Venerating Verses and Disrespectful Ditties: Informal Music Inspired by Queen Victoria

Over the course of her record breaking six-decade reign, Queen Victoria was the subject of numerous formal and informal musical compositions alike. While most formal music was reverential in nature and sought to praise the monarch, by and large the informal music that Victoria inspired among the lower classes tended to contain derogatory or mocking depictions of the queen. However, there were a small number of compositions that celebrated Victoria’s personal and political successes. Still, most of these were informal pieces of music that came out of an instantaneous admiration for Victoria in the moment of a particular triumph or moment of intense popularity, rather than a deeper appreciation for her life and reign that inspired so many of the great composers of the age to write music that lauded Victoria in a formal manner.

A broadside ballad titled “The Queen’s Anthem” by Alex Rodger from 1850. Source here.

Almost immediately after she came to the throne, the young Victoria was positively depicted in music, with her image used by political groups to further their own agendas. An early example of this, as related by Julia Baird, was a ballad inspired by Victoria’s newfound delight in exercising her free will upon becoming queen. Aware that during her youth she had been firmly controlled by her mother the Duchess of Kent, and her mother’s trusted advisor, Sir John Conroy, the public took notice when, at eighteen, Victoria began to assert herself. Specifically, “when her mother and Melbourne told her it would be proper to go to a Hyde Park review in a carriage, she decided to ride in on a horse.”[1] This decision inspired a ballad:

I will have a Horse, I’m determined on that,

If there is to be a review.

No horse, no review, my Lord Melbourne, that’s flat,

In spite of Mama and you.

You may wonder and blunder, and argue and stare,

But remember that I am your Queen,

And learn that it is not a trifling affair,

To please a young girl of eighteen.[2]

Although this trait was less apparent during her marriage, while she was single Victoria was self-reliant and had no trouble asserting herself, much to the delight of her subjects who adored their popular young queen.

Much of the informal music that either praised Victoria or ridiculed her was inspired by political feelings and the hopes of her lower-class subjects that the queen would make decisions that were popular and beneficial for them. After the turmoil engendered by the antics of the last two Hanoverian monarchs, King George IV and his brother King William IV, who in a multitude of ways had degraded the monarchy, people welcomed the accession of a new female monarch who was young, innocent, and promised a new era of uncorrupt politics. This hope was expressed through the informal press, which often published broadsides containing ballads that celebrated Victoria as an emblem of enlightenment politics. For example, “one balladeer in the West Country, who was soon to be the publisher of local Chartist broadsides, issued a broadside ballad in 1837 which stressed the new monarch’s liberal politics, but even more her gender.”[3] This ballad, ‘A New Song in Praise of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’ was eight stanzas in length and contained the refrain:

Of all the flowers in full bloom,

Adorn’d with beauty and perfume,

The Fairest is the rose of June,

Victoria Queen of England.

Although the ballad opened innocently enough, with hope that the new reign would be prosperous for the nation, it quickly went on to outline a political programme for the new monarch that Victoria herself had never expressed. Three of the ballad’s stanzas detailed how

When o’er the country you preside,

Providence will be your guide,

The people then will never chide,

Victoria Queen of England.

She doth declare it’s her intent,

To extend Reform of Parliament.

On doing good she’s fully bent

While she is Queen of England.

She says she’ll try by utmost skill,

That the poor may have their fill,

Forsake them, no, I never will,

While I am Queen of England;

For oft my mother said to me,

Let this your study always be,

To see your people blest and free,

Should you be Queen of England.

I will encourage every trade,

For his labour each must be paid,

In this free country then said –

Victoria Queen of England.

That Poor Bill with many more,

Will soon be trampled on the floor,

The rich must keep the helpless poor

Now Victoria’s Queen of England.[4]

As it would be throughout her reign, this song demonstrates how activists sought to use Victoria’s image to fulfill their own political ends. This was regardless of whether or not the monarch shared the views or gave any indication that she supported the political views that were associated with her name.

Although there was a plethora of musical compositions written to celebrate the marriage and the subsequent royal family that grew from it, once Victoria married in 1840, criticism of her husband Prince Albert was continuous until his death twenty-one years later.[5] Informal musical compositions began to appear soon after it was announced that Victoria and Albert would marry, and they did not cease. Dorothy Thompson relates that “the street balladeers produced loyal sheets welcoming the queen’s marriage, or scurrilous ones alluding to the prince’s poverty and his addiction to sausages. But even the most loyal found some things puzzling.” One such ballad ran:

Since the Queen did herself for a husband ‘propose’,

The ladies will all do the same, I suppose;

Their days of subserviency now will be past,

For all will ‘speak first’ as they always did last!

Since the Queen has no equal, ‘obey’ none she need,

So of course at the altar from such a vow she’s freed;

And the women will all follow suit, so they say –

‘Love, honour’, they’ll promise, but never – ‘obey’.

