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A Staircase and a Queen: Making Royal History

Queen Victoria’s accession began with a staircase. Fascinating to consider is the fact that this very staircase survives at Kensington Palace and may be seen today. A staircase had also played a part on another historic day in Victoria’s life, much later. On 10 October 1839, the young Queen stood at the top of the staircase at Windsor Castle, at half-past seven in the evening, to receive her German cousins, Prince Albert and Ernest of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who had come to visit. This time it was the fateful meeting that led to their formal betrothal on 15 October; Prince Albert had visited England in May 1836 with his brother Prince Ernest, but was only aged sixteen at the time. We must assume that this was the main staircase in the Queen’s Private Apartments at Windsor; at least, her journal does not state otherwise.

The Kensington Palace staircase was significant for her in a different way, marking her beginning as a British monarch. Descending this staircase, Princess Victoria must have been reasonably sure what news awaited her at the end of it. Her journal for the preceding week of June 1837 makes it clear that the death of her uncle, King William IV was very much expected. When told of the King’s state of health the day before his death, Princess Victoria ‘turned pale and burst into tears’ (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 51). The Queen’s long journal entry for that important day – that of her accession, 20 June 1837 – describes how she was woken at 6 o’clock in the morning by the Duchess of Kent, who told her daughter that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain wanted to see her (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, 75). The Duchess did not wake her daughter immediately, explaining simply that she was sleeping. It was only the words ‘The Queen’ which told the Duchess the reason for their visit. The King’s death meant her own daughter’s accession as Queen. The Duchess later wrote in her diary that she then ‘awoke the dear Child with a kiss’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria 64); they proceeded through the anteroom, to the King’s Backstairs.

Princess Victoria shared her bedroom with her mother, the Duchess of Kent since her childhood. So guarded was she as Princess, that her beloved governess, Baroness Lehzen, stayed in the bedroom until the Duchess of Kent went to bed, although Lehzen did not sleep in the same room as her charge. This historic room, where Victoria was awoken – having been technically Queen for some three and a half hours – is not currently accessible at Kensington Palace, the bed which was once in it, now in storage at Buckingham Palace. The private staircase which led down from the bedroom was hardly unique in the nature of royal rooms, marking the growing need for privacy as well as ease of access, but this staircase is symbolic in other ways, too. Princess Victoria had been so protected, that she had not even been allowed to descend the staircase alone, someone always been required to hold her hand.

Years ago, I was given the privileged opportunity to descend this staircase, to what was Princess Victoria’s private sitting room, where she received the news of her uncle’s death and her accession. These are the kind of moments where history becomes experiential in a way in which no written record can quite give the same insight. The private staircase was incredibly steep, and I was able to understand just why Princess Victoria’s hand had been held when she climbed down it. It may have been more than just over-protection, as much as to shield the British heir apparent from a hapless accident.

The private staircase that led down from Princess Victoria’s bedroom at Kensington Palace (Photo/©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018)

The Duchess of Kent held her hand as she descended the staircase on that early morning in June 1837 too, (Ibid, 51), most likely aware that she was now leading her daughter downstairs to be told she was, at last, Queen of England. The Duchess of Kent was carrying a silver candlestick – which may perhaps be the candlestick that features in the painting by the artist Henry Tanworth Wells, recording the event, some fifty years later. Baroness Lehzen followed on behind, with smelling salts. But the young Victoria was composed.

Reading Victoria’s first journal entry as Queen, we may be struck by the decidedly independent tone of it, which was deliberately chosen. In the surviving typescript by Lord Esher, we see that Queen Victoria has underlined the day once and the rest of the date twice, as well as underscoring the word ‘Queen’. We read in her own words that she got out of bed and went into the sitting-room in her cotton dressing gown, where the Lord Chamberlain informed her of the death of her uncle, William IV ‘at 12 minutes past 2 this morning’, after which we get the famous words ‘and consequently that I am Queen’. The journal entry continues with various references to her rooms at Kensington Palace, such as having her dinner ‘upstairs alone’. ‘Alone’ is of course, the most striking feature of her diary entry for that day.  That same day, her bed had been taken out of the bedroom she had shared for so long with her mother. A doorway was made to join Lehzen’s bedroom with the room she would sleep in. That evening, she significantly went downstairs to wish in language which is stark in its formality: to say ‘goodnight to Mama etc.’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 56).

Queen Victoria receiving the news of her accession at Kensington Palace, 20 June 1837, after Henry Tanworth Wells (After Henry Tanworth Wells [United States Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I wonder where Princess Victoria moved her bed within Kensington Palace. Her rooms were after all, on the level with the King’s Apartments, with one chamber separating her bedroom from the colossal Cupola Room designed by the great William Kent, in which she had been christened, in the presence of her parents and King George IV. The Duke of Kent had requested before Princess Victoria’s birth, that he and the Duchess should be allowed newly renovated apartments at Kensington Palace (Ibid, 10). His original (surviving) apartments at Kensington Palace were on two floors in the south-east corner of the palace, but are no longer recognisable within the modern configuration of the Palace’s (accessible) rooms. When Queen Victoria visited Kensington Palace in 1899, shortly before the palace was opened to the public, her journal describes the rooms that she revisited. Perhaps significantly, the former bedroom she had shared with her mother, nor the staircase or room in which she was told the news of her accession, are not mentioned.

The presentation of the rooms at Kensington Palace do allow some glimpses, however, of that historic staircase, down which a young eighteen-year-old Princess descended, in her dressing gown. We must suppose that there was a surreal quality to that morning, being roused from sleep to be told such a message of such extraordinary personal (and public) import. There is a sense of destiny about this private back staircase because of the weight of what it witnessed, that morning in June 1837. A Princess descended it; a Queen emerged downstairs.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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