There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Shootist, John Wayne’s last film, in which the character he portrays, John B. Books, reads about the death of Queen Victoria. He obviously admires the Queen, and the audience quickly sees that her death symbolizes the death of the Nineteenth Century, the marvelous and adventurous era shared by the Queen and Books, and that Books realizes that his time has ended, just as his life is about to end. The Shootist of course is even more poignant in retrospect as it marked the passing of the classic western and is a fitting coda to the film career of Mr. Wayne.
Throughout the Nineteenth Century, Victoria symbolized the British Empire for most Americans. She helped soften the traditional hostility felt by most Americans towards the Empire. Her husband Prince Albert, in almost his dying act, helped in averting war between Great Britain and the US over the Trent Affair in 1861 by softening what would have been a very belligerent British ultimatum over the Union seizure from a British ship of Confederate emissaries:
“The Queen … should have liked to have seen the expression of a hope [in the message to Seward] that the American captain did not act under instructions, or, if he did that he misapprehended them [and] that the United States government must be fully aware that the British Government could not allow its flag to be insulted, and the security of her mail communications to be placed in jeopardy, and [that] Her Majesty’s Government are unwilling to believe that the United States Government intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country and to add to their many distressing complications by forcing a question of dispute upon us, and that we are therefore glad to believe … that they would spontaneously offer such redress as alone could satisfy this country, viz: the restoration of the unfortunate passengers and a suitable apology.”
Prince Albert was aided in his efforts by the common sense of President Lincoln:
I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting … on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for sixty years.
Great Britain and the US shed a great deal of mutual animosity during the reign of Queen Victoria, and to that both peoples owe a debt of gratitude to a woman and her family who helped avoid conflict between two branches of the English speaking peoples