Reflections on ‘Essay on Public Opinion’

Dr Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London


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It may be stating the obvious to point out that what was understood as constituting ‘public opinion’ in the eighteenth century bears little resemblance to the culture of opinion polls and click rates that often accompanies the term in today’s usage. It rarely offered the prospect of absolute excoriation or vindication that it does for us. Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance. Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. So could riots and revolutions. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests. To do so was to sidestep the awkward questions of who the public actually was, how its opinion could be accurately gauged and what currency it would acquire if it ever were.

Rowlandson cartoon satirising public opinion, on the issue of the pay of a child actor. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ (GEO/ADD/32/1064-70) is particularly informative. If George III was the author of this piece, then it provides a valuable perspective on his attitude to his subjects, his apparent faith in a reasonable alignment between public opinion and the good of the nation. However, the work is intriguing regardless of our speculations on its authorship. It reflects both the uncertainty of its era concerning the practical implications of public opinion and a nagging sense that we should be able to account for what the public feels, tracing the logic behind who is revered and who is forgotten. For in the terms of this essay, public opinion is responsive in nature. Its principal business is not the alteration of policy, but the crafting of reputations and the custodianship of cultural memory.

The essay begins by defining public opinion, implicitly and loosely, in contrast to the agendas of individuals on one hand and ‘private Societys’ [sic] on the other. All three varieties of opinion are reassuringly guided by self-interest, but the nature of such self-interest naturally varies in each instance. The public, according to the author, occupies itself with matters of general concern – ‘Politics, War, Legislation, Arts & Sciences’ – though in doing so it is prone to celebrate mediocre and accessible talents over exceptional and remote ones.

This is a fairly convenient distinction but not necessarily a false one. It is startling how closely the language at this point in the essay anticipates current debates about the value of expertise in public life and the ease with which highly specialised knowledge can best be communicated to the public as a whole. We might assume based on the opening of the essay that its author is building towards a dismissal of the public’s good judgement and a condemnation of its influence on political life. The essay notes the distorting effects of public favour, the tendency to elevate ‘colossal Figure[s]’ that appear ‘monstrous’ when examined more closely. Later in the essay, the author highlights particular blind spots in the way that public opinion identifies its champions: the fact that it claims to care about virtues like honesty and heroism, but locates these less in actions themselves and more in relation to ‘the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society receiv’d by it’. The essay is filled with examples of the public getting things wrong. However, the intention of the work in its entirety is not to rubbish the force of public opinion because of these lapses. On the contrary, it is to argue for the sound, self-interested basis of the public’s judgements, to insist on its fundamental rationality and to assert the proper value of public opinion when it is effectively balanced against other considerations. For the time, this seems an impressively sophisticated and enlightened view to adopt; not to claim that the public is always right, but to acknowledge that its opinions are at least derived, logically and inevitably, from its sense of its own interests rather than from thoughtless partiality.

Towards the end of the essay, the author considers why the public generally esteems architects more highly than builders and the ‘Art of Agriculture’ more highly than the ploughman who puts it in practice. The reason is not that the public is oblivious to its own needs, but that it considers some people replaceable whereas others are not. As modern readers, we may well be appalled by the blunt, mercenary logic of this argument, but at its heart is a surprisingly useful and progressive idea: that public opinion, however vaguely defined, might be appreciated for its discrimination and its insight without its dictating the entire structure of society.

Transcription

Transcription provided is the raw transcription, initial product of student transcribers.  Text is not corrected nor proofed.

Download full raw transcription: RA GEO/ADD/32/1064_1070_Raw Transcription (pdf).

As individuals generaly judge of persons & things from selfinterestd motives, so to private societys so do the public but the public judgements & that of particular Societys are different; the public have for objects, polities, War, legislation, Arts & Sciences; tho these concern every individual; yet they are but slightly esteemed, compard with those ideas that regard immediately the particular interest of each Society, such as its taste, liking, aversions, projects, pleasures, from hence it follows that a man who has acquir’d many ideas of this last kind, will be greatly esteemed by the Societys he frequents, but in the eyes of the public whether he exerts his talents in

a great Office or in writing, he will not meet with great admiration from the public.

But whoever on the contrary occupys himself in ideas that are more generaly interesting, he will be look’d on by the Public as a superior genius, but to the particular Society in which he lives, he will be rather dull & disagreable, the first is a minature picture you must look at near & at a distance not to be distinguished; the last a colossal figure that appears monstrous if you approach it.

