25

The notion that the British royal family are not necessarily at the apex of British society in terms of good breeding, sophistication or taste, is an old one.

I'm sure that I once read a piece that attributed the quote

"If I want the opinion of the middle classes, I'll ask Her Majesty",

to one of Queen Victoria's prime ministers.

As I recall, it was claimed to be Disraeli, but I can't find any reference to the quote anywhere, associated with Disraeli's name or not. Has my memory made the whole thing up?

8
  • 6
    Much clearer - would it do injustice to the question to ask 'Who said, "If I want the opinion of the middle classes, I'll ask Her Majesty?"' The question is subtly interesting on multiple levels - the relationship between the Crown and the Middling Sort has been distinctive to the British monarchy, and I think I could probably spend more time studying Victoria's participation in that. Good question.
    – MCW
    Jul 28 at 11:22
  • 3
    Not at all, and now I get your initial point about improving my syntax. It was actually watching Game Of Thrones that reminded me of this question: the way, intentional or not, that the ruling Lannisters are shown to be classless vulgarians, while the "old money" Tyrells are better-bred, seemed to me to be referencing British history (although it still conflates wealth with class, when of course they're very distinct things in the world of British snobbery). Many thanks for your advice! Jul 28 at 11:28
  • 5
    Given that Disraeli was from a middle class family himself (and not even landed gentry), he wouldn't really be in any position to look down his nose at the Queen from a class point of view.
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 28 at 12:07
  • 2
    @Steven Bird Actually Disraeli came to own a country estate with a mansion, Hugenden Manor. "HIs Conservative supporters lent him the money with which to buy the property, to give him suffieient standing to be a Victorian Prime Minister."
    – MAGolding
    Jul 28 at 17:35
  • 3
    @MAGolding He was middle-class, no amount of titles and/or money that he earned would change that.
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 28 at 19:53
33

This has been quoted a few times, in slight variation, like here, with attribution indeed to Disraeli:

enter image description here

— Harry Blamires: "The Victorian Age of Literature", Longman literature guides, Longman, 1988. p10 (gBooks)

And used here as well:

He [Prince Albert] never became really popular with the aristocracy or the working man, but it was otherwise with the middle classes, and they were the dominant factor in the national life in the nineteenth century. His solid qualities appealed to them, and they felt that he understood them. He could talk to them of schools and docks, of architecture and warehouses, and with them he slowly but surely became an undoubted success. He interpreted their point-of-view to the Queen, and with such accuracy that in due course a Prime Minister was to say:

“If ever I want to know what the middle-classes are thinking, I always ask Her Majesty’s opinion.”

Look & Learn: "Queen Victoria was a symbol of Britain’s people and her Empire", Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Thursday, 28 March 2013.

Caveat: while these two sources are not the worst one can think of in the usual terms of reliability, all they really do is confirm that it is not entire conflation in OP's mind. As both sources here lack a precise attribution, so that this is currently on the level of 'unconfirmed anecdote': "once said".

And to complement this caveat, we also see this version/variation of the theme, now attributed similarly vaguely, but to Lord Salisbury:

But although the queen shared some of the tastes and values of her most respectable subjects (Lord Salisbury later declared that if he knew what the queen thought about an issue, he knew what the middle classes would think), and although in later life her deliberate shunning of the more ostentatious trappings of royalty made it easy to think of her as a bourgeois widow at the head of the family firm, she was in fact sui generis, one of a kind. As Arthur Ponsonby put it, 'She bore no resemblance to an aristocratic English lady, she bore no resemblance to a wealthy middle-class Englishwoman, nor to any typical princess of a German court. … she was simply without prefix or suffix “The Queen”' (Ponsonby, 70).

— H. C. G. Matthew & K. D. Reynolds: "Victoria (1819–1901)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Published in print: 23 September 2004Published online: 23 September 2004This version: 24 May 2012. doi

But at least this version can firmly be sourced for one later occasion, empasising that it was a repeated adage, in the House of Lords, after Victoria's death 1901:

I have said for years that I always thought that when I knew what the Queen thought I knew pretty certainly what view her subjects would take, and especially the middle classes of her subjects.

Lords Chamber: Volume 89: debated on Friday 25 January 1901

Notably, 'being (like) middle class" was a conscious strategy of public relations for the royals — or rather: has been to a certain extent — fostered by various prime ministers since Victoria's reign. Cf.:
— David Tomkins: "Just Like Us: Victoria, Albert and the middle-class family (part 1 of 4)", Journal of Victorian Culture, 2019.

That 'lower class appeal' was of course counter balanced then with even more pomp for all the invented traditions in her time, like the coronation procedure…

Note that for the British monarchy this now rather long running strategy of — 'the queen being very much in touch with the people' with an emphasis on the middle class — as a concept was first 'tried' with Queen Caroline a few years earlier.

