Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne at age 18, following the death of her uncle, William IV, in 1837. She was an ardent imperialist and took an intense interest in her colonial subjects. Queen Victoria favoured Confederation and acted as a unifying influence for Canada’s provinces. While the Queen never visited Canada, five of her nine children spent time in Canada, where her name has been given to numerous public buildings, streets, communities and physical features.
The future Queen Victoria was the only child of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767–1820), the fourth son of King George III, and Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786–1861). Edward was the first member of the royal family to reside in Canada for a sustained period of time. He spent the 1790s in Québec City and Halifax, where he helped improve British North American defences and became commander-in-chief of the British North American forces. Prince Edward Island is named for him. After the death of his niece, Princess Charlotte, in 1817, Edward married at the age of 50. His marriage was necessary in order to continue the line of royal heirs after Charlotte's passing. Victoire was 20 years younger than Edward and the widow of Prince Charles of Leiningen. She had two children, Charles and Feodora, from her first marriage.
On 24 June 1819, Victoria was christened Alexandrina Victoria in honour of her godfather, Czar Alexander I of Russia, and her mother. Her father died of pneumonia before her first birthday, and she grew up at Kensington Palace in London under the guardianship of her mother. Victoire disapproved of Edward’s brothers, who were derided for their gambling and mistresses; and the young Victoria saw little of the royal family. She was, for example, not permitted to attend the coronation of her uncle and predecessor, William IV, in 1830. Victoria was educated at home and grew up to be stubborn and strong willed.
Accession to the Throne
Victoria became queen upon the death of William IV on 20 June 1837. There was an outpouring of popular enthusiasm about the 18-year-old monarch, whose respectability contrasted with her uncles George IV and William IV. After attending her coronation at Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838, diarist Sir Charles Greville wrote, “It is, in fact, the remarkable union of naïveté, kindness, nature, good-nature, with propriety and dignity, which makes her so admirable and so endearing to those about her.” After the seclusion of her childhood, Victoria enjoyed her new position and was an enthusiastic participant in court balls and other entertainments.
Victoria came to the throne just months before the Rebellions of 1837–38 were mounted in Upper and Lower Canada. On 22 December 1837, the Queen wrote in her journal, "The news are, I grieve to say, very bad from Canada; that is to say rumours and reports by the Papers, though we have no Official Reports. But [Prime Minister] Lord Melbourne hopes it may not be so bad as it is rumoured. There certainly is open Rebellion." In honour of her coronation, the Queen granted amnesties to the rebels in Upper and Lower Canada (see Amnesty Act).
On 15 October 1839, Queen Victoria proposed to her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They were married at St. James’s Palace on 10 February 1840. Victoria wore a white satin and lace dress, starting the fashion for white wedding dresses that continues to the present. Victoria was deeply in love with her husband, writing in her journal at the time of her wedding: “His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness — really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!”
During the first years of her marriage, Victoria prevented Albert from becoming involved in her duties as sovereign, a stance that Albert resented. As their marriage progressed, Victoria became increasingly dependent on Albert, and he came to exert political and cultural influence. He advised Victoria on state documents, drafted her correspondence and reformed royal finances. Albert chaired the Great Exhibition, which showcased British and international trade at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 and inspired similar displays around the world. He received the title of prince consort in 1857, though Sir Charles Greville remarked, "He is King to all intents and purposes."
Queen Victoria had nine children: Victoria (1840–1901), Albert Edward, the future Edward VII (1841–1910), Alice (1843–1878), Alfred (1844–1900), Helena (1846–1923), Louise (1848–1939), Arthur (1850–1942), Leopold (1853–1884) and Beatrice (1857–1944). Prince Albert was present in the delivery room for the births with government ministers and clergymen assembled in the adjoining room. Albert was likely the first royal father to be present for the births of his children. Current royal christening traditions, such as the use of the lily font and Honiton lace robe, date from the christenings of Victoria’s children.
Victoria popularized childbirth anaesthesia, then a controversial medical intervention, when she requested chloroform for the births of Leopold and Beatrice. She had little interest in young children — writing that “an ugly baby is a very nasty object — and the prettiest is frightful when undressed” — and Albert assumed a more active role in the children’s education and upbringing. Victoria became closer to her children as they aged. The royal family’s public image conformed to 19th-century ideals of domesticity in the English-speaking world. Images of Victoria, Albert and their children celebrating Christmas and taking family vacations influenced broader parenting trends.
