IN OUR MODERN world important, fateful news is announced by the press of a button; but the Britain we know today was very different 163 years ago. One can hear the sound and imagine the furious galloping of the horses through the night of June 19th, 1837.
King William was dying at Windsor Castle. It was early morning on the 20th that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Howley, and Lord Chamberlain, the Marquis of Conyngham, reached Kensington Palace to summon Princess Victoria to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland. The King had died.
It took ages for the Archbishop and the Lord Chamberlain to raise any servant to open the door. They asked to see the Princess and they were told that Her Royal Highness was asleep and could not be disturbed. Increasingly impatient, the two men told the servant that they had come on “Business of State” and even her sleep must give way to that.
A contemporary described it thus: “In a few minutes she (the Princess) came into the room in a loose white nightgown and shawl, her night cap thrown off, and her hair falling on her shoulders, her feet in sleepers, tears in her eye, but perfectly collected and dignified”.
The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, had been summoned and in his diary Charles Greville describes how the young Queen met the Privy Council.“Nevere e was there anything like the first impression she produced, or the chorus of praise and admiration which is raised about her manner and behaviour, and certainly not without justice. It was extraordinary and something that was far beyond what was expected. Her extreme youth and inexperience naturally excited great curiosity – how she would act on this trying occasion, and there was considerable assemblage at the palace, not withstanding the short notice that was given.”
The eighteen year-old, now Queen, dressed in black, took her seat and in a clear and calm accent started to read her speech. After having taken the oath to maintain the security of the Church of Scotland, she received the allegiance of the Privy Councillors present.
The Royal Dukes, Victoria’ s uncles, knelt before her. She looked quite surprised as she felt the contrast between the civil and natural relations. The day continued with ceremonies and Queen Victoria did not cease to amaze all her Ministers in the way she bore herself with dignity and composure.
This remarkable young lady was born on May 24, 1819, at Kensington Palace. She did not lack illustrious ancestors. The legend wants us to believe that her ancestry can be traced to Odoacer, a warlike chief of the Heruli, who after defeating the forces of the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus in the Christian era in 476, disputed the kingdom of Italy with Theodoric the Ostrogoth.
In verifiable history one of her famous ancestors, on her mother’s side, was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony in the early years of the sixteenth century. The man she was to marry, Prince Albert, was also descended from the same family and the Queen’s children were therefore connected to the most distinguished German family of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, was the fourth son of George III. Her mother was Her Serene Highness Victoria Maria Luisa, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She was a widow and her first husband was the Prince of Leiningen.
In their history the Saxon family had shown themselves to be leaders and warriors; however, the Duchess of Kent’s father was a man who was inclined to pacifism and keen on arts. The Duke of Kent was a man who believed that the government is for the people and his ideas and attiutude were decidedly democratic in a time when the ruling classes and the court were fanatically on the side of the “Tory”.
He had been trained in the military and – like his father, George III – he was irreproachable in his private life, fair in business. and intellectually superior to his father During a state banquet when he replied to the toast “of the Junior Members of the Royal family” he declared he was a friend of civil and religious liberty, all the world over. “I am a supporter of a general system of education. e e All men are my brothers; and I hold that power is delegated only for the benefit of the people . . . Not all the members of the Royal Family hold the same principle. I do not blame them, but we claim for ourselves the right of thinking and acting as we think best”.
The Duke had not married until after the death of Princess Charlotte on the 6th November 1817. She was the only child of the Prince Regent, later George IV, and she married, in 1816, Prince Leopold, third son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and brother to Princess Victoria Mary Luisa, who later become the Duchess e of Kent and Queen Victoria’s mother.
Princess Charlotte died in childbirth – the child was still-born and the line of succession to the throne was in a precarious state. In 1818, the Duke of Clarence, third son of George III, and later William IV; the Duke of Kent, and the Duke of Cambridge all married. As the Duke of Clarence, elder brother of the Duke of Kent, did not have any issue that survived – and thus Princess Victoria became Heiress-presumptive to the crown of Great Britain.
For financial reasons, the Duke and Duchess of Kent lived abroad for some time but returned to England in April 1819 for the birth of their child. For some time the Duke of Kent had not been very close to the Prince Regent, but after the birth of Victoria their relationship improved.
