Queen Victoria ( 24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death. Not only was she Queen, 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. Her reign lasted 63 years and 7 months, which is longer than that of any other British monarch and the longest of any female monarch in history.

What was Queen Victoria like?

Queen Victoria’s personality has been cemented into the British mind as being dour and humourless. In fact, ‘…we are not amused...’ is most likely the only utterance most of us associate with her – although later in life, she confided to a relative that she had never actually said this! However, Queen Victoria’s reputation has been gradually unravelled in recent years.

Today we have a much more rounded picture of our longest reigning monarch, and a startling one at that which changes our perception of her, and her era.

New material that became available in the 1970’s and 80’s showed a vastly different portrait of the Queen to the one offered up by tradition. While she studiously maintained an appropriate decorum in public, the evidence shows a starkly different character behind the scenes.

Contrary to the received image of prudery, she was a highly sexed individual. She did after all have nine children in 17 years, her first coming only 10 months after her marriage, and the second following just 11 months later. The couple adorned their bedroom with nude statues and according to one biographer, had a device that enabled them to lock the door without getting out of bed!

In Prince Albert’s bathroom she had hung, in the words of one recent biographer, a ‘startlingly sexual’ painting of the mythical Queen of Lydia who kept Hercules as her personal slave. The symbolism would have been all to clear.

Far from setting the prudery agenda, she was enthralled by erotic art. She and Albert exchanged what has been described as ‘awesome’ amounts of nude sculpture as presents to each other. When a collection of similarly risqué statues were placed in the Crystal palace for her ceremonial opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851, it was not her who objected but the country’s bishops, who threatened to boycott the biggest national showcase of the century. Fig leaves were eventually rustled up to spare their blushes.

Victoria and Albert were also in the habit of sending nude paintings to each other. The story is told of the writer Compton Mackenzie who spotted an alluring nude portrait of the mythical figure Artemis in a Buckingham Palace corridor when he was there to be knighted in 1952. Wondering to himself what Victoria would have said to having such a painting hanging in the palace, he approached it to read an inscription that revealed it to be one of her wedding presents to Albert!

Victoria had a passion for popular and more lowbrow entertainments. She loved freak shows, and the American showman P.T.Barnum would be summoned to perform when in the country. He arguably made his fortune from the royal patronage he could rely on. She made frequent visits to circuses and extravaganza shows when they arrived in London. Queen Victoria clearly had a passion for the exotic. She once replied to her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, when he asked her about her wishes for a pet, that she would like a monkey.

She was by no means a conformist. Despite the religious strictures of Victorian life, she and Albert never got into the habit of going to church on Sundays. It was a habit that lasted throughout her life.

She is recorded as relishing whiskey ‘…and not too weak…’ and the occasional betting spree on the horses. One photograph is described by a biographer as showing her, when she smiled, looking more like a jolly old barmaid than a Queen.

She was a strong believer in the spirit world and held séances after Albert’s death in order to establish contact with him. A fourteen year old medium, Robert Lees, became her favourite when he claimed to have made contact with Albert (the first to do so) two years after Albert’s death in 1861. The dead Prince Consort apparently passed a personal message, a pet name known only to Victoria, to Lees in front of two royal emissaries. Victoria later had him perform another séance at Windsor, and expressed herself convinced that contact had been made. Lees is said to have conducted six more séances over the years, each successful in reaching Albert.

In later life, she hid her frailties by a bizarre deception.

Photographs of her as a proud matriarch surrounded by her grandchildren and holding her latest baby on her knee had to be artfully faked. Why? Because she had lost almost all of the strength in her arms and could not even support a newborn baby.

So what did she do? She had a maid secrete herself underneath her broad, hooped skirt in order to hold the child in place.

If you tried to make up stories like that, one-one would believe you

Buckingham Palace and Queen Victoria

Buckingham Palace became the principal royal residence in 1837, on the accession of Queen Victoria. She was in fact the first monarch to reside there as her predecessor William IV had died before its completion.

While the state rooms were a riot of gilt and colour, the necessities of the new palace were somewhat less luxurious.

For one thing, it was reported that the chimneys smoked so much that the fires had to be allowed to die down, and consequently the court shivered in icy magnificence.

Ventilation was so bad that the interior smelled, and when a decision was taken to install gas lamps, there was a serious worry about the buildup of gas on the lower floors. It was also said that the staff were lax and lazy and the palace was dirty.

Following the Queen's marriage in 1840, her husband, Prince Albert, concerned himself with a reorganisation of the household offices and staff, and with the design faults of the palace. The problems were all rectified by the close of 1840. However, the builders were to return within the decade.

 By 1847, the couple had found the palace too small for court life and their growing family, and consequently the new wing, designed by Edward Blore, was built by Thomas Cubitt, enclosing the central quadrangle.

The large East Front facing The Mall is today the "public face" of Buckingham Palace and contains the balcony from which the Royal Family acknowledge the crowds on momentous occasions and annually after Trooping the Colour. The ballroom wing and a further suite of state rooms were also built in this period, designed by Nash's student Sir James Pennethorne.

Before Prince Albert's death, the palace was frequently the scene of musical entertainments, and the greatest contemporary musicians entertained at Buckingham Palace. The composer Felix Mendelssohn is known to have played there on three occasions. Johann Strauss II and his orchestra played there when in England. Strauss's "Alice Polka" was first performed at the palace in 1849 in honour of the Queen's daughter, Princess Alice. Under Victoria, Buckingham Palace was frequently the scene of lavish costume balls, in addition to the routine royal ceremonies, investitures and presentations.

Widowed in 1861, the grief-stricken Queen withdrew from public life and left Buckingham Palace to live at Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle, and Osborne House. For many years Buckingham palace was rarely used, and could even be considered neglected. Eventually, public opinion forced her to return to London, though she preferred to live elsewhere whenever possible. Court functions were still held at Windsor Castle rather than at the palace, and were presided over by the  Queen still dressed in mourning black while Buckingham Palace remained shuttered for most of the year.

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