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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The King is Dead—Long Live the Queen
By Justin McCarthy (1830–1912)
 
From ‘A History of Our Own Times’

BEFORE half-past two o’clock on the morning of June 20th, 1837, William IV. was lying dead in Windsor Castle, while the messengers were already hurrying off to Kensington Palace to bear to his successor her summons to the throne. The illness of the King had been but short, and at one time, even after it had been pronounced alarming, it seemed to take so hopeful a turn that the physicians began to think it would pass harmlessly away. But the King was an old man—was an old man even when he came to the throne; and when the dangerous symptoms again exhibited themselves, their warning was very soon followed by fulfillment. The death of King William may be fairly regarded as having closed an era of our history. With him, we may believe, ended the reign of personal government in England. William was indeed a constitutional king in more than mere name. He was to the best of his lights a faithful representative of the constitutional principle. He was as far in advance of his two predecessors in understanding and acceptance of the principle as his successor has proved herself beyond him. Constitutional government has developed itself gradually, as everything else has done in English politics. The written principle and code of its system it would be as vain to look for as for the British Constitution itself. King William still held to and exercised the right to dismiss his ministers when he pleased, and because he pleased. His father had held to the right of maintaining favorite ministers in defiance of repeated votes of the House of Commons. It would not be easy to find any written rule or declaration of constitutional law pronouncing decisively that either was in the wrong. But in our day we should believe that the constitutional freedom of England was outraged, or at least put in the extremest danger, if a sovereign were to dismiss a ministry at mere pleasure, or to retain it in despite of the expressed wish of the House of Commons. Virtually therefore there was still personal government in the reign of William IV. With his death the long chapter of its history came to an end. We find it difficult now to believe that it was a living principle, openly at work among us, if not openly acknowledged, so lately as in the reign of King William.  1
  The closing scenes of King William’s life were undoubtedly characterized by some personal dignity. As a rule, sovereigns show that they know how to die. Perhaps the necessary consequence of their training, by virtue of which they come to regard themselves always as the central figures in great State pageantry, is to make them assume a manner of dignity on all occasions when the eyes of their subjects may be supposed to be on them, even if dignity of bearing is not the free gift of nature. The manners of William IV. had been, like those of most of his brothers, somewhat rough and overbearing. He had been an unmanageable naval officer. He had again and again disregarded or disobeyed orders; and at last it had been found convenient to withdraw him from active service altogether, and allow him to rise through the successive ranks of his profession by a merely formal and technical process of ascent. In his more private capacity he had, when younger, indulged more than once in unseemly and insufferable freaks of temper. He had made himself unpopular, while Duke of Clarence, by his strenuous opposition to some of the measures which were especially desired by all the enlightenment of the country. He was, for example, a determined opponent of the measures for the abolition of the slave trade. He had wrangled publicly in open debate with some of his brothers in the House of Lords; and words had been interchanged among the royal princes which could not be heard in our day even in the hottest debates of the more turbulent House of Commons. But William seems to have been one of the men whom increased responsibility improves. He was far better as a king than as a prince. He proved that he was able at least to understand that first duty of a constitutional sovereign, which to the last day of his active life his father, George III., never could be brought to comprehend,—that the personal predilections and prejudices of the king must sometimes give way to the public interest.  2
  Nothing perhaps in life became him like the leaving of it. His closing days were marked by gentleness and kindly consideration for the feelings of those around him. When he awoke on June 18th he remembered that it was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. He expressed a strong, pathetic wish to live over that day, even if he were never to see another sunset. He called for the flag which the Duke of Wellington always sent him on that anniversary; and he laid his hand upon the eagle which adorned it, and said he felt revived by the touch. He had himself attended since his accession the Waterloo banquet; but this time the Duke of Wellington thought it would perhaps be more seemly to have the dinner put off, and sent accordingly to take the wishes of his Majesty. The King declared that the dinner must go on as usual; and sent to the Duke a friendly, simple message, expressing his hope that the guests might have a pleasant day. He talked in his homely way to those about him, his direct language seeming to acquire a sort of tragic dignity from the approach of the death that was so near. He had prayers read to him again and again, and called those near him to witness that he had always been a faithful believer in the truths of religion. He had his dispatch-boxes brought to him, and tried to get through some business with his private secretary. It was remarked with some interest that the last official act he ever performed was to sign with his trembling hand the pardon of a condemned criminal. Even a far nobler reign than his would have received new dignity if it closed with a deed of mercy. When some