To say that Queen Victoria was an influential monarch would be a hell of an understatement. Not only is she one of the longest-reigning monarchs in history, but she oversaw the expansion of the British Empire to a a fifth of the Earth’s surface and implemented critical reforms that would shape Britain and the world.
It’s no coincidence that she has an important historical period named after her. Queen Victoria ruled what was arguably the largest empire in human history, and to this day, the world still carries a surprisingly rich victorian legacy. But in some instances, Victoria’s impact was more subtle.
The Victorian Age was one of rapid technological development. The Industrial Revolution was already kicking in and the urban population was changing the fabric of British society. It was also an age of chaotic economic development. Salaries were low, which made a lot of industries competitive in terms of selling and exporting their merchandise, but this brought no wealth for the vast majority of the population, whereas a small minority was very rich — very, very rich.
This helped the economy to grow very quickly, but it didn’t do much to bridge the chasm between the rich and the poor — and in the 1860s, if you were rich and wanted to get married in Britain, you likely would have only wanted someone with comparable social status.
This is why something called the London Season existed. From March to September, a series of exclusive balls would see London’s social elite mingle and look for a potential mate. The balls were “likely the most exclusive elite ever to exist,” writes Marc Goñi of the University of Bergen in Norway, the author of the new study.
But when Queen Victoria went into mourning, all this was put on halt for three years.
Balls to schools
In 1861, the queen had a horrid year. Both her mother and husband died in quick succession, and when her husband died, it hit her particularly hard. Victoria basically set the standard for mourning clothing and habits (another part of her legacy); she would go on to wear mourning clothes for half her life, but the first three years were particularly depressing: “those paroxysms of despair and yearning and longing and of daily, nightly longing to die…for the first three years never left me.”
As a result of the queen’s mental state, the social season was canceled for three years, from 1861 to 1864. For the rich Brits, this posed a challenge: suddenly, they couldn’t have their exclusive balls. This meant that posh rich women couldn’t find posh rich men as easily — and many married commoners. Rich-commoner intermarriage rose by 44% in this period, and in particular, the rich women – commoner men marriages shook things up.
These marriages reduced the prestige of their family. Many of these rich people would often be members of parliament, but if their daughter/sister married a commoner, this made them less likely to enter parliament — a whopping 50% less likely. But while this may have been problematic for these rich families, it changed the parliament likely for the better.
The aristocrats who no longer entered parliament were often against the introduction of state education. So the change of the parliament membership due to interclass marriages caused by Queen Victoria’s mourning paved the way for the introduction of mandatory state education, which would go on to become law in the 1870s.
This surprising conclusion shows just how impactful and far-reaching the actions of a monarch can be, but perhaps more importantly, it shows that when the rich and powerful build their own bubble and don’t ever leave it, they are less likely to support public policies. When the bubble is broken, positive effects can spill over to society.