Today is the birthday of Victoria (born Alexandrina Victoria), queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. From 1 May 1876, she used the additional title of Empress of India. Victoria was the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of King George III. Both the Duke of Kent and King George III died in 1820, and Victoria was raised under close supervision by her German-born mother Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She inherited the throne at the age of 18, after her father’s three elder brothers had all died, leaving no legitimate, surviving children. The United Kingdom was already an established constitutional monarchy, in which the sovereign held relatively little direct political power. Privately, Victoria attempted to influence government policy and ministerial appointments. Publicly, she became a national icon, and was identified with strict standards of personal morality.
Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in 1840. Their nine children married into royal and noble families across the continent, tying them together and earning her the nickname “the grandmother of Europe.” After Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria plunged into deep mourning and avoided public appearances. As a result of her seclusion, republicanism temporarily gained strength, but in the latter half of her reign, her popularity recovered. Her Golden and Diamond Jubilees were times of public celebration.
Her reign of 63 years and seven months, which, until the current queen, was longer than that of any other British monarch and the longest of any female monarch in history, is known as the Victorian era. It was a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military change within the United Kingdom, and was marked by a great expansion of the British Empire. She was the last British monarch of the House of Hanover. Her son and successor, Edward VII, belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the line of his father.
There’s the bald facts. Most Brits know the high points; no need to go into a big song and dance. Let me start instead by being honest about my position. I despise the monarchy and all it stands for. Despite various attempts to soften our image of Victoria in recent times by portraying her as a fun loving, happy-go-lucky, roly-poly queen who loved nothing better than a good laugh – especially as a young queen – there’s no getting away from the fact that she was a dictatorial, strong willed, tyrant who presided over one of the most socially catastrophic periods in the history of Britain – and approved. During her reign the Industrial Revolution created dire poverty in Britain for millions even though it was the richest and most powerful nation in the world; it consolidated a vast empire that enslaved a vast swathe of the world, a policy whose effects we feel today; it enshrined a rigid class system and sense of privilege based on the accidents of birth; and it enforced a strict code of public morality (broken all the time in private) that we quite rightly lambast now as “Victorian.”
Although her son Edward VII (aka Bertie) did his best to change some things – notably in the party arena – Victoria’s ethos of monarchy still pervades the royal family, particularly in the current queen cast in the same mold. Elizabeth II is strict about protocol, speaks in a dreary monotone with an accent that died decades ago, is hopelessly out of touch with public sentiment, and lives in a bubble of self importance that she created for herself. Should I ever be in The Presence I’m supposed to bow and address her as ma’am. Not happening. I’ve met people I respect and admire a whole lot more, and I don’t do that for them – nor do they expect or require it. Fortunately the odds of me coming face to face with her are nil.
The tendency these days is to idolize the Victorian era from the top down. I’m sure life was quite lovely if you lived in a grand stately manor with servants to wait on you at all hours, attending gargantuan state dinners, and riding around in a gilt carriage with footmen in powdered wigs. That’s what the public sees and admires these days. Life was not so jolly if you were a five year old pit boy slaving in a dirty and unsafe coal mine, or a Zulu watching your traditional way of life systematically dismantled by people with big guns, and leaving you to be despised for your poverty, ill health, and lack of education for generations to come.
Yup, that’s where I stand. I will say that on a personal level I feel sorry for the widowed Victoria. There was no question she was madly in love with her husband, Prince Albert, and his death destroyed her spirit. Even if you are filthy rich and powerful you can still feel the heartache of love, as we all do. That, at least, makes her human. On the other hand, most of us don’t have the luxury of putting on black and closing ourselves off from the world for the rest of our lives.
Many people do not realize that the decades of her mourning were quite precarious for the monarchy. Victoria’s self-imposed isolation from the public diminished the popularity of the monarchy, and encouraged the growth of the republican movement. She did undertake her official government duties, yet chose to remain secluded in her royal residences—Windsor Castle, Osborne House, and the private estate in Scotland that she and Albert had acquired in 1847, Balmoral Castle. In March 1864, a protester stuck a notice on the railings of Buckingham Palace that announced “these commanding premises to be let or sold in consequence of the late occupant’s declining business.” Her uncle Leopold wrote to her advising her to appear in public. She agreed to visit the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Kensington and take a drive through London in an open carriage. But republican sentiments remained.
In 1870, republican sentiment in Britain, fed by the queen’s continued seclusion, was boosted after the establishment of the Third French Republic. A republican rally in Trafalgar Square demanded Victoria’s removal, and Radical MPs spoke against her. In August and September 1871, she was seriously ill with an abscess in her arm, which Joseph Lister successfully lanced and treated with his new antiseptic carbolic acid spray. In late November 1871, at the height of the republican movement, the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid fever, the disease that was believed to have killed his father, and Victoria was fearful her son would die. As the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death approached, her son’s condition grew no better, and Victoria’s distress continued. To general rejoicing, he pulled through. Mother and son attended a public parade through London and a grand service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on 27 February 1872, and republican feeling subsided.
On 2 March 1882, Roderick Maclean, a disgruntled poet apparently offended by Victoria’s refusal to accept one of his poems, shot at the Queen as her carriage left Windsor railway station. Two schoolboys from Eton College struck him with their umbrellas, until he was hustled away by a policeman. Victoria was outraged when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but was so pleased by the many expressions of loyalty after the attack that she said it was “worth being shot at—to see how much one is loved.”