Rather, the pervasive perception of the queen's ill treatment was that it was pitting the nation as a whole against the higher orders. "One of the complaints now made against her MAJESTY," argued one editorial in Leigh Hunt's Examiner, was that she had appealed to the people; "but to whom else could she appeal? had not the higher, and, as they were called, the more illustrious classes of society, entirely deserted her?" The queen's cause came to be seen as the cause of the people; and the judgment of the people was seen to be embodied in the ubiquitously invoked voice of public opinion.

— Dror Wahrman: "'Middle-Class' Domesticity Goes Public: Gender, Class, and Politics from Queen Caroline to Queen Victoria", Journal of British Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4, Making the English Middle Class, ca. 1700-1850, 1993, pp. 396–432. (jstor)

The 'popularity and ceremonial appeal' of the monarchy fell off shortly after George III’s death in 1820, Colley writes, and it was not revived until late in the century. […] when Britain was predominantly a provincial society in which the London-based monarchy was alienated from the rational middle class in the provinces and remained controversial because of its residual political powers. Performing an ineptly managed ritual of public ceremonies that attracted little interest, this dowdy and unpopular monarchy, appears in Cannadine’s essay as an institution with so little public appeal that it was not even worth exploiting commercially. In a second essay Cannadine has taken his inquiry into the `myth’ of British royalty further. Victoria and Albert did not modernise the monarch as a ceremonial head of state, he writes; they aspired to govern as well as reign, and pageantry was of little interest to them. […]

— Alex Tyrrell & Yvonne Ward: "`God Bless Her Little Majesty.’ The Popularising of Monarchy in the 1840s, National Identities, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2000. (p109–125, doi)

This notion of the queen as a model was much played on in the years following the accession of Victoria, the 'Rosebud of England', when the wives and mothers of England could all claim to be queens in their own homes, however modest, and to follow the young queen in her celebration of marriage.26 Public opinion had decreed that the royal family must indeed be a family; kings and queens must be fathers and mothers in their own home if they were to be fathers and mothers to the people.

— Leonore Davidoff & Catherine Hall: "Family Fortunes. Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850", Routledge: London, New York, 32019. p154

If this widely shared and cultivated sentiment of Victoria having close ties of understanding towards the middle classes could be tied really to Disraeli — with firm proof currently lacking — a possible reading of the line in question as something 'Disraeli looking down on the Queen for her low standing manners', then we might need the reminders that Disraeli was himself of a middle class background, was oriented indeed towards the upper classes, but moderated his negative views upon the middle classes in time, was primarily known for venerating Victoria and showering her with very flattering compliments constantly.
All in this configuration between classes perception between Victoria and Disraeli is exemplary condensed in this known anecdote:

Queen Victoria warned Disraeli that "it may not please the Navy in which so many of the highest rank serve … if a man of the Middle Classes is placed above them in that very high. [Talking about the knew First Lord of the Admiralty William Henry Smith]; italics in the original, LLC]
[…]
Victoria, who had named Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield the year before, clearly did not consider her prime minister "a man of the Middle Classes," and whatever may be said of the social origins of the son of the Jewish literary critic who had become in turn a novelist, a Member of Parliament, and the squire of Hughendon Manor, he never saw himself nor was he seen by others as a tribune of the middle classes. The purpose of the Conservative party leadership, Disraeli wrote in 1848, was "to uphold the aristocratic settlement of this country." In the words of his biographer Robert Blake, "this assertion is the key to Disraeli's policy for the rest of his life."

— Walter L. Arnstein: "The Myth of the Triumphant Victorian Middle Class", The Historian, Vol. 37, No. 2 1975, pp. 205–221. (jstor)

5
  • 12
    How interesting, it seems my memory had certainly changed the tone of the quote. I remembered it as being a scathingly snobbish implication that Victoria was herself middle class, but it seems the implication was rather that she was in touch with the people. Eye-opening, thanks! Jul 28 at 12:01
  • 8
    @tea-and-cake The really interesting twist in this formula is that Disraeli was certainly of a much more middle-class background than Victory, but the public image to be cultivated for the royal family was targeted by PM's to be more appealing to middle classes. So, while an anecdote, it makes even more sense in that light of impression management? (A better source attrobution might stil be coming forth…) Jul 28 at 12:06
  • 3
    @tea-and-cake - what an insightful comment about the practice of history. If I had a nickel for every time that my memory changes the tone of a quote...
    – MCW
    Jul 28 at 14:52
  • As a memorable complement of the Vic/Ben/Smith episode, read the lyrics to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.M.S._Pinafore : he was the lad who served a term/As office boy to an Attorney's firm, cleaned the windows and swept the floor,/And polished up the handle of the big front door. […] polished up that handle so carefullee/That now the Ruler of the Queen's Navee [… ] always voted at his party's call,/And never thought of think ing for at all." —The only ship that he had ever seen was a partnership… Jul 29 at 7:05
  • Merely a personal opinion, but I have long suspected Albert's overarching influence here. The young Victoria was a true Hanoverian - she loved parties, dancing all night, gambling etc. Albert did not, and IMO did his best to turn her inro a hausfrau - with such success that when he died, Victoria was incapable of living with, or by, herself.
    – TheHonRose
    Jul 30 at 8:25
4

I think that the interpretation of the statement as extremely aristocratic lords looking down upon Queen Victoria and the royal family as persons of lower status is rather unlikely to be the correct one. Instead such statements more probably refer to her ability to keep in touch with the opinions of the middle class.

