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Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire for nearly 64 years, after ascending the throne just weeks after turning 18. She was the second-longest-reigning English royal in history, topped only by her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II. While short in stature–she was barely 5 feet tall–Victoria was a giant in shaping the modern monarchy, leaving her mark on what has come to be called the Victorian Era.

Early Life and Ascension to the Throne

Alexandrina Victoria was born on May 24, 1819, at London’s Kensington Palace to Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George III, and his wife, Princess Maria Louisa Victoria, who was of German descent. Named for her godfather, Russian Tsar Alexander I, she was fifth in line for the crown at birth.

Before Victoria turned 1, Edward died of pneumonia. When King George died, her uncle, William IV, was named king, and, because Edward’s brothers had no surviving legitimate heirs, Victoria became first in line to the throne. In preparation for her daughter’s reign, Victoria’s mother soon aligned with courtier John Conroy, and the two forced Victoria to follow what came to be known as the Kensington System. The set of strict, manipulative rules were as isolating as they were demanding on the girl, a gifted artist and avid diarist who was made to share her bedroom with her mother and was never left alone.

Just a few weeks after turning 18, Victoria ascended the throne as Queen of England on June 20, 1837, following William’s death, with the coronation taking place a year later on June 28, 1838. She almost immediately dismissed Conroy and, without her mother, moved into Buckingham Palace, which had been owned by William, making her the first monarch to reside at the estate.

“I shall do my utmost to do fulfil my duty towards my country,” she wrote in her diary soon after taking the crown. “I am very young and perhaps in many, although not all, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.”

British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne became her trusted advisor and confidante, and, under her rule, Victoria began to win back public approval of the monarchy as she worked to modernize the empire, supporting the arts and charities and championing industrial advancements. In fact, she was the first monarch to ride a train, in 1842, at the age of 23, writing that the “motion was very slight, and much easier than a carriage—also no dust or great heat.”

WATCH: How Department Stories Liberated Victorian-Era Women

Family and Descendants

Victoria married her first cousin, the German Prince Albert, on February 10, 1840, whom she loved dearly. "I never, never spent such an evening!!” she wrote in her diary following their wedding night. “My dearest dearest dear Albert ... his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before!"

Along with Melbourne, Albert carried great influence in setting the queen’s priorities and projects, which largely centered on arts, sciences, trade and industry. Among Albert’s projects was the Great Exhibition of 1851, which brought 6 million people to London in celebration of global industry, technology and culture and is considered the first World’s Fair.

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The couple had nine children from 1840-1857: Victoria, Edward, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. Nearly all of them married into European royal families and many of her 42 grandchildren, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruled monarchies across the continent.

Notable great-great-grandchildren include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, King Constantine II of Greece, King Michael I of Romania, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece. King Charles III is her great-great-great-grandson.

Albert’s Death and Victoria’s Later Years

Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42 from typhoid fever. Devastated, Victoria spent the next 10-plus years in seclusion, and wore black as a symbol of mourning for the rest of her life.

While in isolation, her popularity sank, but once she returned to public life, her penchant for foreign policy based on peace, support of charities that focused on the poor, health care and education, and wide expansion of the British Empire—along with her survival of at least seven assassination attempts during that led her to carry a chain mail “bulletproof” umbrella—won over public opinion.

Acting on advice from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria took the title of Empress of India in 1877, extending the empire’s imperialist reach. In 1887, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, which marked the 50th anniversary of her accession, followed by the Diamond Jubilee, taking place a decade later in 1897, on the 60th anniversary, cemented her image and popularity among her subjects, earning her the nickname “Grandmother of Europe.”

Legacy

During Victoria’s nearly 64-year reign, the British Empire was at its largest and most powerful. The empire included India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and covered one-fifth of the globe and accounted for roughly one in four people on Earth. Locations around the world, from Victoria, Canada to Victoria Falls, Zambia to Queensland, Australia are named in her honor. The Victorian Era is noted for advancements in the arts and industry, inventions including telephone and telegraph and political reform and change.

She also helped shape popular culture: It was Victoria who started the trend of a bride wearing white on her wedding day and a widow wearing all black in mourning. Albert and Victoria made decorating Christmas trees customary. She is also credited with restoring the public’s view of the monarchy.

Victoria died January 22, 1901 at the age of 81, with her heir Edward VII and Emperor Wilhelm II at her side. She was succeeded by her oldest son, Edward VII, and was buried next to Albert at the Frogmore Mausoleum near Windsor.

Sources

“Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901),” Royal.uk.

“How Queen Victoria remade the British monarchy,” National Geographic.

“Queen Victoria: From Pampered Princess to Elderly Empress: Wife, Mother, and Queen,” Historic Royal Palaces.

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