The Queen and Mr. Gladstone: The “Royalty Question” and a clash of personalities

Note: This is an abbreviated version of part of the blogger’s aborted PhD thesis on William Gladstone as an intellectual thinker

One of the more mysterious aspects of Britain’s constitutional set up is the relationship between the Sovereign and his/her Prime Minister. There are weekly audiences between the monarch and the prime minister and this is where the mystery lies because the audience is strictly between the two of them, there is no-one else present, no agenda exists and there are never any notes or minutes that are taken down. Even monarch and prime minister if ever they keep diaries are silent on what they have discussed during these weekly audiences. In a 2012 BBC documentary to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, Buckingham Palace allowed the unprecedented step of allowing the cameras to film the first few minutes of Her Majesty’s audience with David Cameron but once the subject turned to matters of state, the cameras were duly switched off and as always the public are left wondering what is it that really goes on.

Nevertheless the mystery serves only leads people to really wonder how monarch and prime minister really think about each other and what do they talk about. No-one knows what the present Queen thinks about the twelve prime ministers who have served during her reign and what has been presented on stage, film and television are at best only speculations.

Of course all of that will change in time when the main dramatis personae dies out and documents are released and revealed to the public subjecting them to closer scrutiny. Although no records ever exist of the weekly audiences the monarch and prime minister’s relationship can be gleaned through the treadmill of the daily business from the red dispatch boxes, memos, letters and diaries.

One of the most famous monarch-prime minister relationships that has left a considerable paper trail is that of Queen Victoria and William Ewart Gladstone who served as prime minster four times.  Although no records of Queen Victoria’s weekly audiences with Gladstone exist both were prolific writers and what we know of their relationship survives in letters, diary entries and memoranda which reveal the clash of two strong willed personalities who could be both could be obstinate, high minded especially in matters that concerned aspects of government policy and even affairs concerning the royal family.


The Queen’s attitude towards Gladstone was different when her husband was alive. “He is very agreeable,” she wrote echoing the esteem Albert had held for Gladstone, “so quiet & intellectual, with such a knowledge of all subjects & is such a good man.”  All this gradually changed especially after Albert’s death and when Gladstone assumed office as Prime Minister for the first time in 1868. Gladstone himself could be described as a Marmite person – either one admired him or disliked him and the Queen fell into the latter category.


Historians and biographers have delved into the roots and causes of the Queen’s antipathy to Gladstone which can be traced to three streams: first, in matters of ideological leanings and the way Britain should conduct her domestic and foreign policy; second, regarding Gladstone’s approach to the Queen both as a person and institution; third, what could be seen as jealousy stemming from Victoria’s view of Gladstone as a competitor for the esteem of the British public.

Many of their clashes over the conduct of official policy were rooted in the issues that Gladstone cared for, and that the Queen was not interested in. While the latter agreed with the former on the need for improving the conditions of the general public, she was generally not interested in social issues and was more inclined to be roused by foreign and empire policy particularly when it can to defending and maintaining British power and prestige abroad.

Queen Victoria famously said of Gladstone, “He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting.” While Gladstone revered the institution of the monarchy and its place at the apex of British society, unlike his great rival Benjamin Disraeli who famously got on well with Queen Victoria, Gladstone was hampered by his inability to treat the current occupant as a human being and as a woman. He was also very earnest and sometimes humourless which came across in his memos which were full of exhausting and exhaustive detail, which did not endear him to the Queen who certainly found his profound and high-minded discourses tedious and tiresome.

One of the first instances where Queen Victoria and Gladstone clashed was over the “Royalty Question” of 1872. Upon Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria withdrew into a prolonged period of mourning and started to wear black (until her own death in 1901) as well as abandon London and Windsor in favour of Osborne and Balmoral. At first, the public were sympathetic to the queen’s loss and genuinely mourned with her. However, as her absences became protracted and her continued to be plunged in mourning, people began to lose patience as her long seclusion meant that she was neglecting her public duties. From 1862 onwards, she refused to open parliament (having only been present thrice); invitations to commemorate the opening of public buildings and other infrastructure were declined and the subsequent weddings of Princess Alice, the Prince of Wales, Princesses Helena and Louise were drab, private events which Victoria insisted on out of the continual mourning for her husband.  Public commentators such as Walter Bagehot and Robert Cecil argued that the presence of ceremonial was paramount to the existence of the monarchy and more so since it was already impossible to justify its existence by divine right and absolute authority. The Crown needed to be visible if it was to earn the loyalty and esteem of its subjects.