To please the World a superficial knowledge of many things in all that is necessary without being master of any, but to procure the public esteem, a person must have made himself thoroly master of the object he turns

his mind to;

Besides in the first case a person is oblig’d to mix extrem’ly in the world, to adopt all its little interests & prejudices, while the last passes his time in silence & solitude; we would not be understood by this to propose a Hermits life, no a Scipio, a Hanibal, a Marlborough all liv’d in the World but without mixing in what we call its occupations.

Thus much of public & private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments.

I. Of Probity

Probity with regard to a particular society consists in nothing more than in actions useful to that society in all its judgements such a society is determined solely by its own interests

the public in the same interested manner never bestows the names of honest, great heroick, proportionally to the force of mind courage or generosity with which the Action was attended; but to the importance of the action, & the advantage the society receiv’d from it; let one man fight against three ’tis an action thousands of our soldiers are capable of performing & would never be thought worth recording in History; but let the fate of an Empire depend on the combat, the Victor becomes like Horace immortal; Sapho & Cartius both leap’d into a Gulph, the first from disapointed love, the latter to save Rome, Philosphers may brand these actions with the common name of folly, but the public judging in another manner & whilst Sapho is a fool Cartius is a Hero.

As with probity so it fares with

sense & understanding, the public will ever estimate according to its interest. it will not proportion its esteem to the number & suttlety of ideas necessary to succeed in this or that business, but to the advantages it acquires by it;

The most able Lawyer or most excellent painter will never be regarded like an able Politician, or a Succesful tho ignorant general,the reason is plain, the public has more occasion for Politicians than Lawyers & Painters & let a man of very middling tallents, favour’d by circumstances, do great things in a high office, he will ever posses superior to one; who tho possesing ten times his parts, is in a lower Office presented by unforeseen events from executing any thing considerable.

In time of great calamity but small degree of merit opens the way to the highest praises, how immensely was Terentius Varo extoll’ed for no other reason that that he did not despair of the public; had Camillus defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Allia instead of doing it at the foot of the Capitol, he never would have been call’d the second founder of Rome.

After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great men, Generals, Politicians, & c. should far out live that of their cotemporarys, who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Arts; or

others who have by their negociations at a fortunate crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the next ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its graditude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful. how much more [deletion] respectable is the name of Confusius [deletion] than of any Chinese Emperor, why are so many Kings deefy’d when living forgot then dead; why is Hordie & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus, for the self same reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.

What we have said with regard to time, will also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is unknown, & Descartes is equaly famous

amongst those who never heard of a Sully nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe.  Cecil & Sully were only serviceable to their respective Countrys.

It may be urg’d that as the Public in their judgements only consults interest, the labourer & Ploughman ought to go before the Historian, Poet, Mathematician; to this we must observe that Public esteem is an imaginary treasure demanding a very wise & cautious distribution to make it of real Value, it must not therefore be lavish’d on work every man is capable of, grown common it would lose its imaginary Virtue, would no longer animate men to great & glorious undertakings; the public therefore wisely esteems the Art of Agriculture & not the

Artist, besides is things otherwise equal as to utility, ^ public esteem is ever proportion’d to the difficulty attending them; a Stone Cutter furnishes the materials for building & without him an Architect would be useless, but every man is capable of quarrying Stone, few have a genius for fine Architecture, as it fares with Authors, one Single original problemn of Newton, a play of Home’s gains more applause than a Compilation of many Volumes in Folio like Gronovius’s Antiquitys, Historical Dictionarys & c.

Any contradictions therefore that may seem to arise between the Public’s interests & judgements are only in appearance they in reality ever go together

As Individuals generaly judge of Persons & things from selfinterested motives, so do private Societys, so do the Public; but the Public judgements & that of particular Societys are different; the Public have for objects Politics, War, Legislation, Arts, & Sciences; tho these concern every individual, yet they are but slightly esteem’d, compar’d with those ideas that regard immediately the particular interest of each Society, such as its Taste, Likings, Aversions, Projects, pleasures, from hence it follows that a Man who has acquir’d many ideas of this last kind will be greatly esteem’d by the Societys he frequents, but the eyes of the Public whether he exerts his talents in a great Office or in writing, he will
not meet with great admiration from the Public;

but whoever on the contrary occupys himself in ideas that are more generaly interesting, will be look’d on by the Public as a Superior genious, but to the particular Society in which he lives, he will be rather dull & disagreable; the first is a minature Picture that must be look’d at near, & at a distance not to be distinguish’d; the last a Colossal figure that appears monstrous if You approach it.

