Bedchamber crisis

Satire of the crisis by John Doyle, 31 December 1840

The Bedchamber crisis occurred on 7 May 1839 after Whig politician William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne declared his intention to resign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after a government bill passed by a very narrow margin of only five votes in the House of Commons. Following a few false moves toward an alternative Tory prime minister and a Conservative government, Lord Melbourne was reinstated until the 1841 election, when the Conservative party took over.

The crises occurred very early in the reign of Queen Victoria and involved her first change of government. She was partial to Melbourne, and resisted the requests of his rival Robert Peel to include Tory ladies of the bedchamber (ladies-in-waiting) in her household, to replace some of the women who were close to the Whig party.

Overview

After the Whig government bill passed by a narrow margin on 7 May 1839, the prime minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, declared his intention to resign. The distraught young Queen Victoria, whose political sympathies were with the Whigs, first asked the Duke of Wellington, a former Tory prime minister, to form a new government, but he politely declined. She then reluctantly invited Conservative leader Robert Peel to form a government. Peel realised that such a government would hold a minority in the House of Commons and would be structurally weak, possibly damaging his future political career.[1]

Peel accepted the invitation on the condition that Victoria dismiss some of her ladies of the bedchamber,[2] many of whom were wives or relatives of leading Whig politicians. She refused the request, considering her ladies as close friends, not as objects of political bargaining. Peel, therefore, refused to become prime minister and Melbourne was eventually persuaded to stay on as prime minister.

After Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 she relied less on her ladies as companions. In the 1841 general election Peel's Conservatives gained a majority and Victoria appointed Peel as the new prime minister, a change of government for which Melbourne had meanwhile been preparing her. Accepting "the wise advice of the democratically minded Prince Albert",[3] Victoria replaced three of her Whig ladies with Conservatives.

Aftermath

At the time of the crisis Victoria was not yet twenty years old and had been on the throne less than two years. She was dismayed at the thought of losing her first, and so far only, Prime Minister, the avuncular Melbourne, a wise and kindly father-figure to her in the first years of her reign—her own father, the Duke of Kent, had died when she was an infant. Victoria also mistakenly assumed that Peel wanted to replace all of her ladies—her closest friends and companions at court—when in fact Peel wished to replace only six of the twenty-five ladies, but failed to make his intentions clear to Victoria.[3]

Late in life Victoria regretted her youthful intransigence, writing to her private secretary, Arthur Bigge: "I was very young then, and perhaps I should act differently if it was all to be done again."[3]

Fictional portrayals

The Bedchamber crisis was depicted in the 2009 film The Young Victoria and in the 2016 television-drama series Victoria.

Notes

  1. ^ "The manoeuvres of the Queen's ante-chamber". The Times (17043). London. 16 May 1839. p. 4.
  2. ^ Robert Peel (13 May 1839). "Ministerial Explanations". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 984–985.
  3. ^ a b c Rappaport 2003, pp. 62–64.

References

Media files used on this page

The Taking of Chusan (satire).jpg
A satire of the Bedchamber Crisis. The assault of the Conservative Party on the Whig government is compared to the British taking of Chusan during the First Opium War (1839-42). It shows Robert Peel in the stern and Wellington in the bow of a man-of-war's boat full of Conservatives, approaching a fort, on which Viscount Melbourne, dressed as a Chinaman, hangs a board inscribed: "Spare Us for the Sake of Our Women". In 1839, Viscount Melbourne resigned as Prime Minister and Queen Victoria asked Peel to form a new government. However, the Conservatives were a minority in the House of Commons and fearing that forming a weak government would damage his future, Peel refused unless the Queen purged her ladies of the bedchamber, her closest companions, many of whom were the wives or daughters of Whig politicians. No agreement was reached, so Melbourne was persuaded to stay on. On 8 December 1840, The Times reported the assault on Chusan: "On landing, the troops found the city and suburbs abandoned by the inhabitants, with the exception of one man, who was holding up a board, with this inscription upon it - 'Save us for the sake of our wives and children'." Doyle could not let the opportunity for satire pass. The Conservatives continued to make headway and in 1841 Peel got a majority in the General Election, replaced Melbourne and removed the Whig ladies. As Victoria had married Albert in 1840 she relied on them less and so made no complaint.[1]