One of history’s most iconic monarchs, Queen Victoria (1819–1901) ruled for more than 60 years. She was empress of the world’s largest ever empire, and her name denotes an entire era of British history.
1) She was only 18 when she became queen
“I went into my sitting room (only in my dressing gown) alone and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at twelve minutes past two this morning and consequently that I was Queen.”
This is how Victoria recalled the moment that would change her life forever. At 6am on 20 June 1837, the young princess was woken from her bed to be informed that her uncle, King William IV, had died during the night. This meant that Victoria, who was only 18 at the time, was now queen of England.
Although it came as a shock, Victoria took the news extremely stoically. Despite her young age she remained calm and had no need for the smelling salts her governess had prepared for her. In her first meeting with her privy council just a few hours later, Victoria’s new ministers towered over her – at just 4ft 11, she had to be seated on a raised platform in order to be seen. What Victoria lacked in height, however, she made up for in determination, and she quickly made a favourable impression.
Although Victoria assumed her royal responsibilities with remarkable confidence, she hadn’t always been destined for the throne. When the princess was born in 1819, the chance of her becoming queen seemed very remote. As the only child of King George III’s fourth son, Edward, the Duke of Kent, she was fifth in line to the throne. By the time Victoria reached her teens, however, the death of her father, his brothers and any other legitimate heirs left the young princess as King William IV’s closest surviving heir.
2) She had an unhappy childhood
Victoria spent her formative years at Kensington Palace, where she was born in May 1819. However, in many ways the palace proved a prison for the princess, and her childhood there was far from rosy.
Following her father’s death from pneumonia when she was just eight months old, Victoria’s early life was dominated by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her ambitious adviser Sir John Conroy. Keen to establish himself as the power behind the throne in the event of a Regency (in which Victoria’s mother would rule with her if she acceded while still underage), Conroy sought to keep tight control of the princess. Both he and the Duchess had a hostile relationship with Victoria’s uncle, King William, and consequently kept Victoria isolated from the royal court, even preventing her from attending her uncle’s coronation.
The pair imposed a stifling code of discipline on the young Victoria, which came to be known as the ‘Kensington System’. Along with a strict timetable of lessons to improve her moral and intellectual rigor, this suffocating regime dictated that the princess spent hardly any time with other children and was under constant adult supervision. Right up until the time she became queen, Victoria was forced to share a bedroom with her mother. She was forbidden from ever being alone, or even walking down stairs without someone holding her hand.
Later in life, Victoria reflected that she “led a very unhappy life as a child… and did not know what a happy domestic life was”. She retained a deep-seated hatred of John Conroy for manipulating her mother and imposing such rigid rules on her, later describing him as “demon incarnate”.
After she became queen, Victoria was able to free herself from the claustrophobic grip of Conroy and her mother. Her relationship with her mother remained strained and distant for many years and she limited Conroy’s influence at court. Just two years after Victoria took the throne, he resigned his post and left for Italy amid shame and scandal.
3) She spoke several languages
Perhaps in part due to her strict schooling under the ‘Kensington system’, Victoria proved herself to be a remarkably adept linguist. As well as being fluent in both English and German, she also spoke French, Italian and Latin.
As her mother and governess both hailed from Germany, Victoria grew up speaking the language and at one stage reportedly even had a German accent, which had to be erased by tutors. When she later married her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the couple regularly spoke German together. Although Albert was fluent in English, he and Victoria could often be heard talking – and indeed arguing – in German when in private.
Later in life, Victoria also experimented with some of the exotic languages from across her vast empire. Following the arrival of Indian servants at Windsor Castle in August 1887, she was taught Hindustani and Urdu phrases by her favourite Indian attendant, Abdul Karim. The queen recorded in her diary: „I am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me for both the language and the people, I have naturally never come into real contact with before”.
4) Her relationship with her prime ministers wasn’t always easy
Over the course of the six decades she sat on the throne, Victoria saw many prime ministers come and go. Yet while she established a remarkably close bond with some, others failed spectacularly to win her favour.
