Victoria (1819-1901), was queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901 and became one of the most famous rulers in English history. Her 63-year reign was the longest in British history. Great Britain reached the height of its power during this period. It built a great colonial empire and enjoyed tremendous industrial expansion at home. As a result, the time of Victoria's reign is often called the Victorian Age.
Victoria was born at Kensington Palace in London on May 24, 1819. She was the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III, and of Victoria Maria Louisa, daughter of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoria's father died before she was a year old, and she was reared by her mother.
Victoria's uncle, King William IV, died on June 20, 1837. He had no heirs, and so she immediately succeeded to the throne. Victoria was crowned queen at Westminster Abbey on June 28, 1838. Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister, educated her in politics and government.
Many important events took place during Victoria's reign. Britain fought in the Opium War (1839-1842) in China and acquired the island of Hong Kong. Britain also fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856) against Russia, and in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in order to protect its interests in southern Africa.
In 1858, control of India was transferred from the East India Company, a trading firm, to the British government. Victoria was proclaimed empress of India in 1876. Britain seized control of Egypt and many other areas. British colonies united in Australia and Canada, and these countries became important members of the growing British Empire.
The development of a worldwide colonial empire made Britain the richest country in the world. Britain ended restrictions on foreign trade, and its colonies became both sources of raw materials and markets for its manufactured goods. Britain was called the workshop of the world. The British Empire included a quarter of the world's land and a quarter of its people.
The population of Britain itself increased 50 per cent during Victoria's reign, and Britain changed from mainly an agricultural to mainly an industrial nation. More people won the right to vote, and local government became increasingly democratic. The British Parliament passed acts that improved labour conditions, required all children to attend school, and reformed the civil service. In Ireland, the Church of Ireland was separated from the government, and the land system was reformed.
The British people had little respect for the throne when Victoria became queen. This situation had developed because of irresponsible conduct by the two kings before her, George IV and William IV. But Victoria showed herself to be a hard-working monarch concerned with the welfare of her people, and she gained their affection and admiration.
Victoria was a wise and capable monarch. But Britain's greatness was due chiefly to her able prime ministers, including Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, and the Marquess of Salisbury. Gradually the queen had to accept that the British monarchy would not survive unless its powers were reduced and her ministers in Parliament were allowed to rule the nation. Victoria accepted the switch from political ruler to symbolic ruler. For this reason, Britain's monarchy has survived, while the monarchies of most other countries have not.
In February 1840, Queen Victoria married a cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They had four sons and five daughters. The prince was a scholar, philanthropist, and businessman, and the people came to respect him. He actively assisted his wife in her royal duties. Albert died in 1861, and Victoria never recovered from her grief at his loss. She withdrew from social activities and dressed in black for many years. Victoria died in 1901, and her eldest son became King Edward VII.