of those around him endeavored to encourage him with the idea that he might recover and live many years yet, he declared with a simplicity which had something oddly pathetic in it that he would be willing to live ten years yet for the sake of the country. The poor King was evidently under the sincere conviction that England could hardly get on without him. His consideration for his country, whatever whimsical thoughts it may suggest, is entitled to some at least of the respect which we give to the dying groan of a Pitt or a Mirabeau, who fears with too much reason that he leaves a blank not easily to be filled. “Young royal tarry-breeks,” William had been jocularly called by Robert Burns fifty years before, when there was yet a popular belief that he would come all right and do brilliant and gallant things, and become a stout sailor in whom a seafaring nation might feel pride. He disappointed all such expectations; but it must be owned that when responsibility came upon him he disappointed expectation anew in a different way, and was a better sovereign, more deserving of the complimentary title of patriot-king, than even his friends would have ventured to anticipate.  3
  There were eulogies pronounced upon him after his death, in both Houses of Parliament, as a matter of course. It is not necessary, however, to set down to mere court homage or parliamentary form some of the praises that were bestowed upon the dead King by Lord Melbourne and Lord Brougham and Lord Grey. A certain tone of sincerity, not quite free perhaps from surprise, appears to run through some of these expressions of admiration. They seem to say that the speakers were at one time or another considerably surprised to find that after all, William really was able and willing on grave occasions to subordinate his personal likings and dislikings to considerations of State policy, and to what was shown to him to be for the good of the nation. In this sense at least he may be called a patriot-king. We have advanced a good deal since that time, and we require somewhat higher and more positive qualities in a sovereign now to excite our political wonder. But we must judge William by the reigns that went before, and not the reign that came after him; and with that consideration borne in mind, we may accept the panegyric of Lord Melbourne and of Lord Grey, and admit that on the whole he was better than his education, his early opportunities, and his early promise.  4
  William IV. (third son of George III.) had left no children who could have succeeded to the throne; and the crown passed therefore to the daughter of his brother (fourth son of George), the Duke of Kent. This was the Princess Alexandrina Victoria, who was born at Kensington Palace on May 24th, 1819. The princess was therefore at this time little more than eighteen years of age. The Duke of Kent died a few months after the birth of his daughter, and the child was brought up under the care of his widow. She was well brought up: both as regards her intellect and her character her training was excellent. She was taught to be self-reliant, brave, and systematical. Prudence and economy were inculcated on her as though she had been born to be poor. One is not generally inclined to attach much importance to what historians tell us of the education of contemporary princes or princesses; but it cannot be doubted that the Princess Victoria was trained for intelligence and goodness.  5
  “The death of the King of England has everywhere caused the greatest sensation…. Cousin Victoria is said to have shown astonishing self-possession. She undertakes a heavy responsibility, especially at the present moment, when parties are so excited, and all rest their hopes on her.” These words are an extract from a letter written on July 4th, 1837, by the late Prince Albert, the Prince Consort of so many happy years. The letter was written to the Prince’s father, from Bonn. The young Queen had indeed behaved with remarkable self-possession. There is a pretty description, which has been often quoted, but will bear citing once more, given by Miss Wynn, of the manner in which the young sovereign received the news of her accession to a throne. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Howley, and the Lord Chamberlain, the Marquis of Conyngham, left Windsor for Kensington Palace, where the Princess Victoria had been residing, to inform her of the King’s death. It was two hours after midnight when they started, and they did not reach Kensington until five o’clock in the morning. “They knocked, they rang, they thumped for a considerable time before they could rouse the porter at the gate; they were again kept waiting in the courtyard, then turned into one of the lower rooms, where they seemed forgotten by everybody. They rang the bell, and desired that the attendant of the Princess Victoria might be sent to inform her Royal Highness that they requested an audience on business of importance. After another delay, and another ringing to inquire the cause, the attendant was summoned, who stated that the princess was in such a sweet sleep that she could not venture to disturb her. Then they said, ‘We are come on business of State to the Queen, and even her sleep must give way to that.’ It did; and to prove that she did not keep them waiting, in a few minutes she came into the room in a loose white nightgown and shawl, her nightcap thrown off, and her hair falling upon her shoulders, her feet in slippers, tears in her eyes, but perfectly collected and dignified.” The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was presently sent for, and a meeting of the Privy Council summoned for eleven o’clock; when the Lord Chancellor administered the usual oaths to the Queen, and Her Majesty received in return the oaths of allegiance of the Cabinet ministers and other privy councillors present. Mr. Greville, who was usually as little disposed to record any enthusiastic admiration of royalty and royal personages as Humboldt or Varnhagen von Ense could have been, has described the scene in words well worthy of quotation.