Victoria’s first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, was keen to flatter, instruct and influence the young queen from the very beginning. The pair were so close that Victoria claimed to love him “like a father”. However, this intense friendship with ‘Lord M’ made the queen unpopular with many – she was criticised for being politically partisan and was even mockingly called her “Mrs Melbourne”. Later in her reign, Benjamin Disraeli similarly pulled out all the stops to win Victoria’s favour with charm and flattery. His tactics clearly worked, as the queen told her eldest daughter [also named Victoria] that he would “do very well” and was “full of poetry, romance and chivalry”.
Other ministers, however, received a much less enthusiastic response from her majesty: she found Lord John Russell stubborn and rude and referred to Lord Palmerstone as a “dreadful old man”. As foreign secretary, Palmerstone had invoked Victoria’s wrath by ignoring Albert’s suggested amendments to dispatches and apparently attempting to seduce one of her ladies-in-waiting. Victoria found Gladstone similarly infuriating, and with her characteristically sharp tongue dismissed him as a “half-crazy and in many ways ridiculous, wild and incomprehensible old fanatic”.
5) She was known as the “grandmother of Europe”
Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Victoria and Albert raised nine children together. As a means of extending Britain’s influence and building international allegiances, several of their sons and daughters were married into various European monarchies, and within just a couple of generations Victoria’s descendants were spread across the continent. Her 42 grandchildren could be found in the royal families of Germany, Russia, Greece, Romania, Sweden, Norway and Spain.
Warring First World War royals Kaiser Wilhelm (of Germany), Tsarina Alexandra (of Russia) and George V (of Britain) were all grandchildren of Victoria. Kaiser Wilhelm reportedly remarked that had his grandmother still been alive, the First World War may never have happened, as she simply would not have allowed her relatives to go to war with one another.
Victoria’s widespread influence had unexpected genetic, as well as political, implications for Europe’s monarchies. It is believed that the queen was a carrier of haemophilia and had unwittingly introduced the rare inherited disease into her bloodline. Over subsequent generations the condition resurfaced in royal families across the continent. In an age of limited medical facilities, haemophilia – which affects the blood’s ability to clot – could have disastrous consequences. Victoria’s own son Leopold suffered from the disease and died aged 30 after he slipped and fell, triggering a cerebral haemorrhage. Three of the queen’s grandchildren also suffered from the disease, as did her great-grandson, the murdered heir to the Russian throne, Tsarevich Alexei.
6) She survived at least six assassination attempts
During the course of her 63-year-long reign, Victoria came out unscathed from at least six serious attempts on her life, some of which were terrifyingly close calls.
In June 1840, while four months pregnant with her first child, Victoria was shot at while on an evening carriage ride with Prince Albert. For a moment it seemed as though the queen had been hit, but Albert spurred the driver to speed away to safety and the would-be assassin, Edward Oxford, was apprehended.
Oxford – who was later acquitted on grounds of insanity – proved to be the first of many to target the queen while she was driving in her open-top carriage. In 1850, as the carriage slowed down to pass through the gates of Buckingham Palace, retired soldier Robert Pate ran forward and managed to strike the queen sharply on the head with a small cane. Although it transpired that the cane weighed less than three ounces, so could not have done much damage, the incident nonetheless unnerved Victoria. She escaped several more assassination attempts while riding in her carriage in 1842, 1849 and 1872.
Victoria was also infamously targeted by a stalker – a notorious teenager known in the newspapers as ‘The Boy Jones’. Between 1838 and 1841, Edward Jones managed to break into Buckingham Palace several times, hiding under the queen’s sofa, sitting on her throne and reportedly even stealing her underwear, before being caught.
7) She mourned Prince Albert for 40 years
On 14 December 1861, Victoria’s life was rocked by the death of her beloved husband, Albert. As the prince was aged just 42 and generally enjoyed good health, his death from typhoid was highly unexpected. It came as a huge blow to the queen, who had been intensely reliant on his support, practically and politically as well as emotionally.
