The opening of the new century found the war in South Africa still dragging wearily on, though the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, was able to return home, leaving the end to Lord Kitchener of Khartum. The Queen had sorrowed deeply over the war: it had undoubtedly clouded the last years of her life: she had longed for the tidings of peace, but these came too late for her to hear.
Vague rumours had reached the outside world that all was not well with the Queen, but nothing definite was known outside the Court circle. She insisted on an interview with Lord Roberts, so that she might hear with her own ears the prospects of peace. To those who saw her ever-increasing weakness, there was cause for alarm in the coming interview on such a critical subject as the war. But the Queen was firm, and she gathered together her sinking energies for this final task.
This was early in January. Some days later an alarm was sounded: "The Queen had not been lately in her usual health." Through the length and breadth of her great Empire the news ran, causing widespread anxiety. It was followed by a yet more ominous announcement: "The Queen was suffering from physical prostration."
Men recalled her eighty-one years, her strenuous life, her sorrows and anxieties, her ceaseless toil, and shook their heads. On Sunday, January 20th, the tidings grew yet more serious, and few can forget the heavy gloom that settled down over the country.
Two days later she passed peacefully away, and the longest reign in the annals of British history was over.
Never through the long centuries had monarch been more beloved than was Britain's great Queen, Victoria. "She passed away", said one of her statesmen, "without an enemy in the world, for even those who loved not England loved her."
She was mourned with a depth of reality to which few parallels can be found in the history of nations. All jealousies were forgotten; and her personal character, now fully understood in its kindliness, its simplicity, its unshrinking devotion to duty, its purity and goodness, inspired universal respect and genuine affection. From every part of the world came expressions of love and admiration, and the solemn funeral military procession through the heart of the Empire testified to the world-wide sorrow.
They laid her, not with the other kings and queens of England in Westminster Abbey, but at Windsor, beside him whom she had loved and who forty years before had been laid there.
Little else was spoken of but the Queen's wonderful reign. Her subjects loved to dwell on her high example as wife and mother. They spoke of how simply and naturally she had brought up her children, how she had encouraged their work and play, how she had surrounded them with her great mother love, and how, when the trouble of her life came to her with the death of the Prince Consort, her children were her strength and her comfort.
Three of her children had passed on before her. In 1878 the Princess Alice, wife of Prince Louis of Hesse, died of diphtheria, caught from nursing one of her children. Six years later Leopold, Duke of Albany, died, leaving a widow and two young children, while only a few months before her own death she lost her second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg Gotha.
Three grandsons of the Queen died before the dawn of the twentieth century; for the Duke of Clarence, heir after the Prince of Wales to the throne, succumbed to an attack of influenza in 1892, Prince Alfred of Edinburgh died before his father, and Prince Christian Victor died in the South African War.
But even private sorrows were never allowed to interfere with affairs of State, which weighed unceasingly upon her, often overwhelming her with work and anxiety.
Funeral Procession of Queen Victoria.
During the last thirty-nine years of her life she only opened Parliament in person seven times, neither had she prorogued Parliament once since 1854. But if these State functions had become impossible to her, she never lost her hold on the real business of the State. No sovereign of England ever studied more closely than Queen Victoria every detail of Government policy; no sovereign ever corresponded more energetically with her ever-changing Ministers of State.
When she came to the throne, the Government of the country was almost entirely in the hands of the rich men and middle class of Britain; the people had no voice in the laws of the land. When she died, the Government was passing into the hands of the people. Yet, despite these fundamental changes, the Queen maintained the Constitution in a way it had never been maintained before; she became the very heart and centre of that Imperial Unity that every passing year left stronger and more true.