In 1887, the British Empire celebrated Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Victoria marked the fiftieth anniversary of her accession on 20 June with a banquet to which 50 kings and princes were invited. The following day, she participated in a procession and attended a thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey. By this time, Victoria was once again extremely popular. On 23 September 1896, Victoria surpassed her grandfather George III as the longest-reigning monarch in English, Scottish, and British history. The queen requested that any special celebrations be delayed until 1897, to coincide with her Diamond Jubilee, which was made a festival of the British Empire at the suggestion of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.
The prime ministers of all the self-governing dominions were invited, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession through London included troops from all over the empire. The parade paused for an open-air service of thanksgiving held outside St Paul’s Cathedral, throughout which Victoria sat in her open carriage. The celebration was marked by great outpourings of affection for the septuagenarian Queen.
Following a custom she maintained throughout her widowhood, Victoria spent the Christmas of 1900 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Rheumatism in her legs had rendered her lame, and her eyesight was clouded by cataracts. Through early January, she felt “weak and unwell”, and by mid-January she was “drowsy … dazed, [and] confused”. She died on Tuesday, 22 January 1901, at half past six in the evening, at the age of 81. Her son and successor King Edward VII, and her eldest grandson, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, were at her deathbed.
It is reported, though not verified, that the great British custom of afternoon tea was created by Anna Maria Stanhope, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, a lady in waiting for the queen. According to legend in the 1840’s, Anna, who was too hungry to wait for dinner that was not scheduled to be served until 8:30 or 9:00 pm, requested a small meal consisting of bread with butter, biscuits, cakes and other dainties be brought up to her boudoir. Anna began to send invitations to her friends and invite them up to her dressing room to share in this meal with her. Victoria supposedly heard of this novelty and adopted it as her own. No argument from me that afternoon tea is a great Victorian institution.
Before getting into a few details let me share this rant of mine from this post of two years ago:
Let me take this opportunity to correct an error that is a pet peeve of mine. People in the U.S. and restaurants there continue to perpetuate the error that afternoon tea with little sandwiches and fancy cakes is “high tea” thinking “high” in this context means “regal” or “lofty.” It is not. High tea is the opposite of afternoon tea. It refers historically (and to a degree now) to a full dinner eaten by working class families directly after returning from work, and by children who ate their dinner early because they were too young to eat with the adults. There is some debate as to the meaning of the word “high” here. Some people say it is in contrast to low tea, based not on quality, but on the height of the tables. High tea was eaten at a high table, low tea at a low table (like a coffee table). Others believe it refers to the early hour it was eaten (5:30 to 6 pm), related to the meanings of “high” in “high time” or “high noon.” Whatever the reason, STOP USING “HIGH TEA” TO REFER TO AFTERNOON TEA!!!
My family, of working class background, called the evening meal “tea” which we ate around 5pm.
Cream teas – freshly baked scones with jam and clotted cream – are a well entrenched institution in Britain. At Oxford we were served anchovy toast in cooler months and cucumber sandwiches in the warmer. Very hard to beat as a filler to tide you over from afternoon study to formal dinner in hall at 7. In the 1950s in South Australia knots of housewives would gather in each other’s houses for elegant teas before husbands and children got home, replete with the best baking one can imagine. On the ship that my family travelled on to get to Australia afternoon teas were a very grand affair with the galley turning out its finest daily. I only ever attended one once because small children (according to Victorian tradition) were given high tea at that time (correct usage !!), our evening meal before we were tucked into our bunk so that the adults could have their evening meal in peace.
Victoria had very mundane tastes in food, and, by all accounts, was not a pleasant sight to watch eating. She gobbled down what was placed in front of her with little concern except for speed. Dinner lasted 20 to 30 minutes at best if it were not a public function. By protocol guests were done when the queen was, so I suppose they either emulated her or went hungry. Good reason to stock up at tea time.
Here’s two recipes from Isabella Beeton who, surprisingly, has almost nothing to say about afternoon tea. I am not sure but I believe the first recipe morphed into what is now called Victoria Sponge. I’d advise toasting the buns and spreading them with butter like tea cakes (recipe in the above link).
1491. INGREDIENTS.—4 eggs; their weight in pounded sugar, butter, and flour; 1/4 saltspoonful of salt, a layer of any kind of jam or marmalade.
Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour and pounded sugar; stir these ingredients well together, and add the eggs, which should be previously thoroughly whisked. When the mixture has been well beaten for about 10 minutes, butter a Yorkshire-pudding tin, pour in the batter, and bake it in a moderate oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool, spread one half of the cake with a layer of nice preserve, place over it the other half of the cake, press the pieces slightly together, and then cut it into long finger-pieces; pile them in crossbars on a glass dish, and serve.
1732. INGREDIENTS.—2 oz. of pounded loaf sugar, 1 egg, 1-1/2 oz. of ground rice, 2 oz. of butter, 1-1/2 oz. of currants, a few thin slices of candied peel; flour.
Mode.—Whisk the egg, stir in the sugar, and beat these ingredients well together; beat the butter to a cream, stir in the ground rice, currants, and candied peel, and as much flour as will make it of such a consistency that it may be rolled into 7 or 8 balls. Put these on to a buttered tin, and bake them from 1/2 to 3/4 hour. They should be put into the oven immediately, or they will become heavy; and the oven should be tolerably brisk.
Time.—1/2 to 3/4 hour. Average cost, 6d.
Sufficient to make 7 or 8 buns. Seasonable at any time.
Average cost, 1s. 3d.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable at any time.