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Queen Victoria: This thorny crown, by Michael Ledger-Lomas

23 July 2021

Queen Victoria’s piety was largely domestic, says Richard Chartres

THE book This Thorny Crown is the most recent contribution to the Spiritual Lives series, in which professional historians examine the personal spirituality of some notable figures from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

The series includes, amongst others, Benjamin Franklin and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Books, 18 June), but Victoria stands out in that she not only had trenchant personal religious views and a distinctive style of devotion, but, as Supreme Governor (though she frequently mistakenly styled herself “Supreme Head”) of the Church of England, she had the constitutional means to ensure that her preferences were reflected in significant appointments and in ecclesiastical legislation.

Michael Ledger-Lomas has trawled Victoria’s journal and a wide range of contemporary sources. The copious notes and extensive bibliography add greatly to the value of the book.

As a bishop, I perhaps ought to confess that Queen Victoria had a prejudice against the episcopal order. When members of Convocation came to wish her well on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, she described them as a “very ugly party” and frankly avowed “I do not like bishops!”

Victoria was, however, alive to the connection between her authority and the vitality of the established faith. “Believe me,” she wrote to her daughter Victoria in 1878 after an attempt to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I, “where there is no respect for God — no belief in futurity — there can be no respect or loyalty to the highest in the land.”

Reading her journal, however, it becomes evident that, while Victoria was frequently expansive about Highland scenery, foreign travel, and the theatre, her interest in texts and religious ideas was limited. Under 8 August 1852, she wrote: “Albert told me much about an interesting book he is reading, the Life of Jesus by Strauss — Dinner as yesterday.” She was nevertheless a convinced liberal Protestant, committed to a lay style of piety.

Her marriage to a German Lutheran of radical theological views and her widowhood deeply marked her faith. The family rather than the Church played the central part in her own spiritual life, and she increasingly identified the faith with a widow’s search for consolation. She believed that ordinary people shared these instincts.

She felt especially at home in the established Church of Scotland. Her attachment to and defence of the Kirk was wholehearted and tenacious. She was resistant to the assertions of the Free Church and intensely hostile to Episcopalian claims to be the true national Church of Scotland. In the 1890s, when Lord Rosebery as Prime Minister proposed to announce, in the Queen’s Speech, Bills for “the discontinuance of the ecclesiastical establishments of Wales and Scotland”, he found himself unable to override the royal veto.

AlamyQueen Victoria Receiving the Sacrament at her Coronation, 28 June 1838 by Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859), which is in the Royal Collection

In England, she believed that Anglo-Catholics were alienating ordinary Protestants and selling the Church to foreign, reactionary forces. She attempted to legislate their liturgical experiments out of existence.

The Queen first heard of “a Dr Pusey and a Mr Newman” from her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, who described them as “very violent people of the high church character”. Throughout her reign, the Queen was able with some considerable success to block high-church access to bishoprics, university chairs, and Crown livings.

Archibald Campbell Tait born in Edinburgh was her ideal churchman. She deeply sympathised with the loss of his five daughters to scarlet fever while he was Dean of Carlisle. With the Queen’s support, he was preferred to the sees of London and then Canterbury despite the opposition of Disraeli, who said that he exhibited “a strange fund of enthusiasm, a quality which ought never to be possessed by an Archbishop of Canterbury or a Prime Minister”.

As Archbishop, Tait was instrumental in the passage of the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874. Disraeli said that, “if this blow is dealt against the sacerdotal school, it will entirely be thro’ the personal will of the sovereign.” A triumphant Victoria urged that they needed to press on to a “full admission of the rights of reason and science” and “harmony amongst all true Protestants of all denominations”.

In other respects, her sympathies were wide and, expertly publicised, helped to strengthen imperial links. Her public sympathy for Islam, symbolised by her employment of a Muslim tutor, the Munshi, may have horrified the court, but it was widely celebrated in India.

She was fired by reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and discussed the book with the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, to whom she insisted on “every nerve being strained” to put down the slave trade.

Despite her Protestant predilections, she enjoyed good relations with successive popes. She was especially close to Leo XIII, who in 1881 sent her the works of Aquinas. She responded with a copy of her Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands. During her final decades, she also developed a personal partiality for Roman Catholicism, and especially its culture of mourning and memorialisation.

Unfortunately, Victoria’s personal tolerance did very little to reconcile the Catholic population in Ireland to their continued subjection to the British Crown.

Her journal became a mausoleum book in which she recorded the loss of relatives, friends, and servants, and lamented over newspaper reports of accidents and disasters. The Frogmore anniversary services for Albert became the most important fixed point in the constellation of sad recollections. The prominence of music in the Frogmore observances reflected a shift in Protestant culture “from spikey word to consoling melody”. She became the nation’s mourner-in-chief, who popularised a more sentimental attitude to death as a gentle transition to another world continuous with this one.

As the actual powers of the monarchy declined, the complexity and the splendour of public royal ceremonial increased, but often against dogged resistance from the monarch herself. The Diamond Jubilee marked the full transformation of the Queen into an icon and the focus of symbols, stirring rituals, and vague poetic imagery that united, and disguised the often brutal reality of, the Empire.

At the beginning of the reign, England was a byword for ceremonial shambles. Lord Robert Cecil, who many years later became Victoria’s Prime Minister (as Lord Salisbury), having witnessed the Queen opening one of her earliest Parliaments, remarked that “we can afford to be more splendid than most nations but some malignant spirit broods over all our most solemn ceremonials and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous — something always breaks down.” No one was saying that at the end of the reign.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.


Queen Victoria: This thorny crown
Michael Ledger-Lomas
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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