Another factor in the unpopularity of the Queen was due to the behaviour of her family: particularly the Prince of Wales.  Victoria’s hope that his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark would help him settle down was in vain as the Prince’s name was cited in the Mordaunt divorce case in 1870. She also deplored his indulgent and fast paced lifestyle.  Her continued resistance to ministers’ suggestions that the Prince be appointed to some position or allowed access to the red boxes (which contained government documents sent to the Queen) resulted in the Prince being condemned for his “purposeless existence”.  In addition, she was also accused of peopling the court with foreigners (relatives from Germany) and nonentities all of whom were believed to be supported with taxpayers’ money. A pamphlet entitled What Does She Do with It, believed to have been written by G.O. Trevelyan, alleged that the Queen was hoarding the money saved from ceremonial and public duties on order to fund her growing family in Britain and abroad.

Gladstone deplored the Queen’s long absences from her duties. Like the Prince of Wales, he believed that the more the people saw their Sovereign and members of the royal family, the better it would be for both sides. As part of his long-term plan for Ireland he proposed that the Royal family should make themselves more visible to the Irish, and in order to facilitate their presence in Ireland, he proposed a royal residence in the capital and that the Prince of Wales should be appointed the queen’s representative as Viceroy. He wrote in his memo, “[it] would likely to be of great utility in strengthening the Throne under circumstances which require all that can be done in that sense, if indeed we can make it a new means of putting forward the Royal Family in the visible discharge of public duty.” Predictably, Victoria was not enthusiastic about the plan, mentioning that she was “afraid of his being identified with Ireland, of his being surrounded by flatterers, and was doubtful of his disposition to act steadily upon any plan that might be laid down, and other matters.”

Countering the Queen’s continued negative attitude towards her oldest son and heir, Gladstone pointed out that while the Prince of Wales’s paramount role was difficult to shoulder, his character would be strengthened and hence would be better equipped for his future role by being given practical experience in the art of governance. “I contended,” Gladstone continued in his memo, “that if duty were found for him, he might show or acquire a disposition to do it.”

Furthermore, the growing unpopularity of the Queen and the Royal family was further aggravated by the rise of republicanism in Britain which was tied to the establishment of the Third Republic in France as a result of her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. A number of the monarchy’s opponents were admirers of several aspects of the French republican tradition and sympathised with the French in their war against Prussia, while others looked to the United States as an example. Republicanism was given ammunition by the queen’s unpopularity and the controversy over the monies for her children when they came of age or married. When she finally consented to open Parliament in 1870, republicans sniped that it was because she came with her begging bowl on behalf of Princess Louise’s wedding dowry and Prince Arthur’s coming of age allowance.

As mentioned earlier, Gladstone was of the view that if the Queen appeared more in public and paid more attention to her official engagements, the better it would be for her and for the public. In 1869, he successfully persuaded the queen to open Blackfriars Bridge and the Holborn Viaduct. While her first real appearance in public helped diffuse criticism of her and republican agitation, it was a short term solution to her prolonged and stubborn refusal to appear more in public or to allow her son exposure to practical government experience and even to deputise for her at Court. Also, giving her consent to the marriage of Princess Louise to the Duke of Argyll’s heir did not silence the critics due to the controversy over the Princess’s dowry.

The opportunity to permanently break the Queen’s seclusion presented itself by chance. The Prince of Wales came down with typhoid fever after a weekend at the estate of a friend and the progress of his health was eagerly covered and followed by the press and public. Gladstone saw the public interest in the saga of the Prince from his illness to recovery as a way of helping restore the royal family’s popularity. It was believed that apart from reversing the Queens unpopularity, the thanksgiving could also serve as a public way to bring about a “moral purification” for the Prince of Wales.

Queen Victoria was not enthusiastic with the idea of a public thanksgiving. On the religious front, her sympathy was more Broad Church and as such she was wary about Gladstone’s High Church orientation. She did not like ostentatious display in religious services and thought that a letter to the public would suffice.  Gladstone recorded her objections in a memo: “She objected to it [the thanksgiving] because she disliked in an extreme degree the cathedral service. She objected still more because she thought such a display, in point of religion, false and hollow. She considered that no religious act ought to be ever allied with pomp or show.”

