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The Bedchamber Crisis

From her accession in 1837 until 1839 the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, had been the Queen's private secretary and close friend. The Queen was surrounded by Whigs who treated her with consideration; she thought of them as her friends. The Tories assumed that they had a Whig sovereign. When Melbourne resigned in 1839 he advised Victoria to appoint Sir Robert Peel as his successor.

Since he would be heading a minority ministry, Peel felt that he needed some mark of confidence from the Queen. He thought that she might make some changes in her household: he did not want her to change any lesser posts but expected that those ladies in the higher offices who were related to Whig ministers should be replaced by Tory ladies. Unfortunately, Peel did not have an easy manner and the Queen found him cold.

Peel asked Lord Ashley (later the Earl of Shaftesbury) to take over the household, telling him that it was a great responsibility to

provide the attendants and companions of this young woman, on whose moral and religious character depends the welfare of millions of human beings

At a second interview with Peel on 9 May, the Queen herself suggested Ashley. Peel then proposed alterations in the higher appointments but the Queen replied that she would make no changes. Peel asked Wellington to see her but he could not persuade her to give way. Victoria then wrote to Melbourne who put the question to Grey and Lord John Russell. They did not seem to understand that Peel wanted only a few changes. They thought that he was pressing his case too strongly; on 10 May Melbourne wrote to the Queen on behalf of his cabinet that they would stand by her. Peel therefore refused to form a ministry. In his letter of resignation he used the phrase 'some changes' in the household. Melbourne pointed out these words to the Queen who answered that, from her point of view, 'some' and 'all' were the same thing.

The whole incident, known as the Bedchamber Crisis, seems to be a storm in a tea-cup. However, Peel had a good case even if his approach had lacked subtlety; the Queen was unreasonable; the Whigs ought not to have advised her until Peel had refused to form a ministry. On the other hand, the Queen was only nineteen years old and was free to choose her closest companions. The Whigs were misled by her statement of the case and ministers would have found it difficult to refuse her appeal.

From a political point of view, the Whigs had little to gain and the Conservatives little to lose. Peel had no wish to lead another minority government as he had in 1834-35 and if his position had been stronger then he might not have insisted on the changes in the household.

The question was settled in a friendly manner between the two parties before Melbourne's final resignation in 1841; the Queen's marriage to Prince Albert in February 1840 put the affair into the background.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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