          “The King died at twenty minutes after two yesterday morning, and the young Queen met the Council at Kensington Palace at eleven. Never was anything like the first impression she produced, or the chorus of praise and admiration which is raised about her manner and behavior, and certainly not without justice. It was very extraordinary, and something far beyond what was looked for. Her extreme youth and inexperience, and the ignorance of the world concerning her, naturally excited intense curiosity to see how she would act on this trying occasion, and there was a considerable assemblage at the palace, notwithstanding the short notice which was given. The first thing to be done was to teach her her lesson, which, for this purpose, Melbourne had himself to learn…. She bowed to the lords, took her seat, and then read her speech in a clear, distinct, and audible voice, and without any appearance of fear or embarrassment. She was quite plainly dressed, and in mourning. After she had read her speech, and taken and signed the oath for the security of the Church of Scotland, the privy councillors were sworn, the two royal dukes first by themselves; and as these two old men, her uncles, knelt before her, swearing allegiance and kissing her hand, I saw her blush up to the eyes, as if she felt the contrast between their civil and their natural relations,—and this was the only sign of emotion which she evinced. Her manner to them was very graceful and engaging; she kissed them both, and rose from her chair and moved towards the Duke of Sussex, who was farthest from her, and too infirm to reach her. She seemed rather bewildered at the multitude of men who were sworn, and who came, one after another, to kiss her hand, but she did not speak to anybody, nor did she make the slightest difference in her manner, or show any in her countenance, to any individual of any rank, station, or party. I particularly watched her when Melbourne and the ministers, and the Duke of Wellington and Peel, approached her. She went through the whole ceremony, occasionally looking at Melbourne for instruction when she had any doubt what to do,—which hardly ever occurred,—and with perfect calmness and self-possession, but at the same time with a graceful modesty and propriety particularly interesting and ingratiating.”
  6
  Sir Robert Peel told Mr. Greville that he was amazed “at her manner and behavior, at her apparent deep sense of her situation, and at the same time her firmness.” The Duke of Wellington said in his blunt way that if she had been his own daughter he could not have desired to see her perform her part better. “At twelve,” says Mr. Greville, “she held a Council, at which she presided with as much ease as if she had been doing nothing else all her life; and though Lord Lansdowne and my colleague had contrived between them to make some confusion with the Council papers, she was not put out by it. She looked very well; and though so small in stature, and without much pretension to beauty, the gracefulness of her manner and the good expression of her countenance give her on the whole a very agreeable appearance, and with her youth inspire an excessive interest in all who approach her, and which I can’t help feeling myself…. In short, she appears to act with every sort of good taste and good feeling, as well as good sense; and as far as it has gone, nothing can be more favorable than the impression she has made, and nothing can promise better than her manner and conduct do; though,” Mr. Greville somewhat superfluously adds, “it would be rash to count too confidently upon her judgment and discretion in more weighty matters.”  7
  The interest or curiosity with which the demeanor of the young Queen was watched was all the keener because the world in general knew so little about her. Not merely was the world in general thus ignorant, but even the statesmen and officials in closest communication with court circles were in almost absolute ignorance. According to Mr. Greville (whose authority, however, is not to be taken too implicitly except as to matters which he actually saw), the young Queen had been previously kept in such seclusion by her mother—“never,” he says, “having slept out of her bedroom, nor been alone with anybody but herself and the Baroness Lehzen”—that “not one of her acquaintances, none of the attendants at Kensington, not even the Duchess of Northumberland, her governess, have any idea what she is or what she promises to be.” There was enough in the court of the two sovereigns who went before Queen Victoria to justify any strictness of seclusion which the Duchess of Kent might desire for her daughter. George IV. was a Charles II. without the education or the talents; William IV. was a Frederick William of Prussia without the genius. The ordinary manners of the society at the court of either had a full flavor, to put it in the softest way, such as a decent tap-room would hardly exhibit in a time like the present. No one can read even the most favorable descriptions given by contemporaries of the manners of those two courts, without feeling grateful to the Duchess of Kent for resolving that her daughter should see as little as possible of their ways and their company.  8
