Why Observe Victoria Day in 2001?

According to the calendar last Monday was Victoria Day. While everyone appreciated the break, I suspect that not many people paused to reflect on the reason behind the holiday. Why observe Victoria Day in 2001?

To begin with the obvious, the holiday honors the memory of the longest reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria, born May 24, 1819. As one Port Elgin resident mentioned to me: As late as the 1940s we used to remind the teacher by chanting a ditty: The 24th of May/ Is the Queens birthday/ If you dont give a holiday/ Well all run away. Since 1952, Canadian law has decreed that Victoria Day shall be observed on the first Monday preceding May 24th.

Last February, Amhersts Cumberland Museum began a year long celebration of Victorias reign. The first event was a Victorian soire. Guests attended in costume and enjoyed a four-course dinner featuring period recipes along with special music. May 21 was marked by a Victorian High Tea. Plans are now underway for the revival of another venerable 19th century tradition, much favored by Queen Victoria and still carried on by Queen Elizabeth II, a summer Garden Party.

2001 is an appropriate year for reflecting on this era, since it ended, a century ago, with the death of Queen Victoria on Jan. 22nd, 1901. Victoria succeeded to the throne on June 20, 1837 following the death of her uncle King William IV. A reign of over sixty years meant that few people in 1901 could remember a time when the throne was occupied by another.

Her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (1767–1820) had many associations with British North America. A career army officer, he was first posted to Qubec in 1791. Later he became commander in chief and was stationed in Halifax. His term was noteworthy for a number of reasons. Of an eccentric nature, the Duke was strong on military discipline and had a fondness for both punctuality and clocks. To this was added a fixation with circular buildings.

Some examples survive. The Town Clock on Citadel Hill made certain that the garrison kept on time; while St. Georges Round Church followed an architectural pattern favored by the Duke. At his private villa, Princes Lodge, on the shores of Bedford Basin, a band rotunda or music room, was predictably circular in shape. It is now a national historic site.

Here, he and his charming consort Madame Julie St. Laurent (1766–1872), entertained the Halifax elite. Later the Duke for reasons of state was forced to set Julie aside and marry the German Princess, Victoria of Saxe-Saalfield-Coburg. Their daughter became Queen Victoria.

The Duke of Kent died while Victoria was an infant, and such was the social attitude of the day, that all references to his life were suppressed. The tale of the star-crossed lovers, Julie and Prince Edward, may be found in McKenzies Porters fascinating book Overture to Victoria. Clearly, truth is often stranger than fiction.

Queen Victorias lengthy reign was bound to have a strong impact on the emerging British North American colonies. During that era, Canada as we know it today, grew up. Slowly but surely during the early years, the scattered colonies achieved responsible government. This meant that the local governing executive had to be responsible to the people and could be turfed out at the next election. Taken for granted today, this was a major step in the closed and stratified colonial politics of the mid-19th century.

But the greatest achievement was the union of these same colonies, beginning with the original four: New Brunswick and Nova Scotia along with Upper and Lower Canada. Earlier, Queen Victoria was responsible for the selection of Bytown (renamed Ottawa) as the capital, first of the United Canadas and, after Confederation in 1867, of the new Dominion of Canada.

Once begun, the evolution of the Dominion into what eventually become the independent Canada of today, was unstoppable. Along the way, there was a brief flirtation with the concept of Imperial Federation. This idea was doomed from the start, because of the inevitable domination of Britain in any such an arrangement.

The Canadian experiment proved that political freedom could be achieved by evolution rather than revolution, and a new parliamentary democracy, based on the British model at Westminister, came into being. Significantly, what began in Victorian Canada was to be repeated, first in Australia (1901); followed shortly afterward by New Zealand (1907). Over time, the old British Empire changed into the British Commonwealth, and later, as it is known today The Commonwealth.

On the day of her accession to the throne, Queen Victoria confided in her diary: Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this situation, I shall do my utmost to do my duty toward my country… For the next 64 years this was to be her all consuming objective. From 1837 to 1841 the Queen was fortunate to have had as her Prime Minister and counsellor, Lord Melbourne (17791848). It was he who schooled the young sovereign in the political and social realities of the day.

On Feb.10, 1840 Queen Victoria married Prince Albert (1819–61) of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Later named Prince Consort, Albert was to play an important role in the life of the Queen, both as a devoted husband and trusted advisor.

His sudden death in 1861, deeply affected Victoria, and she went into virtual seclusion for more than twenty years. The Widow of Windsor was encouraged by another of her Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli (180481), to return to a more active role. Although matters of state were never neglected by the Queen, the celebration of her Golden Jubilee in 1887 helped greatly in a revival of her public image.

Prior to Prince Alberts death, an invitation had been extended to the Royal couple to visit British North America. Travel was never one of Queen Victorias priorities and to no ones surprise she declined. Eighty years were to pass before a reigning monarch (King George VI) visited Canada.

However, all was not lost, as the Queen promised that within a year, Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) would accept the invitation in her place. In the summer of 1860, the first overseas Royal Visit took place, inaugurating a trend that has continued through to 2001 with the recent visit by another Prince of Wales, to Saskatchewan and the Yukon.

During Victoria’s long period of mourning her name was linked with John Brown (1826–1883) a favored attendant of Prince Albert’s at Balmoral Castle. There can be no question but that Brown remained a close confidant of the Queen until his death. Their story was explored in the recent movie Mrs. Brown, in which actress Judi Dench played the role of Queen Victoria.

As the Victorian era rolled on, the British monarchy was evolving with the times. Subtle but significant changes were taking place. Gradually the sovereigns official powers were declining, to be replaced by something else.

In her last years, Queen Victoria proved that a monarch with a high level of prestige and a master of political reality, could still exert great influence. With this shift, the present day monarchy was born. Thus it was not mere time in office that made Queen Victoria a symbol and icon.

On the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 an unknown Cape Breton poet proposed a toast to the Queen: Heres to Queen Victoria/ Dressed in all her regalia/ With one foot in Canada/ And the other in Australia. However, Victorias legacy does not rest with an Empire on which the sun never set. It has vanished forever. More enduring is the still evolving Commonwealth.