When Exactly Was the Victorian Era?
These days, the term Victorian evokes images of top hats and bustles, train cars and coal. In other words, it’s often used as a synonym for old-timey in a vaguely British way. But the start and end dates of the Victorian era aren’t vague at all. Read on to find out more.
When Was the Victorian Era?
The Victorian era is named after Queen Victoria, who ruled the UK from 1837 to 1901. As such, it began as soon as she became queen on June 20, 1837, and ended with her death on January 22, 1901. Victoria’s 63-year reign made her the UK’s longest-reigning monarch in history—a record that Queen Elizabeth II only broke in September 2015.
What Happened During the Victorian Era?
The Industrial Revolution had begun in England decades before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, and the Victorian era was characterized in part by leveraging that power to ruthlessly expand the British Empire. By the dawn of the 20th century, British imperialism had spread so far and wide that Queen Victoria ruled over roughly one-fourth of the world’s population. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, and massive swaths of Africa—what’s now Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, and more—were some of the British Empire’s many territories. This far-reaching takeover helps explain why the term Victorian era doesn’t necessarily refer to the UK during Victoria’s reign, but rather the whole world during a time when the might of the largest empire was felt even by those not directly under its thumb.
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Plenty of other memorable events happened in the UK and beyond while its leaders were land-grabbing throughout the mid- to late 19th century. The Great Famine devastated Ireland in 1845, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and Jack the Ripper went on his infamous killing spree in 1888 (Queen Victoria’s grandson later became a suspect). Notable inventions included the telegraph, the telephone, and the smallpox vaccine. Victorian hobbies were weird, Victorian fashion was potentially lethal, and both Victorian sex advice and Victorian medical advice were dubious at best.
The cultural and socioeconomic atmosphere of the Victorian era was captured by Charles Dickens in classics like A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. You could say it was the best of times, it was the worst of times (though Dickens wrote that line about the years leading up to the French Revolution).
What Was Before the Victorian Era?
The Victorian era was preceded by the Georgian period or Georgian era, which spanned the reigns of four Georges and a William. When Queen Anne (portrayed by Olivia Colman in 2018’s The Favourite) died heirless in 1714, the throne went to George I of Germany’s House of Hanover. He wasn’t Queen Anne’s closest relative, but he was her closest Protestant relative—and the 1701 Act of Settlement had forbidden Roman Catholics to rule Britain.
George I was followed by a string of fellow Hanoverians: George II (who ruled from 1727 to 1760), George III (1760 to 1820), and George IV (1820 to 1830). Because of George III’s issues with mental illness, his son, George IV, took over as Prince Regent in 1811. Those nine years before he became king are called the Regency period or Regency era—perhaps best known for being Jane Austen’s heyday (more recently, Netflix's Bridgerton is also set during the Regency era).
Like Queen Anne, George IV died heirless, so his younger brother William became King William IV in 1830. Since he only ruled for seven years—and was a member of the House of Hanover—his reign is generally considered part of the Georgian period, too.
Who Succeeded Queen Victoria?
As a granddaughter of George III, Victoria was also a member of the House of Hanover, but she was the last Hanoverian to sit on the throne of England. She was succeeded by her son, Edward VII, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Edward VII’s reign, known as the Edwardian era or Edwardian period, lasted from 1901 until his death in 1910. His son, George V, took over from there. Since things were pretty much business as usual until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, some historians consider the Edwardian era’s end date to be 1914.
The practice of naming eras after British rulers ended with Edward VII, but the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty is technically still going strong. Today, we know it by another name—Windsor, which George V chose in 1917 because Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded too German.