Following Albert’s death, Victoria retreated from public life, adopting elaborate mourning rituals that rapidly became obsessive. As time went on, the situation began to spiral out of control as it became clear the queen’s period of mourning would last much longer than the two years that convention dictated. Consumed by grief, Victoria fell into a state of depression and began neglecting her royal duties. As she repeatedly refused to take part in public events, her popularity began to deteriorate. The British people began to lose patience with their queen, questioning what the ‘Widow of Windsor’ did to earn her royal income. It was not until the 1870s that Victoria was coaxed back into gradually engaging in public life once more.
Despite the decades that passed, Victoria never fully recovered from the loss of Albert. Although she had other intimate relationships – most notably a close friendship with her Scottish servant John Brown – she never remarried. She continued to wear black and sleep beside an image of Albert, and she even had a set of clothes laid out for him each morning, right up until her own death 40 years later in 1901.
He is largely remembered as a bully who executed his opponents, oversaw the destruction of religious buildings and works of art, and killed off two of his six wives. But is this image wholly accurate?
1) Henry VIII was slim and athletic for most of his life
At six feet two inches tall, Henry VIII stood head and shoulders above most of his court. He had an athletic physique and excelled at sports, regularly showing off his prowess in the jousting arena.
Having inherited the good looks of his grandfather, Edward IV, in 1515 Henry was described as “the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on…” and later an “Adonis”, “with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair…and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman”.
All this changed in 1536 when the king – then in his mid-forties – suffered a serious wound to his leg while jousting. This never properly healed, and instead turned ulcerous, which left Henry increasingly incapacitated.
Four years later, the king’s waist had grown from a trim 32 inches to an enormous 52 inches. By the time of his death, he had to be winched onto his horse. It is this image of the corpulent Henry VIII that has obscured the impressive figure that he cut for most of his life.
2) Henry VIII was a tidy eater
Despite the popular image of Henry VIII throwing a chicken leg over his shoulder as he devoured one of his many feasts, he was in fact a fastidious eater. Only on special occasions, such as a visit from a foreign dignitary, did he stage banquets.
Most of the time, Henry preferred to dine in his private apartments. He would take care to wash his hands before, during and after each meal, and would follow a strict order of ceremony.
Seated beneath a canopy and surrounded by senior court officers, he was served on bended knee and presented with several different dishes to choose from at each course.
3) Henry was a bit of a prude
England’s most-married monarch has a reputation as a ladies’ man – for obvious reasons. As well as his six wives, he kept several mistresses and fathered at least one child by them.
But the evidence suggests that, behind closed doors, he was no lothario. When he finally persuaded Anne Boleyn to become his mistress in body as well as in name, he was shocked by the sexual knowledge that she seemed to possess, and later confided that he believed she had been no virgin.
When she failed to give him a son, he plumped for the innocent and unsullied Jane Seymour instead.
4) Henry’s chief minister liked to party
Although often represented as a ruthless henchman, Thomas Cromwell was in fact one of the most fun-loving members of the court. His parties were legendary, and he would spend lavish sums on entertaining his guests – he once paid a tailor £4,000 to make an elaborate costume that he could wear in a masque to amuse the king.
Cromwell also kept a cage of canary birds at his house, as well as an animal described as a “strange beast”, which he gave to the king as a present.
5) Henry VIII sent more men and women to their deaths than any other monarch
During the later years of Henry’s reign, as he grew ever more paranoid and bad-tempered, the Tower of London was crowded with the terrified subjects who had been imprisoned at his orders.
One of the most brutal executions was that of the aged Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury. The 67-year-old countess was woken early on the morning of 27 May 1541 and told to prepare for death.
Although initially composed, when Margaret was told to place her head on the block, her self-control deserted her and she tried to escape. Her captors were forced to pinion her to the block, where the amateur executioner hacked at the poor woman’s head and neck, eventually severing them after the eleventh blow.
