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Becoming Victoria

Hanging in the magnificent Waterloo Chamber at Windsor is the state portrait of King William IV in his Garter robes with the Garter and Bath collars, painted by Sir David Wilkie for the King in 1832, that parliamentary historic year of the Reform Act and also the year in which the young Princess Victoria of Kent, began her great journal.

In the context of the Waterloo Chamber, the portrait is but one in a splendid gallery of those monarchs and generals who were instrumental in defeating Napolean Bonaparte in 1815; part of the State Apartments, the Chamber was added to Windsor Castle by George IV. The fact that the portrait is at Windsor, however, has a secondary poignancy. It was at Windsor Castle that William IV died.

The death of William IV in 1837 meant that the young Victoria lost an uncle and a King, which automatically meant that the news of his passing translated to her knowledge that she was Queen. Victoria’s accession as Queen, had, of course, meant his death, so the messengers who drove over that night from Windsor to Kensington and told her that the King had died, were also telling her that she had become a monarch in her own right. The private, emotional moment of accession is loaded with pathos, long before the coronation itself – we need only remember the vignette of Queen Elizabeth I under the oak tree at Hatfield, quoting Psalm 118, as she learned of her accession in 1558. Victoria had properly learned of her place in the British succession when her governess Baroness Lehzen placed a genealogical table before her, which clearly showed that she followed after her uncle, King William IV, after that she exclaimed: ‘I never saw that before… I see I am nearer to the throne than I thought’ and burst into tears. (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 29).

Princess Victoria was fond of her uncle William IV and Queen Adelaide; the Queen had doted on Victoria since she was a small child, calling her ‘MY DEAR LITTLE HEART’ in little letters as early as 1821 when Victoria was a mere two years old, and she was still Duchess of Clarence. For Victoria’s third birthday, the Duchess wrote: ‘Uncle William and Aunt Adelaide send their love to dear little Victoria with their best wishes on her birthday, and hope that she will now become a very good Girl, being now three years old… Uncle William and Aunt Adelaide are very sorry to be absent on that day and not to see their dear, dear little Victoria…’ (Quoted in A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, pp. 31-32). This is all the more touching when we realise that the Duchess had herself lost her surviving child, Princess Elizabeth of Clarence, at the age of three months in 1821. The Duchess had written a little note to Princess Victoria – perhaps the earliest letter ever written to the future Queen to survive – in May 1821, a mere two months after the death of her own daughter: ‘MY DEAR LITTLE HEART, I hope you are well and don’t forget Aunt Adelaide, who loves you so fondly. Loulou and Wilhelm desire their love to you, and Uncle William also. God bless and preserve you is the constant prayer of your most truly affectionate Aunt, Adelaide.’ (Quoted in Ibid, 31).

The young Victoria was not unprepared for her accession, and we must suppose that she viewed the coming months of her uncle’s final illness with a growing sense of the purport of what this would herald in her own life. We can quickly gather from her journal entries for June 1837, that the King’s state of health was steadily sinking. On 15 June 1837, Princess Victoria’s lessons at Kensington Palace were cancelled: ‘The news of the King are so very bad that all my lessons save the Dean’s are put off…’ (Quoted in Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, pp. 97-98), including to her particular regret, her singing lesson with Luigi Lablache (whom she skilfully sketched): ‘the Doctors think my poor uncle the King cannot last more than 48 hours!’ (Quoted in Ibid Pg 98). There is weight in words written by Princess Victoria to her (other) uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, the following day; the tone of the letter is portentous: ‘You know, of course, dear Uncle, how very ill the King is; it may all be over at any moment, and yet may last a few days. Consequently, we have not been out anywhere in public since Tuesday, 6th, and since Wednesday all my lessons are stopped, as the news may arrive very suddenly…’ (Quoted in A.C Benson and Viscount Esher, 72). King Leopold replied from Laeken two days later, in a letter brimming with loving advice of for ‘what is to be done when the King ceases to live’, (Ibid, 72), but significantly, he addresses the letter first and foremost, as ‘My beloved Child’. Whilst King Leopold had ever been – and would continue to be – a father figure to the young (and fatherless) Victoria, the letter is what it is, advice to a soon-to-be fellow monarch, who with this in mind, still very much remained a child in his eyes.