All four of Victoria’s sons spent time in Canada. Edward VII, the future king, undertook a highly successful tour of British North America and the United States in 1860 that set precedents for future royal tours, including engagement with Canadians from a variety of communities and backgrounds, and showcasing local culture. Alfred spent five weeks in the Maritimes in 1861; and Arthur spent a year with the Rifle Brigade based in Montréal in 1869–70. As Duke of Connaught, Arthur would return to Canada as Governor General from 1911 to 1916. Victoria’s daughter, Louise, was vice-regal consort from 1878 to 1883, when her husband, the Marquess of Lorne, became the fourth Governor General since Confederation. Leopold visited Louise in Ottawa and they visited Niagara Falls together. Louise and Lorne founded the National Gallery of Canada (1880), the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1880) and the Royal Society of Canada (1882) during their time in Canada.
Prince Albert died at Windsor Castle on 14 December 1861 from either typhoid fever or Crohn’s Disease. Victoria was devastated and began a long period of seclusion during which she refused to undertake most public duties. While the public was initially sympathetic, Victoria’s unwillingness to either resume regular public appearances or delegate responsibilities to her eldest son attracted criticism and increasing republican sentiment. Victoria’s popularity in Britain was restored in 1872 when she agreed to a public thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral after the future Edward VII recovered from a near-fatal attack of typhoid. In Canada, a day of thanksgiving was celebrated in honour of the heir to the throne’s recovery. Victoria’s popularity remained constant in Canada during her widowhood, as she had never visited in person and therefore Canadians did not experience a direct change in her public appearances. Victoria was a widow for 40 years and her best-known public image as “the widow of Windsor,” in which she appeared in simple black dresses and white bonnets, is one that endures.
As a constitutional monarch, Queen Victoria was expected to be above politics, but she nevertheless expressed her partiality for particular British prime ministers. During the early years of her reign, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, acted as a father figure and mentor to Victoria. Later in her reign, she favoured Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli — who provided her with entertaining political anecdotes — over the more reserved Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom she complained, “addresses me as though I were a public meeting.”
Victoria’s political opinions and priorities shifted after Albert’s death. During her 20-year marriage to Albert, she shared his commitment to such domestic reforms as reducing tariffs and raising the minimum working age to reduce child labour. Over the course of her widowhood, she became an enthusiastic imperialist and emphasized her role as “mother” of the British Empire.
It is fitting that Province of Canada delegates sailed to the 1864 Charlottetown Conference in Prince Edward Island aboard the Queen Victoria steamship. At the conference, Canadian delegates took the opportunity to propose British North American union to the Atlantic colonies. Victoria played a supportive role in the development of the Dominion of Canada, bringing together political figures from the British North American colonies through their shared loyalty to the Crown. She was broadly known as the “Mother of Confederation,” who believed that Confederation would reduce defence costs and strengthen relations with the United States. “I take the deepest interest in it,” Victoria told a Nova Scotian delegation in London, “for I believe it will make [the provinces] great and prosperous.” In 1857, Victoria selected Ottawa — then an obscure lumber town called Bytown — as the Province of Canada’s capital. She chose Ottawa again as capital for the Dominion in 1867 as it was sheltered from potential American invasions and stood on the border between English and French Canada.
Victoria met with John A. Macdonald and four Canadian delegates in February 1867 as the British North America Act was passed before British Parliament. Macdonald recalled that Victoria said, “I am very glad to see you on this mission. […] It is a very important measure and you have all exhibited so much loyalty.” Macdonald invited Victoria to open Canada’s first session of Parliament in Ottawa on 1 July, but she was unable to attend.
Mother of the British Empire
It is estimated that one-fifth of the world’s land mass became part of the British Empire and Dominions during Victoria’s reign — supporting the axiom that the sun never set on the British Empire. During the last decades of her reign, Victoria’s role as “mother” to the British Empire became a central part of her image. She became Empress of India at the suggestion of Disraeli in 1877.
Although Victoria did not personally travel beyond Europe, she emphasized her personal relationship with Indigenous peoples around the world. In Canada, treaties were concluded between First Nations and the Crown as the “Great Mother.” As Canada expanded westward, so did Victoria’s empire. Royal visits by Victoria’s children to Canada’s west were an opportunity to affirm Victoria’s personal relationship with her subjects. Victoria’s son-in-law, Lord Lorne, was greeted as the “great brother-in-law” by First Nations communities when he travelled across the Prairies in 1881.
Canadian author Charles Dent wrote in 1880, “In Canada, loyalty has by no means degenerated into a mere feeble sentiment of expediency. Throughout the length and breadth of our land the name of Queen Victoria is regarded with an affectionate love and veneration which is felt for no other human being.”
