Practising monarchy: using digital history to rethink Queen Victoria

Lee Butcher is a Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD researcher with King’s College London and English Heritage


As a political historian and political geographer I am interested in how political practices, and institutions, develop over time, in place, and through space. My PhD research focuses on the role of the monarchy in Britain’s political development during the nineteenth century, specifically that of the Victorian monarchy. Working alongside English Heritage my research focuses on the processes by which the monarchy under Victoria enacted political practice in place, specifically the place of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Through selecting one location the lived experience of political practice, and through that the discharging of constitutional duties, can be brought into greater relief.

This research purposefully deploys ideas of practice; what actors did and who they did it with. Inspired by geographical concepts under the umbrella of ‘Non-Representational Theory’, or my preferred ‘More-Than-Representational Theory’, advanced by the geographers such as Nigel Thrift, this project seeks to question the preponderance of the representational turn in royal history.[1]  That turn posits either that the monarchy can best be understood as a text, a representation, to be deciphered and so understood, an epistemology of representation.[2] Alternatively, that the monarchy was largely a representational institution, one whose primary role was to provide a depoliticised symbolic function in order to maintain the legitimacy of the British state, an ontology of representation.[3] This idea can be traced to Walter Bagehot’s 1867 contrivance that the monarchy was separated into a ‘functional’ role and a ‘dignified’ role, the former the monarch’s direct role in political and governmental activity, the latter the symbolic role of providing a seemingly historic continuity to Britain’s evolving political system.[4] This dignified role, Bagehot insisted, was then mostly what the monarchy did. Stripped of its powers by an increasingly powerful parliament and executive, Britain was a de facto republic with a crowned head of state. Despite limited efforts to counter this narrative[5], historians have largely embraced Bagehot’s schema with gusto. A recent review of a new biography of Victoria displays this neatly, advancing the questionable claim that Victoria ‘had limited knowledge’ of the Crimean and Boer Wars.[6]

The problem with this concept of royal politics was highlighted early on in my project. The predominant view of Osborne, by the heritage sector and by historians, acted as a proxy for this schema. At Osborne the monarch could escape politics, retreat from society (in London), and seclude themselves within the depoliticised world of domestic, bourgeois family life.[7]  In effect, when the monarchy was not enacting its dignified functions, the institution was free to do as it pleased during its off hours. With Victoria’s seclusion after Albert’s death in 1861, her unwillingness to stay long at Buckingham Palace, and her increasingly long stays out of London, those off hours, presumably, increased fourfold. This struck me as problematic: just how likely was it that the head of state in a constitutional monarchy could escape the demands of constitution and politics? By exploring a range of primary sources to explore just what the monarchy got up to in such a ‘secluded place’, it may be possible to demonstrate the credibility, or otherwise, of this schema (functional vs. dignified, public vs. private). In effect, if it could be demonstrated that a great deal more politics and government work went on in this most private of places than the historiography acknowledged, the schema itself may prove vulnerable to deconstruction, and thus our thinking about the role of the monarchy during this period could be refreshed and enlivened. To paraphrase Thrift, it may be possible to bring the dead geographies of the Victorian monarchy to life.[8]

The representational turn can thus be cast as a direct result of the dominance of this schema. Were Bagehot and his later acolytes correct, then the history of the modern monarchy was necessarily a representational history, whether in its epistemological or ontological forms. There was very little else to be said of the monarchy outside of its dignified role (or, for the biographers, the continuing exercise in royal personality study). A concept of practice, of political and institutional practice as performance within a network of connected actors, thus provides a valuable means to challenge this paradigm. The representational ceases to be both the genesis and the apotheosis of monarchy, but can rather be seen to be a product of what the monarchy did, as well as a practice in itself. The symbolic function of the monarchy does not cease to be, but it can no longer be privileged and cast separately from what else the institution did. The functional and the dignified become intertwined and inseparable, the public and private enmeshed. For example, that the royal family created the image of bourgeois family life at Osborne (and elsewhere), and distributed this image via photographs and other media is indisputable. However, that image existed because of the practice of family life; that the Queen married, had a large family, and constructed a family centred life at the residences (at Osborne this was built into the residence, the nursery in the pavilion, the Swiss Cottage in the grounds, for example). Practice and image were inseparable. The image that resulted of a productive family life, which maintained bourgeois values, was a deliberate effort to push the image of the depoliticised (read, harmless) nature of a new monarchy escaping its “disreputable” Georgian ancestors. The creation of a depoliticised bourgeois family was in itself a political act. To court favour with the public, to ensure that the institution survived a turbulent period, a depoliticised monarchy sought to appeal to the nation by countering what were viewed as the harmful image created by their immediate royal ancestors. It was a political strategy for survival. It may be seen as ironic that this political act has been accepted at face value by generations of royal historians. The depoliticised nature of the Victorian monarchy largely, and uncritically, accepted. The historical woods have been obscured by the historical trees.

