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A portrait of Queen Victoria in her early 20s

How Victoria became queen: The succession crisis of 1817

A portrait of Queen Victoria in 1859 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter when she would have been around 22 | Public Domain

The two longest-reigning monarchs in British history have both been women. Queen Victoria sat on the throne for 63 years, whilst Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years. Ironically, neither woman was expected to rule.

Victoria was born fifth in the line of succession whilst Elizabeth was third. However, fate conspired and the winds of change blew in their favour.

Whilst the story of Elizabeth’s rise to the throne is well-known, famously due to the abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII, Victoria’s ascension is less familiar but just as fateful. Let us remedy that and uncover the dramatic story of how Victoria came to rule.

The late reign of King George III

In the early 19th century, the monarch was George III, a ruler who had fathered 15 children, 13 of whom made it to adulthood. Although it might seem that the numbers were on his side, as the ageing king neared the end of his life his children had produced just one legitimate heir – Princess Charlotte.

Charlotte was the daughter of George’s eldest son, George IV. In the final nine years of the king’s life, George acted as the Prince Regent as his father became seriously mentally unwell. The Prince Regent’s one and only child was Princess Charlotte, who was born in 1796.

For many years, the country expected her to one day ascend to the throne. When she became pregnant by her husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the country rejoiced for Charlotte was a popular figure compared to her father and grandfather.

A succession crisis begins

In 1817, elation soon turned to despair as the princess gave birth to a stillborn son. Then just a few hours later, Charlotte succumbed to a fever and passed away. The nation mourned their deaths deeply, as in one cruel twist of fate two generations destined for the throne had been wiped out.

The British monarchy was thrown into a succession crisis and so a desperate ‘baby race’ among King George’s sons to produce a legitimate heir began.

The candidates line up

Due to their advancing years and separations from their wives, the Prince Regent and Prince Frederick (the second son of King George) were quickly ruled out of the race. King George’s oldest three daughters, Charlotte, Augusta, and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age and his sixth son, Augustus had married in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act 1772.

This left the King’s third, fourth, fifth and seventh sons as the candidates most likely to sire an heir – William Duke of Clarence and St Andrews, Edward, Duke of Kent, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge.

In case the throne was not enough of an incentive, parliament offered to pay off some of the duke's huge debts if they were to be successful.

Dash for the heir

No less than four marriages occurred in 1818 as the children of King George scrambled to secure the throne for their bloodlines. One of which was a double wedding involving German princesses, as William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and Edward married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. Adolphus married another German princess, Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, during the same month of May.

Ernest Augustus married in 1815 and so had a head start on his brothers. He was able to produce a son who was born on 27 May 1819. As did Adolphus, whose son was born a couple of months earlier on 26 March 1819.

An heir is secured

Beating them all to the post (or ‘throne’ shall we say) was Edward and his wife Princess Victoria. The princess gave birth to a daughter on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace. Since Edward was the oldest brother to have sired an heir, his daughter took precedence in the line of succession.

Only the offspring of Edward’s older brother William could stand in Victoria’s way. However, William and Princess Adelaide were unsuccessful in their attempts to have children as Adelaide suffered multiple miscarriages and two infant deaths.

Baby Victoria

Edward and Victoria’s daughter was christened Alexandrina. Remarked as being ‘as plump as a partridge,’ she was soon known by her middle name, Victoria. Edward was thrilled and proudly boasted that her arrival signified ‘the crown will come to me and my children’.

Edward lived long enough to see his daughter born but not long enough to see himself king. He passed away on 23 January 1820 from pneumonia, just six days before his father would die.

George IV ascended to the throne on 29 January and reigned for the next ten years. During that time, his younger brother Frederick passed away, leaving the third son of George III, William as the next in line. And after him, Victoria.

Victoria’s early life

Victoria spent her first few months surrounded by love and luxury. However, that all changed upon the early demise of her father when she was just eight months old. His insurmountable debts made life difficult for Victoria’s mother. Although desperate and impoverished, she was allowed some rooms in Kensington Palace.

Here, she grew close to John Conroy, a man who had been equerry to her late husband. He soon inveigled his way into her life, becoming a trusted confidant. The pair then conspired to control the young Victoria, believing with absolute certainty that one day she would be Queen and they wished to be the power behind the throne.

Kensington System

As Victoria grew older, life in Kensington Palace became increasingly lonely and oppressive. Small enjoyments in her day came from time spent with her little dog, Dash, and her beloved governess, Baroness Lehzen.

The strict regime that her mother and Conroy enforced, which they called the ‘Kensington System’, was invented to keep Victoria well within their control. Described as a system of bullying and surveillance, Victoria was prevented from ever being by herself. It was a very unhappy childhood.

Victoria becomes Queen

On 26 June 1830, George IV died, passing the throne to his younger childless brother William. William ruled for another seven years before passing away on 20 June 1837. On that day, Victoria ascended to the throne aged 18.

The schemes of her mother and Conroy backfired as Victoria broke free of their grip once she became Queen. One of her first acts was to remove her bed from the room she shared with her mother. She then deliberately chose to make her first public appearance without either of them.

Conroy was dismissed a short while later and Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace without her mother. A new life had begun for the young Queen and the country, as she was heralded as ‘The Nation’s Hope.’