Queen Victoria and the Challenge of Roman Catholicism

Article excerpt

Biographies of Queen Victoria continue to pour from the presses, but modern scholars have dealt systematically with the role of religion in the queen's life in but two essays. This fact is surprising when we consider how important a role religion played in nineteenth-century British society and how often the queen's views have been described as typical of her fellow Victorians. A yet more significant reason why the queen's religious views merit the attention of historians is that, even if she lacked ultimate power, she often influenced public policy. She served, after all, as supreme governor of the Church of England as well as head of state. Had it not been for the initiative of the queen, for example, Archibald Tait would not have become archbishop of Canterbury in 1868, the controversial Public Worship Regulation Act would not have become law in 1874, and the fifth earl of Rosebery would not have succeeded William Ewart Gladstone as prime minister in 1894.(1)

In matters of religion, Queen Victoria saw herself as devout but broadminded, an Anglican by law who was equally willing to attend Presbyterian services in Scotland and Lutheran services in Germany. As the head of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic empire, she envisaged herself as the monarch not only of Christians but also of Jews and Muslims, of Buddhists and Hindus. In her proclamation to the people of India in 1858, she therefore declared "it to be Our Royal will and pleasure that none be in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law." It was in this spirit also that the queen sought to rear her children. As she wrote in 1846, "a good, moral, religious but not bigoted or narrow-minded education is what I pray for."(2)

How were such attitudes reflected in Queen Victoria's public actions toward, and private views about, her Roman Catholic subjects? They constituted, after all, three-quarters of her Irish subjects and an increasingly significant minority of those living in England and Scotland, in Canada and Australia. Most of her biographers are persuaded that the queen "showed a remarkably wide tolerance toward her Roman Catholic subjects." In 1902, the evangelical Walter Walsh felt certain that "Her Majesty never cared for what is termed 'the Romish Controversy,' since all controversy on religious doctrines ... seemed rather out of her line." Her more recent biographers agree that - as Victoria declared in 1850 - she could not "bear to hear the violent abuse of the Catholic religion."(3)

This article takes issue with those biographers and contends that the manner in which Queen Victoria responded to the challenge posed by nineteenth-century, Roman Catholicism was far more complex and that it changed dramatically over time. Like many other aspects of Victoria's world, her fluctuating attitudes may appropriately be divided into early, mid-, and late Victorian. During her years as princess and as youthful monarch, Victoria was indeed the public and the private champion of both "Catholic Emancipation" and broad religious toleration. In the aftermath of the "Papal Aggression" controversy of 1850-51, her views hardened. By the early 1870s she had become, privately if not publicly, a Protestant crusader who candidly described herself as "very anti-Catholic." In her final years, however, those attitudes underwent a second significant transformation. Not only in her private practice but also in her public actions, Queen Victoria became a philo-Catholic. The purpose of this article will be to add illustrative flesh (drawn in significant degree from the Royal Archives at Windsor) to the bare bones of the thesis.

The Princess Victoria was brought up by her Lutheran mother to assume, in due course, her designated position as supreme governor of the Church of England. By the time of her accession in 1837, that institution had long ceased to monopolize the religious life of the kingdom. …