How then have digital sources contributed to this effort? The digitised journals of Victoria have provided an opportunity to explore royal political practice in a systematic manner. To observe royal practice, it is necessary to trace the performance of the actions of that institution. An institution like the monarchy had a particular and developing rhythm, a set of steps danced in partnership with other institutions, together forming a routine of national political life. To trace royal practice, it is thus necessary to trace the steps in place and through space that the monarchy enacted. Queen Victoria’s journals, digitised and made available online in 2012, provided a valuable source to trace her steps. Having been digitally catalogued and searchable, the ability to export the information contained in this source into a quantifiable format has been a key element in this project. I have compiled a database of 1745 data points, distilling the 20,000 odd entries of Victoria’s journals into a Geographical Information System database, allowing both for the mapping of Victoria’s whereabouts from 1832 to 1901, and for the statistical analysis of this data. Initial results have allowed me to begin to answer some fundamental questions about Victoria’s spatial practices, such as; which was the most frequented residence? If most frequented can be seen as a proxy for importance, this question is relatively important for a political geography of the monarchy. It is essential if I am to understand Osborne’s place in the royal scheme of things. The answer is; Windsor Castle (38%), Osborne (28%), Balmoral (22%), and finally Buckingham Palace (16%), measured in number of days spent at each.

More usefully, as the data is recorded by date, as well as duration of each visit, an analysis of change through time has been possible. This has demonstrated that Victoria’s spatial practices can be divided into four distinct stages. Between 1837-1844 (spanning her accession and marriage), there were long stays at Buckingham Palace and Windsor. 1845-1861, which encompassed the Queen’s marriage, the birth of the royal children, the purchase and construction of Osborne and Balmoral, saw Windsor and Buckingham Palace vie with each other for top spot, closely followed by Osborne, and long way behind, Balmoral. The death of the Prince Consort heralded the third period of spatial practice. In 1862, in the immediate aftermath, saw Victoria spend the vast majority of her time at Osborne. The rest of the period up to 1890 saw gradually diminishing oscillations between Osborne, Balmoral, and Windsor. Most notable is the near abandonment of Buckingham Palace after 1861, characterised by short half day visits for the few formal functions presided over by the Queen. Only shorts visits are recorded, perhaps surprisingly, during the Jubilee years of 1887 and 1897 to London. The final period, from 1890 to Victoria’s death in 1901, saw a three-way parity emerge between Osborne, Balmoral and Windsor. This was the height of the Queen’s holidaying in the south of France. What this suggests is that, as expected, Victoria avoided London, but it is the contention of this research that this act did not so much distance the monarchy from political life, rather that it reshaped the political geography of the nation. The nature of political activity was altered, fewer large formal events, greater weekend retreats, and a greater reliance on communication at a distance. The development of communication technology, particularly telegraphy, undoubtedly provided an opportunity for the monarch to remain involved while not being in direct personal contact with her ministers.

How than did the monarch’s connections with the political classes developed over the period? This I explored by scouring the Queen’s journals for visits by the Prime Ministers to the monarch, recording these by date and location. What we see, by location, is the importance of Buckingham Palace (49%) and Windsor (40%), followed by Osborne (8%), then Balmoral (3%). Skewing the figures towards Buckingham Palace, despite its near abandonment from 1861, is the overwhelming appearance of Lord Melbourne. Confirming what historians had previously said of the close relationship between Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Melbourne represents 52% of all Prime Ministerial visits to Victoria, which is an astounding number given that he only served for five years of her reign. Melbourne can thus be seen as an outlier among the Prime Ministers. Excluding Melbourne (so beginning the sample with Sir Robert Peel in August 1841) adjusts the residence figures to Windsor (39%), Buckingham Palace (38%), Osborne (16%), and Balmoral (7%). The increase for Osborne is particularly striking, perhaps demonstrating the importance of the residence later in the period. Over time there is a gradual diminishing of the number of visits by the Prime Ministers per year, nonetheless these do not disappear altogether. There is a sustained engagement between the monarch and her Prime Ministers during Victoria’s reign. Despite expectations the immediate period after 1861 does not see the nadir of political visits, despite a noticeable dip in 1862 and 1863. The mid-1860s, and again in the mid-1870s, see a resurgence in visits, particularly to Windsor. The late 1880s and the mid-1890s see Osborne’s heyday as a location for Prime Ministerial visits. There are notable peaks in 1868, a year of intense political instability, seeing the end of the third Derby administration, the start and end of the first Disraeli government, and the commencement of the first Gladstone administration. The peak in 1875 may relate to Disraeli’s decision for Britain to purchase a majority stake in the Suez Canal, as well as discussions over the Royal Titles Bill (conferring on Victoria the title Empress of India, passed in 1876). A further peak in 1886 coincided with the collapse of the first Salisbury administration, the start and end of the third Gladstone government, the general election of that year, and the formation of the second Salisbury administration. A final large peak in 1895 may reflect of the collapse of Lord Roseberry’s Liberal government, a general election, and the formation of the third Salisbury, in coalition with the Liberal Unionist breakaway group led by Joseph Chamberlain.