Elizabeth I is one of the most iconic figures in history. She was England’s ‘Gloriana’ – a virgin queen who saw herself as wedded to her country, and who brought almost half a century of stability after the turmoil of her siblings’ short reigns.
Flame-haired, white-faced and always lavishly dressed, Elizabeth possessed the natural charisma of her father, Henry VIII, and was the darling of her people. Her finest hour came in 1588 when she defeated the Spanish Armada, catapulting her to legendary status.
Yet for everything we know about Elizabeth, here are a few facts that might surprise you…
1) Elizabeth was never meant to be queen
Although Elizabeth is now hailed as one of our greatest monarchs, she should never have got anywhere near the throne. She was not only a girl at a time when the laws of succession favoured boys, but she had an elder sister, Mary. Elizabeth was also removed from the line of succession altogether when her parents’ marriage was declared invalid prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution, and was only reinstated thanks to the kindly intervention of her last stepmother, Katherine Parr.
By the time of Henry VIII’s death, therefore, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne behind her younger brother Edward and elder sister Mary. It is one of the greatest ironies of history that Henry VIII had been so obsessed with having a son, yet his cherished boy only reigned for six years, dying of tuberculosis at the age of just 15. The second in line, Mary, did not fare much better. Her brief, catastrophic reign ended after just five years.
It was up to Elizabeth to show them how it ought to be done.
2) Elizabeth was a mummy’s girl
There is a common misconception that Elizabeth thought little of her ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. The fact that she hardly spoke of her and saved all of her praise for her adored father, Henry VIII, has often led to the conclusion that Elizabeth was ashamed of Anne.
On the contrary: all this proved was what a great pragmatist Elizabeth was. She had no wish to alienate swathes of her subjects by openly voicing her love for the woman who was still reviled as the ‘Great Whore’. Instead, Elizabeth chose more subtle ways to demonstrate her affection. For example, when posing for a portrait during her teenage years, she wore her mother’s famous ‘A’ pendant around her neck – an audacious stunt that would have landed her in hot water if her father had spotted it.
As queen, Elizabeth made sure that all of her late mother’s relatives were promoted to the best positions at court, and she also wore a pendant necklace that contained a miniature portrait of her mother opposite one of herself.
3) Elizabeth liked to give nicknames to her courtiers
Elizabeth was as famous a flirt as her mother, Anne Boleyn. She loved to surround herself with the most handsome men at court, and also entertained various foreign princes all hoping for her hand in marriage.
Elizabeth used her femininity to bring a male-dominated court to its knees, and gave playful nicknames to her favourites. Her chief minister, Burghley, was called her ‘spirit’, and her alleged lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was her ‘eyes’. Rather more cheekily, she called François, Duke of Anjou, her ‘frog’.
4) Elizabeth used dirty tactics to outshine her rivals
Elizabeth exalted in being the queen bee at court. But although for the early part of her reign she was the most desirable bride in Europe, as her physical charms began to fade she employed dirty tactics to make sure that she kept all of the male attention to herself. Thus, while Elizabeth appeared at court bedecked in lavish gowns of rich materials and vivid colours, her ladies were obliged to wear only black or white.
No matter how attractive they might be in their own right, the plain uniformity of their dress would draw all eyes to the star of the show. To test the effect that this created, the queen once asked a visiting French nobleman what he thought of her ladies. He immediately protested that he was unable to ‘judge stars in the presence of the sun’. This was exactly the response Elizabeth required.
5) Elizabeth I took longer to get ready than any other monarch
Elizabeth was always fastidious about her appearance, but the ritual of dressing the queen became increasingly elaborate as age began to overtake her: it took her ladies a staggering four hours a day to complete the ceremony of dressing and undressing the queen.
