Category Archives: History

Becoming Queen Victoria – Book Review

The Victorian Era was a pivotal moment in time for British culture, and as we all know, Queen Victoria, was at the center of this changing world. Her ascension to the throne of England followed the tumultuous time of revolutionary democracy in America and France, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, population growth, as well as uprising and unrest. Victoria herself inherited her rule from a lineage of failed kings: George III who lost the American colonies and eventually his sanity, George IV who lost his relationship with his wife as well as his daughter Charlotte who died in childbirth, and William IV who was unable to produce a surviving legitimate heir. Into this disrupted world and dysfunctional family, Victoria rose as queen at the age of eighteen, a young woman leading her world into a new era of progress.

becoming-queen-victoria

Last year, Ballantine Books released a new paperback edition of Kate Williams’ 2008 history Becoming Queen Victoria: The Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch. With the feel of a smart historical novel, this biography of Victoria takes a broad view of historical context while simultaneously incorporating intricate behind-the-scenes details of Victoria’s family and personal life. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you (like me) having been watching the recent rendition of Victoria’s life on PBS Masterpiece and love the intrigue and drama of the royal family.

Interesting enough, instead of jumping right to the birth of Victoria, the book begins with a lengthy section detailing Victoria’s predecessors in the Hanoverian line, specifically the Princess Charlotte, who would have been queen if she had not died in childbirth. As Williams writes, Charlotte was Britain’s “perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father” (54). England was ready for a queen after too many terrible kings. Alas, Charlotte was only a shadow of the future queen.

Aside from Charlotte, the Hanover family was dysfunctional: full of alcoholism, affairs, unhappy arranged marriages, wasteful spending, and massive debt. Not to mention King George III, who eventually became so mentally ill that he had to be locked up in the last years of his life. George III’s many children had failed the dynasty, marrying against the will of the state and producing only illegitimate children. Until the birth of Charlotte, of course. And when Charlotte married and became pregnant, it seemed like the line would definitely continue. But tragedy struck, and the line was cut off.

This is the family background Williams sets up in the first 150 pages. At first this seemed strange, given that I expected the book to be solely about Victoria. But reading through the drama and tragedy of the Hanovers gave the desired effect: it was refreshing to dip into the section about Victoria. Before, the text submerged me in too many names and too many tragedies, but then, Victoria was born and the air cleared, and I felt relief just as the British people must have felt as their monarchy was finally stabilized over the rest of the 19th century.

 

The rest of the book then dives into Victoria’s life from infancy, concentrating on her young adulthood and early reign. Born into such a family, she definitely had an unusual upbringing: “The little girl was treated like a queen from the very beginning. A footman in splendid livery accompanied her wherever she went, and servants bowed subserviently when she trotted along the corridor” (174). From the moment she was born, her destiny was laid out for her in every way.

 

Unlike some histories I’ve read, this book does not get bogged down in dry facts. Never losing sight of her research, Williams provides beautiful visual details about people and setting and history, filling in the gaps when necessary: “She went to the robing room, where she donned a long red mantle lined with ermine . . . she walked, dazzled, into the abbey. There, in the interior that had been newly decorated with crimson and gold hangings and tapestries, the floors covered with oriental carpets . . . The queen herself looked charming. Lord Melbourne declared her floating on a silver cloud, a vision perhaps intensified by the quantities of laudanum he had consumed” (299).

But Williams doesn’t rely on primary sources and narrative alone: she incorporates poetry from Shelley and Byron, detailed descriptions of political cartoons from the time, as well as diary entries and letters from Victoria and her counterparts. These with the paintings and images in the center of the book combine to lend a complex look at Victoria’s world and what she was up against.

 

Historical Importance

Why study Queen Victoria anyway? Is it just to revel in more sedately British intrigue? Or to dream about a splendid royal life? I would argue that understanding the beginnings of Victoria, not only help us to understand the life of this queen, but also give us a look at an important moment in world history.

