Recent episodes of ITV historical drama Victoria have given us a better look at Nigel Lindsay’s Tory leader Sir Robert Peel, a political giant soon to become a significant figure in Victoria’s reign.
But who was Sir Robert in real life, how did he come to power and what was his relationship like with the real version of Jenna Coleman’s monarch and Tom Hughes’ Prince Albert?
Read on to find out…
Early life and career
A portrait of the real Sir Robert Peel
Peel was born in Lancashire to industrialist and MP Sir Robert Peel senior, and was educated at Harrow and Oxford University. After studying law he entered Parliament as an MP aged 21 in 1809, elected in the “rotten borough” (ie a small constituency with barely anyone living there, which allowed someone to become a full MP with fewer votes) of Cashel, Tipperary in Ireland, then under British rule.
After a few small-time jobs in the Tory governments over the years, Peel became Home Secretary in 1822, where he famously established the Metropolitan Police Force for London and reformed criminal law to reduce the number of offences punishable by death and educate prisoners (among other policies). Peel’s police force became the model for departments all around the country, with policemen nicknamed “peelers” or “Bobbies” after him for years afterwards.
In 1834, three years before the events of Victoria, Peel became Prime Minister of a minority Tory government, though his government struggled to pass legislation against the majority of the rival Whig party and eventually resigned in frustration after just 100 days or so in power.
Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell in the series) and the Whig party took power back in 1835, leaving Peel as the leader of the opposition party as he’s found when the TV series begins.
The Bedchamber crisis
Nigel Lindsay as Sir Robert in ITV’s Victoria
As seen in episode two of Victoria, in 1839 Peel was offered the chance to form a government by Queen Victoria, but fell foul of the monarch after asking her to replace Whig members of her household with Tory equivalents. Victoria refused to dismiss her female friends (many of whom were married or related to Whig ministers and MPs), so Peel in turn refused to form a government and the Whigs (led by Lord Melbourne) returned to power.
Becoming Prime Minister
A couple of years after the Bedchamber crisis, Sir Robert was given another chance to lead a government after Lord Melbourne lost two votes of no confidence and resigned from office.
In his time as Prime Minister, Peel brokered several reforms to the financial and manufacturing industries, including limiting the number of hours women and children could work and raising safety standard in factories.
Peel also managed to repeal the Corn Laws, which restricted grain imports from abroad in order to support local British farming, after the Irish famine left many in the country starving to death.
Sir Robert and Queen Victoria
Victoria depicts the young queen as not being overly fond of Peel, which is drawn from real life – when she first met the politician she apparently found him awkward and difficult to talk to, with irritating personal habits, which didn’t help his case when he asked her to make household changes in 1839.
However, when Lord Melbourne finally stepped down as Prime Minister and Peel took up the job, Victoria’s opinion of Sir Robert began to change, largely thanks to husband Prince Albert’s high opinion of the Tory leader.
Over the years the pair worked well together, with Peel following secondhand advice from Lord Melbourne about how to deal with Victoria and having her eventually come to trust him.
When Sir Robert died in 1850 the Queen lamented the loss of “a kind and true friend”, describing him as “worthy Peel, a man of unbounded loyalty, courage, patriotism and high-mindedness”.
Sir Robert and Prince Albert
As depicted in the ITV series, Peel and Prince Albert seemed to get on well in real life, with Albert’s admiration for the Tory leader persuading Queen Victoria to soften her previously-hostile attitude towards him.
Later, Albert also showed support for Peel’s various political reforms around child labour and free trade, though was criticised by rival MPs for attending the 1846 Corn Laws debate (see below) in the House of Commons to tacitly demonstrate his approval of Peel’s repeals.
In 1843 Peel had an early brush with death, when a mentally ill Scottish woodsman called Daniel M’Naghten (above) stalked him for days before making a move on Peel’s life. However, M’Naghten ended up accidentally killing Peel’s personal secretary Edward Drummond instead, leaving the Prime Minister free to continue in his position for another three years.
Unfortunately Peel’s repealing of the Corn Laws (see above) proved unpopular with his own party, forcing him to team up with MPs from the Whig and Radical parties to get his repeal bill passed in 1846. On the same day another bill from Peel called The Irish Coercion Bill (intended to restore law and order to Ireland) was defeated in the House of Commons, and Peel resigned from his position.
Effectively, repealing the Corn Laws cost Peel his premiership, which most historians agree Peel knew would happen – though some think it was less to do with humanitarian principles, and more to do with Peel’s ideological belief in free trade without import restrictions.