Many of the noble titles in England go far back into the Middle Ages. A popular saying at Arundel Castile is "Since William rose and Harold fell, there have been Earls of Arundel".

But the earldom of Arundell became extinct twice, before being created a third time in 1580 for the current line of Earls.

The oldest baron title of Ireland not held by someone with a higher title is the Barony of Kinsald (1340). The oldest baron of England not held by someone with a higher title is Baron de Ros (1288/89).

The Viscount Hereford (1550) is the oldest viscount title in the UK not held by someone with a higher title.

The Earl of Shrewsbury holds the oldest earldom in England not held by someone with a higher title, (1442), as well as the oldest Irish earldom, Waterford, (1446). The Earl of Crawford (1398) has the oldest Scottish earldom not held by someone with a higher title.

The Marquess of Winchester (1551) is the oldest Marquess title not held by a Duke.

The Duke of Norfolk (1453) has the oldest ducal title in the UK not held by a member of the royal family.

So no aristocratic family in the UK can claim to have been titled before those oldest titles were created, and most of them gained their titles in the Renaissance and modern eras.

In the Royal family of the UK, Prince Philip renounced his titles as a prince of Greece and Denmark when he married the queen. He - and all his descendants - is a member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Glucksburg, which is a branch of the dynasty of Oldenburg. The family goes back in the agnatic (male only) line to Elimar I, Count of Oldenburg, who died in 1108. A German count had a much higher status than an English earl.

Queen Elizabeth II of the UK is descended in the agnatic line from Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Albert was a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which ruled an independent country from 1806 to 1866. They are a branch of the House of Wettin, which goes back to Theodoric I, who died about 982. The house of Wettin became princes (high nobles) of the Holy Roman Empire when they acquired the Margravate of Meissen in 1089 and the Landgraviate of Thuringia in 1263. In 1423 the head of the family became one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

In about 1500, the royal families of Europe began to restrict their marriages to members of other royal families, except that they continued to intermarry with the princely dynasties of the Holy Roman Empire with their semi-royal status. So Queeen Elisabeth II's Wettin ancestors were much higher in status than any British nobles for centuries.

The only legitimate child of Emperor Frederick II to have descendants to the present time was a daughter Margaret, who married a Wettin, Albert II of Meissen. Their heir, by agnatic (male only) descent is Michael, Prince of Saxe-Weimer-Eisenach. And their heir general, allowing females to inherit if they have no brothers, is Queen Elizabeth II. So Elizabeth Ii could make a claim to be the rightful heir of the imperial Hohenstaufen and Salian dynasties, who claimed to be the rightful emperors of all the world. And when Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Corburg-Gotha died childless in 1893, Queen victoria's oldest son, the future Edward VII, became the heir general of the Hohenstaufen and Salian imperial dynasties, making Victoria a very close relative of that heir.

Queen Victoria herself was a member of the House of Hanover, a branch of the House of Welf or Guelf, which goes back in the agnatic line to Oberto I, Count Palatine of Italy, who died about 975. Members of the dynasty became dukes as early as 1070 and continuously from 1235, and the head of the dynasty became an Elector in 1692.

So the head of fhe House of Guelf had basically been a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, with a status almost equal to royalty, and much higher than English nobility, since about the time of origin of the earliest British titles of baron and earl that were still current in Queen Victoria's time.

So it would seem that Queen Victoria had a much more aristocratic background than even the oldest English aristocratic families.

The only families in Queen Victoria's United Kingdom who would have reason to look down upon her as some sort of parvenu of lower status than themselves would be some variously poor, middle class, and wealthy families of Celtic ancestry, descended from Irish and Welsh royal familes, whose ancestors had been overthrown and deposed by Saxon, Norman, and English invaders over the centuries.

Their ancestors had been kings for centuries before the first Hanoverian (1714), or Tudor (1485), or Stuart (1371 & 1603), or Plantagenet (1154), or Norman (1066), kings first ruled, and for centuries before the first known agnatic ancestors of those kings lived.

And their ancestors had been kings for centuries before the earliest known noble ancestors of Queen Victoria's Guelf dynasty.

A few of those families have acquired peerages, but such peerages, granted a thousand years perhaps after their ancestors were kings, have little to do with their origins in long ago royalty.

So I agree that the quotation is more about Queen Victoria's ability to keep in touch with the middle class than it is about British aristocrats thinking they were of higher status than the royal family.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.