Our cups to the dregs in a health let us drain

And wish them a long and prosperous reign;

Like good loyal subjects, in loud chorus sing

Victoria’s wedding, with Albert her King![6]

This ballad reflects the precarious position Victoria found herself in. A female monarch was expected to be both the leader of a global empire and to play the subservient role of a wife and mother. From the start of their relationship, many were concerned about the power Albert might gain by being married to Victoria, in addition to concern felt by those who worried a female monarch would upset the current status quo between the sexes, especially when it came to marriage, as this ballad details. While many balladeers sought to create a humorous little ditty by cleverly mocking the Queen and Prince consort, there were a few who gave her praise. In one case, “one street ballad welcoming her marriage offered a song, to be sung to the air ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’, containing the lines

Blessing attend her for the pardon she gave,

The scepter of mercy she extended to save

The Chartist, from death and an untimely grave,

Did the mercyfull Queen of Old England

Old England’s Virtuous Queen.[7]

In this case Victoria received praise not for her marriage specifically, although that was the event this ballad was written to commemorate, but because of events in Wales that saw Chartist leaders given clemency for their roles in a November 1839 uprising. Victoria personally had little to do with the commutation, but this was not apparent to the many working people who had petitioned the monarch.[8]

A Scottish broadside ballad on the subject of Victoria and Albert’s marriage in 1840. Image source here.

Never fully accepted by Victoria’s subjects, and his ingenuity and hard work for the betterment of Great Britain and the empire not entirely appreciated until after his death, Prince Albert was constantly the subject of speculation and unfounded rumour that often took a musical form. While much of this was light-hearted ridicule that did little harm, there were times that false allegations about Albert took on a sinister appearance. As Strachey relates in regard to the resignation of Lord Palmerston as foreign secretary in 1851, “it was everywhere asserted and believed that the Queen’s husband was a traitor to the country” and that “he had forced Lord Palmerston, then serving as foreign secretary, out of the government.” For many weeks the newspapers were filled with wild allegations; however, it was not the respectable papers, but “halfpenny broadsides, hawked through the streets of London [that] re-echoed in doggerel vulgarity the same sentiments and the same suspicions.”[9] In January 1854 it was alleged that Prince Albert had been seized and taken to the Tower of London. Some even said that the Queen herself had been arrested and in consequence large crowds assembled around the Tower to try and catch a glimpse of the royal couple. All of this nonsense inspired a song, Lovely Albert, published in broadside form, that detailed Albert’s supposed treachery, collusion with the Russians, and his subsequent arrest. Although mostly relating to Prince Albert, one stanza of the song brings in Victoria herself:

Last Monday night, all in a fright,

Al out of bed did tumble,

The German lad was raving mad,

How he did groan and grumble!

He cried to Vic, ‘I’ve cut my stick:

To St. Petersburg go right slap.’

When Vic, ‘tis said, jumped out of bed,

And wopped him with her night-cap.[10]

Although songs like this were frequently written about the royal couple, and largely circulated among the lower orders of society, they did little lasting damage to the monarchy. They provided a bit of humour to the lower classes in the moment of a contemporary political gaffe, but were soon forgotten when the next big event occurred. While this informal music is significant to this study, as it shows Victoria as an inspiration outside of formal musical composition, it is but a brief reflection of sentiments held by the general public at the time it was written.

A broadside ballad titled “Victoria: The Pride of England’s Roses” from 1837. Source here.

Loyalty to Victoria as well as anti-royalist sentiment were both at play when it came to informal musical compositions, but in the end, informal music was most likely to be negative in its representation of the monarchy. While some subjects reveled in the news of the Queen and Prince Albert’s ever-growing family, “if there was a consistent burden of anti-royal sentiment throughout the century it was connected with the rapid expansion of the royal family and the expense involved for the taxpayers.” For example, a lullaby appeared at the time of Princess Victoria’s birth in November 1840 and reappeared in one form or another whenever a new child was born to Victoria and Albert. It read:

O Slumber my darling

While I sing thee a sermon.

Thy mother’s a Guelph

And thy father’s a German.

The hills and the dales

And John Bull’s money,

All shall belong

My darling to thee.[11]

After Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria went into a deep mourning and during this time was largely spared from being the subject of disrespectful music and political cartoons. However, when it was deemed that she had been in mourning for far too long than was acceptable, and was in fact neglecting her duties as monarch, her popularity reached a low ebb and she received biting criticism once again.[12] Although never as harsh as what was written during the early decades of her reign, Victoria’s actions were never free from comment in the form of impolite musical compositions. However, given Victoria’s immense popularity in the final years of her reign, these compositions came to be few and far between.

Connor DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History (2019) from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History (2021) from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he will be pursuing a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest in and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and collecting royal commemoratives.

Notes & references

[1] Julia Baird. Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of a Woman Who Ruled an Empire. (New York: Random House, 2016), 67.

[2] Colin Bingham. The Affairs of Women: A Modern Miscellany. (Sydney: Currawong Publishing Co., 1969), 69.

[3] Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 95.

[4] Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 96.

[5]Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 33.

[6] Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 38.

[7]Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 35.

[8]Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 35.

[9] Lytton Strachey. Queen Victoria. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), 307.

[10]Lytton Strachey. Queen Victoria. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), 308.

[11] Dorothy Thompson. Queen Victoria: The Woman, The Monarchy, and the People. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 43.

[12] Paula Bartley. Queen Victoria. (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 179-180.

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