Victoria’s father was Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of the reigning King of the United Kingdom, George III. The Duchess of Kent, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, was a German princess whose brother Leopold was the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales. Until 1819 Charlotte was the only legitimate grandchild of George III. Her death in 1817 precipitated a succession crisis in the United Kingdom that brought pressure on the Duke of Kent to marry and have children. He married the Duchess in 1818, and their only child Victoria was born at 4.15 am on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace in London.
She was christened privately by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton, on 24 June 1819 in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace. Her parents proposed to call her Victoire Georgina Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta, but on the instructions of the Duke’s elder brother, the Prince Regent (later George IV), three of the names were dropped. She was baptised Alexandrina, after one of her godparents, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, and Victoria after her mother.
At birth, Victoria was fifth in the line of succession after her father and his three older brothers: the Prince Regent, the Duke of York, and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV).The Prince Regent was estranged from his wife and the Duchess of York was 52 years old, so the two eldest brothers were unlikely to have any further children. The Dukes of Kent and Clarence married on the same day 12 months before Victoria’s birth, but both of Clarence’s daughters (born in 1819 and 1820 respectively) died as infants. Victoria’s grandfather and father died in 1820, within a week of each other, and the Duke of York died in 1827. On the death of her uncle George IV in 1830, she became heiress presumptive to her next surviving uncle, William IV. The Regency Act 1830 made special provision for the Duchess of Kent to act as regent in case William died while Victoria was still a minor. King William distrusted the Duchess’s capacity to be regent, and in 1836 declared in her presence that he wanted to live until Victoria’s 18th birthday, so that a regency could be avoided.
Painting by George HayterVictoria later described her childhood as “rather melancholy”. Her mother was extremely protective, and Victoria was raised largely isolated from other children under the so called “Kensington System”, an elaborate set of rules and protocols devised by the Duchess and her ambitious and domineering comptroller, Sir John Conroy, who was rumoured, probably wrongly, to be the Duchess’s lover. The system prevented the princess from meeting people whom her mother and Conroy deemed undesirable (including most of her father’s family), and was designed to render her weak and dependent upon them. The Duchess avoided the court because she was scandalised by the presence of the King’s bastard children, and perhaps prompted the emergence of Victorian morality by insisting that her daughter avoid any appearance of sexual impropriety. Victoria shared a bedroom with her mother every night, studied with private tutors to a regular timetable, and spent her play hours with her dolls and her King Charles spaniel, Dash. Her lessons included French, German, Italian, and Latin, but she spoke only English at home.
In 1830, the Duchess of Kent and Conroy took Victoria across the centre of England to visit the Malvern Hills, stopping at towns and great country houses along the way. Similar journeys to other parts of England and Wales were taken in 1832, 1833, 1834 and 1835. To King William’s annoyance, Victoria was enthusiastically welcomed in each of the stops. William compared the journeys to royal progresses and was concerned that they portrayed Victoria as his rival rather than his heiress presumptive. Victoria disliked the trips; the constant round of public appearances made her tired and ill, and there was little time for her to rest. She objected on the grounds of the King’s disapproval, but her mother dismissed his complaints as motivated by jealousy, and forced Victoria to continue the tours. At Ramsgate in October 1835, Victoria contracted a severe fever, which Conroy initially dismissed as a childish pretence. While Victoria was ill, Conroy and the Duchess unsuccessfully badgered her to make Conroy her private secretary. As a teenager, Victoria resisted persistent attempts by her mother and Conroy to appoint him to her staff. Once Queen, she banned him from her presence, but he remained in her mother’s household.
By 1836, the Duchess’s brother, Leopold, who had been King of the Belgians since 1831, hoped to marry his niece to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Leopold, Victoria’s mother, and Albert’s father (Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) were siblings. Leopold arranged for Victoria’s mother to invite her Coburg relatives to visit her in May 1836, with the purpose of introducing Victoria to Albert. William IV, however, disapproved of any match with the Coburgs, and instead favoured the suit of Prince Alexander of the Netherlands, second son of the Prince of Orange. Victoria was aware of the various matrimonial plans and critically appraised a parade of eligible princes. According to her diary, she enjoyed Albert’s company from the beginning. After the visit she wrote, “[Albert] is extremely handsome; his hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful.”] Alexander, on the other hand, was “very plain”.
Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold, whom Victoria considered her “best and kindest adviser”, to thank him “for the prospect of great happiness you have contributed to give me, in the person of dear Albert … He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see.” However at 17, Victoria, though interested in Albert, was not yet ready to marry. The parties did not undertake a formal engagement, but assumed that the match would take place in due time.
Victoria turned 18 on 24 May 1837, and a regency was avoided. On 20 June 1837, William IV died at the age of 71, and Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom. In her diary she wrote, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.” Official documents prepared on the first day of her reign described her as Alexandrina Victoria, but the first name was withdrawn at her own wish and not used again.
Since 1714, Britain had shared a monarch with Hanover in Germany, but under Salic law women were excluded from the Hanoverian succession. While Victoria inherited all the British dominions, Hanover passed instead to her father’s younger brother, her unpopular uncle the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale, who became King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover. He was her heir presumptive until she married and had a child.