These figures suggest that royal involvement in the ‘functional’ role of politics and government increased as politics became less stable. Essentially, as the political parties and the House of Commons became less able to resolve matters for themselves, and Prime Ministers entered into discussions with the monarch about dissolving and forming administrations (as well as attending to the formal processes of both), the role of the monarchy in politics increased. This can be seen across the period, from the start to the end. This was certainly the case in 1846, the year which saw the largest number of Prime Ministerial visits, as Sir Robert Peel’s decision to support repeal of the Corn Laws spilt the Conservative Party into ‘free trade’ and ‘protectionist’ wings, depriving the ruling party of maintaining a majority in the House of the Commons, without conferring on the Liberal opposition, led by Lord John Russell, a working majority to command the support of the legislator. Victoria’s journal and her published letters, demonstrate close negotiation between monarch, Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, as they sought to resolve the parliamentary deadlock. A representational history of the monarchy, which fails to attend to questions such as these, fails to account for the wider range of important constitutional and political practices of the monarchy. Deploying concepts of practice, alongside the comprehensive interrogation of sources such as Victoria’s journals, using the latest digital and quantitative methods, provides the historian with new ways to view this important institution to Britain’s political development.

Digitised sources, such as Victoria’s journal, and now the vast number of manuscripts now being digitised by the Georgian Papers Programme, are important tools for the historian. The attempt to use these techniques using only manuscripts would be prohibitively time consuming, and require more resources than are typically available to researchers who are not part of a broader research team. The ability to search such documents, and to have entries catalogued and visible in a systematic manner, enables the kinds of research that I have sought to detail in this article. The hard work of archivists, researchers, and volunteers in projects like the Georgian Papers Programme enable historians to undertake increasingly complex research using ever larger collections of primary source material. As the previous digitisation of Victoria’s journals have enabled me to construct GIS and statistical analysis of this substantial historical source, so historians of the Georgian period will be enabled to deploy novel methodologies, and formulate new research questions, which could substantially reshape our understanding of the history of the monarchy during that period.


[1] For example, Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory (2007), and Hayden Lorimer, ‘Cultural geography: the busyness of being ‘more-than-representational’, Progress in Human Geography 29, 1 (2005) pp. 83-94

[2] Important contributions include Margaret Homans, Royal Representations (1998) and Adrienne Munich, Queen Victoria’s Secrets (1996).

[3] Such as David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance, and Meaning of Ritual: the British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, c.1820-1877’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (1983), William M. Kuhn, Democratic Royalism: The Transformation of the British Monarchy, 1861-1914 (1996), and John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (2003).

[4] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, (1867) pp.61-93

[5] Frank Hardie, The political influence of Queen Victoria, 1861-1901 (1935)

[6] Janet Maslin, Review: ‘Victoria the Queen’ [by Julia Baird] Delves Into Her Epic Reign, The New York Times, Dec. 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/20/books/review-victoria-the-queen-julia-baird.html?_r=0, accessed 23/12/2016

[7] Such as in the English Heritage Guidebook for Osborne, “Here they built a new private home as an escape from court life in London and Windsor”, in Michael Turner, Osborne, English Heritage Guidebooks, p.3, (2007). Elizabeth Longford, in referring to the purchase of Osborne and the royal family’s first overseas holiday writes of “The Queen’s fulfilment as a private person”, in Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R.I., p.191 (First ed. 1964, reprint 2011)

[8] Nigel Thrift, John-David Dewsbury, ‘Dead geographies – and how to make them live’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2000, vol. 18, pp. 411-432

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