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How Queen Victoria made her mark in Canada — without ever visiting

Two hundred years after her birth, Queen Victoria still makes her mark in the United Kingdom as well as in Canada. Also, Queen Elizabeth delays leaving for her summer holiday as Britain gets a new prime minister.

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Queen Elizabeth views the exhibition to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria for the summer opening of Buckingham Palace. (Victoria Jones/Getty Images)

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There was a certain poignancy in pictures from Buckingham Palace the other day, as they captured the current Queen in quiet contemplation of how her great-great-grandmother made her mark as monarch more than a century ago.

Two hundred years after her birth, Queen Victoria is the focus of a special exhibit at the palace during its annual summer opening for admission-paying visitors.

It's an exhibit that has attracted attention for some of the more unusual features on display, such as baby teeth of Victoria's children — kept in an elaborate, tiny gilt and metal casket — and white marble casts of their little arms and legs.

But those behind the exhibit see larger themes at play, including one that speaks to the role and influence Victoria had over her 63-year reign, particularly the impact of a "feminist transformation" at the palace during her time there.

Queen Victoria, shown around 1860, came to the throne at age 18 in 1837. (London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The exhibit "argues that Victoria's building program at Buckingham Palace helped to redefine the monarchy for the modern age," co-curator Amanda Foreman wrote recently in The Sunday Times. 

"The new design enabled a more open, welcoming and inclusive relationship to develop between the Royal Family and the public."

And in that, there's a parallel to the influence Victoria had for Canada.

Not that she actually came to Canada, even though she was invited, particularly to open Canada's first Parliament after Confederation in 1867. (She was in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, and wasn't interested in going on any big sea voyages.)

But during her reign, all four of her sons and her daughter, Princess Louise, spent time in Canada. 

"It's really the next generation with her children that we start seeing … [the] transatlantic royal tours that continue to the present day," Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said. "We start seeing in her reign these precedents for how the Royal Family engages with Canadians."

Victoria's influence in Canada and involvement in its historical development date to the earliest days of her reign. 

"It's really her accession to the throne in 1837 in the midst of the 1837 rebellions where we start seeing Queen Victoria and Canadian history intersecting," said Harris. 

Queen Elizabeth looks at a Victorian illusion technique known as Peppers Ghost of a waltz danced at the Crimean Ball of 1856, in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace, as part of the exhibition to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria. (Victoria Jones/Getty Images)

And when it came to Confederation, she was a unifying force.

"The Fathers of Confederation had very different views concerning the future of Canada and even the feasibility of Confederation as a project," said Harris.

John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier travelled to London, and Victoria expressed her support for Confederation.

"The fact that the Queen was supportive was a way of bringing together political figures with very different views regarding the future of Canada," said Harris.

Victoria's influence was more personal, too.

"The social impact in her time was profound," said Harris, who related a story of how author Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote in the 1920s that when she was a child, every household had an image of Queen Victoria. "That was her memory of growing up in Prince Edward Island."

Victoria was held up as a woman to emulate, even though she wasn't particularly supportive of greater rights for women in the public sphere (she didn't support votes for women, for example).

"But the fact that she was a female head of state meant that she was an inspirational figure for many," said Harris.

New, modern artwork featuring Queen Victoria is hanging in the Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria. (Fairmont Empress)

She was also an inspirational figure when it came to naming numerous Canadian communities (Victoria and Regina, for example), streets, natural features and institutions like Queen's Park in Toronto. Even the occasional hotel — the Empress, now the Fairmont Empress, in, of course, Victoria — found the origins of its name in the monarch (who was also Empress of India). 

Victoria's birthday, May 24, became a holiday, first for the province of Canada in 1845, and then a national holiday in 1901. (This year, Victoria Day teas at museums, pioneer villages as well as the Empress over the holiday weekend in May marked her 200th birthday.) 

"Queen Victoria is one of those figures like Prince Rupert who never set foot in Canada," said Harris, "and yet has their name on the map, had a strong cultural influence and an impact on the direction of Canadian history, so she's fascinating in that way."

Prince George turns 6

Prince George poses for a photo taken by his mother, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, in the garden of their home at Kensington Palace in London. (The Duchess of Cambridge via AP)

It's become something of a rite of passage, at least in Prince William and Kate's young family: a child has a birthday and there's a carefully curated selection of photos released of the young royal snapped by their mom.

The tradition continued with pictures marking Prince George's sixth birthday, on July 22. Three photos captured the gap-toothed lad looking very happy or slightly pensive.

Observers were quick to try and decipher any and all possible meanings from the pictures, particularly based on the clothes George was wearing. And there's every reason to think there was some deliberate messaging at play.

In two of the photos, the young prince was sporting a shirt featuring a logo of the English national football (soccer) team. Dad William is a big fan and president of the Football Association. 

In the third photo, George was wearing a very modestly priced green polo shirt from H&M. And in that, there could very likely be an attempt by his media-conscious parents to make a young royal look like any other six-year-old ready to play on a warm, sunny day.

Holiday delay

Queen Elizabeth welcomes newly elected leader of the Conservative Party Boris Johnson during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, on July 24, 2019, where she invited him to become British prime minister and form a new government. (Victoria Jones/The Associated Press)

Even the Queen may sometimes have to juggle her holidays when something comes up to alter the usual schedule.

Reports suggest Elizabeth delayed her annual departure for her summer stay at Balmoral in Scotland because Britain was getting a new prime minister.

Elizabeth welcomed Boris Johnson to Buckingham Palace on July 24 as the new leader of the Conservative Party succeeded Theresa May as PM.

Johnson becomes the 14th British prime minister during the Queen's reign. (Her first was Winston Churchill, when she ascended to the throne in 1952.)

Fanning the speculation

The picture of Johnson making history meeting the Queen caught a lot of attention for a far more prosaic reason.

London was in the midst of a spell of very warm weather this week, and observers were quick to note that even Buckingham Palace was trying to cool things down.

A fan over by a fireplace sparked a lot of commentary. Even the make — a  Dyson — drew attention, particularly because inventor James Dyson hasn't been shy about his support for Brexit. There's been speculation about just how members of the Royal Family feel about the country's pending departure from the European Union.

It's hardly the first time photos from inside royal palaces and residences have drawn attention beyond the individuals pictured. Public glimpses inside the buildings are relatively rare, so any opportunity to see inside is parsed — perhaps well beyond any real significance. 

Royally quotable

Prince Harry chats with primatologist Jane Goodall at Windsor Castle on July 23, 2019. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images)

"As my grandmother The Queen once said, 'Sometimes the world's problems are so big we think we can do little to help. On our own we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine."

— Prince Harry, as he met students in conservationist Jane Goodall's environmental program Roots & Shoots at Windsor Castle. (Goodall also had a chance to meet Harry's son, Archie, and said the baby was "very cute, very gentle.")

Royals in Canada

Queen Elizabeth accepts a baton from Canadian athlete Diane Jones Konihowski. The baton contained the opening speech from the Queen sent from Buckingham Palace for the 11th Commonwealth Games, which she opened on Aug. 3, 1978, in Edmonton. (Rod MacIvor/The Canadian Press)

Two years after the Queen came to Montreal in 1976 and officially opened the Summer Olympics, she was back in Canada for another sporting event.

Elizabeth arrived on July 26, 1978, with Prince Philip and sons Princes Andrew and Edward for a visit that took them to Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta. 

She was on hand in Edmonton on Aug. 3 to open the 11th Commonwealth Games, becoming the first reigning monarch to do so in the half-century history of the games.

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About the Author

Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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