  It was remarked with some interest that the Queen subscribed herself simply “Victoria,” and not, as had been expected, “Alexandrina Victoria.” Mr. Greville mentions in his diary of December 24th, 1819, that “the Duke of Kent gave the name of Alexandrina to his daughter in compliment to the Emperor of Russia. She was to have had the name of Georgiana, but the duke insisted upon Alexandrina being her first name. The Regent sent for Lieven [the Russian ambassador, husband of the famous Princess de Lieven], and made him a great many compliments, en le persiflant, on the Emperor’s being godfather; but informed him that the name of Georgiana could be second to no other in this country, and therefore she could not bear it at all.” It was a very wise choice to employ simply the name Victoria, around which no ungenial associations of any kind hung at that time, and which can have only grateful associations in the history of this country for the future.  9
  It is not necessary to go into any formal description of the various ceremonials and pageantries which celebrated the accession of the new sovereign. The proclamation of the Queen, her appearance for the first time on the throne in the House of Lords when she prorogued Parliament in person, and even the gorgeous festival of her coronation,—which took place on June 28th, in the following year, 1838,—may be passed over with a mere word of record. It is worth mentioning, however, that at the coronation procession one of the most conspicuous figures was that of Marshal Soult, Duke of Dalmatia, the opponent of Moore and Wellington in the Peninsula, the commander of the Old Guard at Lützen, and one of the strong arms of Napoleon at Waterloo. Soult had been sent as ambassador extraordinary to represent the French government and people at the coronation of Queen Victoria; and nothing could exceed the enthusiasm with which he was received by the crowds in the streets of London on that day. The white-haired soldier was cheered wherever a glimpse of his face or figure could be caught. He appeared in the procession in a carriage the frame of which had been used on occasions of state by some of the princes of the House of Condé, and which Soult had had splendidly decorated for the ceremony of the coronation. Even the Austrian ambassador, says an eye-witness, attracted less attention than Soult, although the dress of the Austrian, Prince Esterhazy, “down to his very boot-heels sparkled with diamonds.” The comparison savors now of the ridiculous, but is remarkably expressive and effective. Prince Esterhazy’s name in those days suggested nothing but diamonds. His diamonds may be said to glitter through all the light literature of the time. When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wanted a comparison with which to illustrate excessive splendor and brightness, she found it in “Mr. Pitt’s diamonds.” Prince Esterhazy’s served the same purpose for the writers of the early years of the present reign. It was therefore, perhaps, no very poor tribute to the stout old moustache of the Republic and the Empire to say that at a London pageant his war-worn face drew attention away from Prince Esterhazy’s diamonds. Soult himself felt very warmly the genuine kindness of the reception given to him. Years after, in a debate in the French Chamber, when M. Guizot was accused of too much partiality for the English alliance, Marshal Soult declared himself a warm champion of that alliance. “I fought the English down to Toulouse,” he said, “when I fired the last cannon in defense of the national independence: in the mean time I have been in London; and France knows the reception which I had there. The English themselves cried ‘Vive Soult!’—they cried, ‘Soult forever!’ I had learned to estimate the English on the field of battle; I have learned to estimate them in peace: and I repeat that I am a warm partisan of the English alliance.” History is not exclusively made by cabinets and professional diplomatists. It is highly probable that the cheers of a London crowd on the day of the Queen’s coronation did something genuine and substantial to restore the good feeling between this country and France, and efface the bitter memories of Waterloo.  10
  It is a fact well worthy of note, amid whatever records of court ceremonial and of political change, that a few days after the accession of the Queen, Mr. Montefiore was elected Sheriff of London (the first Jew who had ever been chosen for that office), and that he received knighthood at the hands of her Majesty when she visited the City on the following Lord Mayor’s day. He was the first Jew whom royalty had honored in this country since the good old times when royalty was pleased to borrow the Jew’s money, or order instead the extraction of his teeth. The expansion of the principle of religious liberty and equality, which has been one of the most remarkable characteristics of the reign of Queen Victoria, could hardly have been more becomingly inaugurated than by the compliment which sovereign and city paid to Sir Moses Montefiore.  11
 
 
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