Elizabeth had originally worn wigs that matched her own colouring, but as she grew older these were used to conceal her greying hair. At the same time, ever more layers of makeup were applied to complete the so-called ‘mask of youth’. Her face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar); her lips were coloured with a red paste made from beeswax and plant dye, and her eyes were lined with kohl.
Ironically, most of these cosmetics did more damage to the skin than ageing ever could. Ceruse was particularly corrosive, and one contemporary observed with some distaste: “Those women who use it about their faces, do quickly become withered and grey headed, because this doth so mightily drie up the naturall moisture of their flesh.”
But Elizabeth insisted that she continue to be adorned with this and other dangerous cosmetics, and only ever let her closest ladies see what lay beneath. When the impetuous Earl of Essex famously burst into her chamber before Elizabeth was dressed or made up, he was so shocked by her haggard appearance that he secretly joked about her “crooked carcass” to his friends. Elizabeth found out and it was said that she cut off his head in revenge – although his rebellion against her [in February 1601] probably had something to do with it.
6) Elizabeth might have been a man(!)
Although she has gone down in history as the Virgin Queen, upon her accession it was widely expected that Elizabeth would marry. But as she continued to resist pressure from her councillors to take a husband, rumours began to circulate that there was some secret reason why she was so determined not to marry.
One of the most popular was that Elizabeth had some ‘womanish infirmity’ that prevented her from conceiving. This gained such currency that a foreign ambassador bribed the queen’s laundresses to report on the state of her sheets so that they might discover whether her menstrual cycle was normal.
At the opposite end of the scale, there was a theory that the real reason Elizabeth would not marry was because she was really a man. According to the ‘Bisley Boy’ story, the real Elizabeth had died as a young girl and been replaced by the only redheaded child that could be found. The fact that he was a boy was inconvenient, but he spent the rest of his life dressing as a woman to continue the pretence.
The Bisley Boy theory has proved a curiously enduring one, despite the lack of any reliable evidence.
7) Elizabeth is a screen star
Elizabeth has been portrayed more often in film and on television than any other British monarch. First was Sarah Bernhardt in Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth (1912), then Bette Davis played her twice – first in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and again in The Virgin Queen (1955).
Many more actresses followed, including the iconic portrayal by Glenda Jackson in the BBC television series Elizabeth R (1971). Perhaps inspired by the Bisley Boy legend, a man was cast to play her in 1992’s Orlando, when Quentin Crisp took on the role.
More recently, Cate Blanchett gave us a distinctly un-virginal Elizabeth in the films of 1998 and 2007, while Judi Dench won an Oscar for her brief but brilliant portrayal in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Helen Mirren took on the role with typical aplomb in the TV mini-series Elizabeth I in 2005. Time-travelling time lord, Doctor Who, has also bumped in Queen Elizabeth I in episodes from 1965 and 2007.
The Camel Cup, Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Like horse racing, but weirder. In Alice Springs camels compete every July for the coveted Camel Cup, drawing about 5000 spectators, who stay for other attractions such as markets, rickshaw racing and perhaps a drink or two to toast the champion.
Key date: 14 July 2018
Running of the Sheep, Boorowa, New South Wales
Spain has the Running of the Bulls so naturally, Australia has the Running of the Sheep, the finishing touch to the annual, free Irish Woolfest, held every October in Boorowa. The sheep are herded through the streets by a local, Farmer Ashley, and his friendly pack of kelpie dogs.
Key date: 1 October 2017
The Compass Cup Cow Race, Mount Compass, South Australia
In writing this piece it’s become clear that Australians really do like a race, and that they’ll race literally anything. This particular race (Compass Cup Cow Race) embraces the chaos and hilarity of untrained cows „racing” – loosely speaking – to raise money for the local community.
Beer Can Regatta, Darwin, Northern Territory
You know what we don’t think each time we finish a beer? “We should totally build a boat from this can” but that’s why the creative people of Darwin are here. These fine people have created the Darwin Lions Beer Can Regatta where beer cans are turned into boats and raced. It’s almost brilliant when you think about it.
