Victoria Day: Essential facts about the old queen

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Happy Victoria Day, Canada!

It's a pretty low-key holiday. There are fireworks in some places, sure. But a lot of us mark it with that first chilly long-weekend camping trip or getting the garden ready for summer.

Canada is the only Commonwealth country, including Britain, to make the birthday of the queen who gave her name to an era and presided over the creation of this country a national holiday. It is a public holiday in some parts of Scotland.

The popular image of Queen Victoria is that of a fat, dour old lady ("We are not amused"), due largely to the fact she spent the last 50 years of her life mourning the death of her husband, the beloved Prince Albert. Historians tell us that in her youth she was vivacious and inquisitive and though she showed a stolid public face in later life, she still enjoyed a good joke as long as it wasn't rude.

Victoria, born May 24, 1819, ascended the thrown in 1837 at age 18. She died Jan. 22, 1901 and her 63-year reign is still the longest in British history, though Queen Elizabeth II, who inherited the Crown in 1952, could break that record next year.

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Victoria's state funeral, which drew the largest gathering of crowned heads perhaps in history (many of them members of her family), was recorded in some of the earliest newsreel footage of such an event.

There's another rare piece of film from the year before her death showing the Queen in a carriage procession during a visit to Dublin, the only known moving images of Victoria shot in her lifetime.

Some other interesting facts about Queen Victoria:

She cemented today's constitutional monarchy: The years leading up to her reign were tumultuous ones for the British Crown and its constitutional role in a parliamentary government was still somewhat fuzzy, Sarah Pruitt notes on Victoria helped stabilize the relationship of the monarchy to Parliament, with its duty to advise and warn prime ministers on matters of policy but not to meddle in government. Those guidelines are still followed.

She faced at least six serious assassination attempts: The first was just two years into Victoria's reign, when a deranged teenager named Edward Oxford fired two shots at her carriage in London. Charged with treason, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. More attacks would follow, including two attempted shootings by the same man in 1842. Besides dodging bullets, Victoria was hit by a cane in one attack in 1850.

[ Related: Prince Charles reflects on Canada's war history at ceremony ]

She was a birthing pioneer: Victoria had nine children and giving birth was an ordeal. Most doctors rejected the use of anesthetic to ease labour but the Queen's physicians brought in Dr. John Snow, a pioneer in the use of ether and chloroform. Snow gave Victoria chloroform for the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853, and four years later for the birth of Princess Beatrice. The Queen's example prompted other women to demand it.

The Queen may have been a toker: Victoria apparently abhorred tobacco, going so far as to put up "No Smoking" signs in Buckingham Palace. However, she reportedly did indulge in the occasional marijuana joint. One of her physicians supposedly prescribed pot to help ease menstrual cramps. That assertion has been disputed, but given the era's experimentation with the medical properties of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and morphine, some believe it's not outside the realm of possibility.

She chose our national capital – twice: According to the Royal Canadian Heritage Trust, Victoria took an active interest in Canada through much of her reign. She spoke strongly in favour of Confederation leading up to the pivotal Charlottetown Conference. She also picked Ottawa, a logging town on the banks of the Rideau River separating Ontario from Quebec, as the capital of first the province of Canada in 1857, then the four-province Dominion of Canada 10 years later.