On the 24th of June, the gold font was brought from The Tower of London and the baby was christened Alexandrina Victoria. The main sponsors to the christening were the Prince Regent and the Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the latter represented by the Duke of York. Later, “Alexandrina” was dropped and the Princess became known as Victoria – a far nobler-sounding name, it was felt.
For a brief spell the Duke of Kent lived at Claremont, which had been the residence of Charlotte and Prince Leopold. But during the exceptionally cold winter of 1819-20, the Duke and Duchess visited Sidmouth for the milder climate. During a severe cold spell, the Duke visited Salisbury Cathedral and there he caught a chill – initially, it did not seem serious but turned into an illness that caused internal bleeding and the Duke died on January 23, 1820. His daughter, the little Princess was just eight months old.
The young child spent her time in Kensington Palace, which dates from the time of William III. In earlier times, the Earls of Nottingham had a mansion in the same grounds and a small portion of that still existed at the time. Additions to this famous Palace had been by the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren. The palace was subsequently enlarged by other sovereigns and for a great part of the eighteenth century Kensington Palace, was the most elegant and courtly palace in London. It was the place to entertain, to parade in its gardens and – like many other stately homes which survive several generations – was the place where death was a regular visitor – William III, Queen Mary, Queen Anne, Prince George of Denmark and King George II all died there.
The residence fell out of favour with George III. All the bright lights and laughter seemed to have gone and the palace assumed a more sombre, if not depressing, character. In these surroundings, Victoria was brought up. Her mother, when her first husband died in 1814, was left to bring up her young sons – by all accounts very ably.
She applied the same fairness in Victoria’s upbringing. She was not pressured academically at a very young age, although she grew with a good knowledge of languages and was a keen pianist. Victoria was not exposed to the outside world but she was a very affable child. She was influenced by the great philanthropist William Wilberforce whom she saw often. George IV was not close to Victoria nor her mother, but the Duke of Clarence, Victoria’s uncle, and his wife Adelaide were very kind to the child.
She was a diligent student but did not much enjoy to be bound by rules. There is an anecdote about Victoria’s objecting to mechanical practising of the piano. When she was told she could not become mistress of the instrument without proper practice she replied: “I will show you how I could become mistress at once”. She closed the piano, locked it and took the key. “I am now the mistress of the piano.” But she did go back to her practice.
There also were rumours that Victoria’s health was not good and if she married she could not have a family, and this created the uncomfortable possibility that the Duke of Cumberland might succeed the throne – and he was generally disliked and thought very arrogant.
In 1825, an additional grant of £6,000 was given to the Duchess of Kent to ensure her six year-old daughter was brought up befitting her status. George IV, who had become more mellow towards his sister-in-law and his niece, died in 1830. William IV succeeded to the throne on June 26, 1830, and, as the Duke of York had died in 1827, Victoria was in direct succession to the British Crown. The new King appointed the Duchess of Northumberland as governess to Victoria and this was of great benefit to the young Princess.
Both the Princess and her mother were absent at the Coronation of her uncle in 1831. It was rumoured that she was no longer in the good graces of the new King. However, this was not the case as Queen Adelaide, a few months earlier, had given a magnificent ball in Victoria’s honour.
Parliament also increased the Princess’s allowance by another £10,000 . . . but still she lived a very sequestered life. In July, 1834, Princess Victoria was confirmed by the Archbishops of Canterbury in the Chapel of St. James. The remainder of that year was uneventful but for a kind gesture of the young Princess when she visited Tunbridge Wells.
The husband of a young actress, who worked in the local theatre, had died on the day of her confinement and she was left poverty-stricken. Victoria asked her mother for £10 and she added £10 of her own to give to the young widow. After she became Queen, Victoria gave the actress an annuity of £40 for the remainder of her life.
On May 24, 1837 Princess Victoria became of age by the provision of the Act of Parliament. She was eighteen. That day it was declared a general holiday and Kensington Palace resounded with festivities and a serenade was performed under the Palace windows. The King gave Victoria a magnificent pianoforte. Within a month, he was dead and Victoria had become Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
(First published in Royalty Magazine in 2004.)