Reading Victoria’s story, I couldn’t help but meditate on the irony of it all. In the midst of a dysfunctional, directionless family, Victoria is born, coming to rule England as well as raise a seemingly happy family of nine children. However, the irony doesn’t end there. We think of the Victorians as prudish, restricting women to domestic spheres, yet Victoria as a woman was arguably the most influential leader of her time. I can’t help wonder what she truly thought about women’s rights (perhaps this would make an interesting deeper study). Also, Victoria is well-known as one of Britain’s greatest monarchs, yet under her reign, the British Empire expanded across the globe, colonizing and destroying many non-Western cultures, leading to war and conflict that continues today in our post-colonial time.

Studying Victoria’s place in this broader history, then, is important. Perhaps by understanding a little more about the time and family in which she was born gives a better idea of who she was as a woman and queen, helping us understand the state of our current world a little better.

About the Author

Writer and historian Kate Williams studied at Oxford and writes about world-changing leaders and royalty. Check out her website here!

Thanks to Ballantine Books and Penguin Random House for providing a copy of the book for review!

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George Washington and His English Ancestry

Perhaps we American Anglophiles have good reason to love England. Our histories are closely connected, and England is a part of the American heritage. Take George Washington for instance. Our first President, a Founding Father, George Washington was one of our greatest leaders, guiding our country in its infancy. But few realize that, despite the fact that Washington led American troops against the British army, his ancestry is very English indeed.

The name “Washington” was derived from a village in England formerly known as “Wessington.” The first person to acquire this name lived in the 1200s. The Washingtons eventually spread out into Northamptonshire where Lawrence Washington built the renowned Sulgrave Manor in the 1500s. There, one of the entrances is adorned with the Washington shield: three stars over two stripes.

Look familiar? This symbol has now become the flag for Washington, D.C. and is even placed on the Purple Heart. But it is also said to be the basis for our very own American flag, the Stars and Stripes. The Washington coat of arms has been in existence since the 1300s, and it was placed in stained glass in Selby Abbey in Yorkshire in the 1400s. This window is said to be in commemoration of John Wessington, Prior of Durham.

image courtesy Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk

image courtesy derek dye

It was John Washington (1633-1677) who eventually emigrated to America. John was a trade sailor in the colonies, and after shipwrecking in the Potomac River in 1657, he ended up living in Virginia. He married Ann Pope, the daughter of a wealthy magistrate who gave them 700 acres of land in Westmoreland County upon their marriage. John eventually acquired 8500 acres of Virginia land by the time he died in 1677. Perhaps he never would have thought that in less than a hundred years later, the colonies would declare their independence and rise against the British monarchy, led by his very own great-grandson, George Washington.

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London, The Tempest, and The Importance of Being Earnest

One can take quite a long holiday from blog-posting, but this one has a hard time taking a break from all things British. So to catch up with myself, here are the latest confessions:

I have been reading:

London: The Autobiography by Jon E. Lewis

It amazes me how far back the history of London stretches. Yes, I know England has its own ancient history, but I didn’t realize that London had its origins 2000 years ago under the name Londinium from the occupying Romans. No wonder this city has such a strong personality. It has survived life-change from the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings to the Normans and so on, for centuries upon centuries.

I have been watching:

The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s play is reborn rather startingly in this modern film. Some of the elements come across as bizarre (the scenes with Ben Wishaw as a male/female spirit have a strange combination of mythology and hallucination). At first I was hesitant about Prospero being rewritten as a female, but Helen Mirren pulled off the role with that strong dignity that she can portray so well. The comic element of Alfred Molina and Russell Brand (of all people) keeps you laughing, while the romantic element left a little wanting, in my opinion. But as a whole, I rather think father William would have enjoyed it.

And while we’re on The Tempest:

Miranda and the Tempest by John William Waterhouse is a gorgeous painting, a masterpiece of the Pre-Raphaelites. It hangs from my wall, reverse-mirroring the sunny skies outside with its stormy prospects. I love it.

I have been studying:

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

And my conclusion is: Earnest never gets old, and I learn something new each time I read it. If you would care to read my thoughts on contradictory truths and Victorian society satirized, here is my article on HubPages.

And I must not forget:

Downton Abbey.