Grandmother of Europe
Victoria’s children and grandchildren married into Europe’s royal houses, which resulted in the monarchies of Europe being closely interrelated by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Her granddaughters included five royal consorts: Empress Alexandra of Russia, Queen Marie of Romania, Queen Maud of Norway, Queen Sophie of Greece and Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain. Her eldest grandchild was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The marriages of Victoria’s descendants spread British cultural practices and political influence across Europe. Victoria’s youngest son, Leopold, suffered from hemophilia, an inherited blood disorder passed to males through the female line. Hemophilia became known as the “royal disease” as it spread through Victoria’s descendants to the German, Spanish and Russian ruling houses.
Victoria was the first British monarch to celebrate public Golden and Diamond Jubilees, which marked the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her accession to the throne. These jubilees were celebrated throughout the British Empire including thanksgiving holidays in Canada. The 1887 Golden Jubilee showcased Victoria’s role as “grandmother” of Europe and the guests included royalty from across the continent. The prime ministers of the 10 self-governing overseas provinces in addition to Canada gathered in London for the Golden Jubilee to hold what was, in effect, the first Commonwealth Conference, a forerunner of the modern day Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings.
The 1897 Diamond Jubilee emphasized Victoria’s role as head of the British Empire and Dominions. The Canadian cavalry rode five abreast at the Head of the Colonial Procession. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had received his knighthood from the Queen that morning, followed in a carriage. The Toronto Grenadiers and Royal Canadian Highlanders were also part of the parade. Victoria’s personal message to Canada on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee was “From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them.” Canada’s gift to Victoria in honour of her Diamond Jubilee was the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses. The Diamond Jubilee also had a profound effect on Canadian popular culture as new songs were composed in the Queen’s honour and buildings named for her.
Victoria was Britain’s longest reigning monarch at the time of her death in 1901, a record that Queen Elizabeth II surpassed on 9 September 2015. Victoria remained actively engaged with the British Empire until her last days, closely following the South African War. She died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight surrounded by family. Her death was regarded as the end of an era. The Canadian government decided that Victoria Day, which had been celebrated as the Queen’s birthday in Canada since 1845, would be a permanent statutory holiday to honour her role as a “Mother of Confederation.”
Canadian Sites Named for Queen Victoria
Many of Canada's towns and cities, public buildings and institutions, parks and plazas, streets and physical features have been named for Queen Victoria — and under different iterations of her title: Queen, Empress, Victoria, Regina. Explorers, mapmakers and administrators assigned the name Victoria to a multitude of geographical features all over the Canadian map. Perhaps no individual has been more honoured in this way in Canada.
Victoria College (now part of the University of Toronto) and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, were named for the Queen during her reign, as was the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal. The Victoria General Hospital (built 1911) in Winnipeg was also named for her.
The best-known place named for the British monarch is the city at the base of Vancouver Island. In 1843, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) resolved to name its new fort overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait for the Queen, though Fort Albert was the name it was assigned locally. Subsequently, a stern message from London insisted on the use of Fort Victoria. The town site of Victoria was established there in 1851–52; and in 1868, the expanding city became the capital of the colony of British Columbia (itself named by Queen Victoria).
The province of Alberta also had a Victoria northeast of Edmonton, where George McDougall had established a mission (1862) and the HBC had set up a post (1864). To avoid confusion with other Victorias, the name of this small community was changed to Pakan, the nickname of a Cree chief, in 1887.
The village of Empress, northeast of Medicine Hat, was named in 1913 in commemoration of the Queen's imperial title received from British Parliament in 1877 . The Marquess of Lorne and his wife, Princess Louise (the Queen's daughter), wanted to give the name Victoria to the capital of the North-West Territories in 1882, but chose instead the other half of her Latin title, Regina. In 1905, it became the capital of the new province of Saskatchewan. Manitoba has a rural municipality and a lake named Victoria and another municipality called Victoria Beach.
One does not travel far in Ontario before encountering Victoria Corners, Victoria Square, Victoria Harbour, Victoria Springs, Victoria Lake or just plain Victoria. Evidence of Victoria is less apparent in Québec, although the second-largest place in Canada with her name is in that province. Victoriaville, a town of more than 44,313 people (2013), was named for the queen in 1861. There are also seven physical features in Québec with the name Victoria, including Grand-Lac-Victoria at the head of the Ottawa River, south of Val-d'Or.
The Atlantic Provinces have numerous places and features with the name Victoria. Among these are a county in each of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Victoria is an attractive seaside village in Prince Edward Island, where there are also places called Victoria Cross and Victoria West. Newfoundland and Labrador has a Victoria. A town of nearly 2,000, it lies on the west side of Conception Bay.