Five Interesting Facts About Queen Victoria That You Probably Didn't Know
She was a queen who shaped an era. Victoria Regina ruled the United Kingdom for 63 years, longer than any other British monarch and is -- so far at least -- the longest-reigning female over any civilization.
We know about her undying love for her consort, Prince Albert, and about tables of the era being discreetly covered so as not to show their legs. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Queen Victoria that you probably didn't know.
1. Victoria Wasn't Her First Name
Naming royalty is an art, as demonstrated perhaps no more vividly than in the song "The Prince Is Giving a Ball" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein television classic Cinderella, where a dutiful servant reads off a proclamation listing all the names of Their Royal Highnesses -- including Herman and Maisie -- much to the shock of the kingdom's subjects and the amusement of the audience.
From the beginning, the name of the girl who grew up to be Queen Victoria, though not particularly shocking, was mired in controversy. Originally she was to be named Georgiana Charlotte Augusta Alexandrina Victoria. At the last minute, however, her uncle, the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) -- who hated her father -- nixed the first three names for political reasons, leaving her to be baptized as Alexandrina Victoria. Early on she was called Drina, but later the family settled on Victoria, although her German-born mother also called her Vickelchen.
She was officially Princess Alexandrina Victoria, though, and upon her ascent to the throne on June 20, 1837, at age 18 -- escaping the necessity of a regency by mere weeks -- the papers drawn up to declare her sovereignty listed her as Alexandrina Victoria. One of her first official acts as queen was to do a little nixing herself. She had the papers changed and for the next six decades would reign simply as Victoria.
2. She Often Was Quite Amused
Some of our most enduring images of Queen Victoria are of a woman dressed in black who seems largely prim and cheerless. One must keep in mind, however, that most of these images are from later in her life, when she was grieving the loss of Albert to typhoid at age 42. For most of the 1860s she was depressed and refrained from most public appearances. One could even argue that she never truly recovered from the loss of her husband.
Such images belie the fact that Victoria knew how to have a good time as well as anyone. She enjoyed playing charades. She played the piano well into her seventies. She loved dancing. She drank whiskey. She loved opera and the theater, often having a company come to Windsor Castle to perform for her, or alternatively, having relatives and courtiers put on a show with the Queen herself serving as producer if not director. Even her fabled comment "We are not amused" most likely stems from a joke told by groom-in-waiting Alick Yorke -- her de facto court jester -- which the Queen felt to be beneath the dignity of most of the ladies who were present.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, one of the Queen's many grandsons, liked to tell the story of how his grandmother set up a luncheon to ask a certain Admiral Foley about a salvage operation he was conducting on the HMS Eurydice, which had sunk off the coast of Portsmouth. As the admiral droned on, Victoria thought that for the sake of her other luncheon guests it might be good to try to steer him onto another topic, so she made an inquiry about his sister, who was a close friend. The admiral, who was quite hard of hearing, said "I'll just have to have her turned over, look at her bottom and have it scraped" -- which sent the servants, the other luncheon guests, and especially the Queen, into hysterics.
Not Quite the Stodgy Queen, She
3. She Collected Nude Art
One of Victoria's great passions was for art. She was an accomplished artist herself, having taken drawing lessons from poet-illustrator Edward Lear, and some of her sketches recently went on display after having been sealed for 150 years. In terms of art created by others, she had a distinct affinity for nudes, many of which she gave to Albert as gifts to celebrate some special occasion or another. He sometimes reciprocated by giving her nude or semi-nude works as well.
For a wedding present she gave him a painting of Diana that left very little to the imagination. For his birthday in 1852 she gave him the painting Florinda by Franz Xaver Winterhalter depicting several bare-breasted women (a copy of which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Other works she and Albert owned included two nude paintings by William Edward Frost: The Disarming of Cupid and Una Among the Fauns and Wood Nymphs.
Sometimes the nudity took on gargantuan proportions. In 1847, for example, she and Albert commissioned William Dyce to paint a fresco in the staircase at Osborne House, their home on the Isle of Wight. Entitled Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea, it depicts both male and female nudes. Another painting, the enormous and quite provocative Hercules and Omphale by Anton von Gegenbaur, hung opposite Albert's bathtub. And it wasn't just paintings that struck their fancy. One time Victoria gave Albert a gilded statue of Lady Godiva, and for Christmas 1851 he gave her William Geefs's Paul et Virginie, which he had bought at the Great Exhibition.
4. She Survived Multiple Assassination Attempts
Security for heads of state in the Nineteenth Century was nothing like it is today. In America, for example, there were no fences at the White House when Abraham Lincoln was president, and he instructed the doormen to allow the public to come in and wander the first floor at will. Even the U.S. Secret Service, which was created in 1865, didn't get its current mission of protecting the president until after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.
Things weren't much different across the pond. In 1812 British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was fatally assaulted in the lobby of the House of Commons. People also tried to assassinate Queen Victoria no fewer than seven times, mostly when she was riding in open carriages.
Some of these attempts seem almost comical in retrospect, such as the time a midget named John William Bean came at her with a gun that was discovered to be stuffed more with tobacco than with gunpowder. Another time would-be attacker William Hamilton apparently forgot to load his pistol before trying to dispose of the Queen.
There were other attempts, however, which were much more serious. Shortly after she and Albert were married, when she was three months pregnant with her daughter Vicki, a man by the name of Edward Oxford fired two shots at her carriage. Fortunately Albert was with her at the time and was able to get her out of harm's way. Two years later a man named John Francis also came at her on one of her carriage rides. In 1872 a man named Arthur O'Connor tried to attack her carriage at the very gates of Buckingham Palace before he was subdued, and ten years after that a man by the name of Roderick Maclean managed to fire off a shot before before some bystanders brought him down.
The only time an attacker ever managed to inflict bodily harm on the Queen was in 1850, when Robert Pate came at her with a brass-tipped walking stick and struck her on the head with it. The Queen, naturally, was quite startled and the assault was severe enough to bruise her face and give her a black eye. Nevertheless, she went about her duties and even appeared at the theater shortly afterward, to thunderous cheers.
5. She Learned Hindustani
As a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg, Victoria's native tongue was German. She often wrote letters to her German relatives that contained at least a little German phrasing. She also picked up English and French while she was still young.
In 1877 Victoria became Empress of India. Ten years later, at the time of her Golden Jubilee, she acquired some Indian servants and started to learn Hindustani. Her teacher was a servant named Abdul Kareem, who started off as a waiter. The Queen, however, having obviously become quite impressed with the young man and erroneously believing him to be the son of an Army surgeon (his father was in fact just an apothecary), promoted him to become her secretary, or munshi in his native tongue. From that point on Kareem became known to everyone simply as The Munshi and fulfilled much the same role that Albert had, handling the Queen's state papers and gaining her confidence. Many in the court who were still reeling from the Queen's relationship with Scotsman John Brown, were shocked at Kareem's rapid rise.
The Queen, however, could not have been more satisfied with him. Almost as soon as he arrived, Kareem started giving the Queen lessons in both the spoken and the written forms of his language (Hindustani and Urdu, respectively). She eventually became quite proficient and kept a journal that runs to thirteen volumes. One of her journaling methods, it is believed, was to write out what she wanted to say in English and have Kareem write out the correct word order for her in Hindustani using English characters. The Queen would then translate the Hindustani text into the more fanciful and flowing Urdu script.