Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

Reign of Queen Victoria

"So hast thou won thy people's hearts; they see

Wife, mother, friend, not Queen alone, in thee."

— Tennyson

E VER memorable in the annals of the British Empire is the year 1901, for, as the last rays of the sun set over the waters of the wintry sea, that surrounded her island home, Queen Victoria passed to her well-won rest. It was sixty-three years since that early June morning in 1837, when she had romantically learnt, from the lips of her ministers, the news that she was Queen of England. Let us see how she rose to her responsibilities, how splendidly she struggled with her pressing duties, until the last week of her long reign; how pure and true her life, lived "in that fierce light which beats upon a throne." She has left a shining example as wife, mother, friend, for future generations, that time shall not efface.

In the winter of 1840, she married her cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a young German prince, with whom she was exceptionally happy, till his early death, twenty-one years later, took from her all that life held most dear. The history of her reign sums up the history of this volume. It opened with troubles in Canada and the awful disaster in the Kyber Pass in Afghanistan, both of which affected her deeply. In 1843 the Queen and the Prince Consort, leaving their three small children in England, visited France. It was the first time that an English sovereign had set foot on French soil for over 300 years, and there was much enthusiasm. Five years later, Louis Philippe and his queen were to take refuge in England on the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848. To-day, the President of the French Republic has declared his country to be the "friend of England."

Six years later, the peace of Europe was broken for the first time in the reign of Queen Victoria by the Crimean war, in which the France of Napoleon III. became England's ally against Russia. The Queen, in person, watched the departure of her soldiers for the scene of action; with her own hands she worked for their comfort during the cruel Crimean winter. Herself she welcomed home the survivors with words of gratitude, and instituted the Victoria Cross, for acts of conspicuous valour in the field.

The Indian mutiny was slowly dying out, when the marriage of her eldest daughter to the Crown Prince of Prussia took place. Her first grandson was born in 1859, and is to-day Emperor of Germany.

Slowly now the Queen was passing to the crowning sorrow of her life. The Prince Consort died in 1861. He had been her right hand, her husband, friend, critic, adviser, loved by her with a romantic and passionate devotion,—

"Two heads in council, two beside the hearth,

Two in the tangled business of the world."

Now, in a moment, the "romance of the Queen's life was changed into a tragedy." Years of desolation followed, and it was some time before the widowed Queen could steel herself, to take up alone the business of the State—the burden of Empire.

The marriage of her eldest son, the present King Edward VII., with Denmark's beautiful daughter, in 1863, was followed by the birth of Prince Albert Victor, whose tragic death on the eve of his wedding in 1892, left his sailor-brother, George, heir to the English throne.

The outbreak of civil war in America, with its tragic assassination of President Lincoln; the Mexican tragedy, in which her cousin Charlotte played so fatal a part, affected her nearly; but more near still came the Franco-German war, in which her son-in-law, the Crown Prince of Prussia, took so active a part. At the very outbreak of war, the Empress Eugenie, Napoleon's wife, who has outlived her royal friend, took refuge with Queen Victoria; but though kind to her neighbours in trouble, the Queen's sympathies were with Prussia, where her two daughters were working indefatigably to alleviate the sufferings of sick and wounded.

The Afghan campaign of 1880 was watched by the Queen with the keenest interest, while she deeply regretted the defeat of Majuba in the following year. A few months later, the death of Lord Beaconsfield, her "dear great friend" and statesman, touched her deeply. The Egyptian war followed in 1882, when her son, the Duke of Connaught, led the Guards at Tel-el-Kebir. When the policy of abandoning the Sudan was adopted by the Government under Mr. Gladstone, the Queen herself urged prompt action in rescuing the isolated garrisons. She watched Gordon's advance to Khartum with the gravest concern, and the news of his "cruel but heroic fate" in 1885, caused her to feel keenly the "stain" left upon her beloved country. She kept her Jubilee of fifty years in 1887, gathering around her many sons, grandsons, daughters and grand-daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, as well as foreign representatives. One of the most conspicuous figures, towering above the rest, in white uniform, was the Crown Prince of Prussia, who the following year became Emperor of united Germany, dying of cancer three months later.

The Diamond Jubilee was kept with tremendous enthusiasm ten years later. Sorrows and joys crowded one another quickly in the Queen's life; but perhaps the war in South Africa, which broke a long and happy peace, struck the blow from which she never recovered. From that October day in 1899, when war broke out in South Africa, to the day of her death, the serious conflict occupied the chief place in her thoughts. She yearned for peace, but even this was denied her.

At the age of eighty-one, after a reign of sixty-three years, Queen Victoria passed away. No sovereign was ever more deeply mourned. From every corner of the vast Empire, that had grown during her reign, came expressions of the deepest sorrow. Her long life, her great troubles, her sympathy in the welfare of her subjects, her unflinching devotion to the arduous duties of the State,—these had won their way into the hearts of the people. From end to end of the world went up a cry of sorrow, for nearly every nation had lost a friend in the Queen of the British Empire, though none could grudge her that bravely-earned rest—"the goal of this great world" which "lies beyond our sight."

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