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‘Dear Uncle King’: George IV and Princess Victoria

With the forthcoming exhibition of the Royal Collection George IV: Art & Spectacle set to open later this year, I want to take a brief look at the relationship between the future Queen Victoria and her paternal uncle, the Prince Regent, later George IV.

The Duke of Kent was deeply concerned that his unborn child should be born on British soil, so that its right to succeed would not be questioned. The Duke was supported in this view by his friend Joseph Hume, who considered that this very right could be ‘challenged, and challenged with effect, from the circumstance of the birth taking place on foreign soil’. (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 10). The Prince Regent’s sister, Princess Augusta informed her brother in a letter that the Prince Regent’s feelings on the subject were ‘most delicate.’ (cit., Flora Fraser, Princesses, pp. 317-18). To do this though, the Duke needed to raise funds, because his demands to the Prince Regent – for a yacht to cross the Channel, the full refurbishment of his Kensington Palace apartments as well as for meals on their arrival in England and the possibility of a house in Brighton or Weymouth – were unfavourably received.

The Prince Regent’s Secretary replied in cool terms to the Duke that if the birth took place outside of Britain, it would therefore spare the heavily pregnant Duchess of the ‘dangers and fatigues of a long journey at [this] moment’. (cit., Ibid, 11). Should the Duke of Kent manage to raise enough money to return with the Duchess, he was informed that he would ‘not expect to meet with a cordial reception’. (cit., Ibid). In the event, the Prince Regent sent a yacht to Calais, which was waiting for the Duke and Duchess of Kent and their suite, to make the Channel crossing.

Portrait of Princess Victoria, after George Hayter, (After George Hayter [United States Public domain or Public domain])

Following the birth of Princess Victoria on the morning of 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace, the first actual time that the baby princess was in the physical presence of her uncle, the Prince Regent, was at her christening, which was performed in the magnificent setting of the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace on 24 June, at three o’clock in the afternoon. The Prince Regent was also present for another reason, as he numbered amongst the godparents of the baby Princess Victoria. Although the Duke and Duchess had sent the Prince Regent a list of baptismal names – Victoire Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta – it was not until the day before the christening that the Prince replied that Georgiana was not a name he approved of, because in the proposed order of names, it preceded that of Alexandrina, which had been put forward in honour of Tsar Alexander I (another of her godfathers), who was to be represented at the christening by the Duke of York. The Prince Regent explained that if his name could not be before that of the Tsar, then ‘he could not allow it to follow’. (cit., Ibid, pp. 12-13). Charlotte he disliked, because it reminded him of his dead daughter, who died the year before the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent and whose premature death as the result of childbirth led to the race amongst the remaining bachelor sons of George III, to marry for the sake of the British succession.

Interestingly, on the death of the Duchess of Kent in 1861, Queen Victoria found whilst going through her mother’s effects, a relic relating to Princess Charlotte and wrote about it in a letter to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, from Osborne, saying that in amongst the things the Duchess had carefully preserved relating to her childhood, including her hair, was also some hair of ‘dear‘ Princess Charlotte’s (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, 560). Princess Charlotte had died at Claremont, in Esher, which had been bought for her and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg – later King of the Belgians.

Queen Victoria spent much time at Claremont as a child – the second recorded payment relating to the baby Princess Victoria occurs in 1820 when her nurse was paid £2 5 s 0 ½ d for ‘Princess Victoria’s washing at Claremont’. (cit., Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 84). The shoes traditionally thought to be Princess Victoria’s baby shoes, were in fact, made by Princess Charlotte’s shoemaker, G. F. Vandervell. (Ibid, 85). Having spent so much time at Claremont, Princess Victoria must presumably have learnt much about the life story and indeed, the death, of Princess Charlotte. Into the 1820s at least, Prince Leopold had preserved the cloak and bonnet worn by Princess Charlotte on their last walk together at Claremont, still in the place where she had left them. (Staniland, 21). She enjoyed her time visiting her uncle at Claremont so much in fact, that she apparently cried when it was time to return to Kensington Palace. (Hibbert, 21). At Claremont, none other than Princess Charlotte’s devoted former dresser, Mrs Louisa Louis, made a fuss of her. Louisa Louis stayed on as housekeeper at Claremont after Princess Charlotte’s death and preserved a good quantity of clothes that had belonged to Charlotte, (Staniland, 21) until her death at Buckingham Palace, in 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

After the death of her uncle King Leopold, Claremont reverted to the Crown, whereupon it was granted to Queen Victoria for life. The Queen used Claremont as a country retreat – it features as a pair of two watercolours in her Souvenir Album – but this practice relaxed after the acquisition of Osborne House in 1845. Later, the Queen granted her youngest son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, use of the estate, on his marriage to Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont, in 1882.