Undeterred, Gladstone was determined to get the queen to agree to the thanksgiving service. When the Duke of Cambridge confirmed that the Princess of Wales was in favour of a public thanksgiving, he managed to convince Queen Victoria of the importance of holding a public ceremony citing the fact that her own grandfather George III took part in a similar celebration in 1789 after recovering from his own illness.  The queen finally gave way and the thanksgiving service took place on 27 February 1872 at St. Paul’s cathedral. Gladstone described the event in his diary as such:

Went off at 11:20 in the chariot having previously dispatched 6 children (18 to 29 years old!) in the large carriage. All the arrangements were admirable: the service short but impressive: the spectacle in and out doors magnificent: the behaviour of the people admirable (to us very kind). The ceremony lasted an hour. We went home at 2:30. Walked out to see the illuminations in the evening.

The success of the event resulted in a surge of popularity for the royal family. Any talk of a republic was now forgotten as the masses of people lined up to cheer the royal procession as it made its way to St. Paul’s.  For Gladstone, the thanksgiving was proof of the unity between the Crown and people; the sight of the queen and representatives of the public praying at St. Paul’s showed a nation united and the queen performing her duties as a constitutional monarch.

However, any triumph on the part of Gladstone proved to be short lived. He might have been able to finally persuade the Queen to come out of her seclusion but with other matters of State such as foreign affairs, objection to certain cabinet appointment and honours as well as the continued campaign to engage the Prince of Wales in a more useful occupation, Victoria continued to dig in her heels, while at the same time seeing herself as an important part of policy making. Until the very end, she resented Gladstone’s heavy handed approach, which was unlike Salisbury and especially Disraeli, who flattered the Queen and made allowances for her caprices if she allowed them to get on with the day to day business of government and politics.

Moreover, there was a streak of jealousy on the part of the queen as she saw that Gladstone was a competitor for the affection of the British public – the “People’s William” versus the “People’s Victoria” as his successful campaign at Midlothian showed. Victoria was also unhappy that while his influence among the public grew, hers seemed to diminish, as seen in their running disputes over issues such as army reform, church reform, empire affairs, Irish Home Rule. As he prepared to resign as Prime Minister for the last time in 1894, Gladstone wrote of the Queen: “I am as I hope loyal to the Throne. I admire in the Queen many fine qualities which she possesses……..I hope my duty to her and her family has never in fact, as it has never in intention fallen short.” But in the end of the memo, he does admit that his working relationship with the Queen had never been smooth and likened it to a mule he rode while on a holiday in Sicily as a young man, “I could not get up the smallest shred of feeling for the brute, I could never love nor like it.”


Bust of Gladstone in the Scottish Liberal Club in Princes Street, Edinburgh. Now occupied by Debenhams. Photo taken by blogger.

Photo of Queen Victorian by Bassano. Taken from Wikipedia

Further Reading:

Richard Williams. The Contentious Crown: Public Discussion of the British Monarch in the Reign of Queen Victoria (London, 1997)

William Kuhn. Democratic Royalism: The Transformation of the British Monarchy, 1861-1914 (London, 1996)

Freda Harcourt, ‘Gladstone, Monarchism and the “New” Imperialism’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 14 (1985), pp. 20-51.

Antony Taylor. Down with the Crown: British Anti-monarchism and Debates about Royalty since 1790 (London, 1999)

William Kuhn, ‘Ceremony and Politics: The British Monarchy, 1871-1872’, The Journal of British Studies 26 (1987), pp. 133-162

M.R.D. Foot and H.C.G. Matthew (eds). The Gladstone Diaries, 14 vols (Oxford, 1968-1994)

John Morley. The Life of William Ewart Gladstone,3 vols (London, 1903

Travis Crosby, The Two Mr. Gladstones: A Study in Psychology and History (Yale, 1997)

H.C.G. Matthew. Gladstone 1809-1874 (Oxford, 1988)

H.C.G. Matthew. Gladstone 1875-1898 (Oxford, 1995)

Philip Magnus. Gladstone: A Biography (London, 1954)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

Christopher Hibbert. Queen Victoria: A Personal History (London, 2001)

A.N. Wilson. Victoria: A Life (London, 2014)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2012)

Gladstone papers at the British Library consulted by the blogger:

BL Add. MS. 44760, fols. 40-45

BL Add. MS 44760 ff. 129-126

BL Add. MS 44432 ff. 304-305

BL Add. MS 44618 ff. 47-48

BL Ad MS 44776 ff. 67-68