Key date: 22 July 2018
Henley on Todd Regatta, Alice Springs, Northern Territory
The desert is not really the place you think of when you think “boat race” but Alice Springs says otherwise. 20,000 spectators come every year to watch competitors run their elaborately built „boats” down the dry riverbed during the Henley on Todd Regatta. Fancy dress is encouraged.
Britain’s colonisation of Australia
A number of European explorers sailed the coast of Australia, then known as New Holland, during the 17th century. But it wasn’t until 1770 that Captain James Cook chartered the east coast and claimed it for Britain. The new outpost was put to use as a penal colony and on 26 January 1788, the First Fleet of 11 ships – carrying 1,500 people, half of them convicts – arrived in Sydney Harbour. When penal transportation ended in 1868, more than 160,000 men and women had come to Australia as convicts.
While free settlers began to flow in from the early 1790s, life for prisoners was harsh. Male re-offenders were brutally flogged and could be hanged for crimes as petty as stealing. Women were outnumbered five to one and lived under constant threat of sexual exploitation.
The colonisation of Australia had a devastating impact on the Aboriginal people, with dispossession of their land, illness and death from introduced diseases and huge disruption of their traditional lifestyles and practices.
Australia’s early history
Australia’s Aboriginal people have the oldest continuous culture on Earth. They are believed to have arrived here by boat at least 50,000 years ago.
At the time of European settlement there were up to one million Aboriginal people living across the continent as hunters and gatherers. They were scattered in 500 different clans, or ‘nations’, speaking about 700 languages. Each clan had a spiritual connection with their land, but travelled widely to trade and find water and seasonal produce, as well as for ritual gatherings.
Despite the diversity of their homelands – from outback deserts to tropical rainforest and snow-capped mountains – all Aboriginal people share the belief in the Dreaming, or ‘Tjukurrpa’. According to Aboriginal myth, the ancestor spirits forged all aspects of life and continue to link the past, present, the people and the land. Dreaming stories describe the journeys of spiritual ancestors and are told through song, dance, painting and storytelling.
There are many opportunities to explore Australia’s Indigenous culture, significantly in northern Australia. Take a tour through the world-famous Kakadu National Park, which is home to more than 5,000 sites of rock art dating back 20,000 years. Or join a Dreamtime walk, guided by the Kuku Yalanji people, through the lush rainforests of Mossman Gorge, 80 kilometres north of Cairns.
Snake + flying fox = monstrous
This spider is a male Maratus speciosus (Coastal peacock spider) and this is its way to appeal to a potential female mate (the brown spider at the end). It is approximately 4 mm in length and inhabits coastal dunes near Perth in Western Australia. Hard to believe but there is no footage of this species yet in any wildlife documentary and although it has been known since 1874.
Ask the question of what Australia is known for to Aussies and foreigners and you’ll get answers like Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Kylie Minogue, kangaroos, koalas, cricket, swimming, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach, Aborigines, Minerals, wine and vegemite. Australia is much more than these. Here are 10 interesting facts to share with family, friends and visitors about Australia.
1) It is the 6th largest country in the world, occupying an entire continent of some 7.6 million square kilometres.
2) It has the world’s 3rd largest ocean territory, spanning three oceans and covering around 12 million square kilometres.
3) Vegetation covers nearly 7 million square kilometres or 91 percent of Australia.
4) The largest Greek population in the world beside Athens in Greece can be found in Melbourne Victoria.
5) Most of Australia’s exotic flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
6) The Indigenous ‚Dream Time’ is the foundation for tens of thousands of years of spiritual aboriginal art, traditions, legends, myths, folklore and culture.
7) The only nation-continent of 20 million people in the world.
8) The wattle was adopted as the national floral emblem in 1912.
9) The first Australian Friendly Society with the motto of ‚Advance Australia’ was the Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) formed in Victoria in 1871.
10) More than 80 percent of Australians live within 100 kilometres of the coast making Australia one of the world’s most urbanised coastal dwelling populations.