The Prince Regent further commanded that the names of the baby princess would not be confirmed until the ceremony itself, therefore setting the scene for the upsetting nature of what was to follow. The Prince had instructed that there be ‘no dressing up, no uniforms glittering with gold – “as His Royal Highness considers the Ceremony as Private, the dress best suited to the Occasion will be, Frocks”’. (cit., Staniland, 82).

On the day of the christening, the Archbishop of Canterbury paused to receive instruction as to what names he should baptise the baby with, turning first to the Duke and Duchess and then to the Prince Regent, who simply said ‘Alexandrina’. The Duke of Kent suggested ‘Elizabeth’, which the Prince Regent rejected. Looking at the Duchess of Kent, who was by this point in tears, the Prince added almost as an afterthought, the name by which history would come to know her and which in itself, would baptise an entire British age: ‘Give her the mother’s name also then, but it cannot precede that of the Emperor’. (cit., Ibid, 13). The Duchess of Kent’s name was Victoire but this became – Victoria. As Alexandrina Victoria, the princess was christened, although later the Alexandrina was dropped. ‘Drina’ – short for ‘Alexandrina’ became a moniker of her youth.

Princess Victoria in a self-portrait sketch, 1835 (Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom [United States Public domain or Public domain])

The Royal Pavilion at Brighton will of course, be forever foremost associated with the Prince Regent, later George IV, in the popular mind. It was his royal residence by the sea, in addition to the ostentatious glory of Carlton House on the Mall. It was however, also a royal residence for Queen Victoria, as it had been for William IV, whom she succeeded. The Queen made her first visit to the Royal Pavilion in 1837, the year of her accession. Among those who dined as guests at the Royal Pavilion was the politicianThomas Creevey, who recorded his vivid impression of the young Queen: ‘A more homely little being you never beheld… she laughs in real earnest, opening her mouth as wide as it can go, showing not very pretty gums… She eats quite as heartily as she laughs, I think I may say she gobbles…’ Creevey also went on to describe her personal charm: ‘Her voice is perfect, and so is the expression of her face…’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 61-62).

Eight years later, in February 1845, the Queen returned to Brighton, with Prince Albert and the royal children. Winter snow prompted a special messenger to be sent to Windsor to bring Queen Victoria’s sleigh, so that the Royal Family could enjoy the popular pastime of sledging. A delightful hand-coloured lithograph was made of this later, by the monogrammist JWG after B. Herring Junior, showing Queen Victoria and Lady Lyttelton, who held the Princess Royal in her arms, whilst Prince Albert drove the royal sledge. They even drove on one occasion as far out as Clayton Tunnel. (Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 118). The Queen wrote in her journal: ‘At 3 o’clock we went out in it [the sledge] together & I thought it quite charming. […] The horses with their handsome red harness & many bells, had a charming effect. Albert drove from the seat… The bright blue sky & sunshine, together with the sound of the bells, had a very exhilarating effect. We came home even faster than we went, & the air was intensely cold. Our 2 dear ponies ‘Keith’ & ‘Kintore’ went so well…’ (cit., Ibid, 118).

Queen Victoria sold the Royal Pavilion to Brighton for the sum of £50,000 in 1850, ordering the Pavilion to be stripped of its furnishings and interior decorations, which were in turn, to be distributed amongst the royal residences she used, chiefly in this case, to Buckingham Palace.

The Queen’s own personal memories of George IV are of particular historical interest. Her great journal was begun in 1832 – two years after the death of the King – and yet they contain numerous references to him, mainly as ‘George IV’, although in her private memoir of 1872, she went into more detail about her uncle. One August evening in 1836, she visited William IV and Queen Adelaide at Windsor Castle and as part of this visit, she went to see the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel, where she had the poignant encounter of observing the coffin of the Duke of Kent, the father she had never known: ‘[her] poor dear Father’s’ (cit., Hibbert, 43), and must amongst the tombs she viewed there, also seen that of her uncle, King George IV, who had died at Windsor Castle on 26 June 1830. The last mention of George IV in Queen Victoria’s journal appears to be that made as late as 1899, when the Queen copied out her address to the Scots Guards at Windsor, and the speech in answer made by her son Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, who was the Brigade’s Colonel-in-Chief.