To please the World a superficial knowledge of many things is all that is necessary without being Master of any; but to procure the public esteem, a person must have made himself thoroughly master of the object he turns his mind to; besides in the first case a person is oblig’d to mix extrem’ly in the World to adopt all its little interests, & prejudices, while the last passes his time in silence & solitude; we would not be understood by

this to propose a Hermit’s life, no a Scipio, a Hanibal, a Marlborough, all liv’d in the World but without mixing in what we call its occupations.

Thus much of a Public & Private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments.

I. Of Probity

Probity with regard to a particular Society consists in nothing more than in actions useful to that Society; in all its judgements such a Society is determin’d solely by its own interests.

The Public in the same interested manner never bestows the names of honest, great, heroick, proportionably to the force of mind, courage or generosity with which the Action was attended, but to the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society

receiv’d from it; let one Man fight against three ’tis an action thousands of our Soldiers are capable of performing, & would never be thought worth recording in History, but let the fate of an Empire depend on the combat, the Victor becomes like Horace immortal; Sapho & Curtius both leap’d into a Gulph, the first from disapointed love; the latter to save Rome, Philosophers may brand these actions with the common name of folly, but the Public judging in another manner, & whilst Sapho is a fool, Curtius is a Hero.

As with Probity so it fares with Sense & Understanding, the Public will ever estimate according to its interest, it will not porportion its esteem to the number & subtlety of ideas necessary to succeed in this or that business, but such to the advantages it acquires by its this the most able Lawyer or most excellent Painter will never be regarded like an able Politician, or a successful tho ignorant General,

the reason is plain the Public has more occasion for Politicians than Lawyers & Painters & let a man of middling tallents favour’d by circumstances do great things in a high Office, he will ever pass as Superior to one, who tho possessing ten times his parts is in a lower Office prevented from unforseen events from executing any thing considerable; in time of great calamity but small degree of merit opens the way to the highest praises, how immensely was Terentius Varo extoll’d for no other reason than that he did not despair of the Public; had Camillus defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Allia instead of doing it at the foot of the Capitol, he never would have been call’d the second founder of Rome.

After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great Men, Generals, Politicians & c. should far out live that of their contemporarys

who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the Public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few Great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Art, or others who have by their negociations at a fortunate Crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the rest ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its gratitude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful; how much more respectable is the name of Confusius than of any Chinese Emperor; why are so many Kings Deefy’d when living, forgot when dead; why are Horace & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus; for the reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.

What we have said with regard to time will

also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is known, & Descartes is equaly famous amongst those who never heard of a Sully; nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe, Cecil & Sully were only serviecable to their respective Countrys.

It may be urg’d that as the Public in their Judgements only consult interest, the labourer & Ploughman ought to go before the Historian, Poet, Mathematician; to this we must observe that Public esteem is an imaginary treasure demanding a very wise & cautious distribution to make it of real Value, it must not therefore be lavish’d on work every man is capable of, grown common it would lose its imaginary Virtue, would no longer animate Men to great & glorious undertakings; the Public therefore

wisely esteems the Art of Agriculture & not the Artist, besides in things otherwise equal as to utility, Public esteem is ever proportion’d to the difficulty attending them; a Stone Cutter furnishes the materials for building, & without him an Architect would be useless, but every man is capable of quarrying Stone, few have a genius for fine Architecture; so it fare with Authors, one single original problemn of Newton, a play of Home’s, gains more applause than a compilation of many Vollumes in Folio, like Gronovius’s Antiquities, Historical Dictionary’s & c. therefore any contradictions that may seem to arise between the Public’s interests & judgements, are only in appearance they in reality ever go together.

George III and the ‘German Empire’

Dr Michael Rowe, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, King’s College London


George III’s relationship with Germany was less obviously intimate than that enjoyed by his two predecessors. He proudly and very publicly asserted his British identity, at the expense of his Hanoverian roots: ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain’, he famously stated in his accession speech to Parliament on 18 November 1760. The Electorate of Hanover, which he inherited at the same time, he in contrast disparaged as an encumbrance.