I am rewatching the first season, and haven’t seen all of the second yet, so no spoilers please! Did you know there is a current sweepstakes to win a trip to Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey? You can enter here. Alas for me, the contest is only open for residents of the 48 contiguous states. That means no Hawaii.

And so that is the thought-life in summary of this Anglophile. Cheers until next time, and drink more tea!

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Keep Calm and Carry On

Some call it nostalgia, patriotism… a symbol. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster has become a well-loved image in Anglophilia. Chances are you’ve seen one of the many spin-offs of the classic wartime poster. Because this poster does not have a copyright, anyone can make their own! Check out the Keep Calm-o-matic to make your very own version. Here’s mine:

An internet search will bring you many examples of the “Keep Calm” poster, and etsy.com sells quite a few great gifts with the saying. Personally, I like this version.

The original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was created in the UK during World War II as a motivational morale-booster for the public. There were two other posters reading “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril”. Although these posters were distributed, the “Keep Calm” poster never officially made it into the public. After the war, most of the posters were destroyed.

Jump forward about fifty years. An extremely rare “Keep Calm” poster turned up in a used bookshop in Northumberland. The store owners had it framed, but due to popular demand, began selling copies of the poster. Ever since, the populace on both sides of the pond has run away with this British symbol of strength in time of danger. Whatever spin-offs are made, the simple truth of the original poster speaks to many who respect the dignified and steady front that the British showed during WWII, a time when war was on their doorstep.

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

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The Tower of London

The midnight waters of the Thames washing up the sides of the wooden boat and the steady beat of the oars is all that you hear in the darkness. A half-eaten moon and a handful of stars glimmer from too far away. You can see the darkness of the sky and the deeper darkness of stone-walled buildings that line the river. With hollow steps you find yourself out of the boat and on the landing, holding your now dirtied skirts with a ringless hand. One glance over your shoulder, and the stars disappear as you find yourself inside the hole that shudders darkly in the night. You are trapped in the Tower of London.

The Tower of London ~ image courtesy Kjetil Bjørnsrud via Wikimedia Commons

Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress

The Tower of London is more that just a tower – in reality, it is a full-sized castle, holding its historical stance on the banks of the Thames. For some reason, I always imagine the Tower in its darkest moments, when royal beheadings and imprisonments were commonplace, when its walls resounded with the cries of its victims: A young Elizabeth I with her disheveled red hair, passing the endless days of her imprisonment reading Latin books by a tiny window. Lady Jane, the nine-days-queen, wondering if she had been right after all in taking the throne. Mary of the Scots, fuming with anger at her cousin that she couldn’t manage to kill. Edward and Richard, the two little princes who disappeared and were found two hundred years later, buried under the staircase. Anne Boleyn, murdered because she didn’t have a son.

"The Princes in the Tower" by John Everett Millais

The passages and corridors are haunted, they say. The murdered and martyred are said to still walk the dank and damp stone floors.

In the Tower of London, large as life,

The ghost of Anne Boleyn walks, they declare.

For Anne Boleyn was once King Henry’s wife,

Until he had the headsman bob her hair.

Oh, yes, he did her wrong long years ago,

And she comes back at night to tell him so.

With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm,

She walks the bloody Tower,

With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm,

At the midnight hour.

~ from “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm” by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee

Despite the bloody history of the Tower of London, its original purpose was not to be a prison only. William the Conqueror built the White Tower in 1078, and the royal family called the palace their home for hundreds of years. In its thousand years of history, the Tower of London has been used as an armoury, a fortress, and even the Royal Mint. For over six hundred years, the Tower was home to the Royal Menagerie, a collection of exotic animals such as tigers, bears, cheetahs, and elephants. During the reign of James I (1603-1625), some of the animals were made to compete in coliseum-type fights called baiting. The animals were eventually given to the London Zoo, and now the only captives in the Tower are the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, which have been kept safe in the fortress ever since 1303.

The Crown Jewels ~ image courtesy Joseph Echeverria via Flickr

Today, the Tower of London is mostly a tourist attraction, and for about 20£ you can  see with your own eyes the White Tower, the Jewel House, the armor collection, and the Tower Green where Anne Boleyn was beheaded.

The White Tower ~ image courtesy Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

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