Princess Victoria visited Carlton House as a child (Hibbert, 20) and later wrote in her private memoir that she remembered going to Carlton House as a child and also the occasion in the mid-1820s when the King invited her, the Duchess of Kent and Princess Feodore to Windsor (Benson and Esher, 11). There seems to have been the suggestion that Victoria’s beloved half-sister, Princess Feodore was much admired by the King, as Victoria later remembered, with a possible shudder: ‘The King paid great attention to my Sister, and some people fancied he might marry her!’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 48).

Princess Victoria was taken to see George IV at Royal Lodge, in Windsor Great Park. Victoria recalled, in her 1872 memoir that they went to Cumberland Lodge, whilst the King was staying at nearby Royal Lodge. He took her by the hand saying “Give me your little paw”. Whilst Victoria remembered him as ‘large and gouty’, he had nonetheless ‘a wonderful dignity and charm of manner. He wore the wig which was so much worn in those days. Clearly much taken with her, he gave her his picture, set in diamonds, which his mistress, Lady Conyngham, pinned to her shoulder. (Benson and Esher, pp. 11-12).

There were excursions with the King around Windsor, to his Menagerie at Sandpit Gate, with ‘wapitis, gazelles, chamois, etc, etc’. Then there was the day at Virginia Water, where they met the King and her aunt, the Duchess of Gloucester, who drove in the King’s own phaeton, which he was driving. The King said “Pop her in”. Together, the three drove as far as the Fishing Temple (Ibid, 12). Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, survived long enough into the age of photography in its earlier form. Grainy daguerreotypes exist of Queen Victoria and the aged Duchess at Gloucester House in 1856, together with her young children, the Prince of Wales and Princess Alice. The Duchess of Gloucester, the last surviving child of George III, died the following year.

One evening, Princess Victoria listened to the King’s band play in the Conservatory at Royal Lodge by the light of coloured lamps, in the corner of the large saloon (Ibid, 13). The King asked Princess Victoria which tune she wanted to hear next and she replied ‘God Save The King’. Later, the King asked her what she had liked best about her visit. “The drive with you”, was the tactful reply. (cit., Hibbert, 21).

The Royal Lodge, Windsor, in an engraving of 1827 (United States Public domain or Public domain, via Wiki Commons)

Whatever the initial irritation of the Prince Regent at the time of her birth, Princess Victoria had evidently charmed George as King. Princess Victoria sent a bunch of flowers for the King’s birthday and said with a hint of grandeur when it was time to leave ‘I am coming to bid you adieu, sire…’ Once back at Kensington Palace, she wished to be remembered to her “dear Uncle King”’.

Movingly, as history would have it, it was in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, where George IV had died in 1830 (and later where, in 1837, King William IV would die) that Prince Albert was moved during the final days of his illness, in 1861. The Prince had asked that he be moved into the Blue Room, into which the bright winter sunshine streamed through the windows. In George IV’s day, it had been known as the ‘King’s Room’ and the George IV silk satin curtains were still hanging in the room towards the end of the nineteenth century, which we know, because the originals had to be repaired at this point. (Elizabeth Jane Timms, The Blue Room at Windsor Castle, in the European Royal History Journal, Vol XVI).

We see from the Queen’s journal that Prince Albert was moved into the Blue Room on 8 December 1861, but she makes no reference to the deaths of either George IV or William IV. We must suppose that the Queen was so concerned with the state of Prince Albert and perhaps, all thought of death had to be forcibly pushed to the back of the Queen’s mind, as possible reality loomed.

The face of George IV found its way onto the walls of the second daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Alice, in Darmstadt, who was given it among other paintings, in 1866. Princess Alice wrote to Queen Victoria: ‘The large pictures from Homburg – George III, Queen Charlotte, George IV., William IV., and the Duke of York en pied – Uncle Louis has given us, and now that I have given these good people, whom I don’t like, the best places in our rooms, I should so much like you and dear Papa…’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 153).

Sadly, we do not have Victoria’s reaction to George IV’s death when it happened, as this anticipates the beginning of her journal by some two years. There is however, ready detail relating to the death of William IV in the same room at Windsor, seven years later, in 1837. That event would prompt another accession, but this time – her own.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

George IV: Art & Spectacle runs from 15 November 2019 – 4 May 2020 at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

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