Victoria’s reply to her uncle Leopold again opens a window onto her private feelings at this crucial time. We must imagine she wrote these lines from her desk at Kensington Palace, all too aware that the steady decline of the King’s health brought her ever nearer to the moment of her own accession. On this point, she wrote to King Leopold explicitly, dated 19 June 1837: ‘I look forward to the event which it seems is likely to occur soon, with calmness and quietness; I am not alarmed at it…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 73). It is clear what preceded this in her mind, as she wrote earlier in the letter: ‘The King’s state, I may fairly say, is hopeless. He may perhaps linger a few days, but he cannot recover ultimately… to-day he is a little better… Poor old man! I feel sorry for him; he was always personally kind to me…’ (Ibid, 73). That night, when told of the King’s state, Princess Victoria burst into tears. (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 74). Victoria was nearly Queen Victoria.

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)

The following morning, it finally happened, in Princess Victoria’s words: I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen’. (Quoted in 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 of Kent had followed the Princess downstairs – the private staircase still survives at Kensington Palace – accompanied by Baroness Lehzen, who held smelling salts. It was that celebrated moment of her accession, so famously imagined by the artist Henry Tanworth Wells. Importantly, it was to King Leopold that Victoria sat down to write to as Queen, because she headed her letter (‘half-past eight AM’): ‘Dearest, most beloved Uncle, – Two words only, to tell you that my poor Uncle, the King, expired this morning at twelve minutes past two… Ever, my beloved Uncle, your devoted and attached Niece, Victoria R’. (Quoted in A.C. Benson and Viscount Esher, 74). To her beloved half-sister Princess Feodore, she signed herself, her ‘devoted attached Sister, V.R’. (Quoted in Hibbert, 54).

Queen Adelaide had remained with her husband on his deathbed for some ten days. It appears that the King had begged his doctors to somehow see him through another anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, 18 June. (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 73). He received the last Sacrament before he died, in the presence of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Queen Adelaide wrote to Queen Victoria from Windsor the same day: ‘My dearest Niece… I feel most grateful for your kind letter full of sympathy with my irreparable loss… I am, as you may suppose, deeply affected by all the sad scenes I have gone through lately… allow me to consider myself always as your Majesty’s most affectionate Friend, Aunt, and Subject, Adelaide’. (Quoted in A. C Benson and Viscount Esher, pp. 74-75). The Lord Chamberlain and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s action was symbolic of the swift shift of the crown; leaving the deathbed of the dead King, they set out immediately for Kensington, to the new Queen.

The Queen was particularly attentive to her widowed aunt, of whom she was genuinely fond, offering condolence visits some two or three days afterwards, together with her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Victoria was also sensitively concerned that Queen Adelaide should not be referred to as ‘Her Majesty the Queen Dowager’ because she wished not to cause her aunt pain by changing how she referred to Queen Adelaide’s altered status. Queen Victoria had ‘[begged] her [Queen Adelaide] to consult nothing but her own health and convenience, and to remain at Windsor just as long as she pleases’. (Charles Greville, The Greville Memoirs, 1814-1861, Vol III, 375). One of the most touching letters from Queen Adelaide was written to Queen Victoria from Windsor on 7 July 1837: ‘My dearest Niece, – I must, before I leave this dear Castle, once more express to you the grateful sense I entertain for the kind treatment I have experienced from you…’ (Quoted in A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, 84).

Queen Victoria held her first Privy Council in the Red Saloon at Kensington Palace, in a now rust-coloured dress, which was once a black dress for mourning. This was of course, entirely natural that she should do so, as this was the immediate mourning worn for the late King. This so-called ‘Privy Council Dress’ is preserved in the Royal Collection and is believed to have been the dress worn by the new Queen on this occasion; a fitting comment perhaps, that the Queen who should so come to symbolize mourning, should wear this on her accession, although in this, she was merely adhering to royal precedents. The ‘General Mourning for His Late Majesty King William the Fourth’ was announced by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, who was responsible for these announcements of court mourning, which for ladies of the court would mean ‘black bombasines, plain muslin or long lawn linen, crape hoods, shamoy shoes and gloves and crape fans…’ (Staniland, 97). The black dress of the Privy Councillors was well captured in the portrait made by Sir David Wilkie – who had painted William IV in the Waterloo Chamber portrait – less so, was his adherence to accuracy in the Queen’s case; he depicted her in white. The Queen disliked the picture, not least for its false rendering of the truth, as she had worn a black dress. With her near-photographic memory, she later declared it was one of the worst she had ever seen. (Hibbert, 54).

King William IV died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, where in December 1861, Prince Albert would die, at the tragically premature age of forty-two.

Victoria had become overnight – Victoria R.

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