Canada has been celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday since 1845, but there’s a lot about the woman, to whom we owe the first unofficial long weekend of the summer, that you may not have realized.
Victoria, born May 24, 1819, was the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840, and the union produced four sons and five daughters. She died at 81 years old, on January 22, 1901, and was the longest sitting sovereign in history after a reign of 63 years and 216 days.
But while the day bears her name, here are 20 things you never knew about Queen Victoria or her holiday – or have long since forgotten.
1. Victoria Day is a Canadian tradition and doesn’t actually exist in most of England. But it is celebrated in parts of Scotland, especially Edinburgh, where it remains an official holiday.
2. While the holiday moves around a lot now (falling this year on May 19th), the original rules stated it be celebrated annually on May 24th, regardless of what day that was, unless it was a Sunday – and then the observance would be moved to the 25th.
That changed with an amendment to the Statutes of Canada in 1952, when the government declared Victoria Day would fall on the Monday preceding the 25th of May. It’s been there ever since.
And those of us who appreciate our long weekends are glad they made the change or we’d all be working on Monday – and getting Sunday off.
3. Victoria Day is a legal Canadian stat, which means it’s also observed in Quebec. But the idea of honouring a British monarch doesn’t sit well with many in Le Belle Province, where it’s known it be another name. Up until three years ago, it was called Fête de Dollard after Adam Dollard des Ormeaux a French hero who helped lead a force in what is now Montreal against the Iroquois in 1660.
In 2003, it was renamed National Patriots Day in Quebec, ignoring the Queen reference altogether.
4. When Victoria was just a little girl, she was known by her nickname, Drina.
5. Despite being born in England, Victoria only spoke German up until the age of three.
6. She was the first member of the Royal Family known to suffer from hemophilia, a fact that had many questioning the circumstances of her parentage.
7. She married Prince Albert in 1840, although they’d known each other since she was 16. And it really was a family affair.
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was her first cousin and his father was her mother’s brother!
8. Because she was Queen, she had to propose to Albert, and not vice versa.
9. She took over the throne in 1837, after the death of William IV. She was just 18 years old.
10. Despite the somewhat imposing figure she’s been portrayed as in history, the real Victoria didn’t completely measure up. She stood just 5 feet tall.
11. She was the subject of at least six serious assassination attempts.
In 1840, an 18-year-old named Edward Oxford took two shots at her carriage as she was riding in London. He was accused of high treason but found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Two years later, a man named John Francis fired a gun at her carriage but missed. He was caught, convicted of treason, but avoided the death penalty and was shipped to a penal colony.
Less than two months later, a youngster named John William Bean fired ammo made out of tobacco and paper at the Queen.
And in 1849, it happened again when William Hamilton, who history books describe as an ‘angry Irishman’, fired a pistol at her carriage. He pled guilty and was also exiled to a penal colony.
They say if you stay around in politics long enough, you’re bound to make enemies. Victoria was living proof of that. The Queen was set upon again in 1850, when ex-Army officer Robert Pate hit her with his cane. He pleaded insanity but the courts didn’t buy it, leaving him to the same fate as Hamilton.
Incredibly, in 1882, there was yet another attempt on her life, this time by Roderick Maclean, who also missed her with a bullet from a gun. He was found insane and sent to an asylum for life.
12. When you see pictures or actresses playing Victoria, she’s almost always wearing black. That’s because when her husband died in December 1861, she went into seclusion and a perpetual state of mourning and never wore any other colour.
It’s long been rumoured she later married her Scottish butler John Brown, but that’s never been proven. She didn’t get back into the public eye until the early 1870′s.
13. She became a grandma at 39 and a great grandmother 20 years later.
14. The mother of nine suffered one of the major drawbacks of such a long life, tragically outliving three of her own children.
15. She was the first Queen of Canada, sitting on the throne when this country was founded in 1867.
16. She liked to drink a concoction called Vin Mariani.
17. It was Victoria who started the tradition of a bride wearing white. Before her wedding, a woman would simply wear her best dress, no matter what colour it was.
18. She was named the 18th greatest Briton in a BBC poll conducted in 2002. Winston Churchill was number one. Victoria was beaten out by, among others, Princess Diana (#3), William Shakespeare (#5), and John Lennon (#8). She was followed on the list by Paul McCartney.
19. Victoria, British Columbia is named after her, but so is the capital of Saskatchewan – Regina.
20. She was the only British monarch in modern music history to be honoured by name in the title of a rock and roll song. “Victoria”, by the Kinks, #62 on the Billboard charts in 1970, although the record did understandably better on this side of the border.
Paul McCartney famously wrote his 23-second ditty “Her Majesty” tune for the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP, but it wasn’t put out as a single and it never mentioned the current Queen by name.