I have been reading AN Wilson’s Victoria: a Life with some curiosity and much amusement. This extraordinary woman, who was very small, in later years very fat, and also very opinionated, stamped her considerable personality on her age. When we think of “Victorian values”, hard work, respectability, large, united families that mirrored the Royal Family, and all the other virtues that built the Empire, we have to remember that the woman who gave these features her name was often angry, wilful, interfering, with a formidable sense of her own status and importance and who pushed her constitutional role to the limits.
Despite this, along with her strange, scandal-provoking, close association with her Scottish gillie, John Brown, after the death of the Prince Consort, one can’t help but warm to her. As Randall Davidson, appointed Dean of Windsor in 1883, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, was to write of her, her charm stemmed from her “absolute truthfulness and simplicity… I have known many prominent people, but I have never know one of them with whom it is so easy and so natural to speak freely and frankly after even a very short acquaintance. I imagine it would be difficult to name any attribute more valuable to a sovereign than the possession of this particular power.”
Victoria was also a devout, lifelong Protestant. She intensely disliked the High Church movement, which Wilson argues was inaugurated by John Henry Newman’s conversion. In 1873 she wrote to Dean Stanley, “As regards the English Church, which she perceives is becoming greatly threatened with disestablishment, action seems becoming necessary. This disestablishment the Queen would regret. She thinks a complete Reformation is what we want. But if that is impossible, the Archbishop should have the power given him by Parliament, to stop all these Ritualistic practices, dressings, bowings, etc. And everything of that kind, and above all, all attempts at confession.” Inevitably, this missive contains much emphatic underlining.
One wonders what Queen Victoria would have made of her descendant, the current Prince of Wales. Unlike the hapless Bertie, later Edward VII, who was forbidden by his mother to have any substantial responsibilities and who, as a consequence, frittered away his days on women, food and the turf, Prince Charles has spent many years preparing seriously for his royal destiny. Interviewed last week by BBC Radio 2, The Sunday Hour, following the publicity given to a new, unofficial biography by Catherine Mayer, he has spoken of his own faith and how it is affected by the different faiths now part of the religious fabric of the UK. He explained, “When I called myself Defender of Faith all those years ago, I was trying to describe the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. At the same time as being Defender of the Faith you can also be protector of other faiths.”
Victoria would have approved – up to a point. Indeed, she graciously presented the mosque in Woking, founded in 1889 (by a Hungarian Jew) and the first to be purpose-built, with a copy of the Koran. Yet in her day England was largely white and C of E. Our local Anglican parish church contains an old imperial scroll that refers, in a quaint phrase, to “the lesser nations”. Victoria was certain that the Empire was composed of these “lesser nations”, native peoples who should be grateful that they were ruled by the British. She had other prejudices too, writing in 1869 to thank Mr Gladstone “not to press the subject of Sir L Rothschild’s peerage. The Queen really cannot make up her mind to it. It is not only the feeling, of which she cannot divest herself, against making a person of the Jewish religion, a Peer; but she cannot think that one who owes his great wealth to contracts with Foreign Govts for Loans, or to successful speculations on the Stock Exchange, can fairly claim a British Peerage.”
Victoria could hardly have survived in our egalitarian age with its instant mass communication and political correctness. Following the Bagehot formula for constitutional monarchy, she listened to her ministers (with some impatience), advised them (with great vigour and much underlining) and warned them (very emphatically) at every possible opportunity. Charles is different; less of her simplicity and more of his own self-doubting, Hamlet-like complexity. His Christian faith is more nuanced, very conscious of the religious pluralism in the country he will reign over, and his interests are more catholic – with a small “c”. But, as is clear from the recent interview, he shares one thing with his great-great-great-grandmother: a passionate love for his country and a desire to serve it in every way he can.