation’s cultural and psychic life—thus their frequent commissioning of intimate domestic scenes by the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The most famous of these images, The Royal Family in 1846, presents a rather informal Victoria and Albert seated side by side, surrounded by their children at play. While they are clearly the royal family—the costumes and jewels are a giveaway—the point is that they could be any family taking pleasure in each other’s company.

It was this particular vision of constitutional monarchy—as both a guarantor of liberal principles and custodian of middle-class morality—that Victoria and Albert hoped to export to the Continent, through the marriages of their rapidly expanding brood (the fecund couple had nine children in total, all of whom survived to adulthood). As Wilson would have it, Europe, especially Germany, as much as Britain, was always at the forefront of Victoria and Albert’s considerations. The preservation of a carefully calibrated liberal world order depended on their ideas taking root across the Channel. In this respect, Victoria’s absorption in plotting the weddings of her children—an obsession that becomes apparent in reading through the Queen’s copious letters and journals—comes to seem less like over-parenting and more like shrewd statecraft. Royal ties, after all, had historically provided what Wilson dubs the “vital glue” that restored “normal” diplomatic relations following various European conflicts. That such ties could not prevent the outbreak of World War One was one of the great unforeseen tragedies of Victoria and Albert’s liberal program.

<i>Queen Victoria</i> (1882). Photograph by Alexander Bassano / National Portrait Gallery

Queen Victoria (1882). Photograph by Alexander Bassano / National Portrait Gallery

What is particularly refreshing about Wilson’s story, however, is that this activism does not end with Albert’s death. Too often, to the extent that the Victorian Crown is portrayed as political, Albert gets most of the credit for royal engagement. Once he departs the stage, goes the standard account, the inconsolable Queen retreats to the grounds of Balmoral, her Scottish castle, where she mourns the passing of her beloved husband, finding solace in the arms of John Brown, her straight-talking Scottish servant—a relationship that may or may not have been romantic (Wilson remains equivocal on this point). As Lytton Strachey, who established the template for this kind of condescending thinking, put it back in 1921, “the threads of power which Albert had so laboriously collected, inevitably fell from her hands into the vigorous grasp of Mr. Gladstone, Lord Beaconsfield, and Lord Salisbury.” As for Victoria, Strachey notes, “she was only dimly aware of what was happening.”7

Wilson, though, gives Victoria’s widowhood a more updated treatment. Gone is Strachey’s “accessory” to government. Instead, we see a monarch clearly distressed, yes, but also deeply absorbed by the day-to-day operations of the state. “It is true, certainly,” Wilson concedes, “that Victoria was desolated by Albert’s death; that the woman, who loved the theatre and the opera and the ballet, who enjoyed great dinners, was changed into a sable-clad widow who shunned society. It is by no means true, however, that she lost interest in political affairs.” To illustrate this point, Wilson describes, in sometimes painstaking detail, Victoria’s efforts to remain not just informed, but deeply engaged.

During her widowhood, Victoria pushed for the construction of the South Kensington museums (of science and natural history, as well as what would become the Victoria and Albert Museum), participated in discussions about army reform, weighed in on Cabinet appointments, and enthusiastically cheered on the expansion of empire. Wilson is particularly good on Victoria’s intensifying interest in Prussia during this period—an interest sparked more than anything by familial concerns (her eldest daughter, Vicky, had married Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858). Victoria cautioned her ministers against waging war with a belligerent Prussia during the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of 1864. And she made clear her sympathy with Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. That Victoria was privy to so much insider information about the Prussian court, moreover, meant that the Queen recognized the scope of Bismarck’s ambitions long before many of her Whitehall advisors did.

In Wilson’s story, refreshingly, Victoria’s political activism does not end with Albert’s death.

It is for these reasons I find it puzzling that Wilson notes toward the end of his book that Victoria didn’t “do” much, and “certainly not in the second half of her life.” As Wilson’s own analysis makes clear, the Queen exerted far more influence than most of her subjects realized. “It was not always easy,” he writes midway through, “for Queen Victoria to know where her authority began and ended.” Nor should it have been. If anything, in fact, the rapid expansion of Britain’s empire made the contours of the Queen’s reign even more ambiguous. At home, the House of Commons was gaining the upper hand, especially after the passage of the Representation of the People Acts of 1867 and 1884, which dramatically expanded the electorate to include roughly 60 percent of the adult male population. In the colonies, however, the sovereign remained a potent figure. Subjects who came under British rule during this period often believed that it was the “Great White Queen” who controlled their fates. Colonial administrators, realizing that it was in their interests, did little to correct the mistake.

The implications are well worth considering. This book comes on the heels of other attempts to portray Victoria, and to some extent Edward VII as well, as political players—or, at least, more political than their subjects would have realized. As the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, author of the best-selling book The Sleepwalkers on the origins of World War One, remarked in a lecture last fall at the Institute of Historical Research in London, monarchs served an important “integrating function” right up through 1914. For this reason, “kings could become a source of obfuscation in international relations.”8

Britons today, of course, like to think they’ve come a long way from their Victorian and Edwardian forebears. Yet recent royal events have demanded more sober assessments. Last September, Queen Elizabeth II famously “purred down the line” during a phone conversation with David Cameron, as she expressed her relief over the vote on Scottish independence.9 Cameron breached protocol when, in conversation with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, he revealed the Queen’s response. Yet it remains tantalizing evidence of the kinds of conversations that might be taking place elsewhere behind closed doors. Then there are the more recent revelations about the aspirations of Prince Charles. As the Guardian reported last November, “Prince Charles is ready to reshape the monarch’s role when he becomes king and make ‘heartfelt interventions’ in national life in contrast to the Queen’s taciturn discretion on public affairs,” according to various sources close to the Prince.10 And really, what is to prevent Prince Charles from weighing in on the issues that matter to him, namely agriculture and the environment? The royal prerogative, like so many other aspects of Britain’s political system, remains relatively open to interpretation. icon

  1. Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867; Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 60.
  2. Mike Bartlett, King Charles III, act 5, scene 1.
  3. “This Day’s Spirit of the Press,” Manchester Evening News, June 21, 1887 (reprinted from the Standard).
  4. Margaret Oliphant, “The Domestic Life of the Queen,” in Robert Wilson, The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, with which is incorporated “The Domestic Life of the Queen” (Cassell, 1900), vol. 1, p. 137.
  5. As she confided to her daughter Vicky in 1892, following a Conservative loss in the polls, “It seems to me a defect in our much famed Constitution, to have to part with an admirable Government like Lord Salisbury’s for no question of any importance, or any particular reason, merely on account of the number of votes.” Cited in the book under review, p. 501.
  6. Queen Victoria to Benjamin Disraeli, June 27, 1877, in The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, vol. 6, edited by William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle (Macmillan, 1920), p. 148.
  7. Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria (Harcourt Brace, 1921), p. 411.
  8. Christopher Clark, “Dynasty and Decision Making in 1914” (lecture, Institute of Historical Research, London, October 1, 2014).
  9. See, e.g., Rowena Mason, “David Cameron Says Queen ‘Purred Down Line’ after Scotland No Vote,” Guardian, September 12, 2014.
  10. Robert Booth, “Prince Charles Will Not Be Silenced when He Is Made King, Say Allies,” Guardian, November 20, 2014.
Featured image: Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Royal Family in 1846. Royal Collection Trust.