Queen Victoria and her Prime Ministers – a personal history, by Anne Somerset

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Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Queen Elizabeth II had fifteen prime ministers during her reign.

Queen Victoria had fourteen.

The weekly meetings between Queen Elizabeth and her prime minister were one on one, and during her long reign very little information regarding these discussions was ever leaked. There was the odd newspaper article surmising which one she liked least or best but most of this was speculation and we never knew the Queen’s thoughts on her individual ministers. The late Queen kept a daily diary but whether this will ever see the light of day is doubtful.

By contrast, Queen Victoria wrote copious diary and journal entries and she certainly did not hold back on her opinions, likes and dislikes of her ministers. This book makes fascinating and hugely entertaining reading as well as giving detailed and enlightening political backgrounds to each government tenure.

Her first Prime Minister after ascending the throne at the age of 18 was Lord Melbourne, a dashing, handsome and sophisticated man with whom it is widely agreed she fell in love. One courtier believed their relationship had a sexual element, but after years of being suppressed and under the influence of her mother and Conroy, the Comptroller of the household and rumoured lover of the Duchess of Kent at Kensington Palace, who made her life a misery, I think it was more likely that she just developed what we would now call a crush on him. He was charming and used to dealing with women and it was inevitable that she would become somewhat obsessed with him. They spent hours together each day. The author makes the point that for all Melbourne’s worldly success there was an emotional void in his life which Victoria filled completely. Charles Greville commented, “I have no doubt he is passionately fond of her as he might be of a daughter if he had one, and the more because he is a man with capacity for loving without having anything in the world to love.”

Inevitably, after her marriage to Albert, Melbourne was not so important to her as hitherto, and years later when she re-read her old journal entries regarding Lord M., as she called him, she annotated the pages with the comment “I cannot forbear remarking what an artificial happiness mine was then and what a blessing it is I now have in my beloved husband real and solid happiness which no politics or worldly reverses can change.”

After her marriage, Prince Albert tried to make sure that the Crown was above politics and insisted that Victoria should not show her partisanship. The ‘Bedchamber Crisis’, in which Victoria refused to change her ladies in waiting, forced Robert Peel to give up the idea of forming a government and bringing Lord M. back into power. A blatant misuse of sovereignty and one which Albert wanted to ensure did not happen again.

Robert Peel was her next Prime Minister and after her initial dislike of him, the Queen and the Prince Consort became his close friends and she appreciated him as a man of integrity.

What is fascinating about this book is the blatant disregard the Queen and, yes Albert too, gave to non-interference. Their opinions on what the government should or should not do were made very clear, much to the exasperation of the Cabinet. Both of them loathed Lord Palmerston, who as Foreign Minister totally ignored anything they said and blithely went his own way. He sounds like a complete loose cannon but at the same time a hugely entertaining character.

The Queen did not get on with Gladstone at all, and said that he “spoke to her as if addressing a public meeting. His successor Disraeli, on the other hand, flattered and enchanted her, calling her the Faery, an affectionate nickname alluding to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was affectionate and reverential, “but simultaneously contained the merest hint of mockery”. After all it was he who said that with Royalty, flattery should be laid on with a trowel. As a way of ensuring that the Queen supported him and agreed with his policies it was a masterstroke, though some of his colleagues sometimes felt he went too far.

After Albert’s death, Victoria, though engulfed in grief, did not neglect her royal duties, though the public perception was that she was the Widow of Windsor and spent her days in seclusion and mourning. In fact, it has always been clear to me that once free of Albert’s controlling yoke, and having felt inferior to his superior intellect, she blossomed. Her grasp of policy and her thoughts and comments show that she understood more than was assumed and, as the years went by, her vast knowledge, as with Queen Elizabeth II, were of great help to her various government ministers.

She interfered, she badgered and she cajoled. At times members of the House of Commons and the Cabinet were infuriated by her and this is why I love and admire Queen Victoria. I first read about her back in 1964 when Elizabeth Longford wrote the first warts and all biography of the Queen and her character leapt off the page. It enthralled me then and I remain a firm supporter of her to this day.

One thing which I observed while reading this admirable book is that nothing changes. A coalition government in 1852 had cracks in it from the start, as Lord John Russell held the position of Foreign Secretary on the understanding that The Earl of Clarendon would take over “whenever Lord John ought to be relieved from it”.  However, Lord John had other ideas, believing that Aberdeen, the then Prime Minister, would step down and make way for him. He went into a terminal sulk when he failed to do so, but when on to become Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

Shades of Blair and Brown!

At the time of writing we are in the throes of campaigning for a General election and it is clear from reading the current newspapers and listening to debates and discussions from all parties that still nothing has changed. The ins and outs, rivalries, back biting and double dealing shown by all concerned during Victoria’s reign, are mirrored today.   

It is a truly dispiriting thought.

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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Anne Somerset, Queen Victoria and Her Prime Ministers (William Collins, 2024). 978-0008106225, 576pp., hardback.

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