The Secret of England’s Greatness:

Queen Victoria and Fake News

The Secret of England’s Greatness (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the audience chamber at Windsor) – Thomas Jones Barker 1862-63 [1]

There are few figures as emblematic of an age than Queen Victoria, making it unsurprising that The British Workman would hold her in such high regard. She is cited several times in articles, often relating to her great faith and her kindness towards the common man (see e.g. “Queen Victoria and the Scotchman” or “Tales of the Sea“). However, it bears examining just how accurate these stories were, and what this can tell us about the media of the time.

A popular anecdote was featured in The British Workman as “Queen Victoria and the Bible” and provided the inspiration for the above portrait painted by Thomas Jones Barker (Lynda Nead and others have written of this previously). The story contends that, on being asked by an African diplomatic delegation as to ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness,’ Victoria handed them a copy of the Bible. Such a story would display an inspiring sense of faith and statesmanship on the part of Victoria, while also underpinning the perceived divine right and providence of the British Empire as a whole. However, it comes with the unfortunate caveat that it is largely unfounded.

British Workman No.8 1855

The rather hazy details of which nation the delegation was received from do not help the case, and the lack of concrete details as a whole makes it difficult to say for certain whether it ever actually occurred. While Victoria certainly entertained diplomats, we have no reliable records as to when or with whom such an exchange could have taken place. It is likely that details in the portrait could have been warped even further in the name of artistic license.

So why should we be worried about an entirely plausible event being reported as a fact without the evidence to verify it? Here we might draw a link between the Victorian explosion of reporting through cheap and readily available journals, and our own modern reaction to the influx of reporting through online media. The many possible channels of reporting with very little oversight leads to the proliferation of such stories that we might now label ‘fake news.’ The public becomes so overwhelmed by the breadth of information they receive that it becomes difficult to know what to believe.

It’s also worth thinking about the way in which such false reporting functions in a periodical that deals in both fact and fiction. The line between the two becomes blurred, and some readers may begin to interpret the prose fiction as being literally true.

In this way we can see that the reporting of news becomes less of an effort to reach an honest truth but is more of a tool for social control. One that is very much meant to maintain a social order and hierarchy. The role of Victoria as an actual leader becomes less important than her value as a figurehead or symbol for a specific form of nationalism. Whether our modern media does any better at accurately portraying our modern leaders remains up for debate.

[1] National Portrait Gallery licensed under Creative Commons