Documents from the Royal Archives provide a more nuanced picture. Notes and essays written by George himself reveal a considerable depth of knowledge on his part of the history and constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Hanover was a part. Especially interesting is the file GEO ADDL MSS 32/481-524, and within this file an essay of over forty pages [ff 489-511] on the Empire’s government. The relevant foundational constitutional documents and agreements are all identified and described, including the Golden Bull (1356), Diet of Worms (1495), Peace of Augsburg (1555), Peace of Westphalia (1648) and various ‘capitulations’ or undertakings made by emperors upon their election. In George’s time the Empire possessed nine princes with the title of Elector, a dignity to which Hanover’s rulers had been raised comparatively recently (1692). Not surprisingly, the essay lavishes much attention to this office, including details on the important rights that came with it. These included that of ‘non appellando’, which meant that the judgments of electoral courts could not be appealed to one of the higher imperial tribunals. Electors also had the authority to raise taxes and in terms of precedence were broadly equivalent to kings, who addressed electors as ‘brother’ in correspondence. Electors could sign treaties with foreign powers and claim forfeitures in their own dominions. Their main role, as reflected in their title, was of course to elect the Holy Roman Emperor.

Interestingly, the essay makes no reference to the Electorate of Hanover as a territorial entity that might be prized because of its resources. This is hardly surprising given that Hanover was if anything a geopolitical liability, open to occupation by Britain’s most constant eighteenth-century foe, France. Seen in these terms it really was a ‘horrid Electorate’, as George described it in 1759. The value of Hanover to George derived not from the territory, but from the attendant office of Elector, a distinction historians tend to overlook. Possession of this title might be viewed as the eighteenth-century equivalent of occupying a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. However arcane the Holy Roman Empire appears, the electorship meant a seat at the top table within an entity still integral to European politics. Furthermore, Elector George occupied this seat independent of his role as Britain’s sovereign; to put it another way, it allowed him a role in international politics free from the usual parliamentary and ministerial constraints to which Kings of Great Britain were generally subject.

Essay on the German Empire’s governance by George III (RA GEO/ADD/32/481). Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

A second file – GEO ADDL MSS 32/525-554 – contains additional material relating to the Holy Roman Empire. It includes handwritten copies of two published French-language texts on the Bavarian succession: “Memoire succinct sur la Succession de l’Electeur de Baviere” (ff 551 – 553) and “Memoire sur la Succession aux Fiefs de la Couronne de Bohême dans le Haut Palatinat après la mort du dernier Electeur de Baviere décedé le 30. Decembre 1777” (f 554). The contested Bavarian succession, which was triggered when the Elector of Bavaria Maximilian III Joseph died at the end of 1777 without leaving an heir, came close to triggering all-out war between Austria and Prussia in the following year. With hindsight the conflict might seem trivial compared to the war then raging across the Atlantic over American independence. Yet at the time, the forces deployed by Prussia and Austria – respectively, 160,000 and 190,000 troops – far exceeded anything fielded by Great Britain and her enemies in the western hemisphere.

Both French texts provide a detailed exposition of the competing claims to the Bavarian inheritance, concluding that those made by the Austrian Habsburgs were without foundation. That George III should have given any attention at all to the Bavarian succession whilst fighting for the Thirteen Colonies seems bizarre. However, other notes and essays in the same file (ff 529 – 550) devoted to another Habsburg (Charles V, who was Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556) suggest a motive for this interest. The material presents Charles as a threat to the Empire’s liberties which were upheld by the German princes including especially those influenced by Martin Luther’s teachings. The role of members of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg, from whom the Hanoverians were descended, is highlighted. Indeed, it is noted that Brunswick-Lüneburg supplied two of the six princes whose ‘protest’ against Charles V at the Diet of Speyer (1529) gave birth to the term ‘Protestantism’ to describe the religious reform movement. The Protestant Reformation, according to this version of history, was as much about preserving German liberties from Habsburg encroachment as it was about religion. Was George III, in resisting the pretensions of a later Habsburg Emperor (Joseph II, 1765-1790), self-consciously following a venerable Hanoverian family tradition?

What is clear is that George III, in opposing Emperor Joseph II, was going against the policy of his British ministers. These favoured rapprochement with the Emperor as a means of isolating France at a time when Britain’s fortunes looked pretty bleak. The Bavarian succession crisis was concluded without major fighting, and without Joseph II gaining any significant advantage. Meanwhile, George III was compelled to accept the loss of the greater part of his North American Empire, acknowledging the sovereignty and independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The style he adopted in the Treaty itself – ‘George the Third, by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, duke of Brunswick and Lunebourg, arch-treasurer and prince elector of the Holy Roman Empire, etc.’ – reflected the fact that whilst his trans-Atlantic empire was no more, his status within the Empire remained intact.

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