How Queen Victoria conducted diplomacy through love

Deborah Cadbury, author of 'Queen Victoria's Matchmaking: The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe,' talks about the queen's wide-ranging impact – for better and for worse – on European history.

Monarchy manipulations, love connections (or not), and world-changing tragedy unfold in Deborah Cadbury's fantastic new book 'Queen Victoria's Matchmaking.'

History bestows Queen Victoria's name on a repressive era and paints her as ever-unamused. But the woman who ruled Britannia for more than six decades was actually sweet and loving when it came to her children and grandchildren.

The queen wanted the best for them, or at least her vision of the best. That meant finding them mates who'd spread the British way across Europe and the world.

Monarchy manipulations, love connections (or not), and world-changing tragedy unfold in the fantastic new book "Queen Victoria's Matchmaking: The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe." In lively and page-turning prose, author Deborah "Chocolate Wars" Cadbury confirms her place as a leading historian of Britain as she pulls Queen Victoria out of caricature and into our hearts. 

Q: What drew you to this topic?

I had always known that Queen Victoria had a reputation as a "matchmaker," and I thought this would be an interesting way to examine her character.

How did she exert her control? How did she induce people to fall in love with each other, or at least carry out her wishes? Was she playing roulette with their lives and feelings?

These matches had tremendous significance. Seven of her grandchildren ascended European thrones. And of course, the queen’s descendants were heir to an empire that straddled a quarter of the globe, so these marriages mattered and help to shape the course of history. 

Q: What surprised you about Queen Victoria? 

She is full of colorful contradictions, a compelling and emotional character who's great fun for a writer.

On the one hand, she is eagle-eyed with the mind of a lawyer, and on the other, readily succumbing to romance and emotion. She's painfully critical of her own children but lavishes praise on her sometimes-undeserving grandchildren.

And she's reclusive and grieving but somehow with a knack for knowing exactly what is going on behind her back.

Q: What did she want to achieve through matchmaking?

After the Napoleonic Wars in which up to six million died, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert believed it might be possible to help foster peace and stability on the continent through the marital alliances of their children and grandchildren. It was a means of helping to spread British liberal values across the continent, perhaps even a push back against the destabilizing forces of republicanism, revolution, and war.

Q: How did love fit into her vision? 

Not much! But this changed over time.

For the children, there was a clear expectation that these alliances were their duty and their own happiness came second. Yet after Albert’s death, Queen Victoria had softened and was beginning to see that grand foreign alliances brought all sorts of problems in their wake. But when it came to the heirs to thrones, love often had to fit around duty.

Q: Who are your favorite characters in this story other than the queen? 

There are so many strong and interesting women. Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, such as Ella and Alix of Hesse, knew perfectly well how to stand up to "Grandmama Queen" and hold their own. Of course this ended disastrously for them. As it turned out, Granny really did know best when it came to choosing a husband!

I don’t want to spoil the story for the readers, but I was amazed at what went on behind the scenes that culminated in Alix’s disastrous marriage to Nicholas the Russian tsar and the horrific way that Queen Victoria’s warnings came true for them.

I have a real soft spot for her oldest daughter, Vicky, who obligingly "fell in love" with the Prussian heir at the tender age of 14, knowing full well how much her parents wished her to do so. The way this story unravelled, ending up with her son the megalomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm becoming Germany’s mighty emperor, had me on the edge of my seat as I read Vicky’s heartfelt letters to her mother.

Q: In their letters, several royals come across as remarkably perceptive, and they don’t write stiffly like you'd expect Victorians to. What do you think?

I agree! I was particularly astonished by how savvy Vicky was in Germany. It is almost as though she saw in slow motion everything unravel in Germany that would lead to the First World War but felt powerless to prevent it.

She was goaded to the point of treason by her son’s actions. Knowing what we do now, it is hard not to feel her torment when she wrote to her mother, Queen Victoria, 15 years before the Great War, "I think with fright and horror of the future. It makes me mad to think of all the misery that may yet come."

Q: The lives of several characters do not end well, with great ramifications for the world. Is this story a tragedy? 

Truly a Shakespearean tragedy.

The great plan started with the very best intentions and unraveled spectacularly, arguably through no fault of her own. Queen Victoria would have been heartbroken had she lived to see the final outcome.

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