The English hold an image as the anti-ethnicity. Understated English culture finds definition in what it is not: spicy, flashy, emotional. Watching The Young Victoria reminded me, however, that the most remarkable English institution, the Monarchy, has only recently shaken its foreign (anything from north of Hadrian’s Wall, west of Offa’s Dyke or across the Chanel) ties. Foreign men – Roman (Caesar), French (William the Conqueror), Dutch (William of Orange), and German (the Georges) – ruled the British Isles. From the beginning with Boadicea, English autonomy took female form. When the Welsh Tudors ran amok, Elizabeth I arose and reigned, but without offspring, the Francophile, Scottish Stuarts took over with awful outcomes until the another woman, Mary, brought her Dutch husband, William of Orange, across the channel to clean up the mess. When the German Georges ran out of steam, Victoria ascended one throne while filling thrones throughout Europe with her copious offspring. Finally, the royal flow reversed direction across the channel. Why?
First, Victoria married if not for love than someone she learned to love deeply, and he was German with genetic ties across the continent. Together they produced nine children able to launch a more effective English invasion than Henry V dared dream.
Second, Victoria and Albert loosened the Gordian knot of gender with phenomenal efficacy. Elizabeth I ‘manned up’ to the monarchy as the women of the Tea Party movement like to say. Mary disappeared in William’s orange shadow. Victoria outlived Albert, but she maintained his memory as an integral part of her imperial presence. She fought to keep the family in Royal Family, even when its patriarch passed. Despite this early articulation of ‘family values,’ Victoria’s public persona never became a shrinking violet. Whatever may have taken place behind closed doors and endures in archives, Queen Victoria evokes an image of female power exercised in concert with not in deference to her Prince Consort. Albert’s ability to leave a lasting cultural mark on his adopted home coupled with his prolific paternity ensured that Victoria’s monarchy could not overshadow his manhood.
They enjoyed a perfectly English marriage: understated yet imperial, German in origin yet global in scope, cosmopolitan by profession yet provincial by preference. We tell our students they need to know themselves before they can convince others to follow their lead. For all the Empire’s many failings, Victoria’s global reign imparts a profound individual lesson. Neither ‘man up’ nor ‘shut up’; wear skirt or trousers as you please; mistakes lay in the attempt to be something other than you are in marriage, in politics, and in life.