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The Cambridges in Canada: Following Princess Louise, Its First Royal Lady

In September 2016 the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit Canada for the second time since they married in 2011, this time taking their children with them. It will be the first official overseas visit for Princess Charlotte and the second for Prince George. During his parents’ tour of Australia and New Zealand in 2014, the toddling future King melted hearts and was dubbed ‘the Republican Slayer,’ credited with reducing support for the republican movement. Perhaps he will do the same in Canada.  A  recent poll by the Angus Institute found that, although most Canadians wanted to continue to recognise the Queen as their monarch, fewer wished to do so for Prince Charles, and fewer still agreed that Canada should remain a constitutional monarchy ‘for generations to come’.

The royal family have generally been received very warmly in Canada but separatists and pro-republicans have also made their feelings clear.  Kate and William were heckled in Quebec City and Montreal, and the Queen was booed in Quebec City in 1964 and has never returned there, although she has visited Canada more than any other Commonwealth country.

Canada’s ambivalence is historical. On 23 November 1878 Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her husband, the Marquess of Lorne (John Campbell, later the Duke of Argyll).  They had married in March 1871, when Lorne was 26, Louise 23; she became Her Royal Highness The Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lorne. She was the first female member of the royal family to visit North America but her presence was for more than a royal tour. At the suggestion of her Prime Minister, Disraeli, Queen Victoria had appointed Lorne the Governor General of Canada.  He was the fourth in that role since the Confederation of Canada – the birth of the new nation – in 1867, and also the youngest.

With Canada’s national identity emerging, it was a sensitive time. Some questioned Canada’s continued British identity after Confederation.  Discussion took place in newspapers and popular publications about the new Governor and his royal wife. In a democratic society without class distinctions (unlike Great Britain), there were concerns that the couple may expect the same degree of deference usually accorded to the royal family. Canada was also identifying itself uniquely with engagement in winter sports and the natural world. How would these Britons engage with the new Canada?

Any concerns were not obvious at Lorne and Louise’s official, and very warm, welcome at Halifax. After Lorne was sworn in as Governor General, the couple travelled on the recently-completed Inter-colonial railway to Ottawa and moved into the Governor General’s official residence, Rideau Hall.  They spent much of the year there, shifting for the summer to the Citadel in Quebec City.  When the Cambridges were officially welcomed at Rideau Hall in 2011, they may have been shown Princess Louise’s bedroom door, maintained in her memory: a talented artist, she decorated it with a tromp l’oeil pattern of blossoming apple boughs.

It did not take long for Lorne and Louise to endear themselves to the Canadians. In their first few weeks a scarlet fever epidemic struck at Rideau Hall and the servants refused to serve the sick.  Princess Louise single-handedly took over the nursing duties.  On another occasion a dinner guest, commenting on the outstanding quality of the oyster patés, was astounded when she learned that Princess Louise had prepared them herself: clearly the cooking she had learned under Prince Albert’s practical holiday curriculum at Osborne House had paid off. At Rideau Hall both Lorne and Louise encouraged accessibility, and when she travelled Louise referred to herself as ‘Mrs Campbell’ to avoid the formal ritual that accompanied her official persona.  During the summers Louise, an excellent angler, went fishing with Lorne, both of them embracing the natural world;  and in Quebec City they held dances and entertained officers from visiting British and French warships.  Louise spoke fluent French, which went down well: by comparison Lorne felt his French was deficient.

The Canadian newspaper wrote that Lorne’s appointment was well received and it welcomed Louise, expressing the love Canada felt for her mother Queen Victoria, which extended ‘with fervour  towards the fair young daughter who, during her residence among us, has been, and will be, the first lady in the land’.

Lorne actively encouraged winter sports, holding popular ‘snow parties’ at Rideau Hall, where torches, Chinese lanterns and bonfires were used to light up the grounds and guests could curl, skate or toboggan.  Although Lorne was not very good at skating, he threw himself with gusto into tobogganing and encouraged his guests to do the same. His slide was 34 meters high, with a breathtaking descent.

Sadly it was an outdoor activity that caused Louise’s absence from Canada for over two years.  In February 1880, on the way from Rideau Hall to a reception in the Senate Chamber, they were involved in a serious sleigh accident.  The sleigh overturned and the frightened horses dragged the couple and two attendants 366 metres along the roadway. Lorne wrote later: ‘I expected the sides of the carriage to give way every moment, when we should probably have been all killed.’ Louise came off the worst, suffering a severe concussion, ‘and it is a wonder that her skull was not fractured,’ wrote Lorne. Louise was sent back to Britain to recuperate, Lorne visiting her whenever he could.  She would suffer from headaches and depression for the rest of her life.

Louise returned to Canada in 1882 and they went on a tour of the USA and British Columbia. When a threat was made on her life by Irish Fenians, who sought independence from Britain, she left Canada for the safety of British Bermuda, accompanied by two bodyguards, where she spent the winter. Despite their time apart she and Lorne made major and lasting contributions to Canadian life. Among other things they encouraged the establishment of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the National Gallery and the Royal Society of Canada. Louise had been closely involved with many charitable causes in britain, including women’s education, and continued to do the same in Canada.  Every benevolent institution she was told about received a visit from her and people publically acknowledged her charity. She was ‘a true and noble woman’, wrote a contemporary author.

Nevertheless she attracted criticism. Some attributed her  length of time away from Canada to a dislike of the Canadian people but no evidence supports this.  At the beginning she was homesick, and she was not very good at small talk and disliked publicity, but it is more likely her poor health after the accident that gave the wrong impression. Also their marriage developed problems.  Unlike the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Louise and Lorne could not look to their children to charm the people, for they were unable to have any. Doctors presumed the problem lay with her, rather than him, attributing it to a bout of meningitis Louise had suffered when she was 16. In 1883, concerned for their marriage and their safety, Lorne requested he be relieved of his position, although, in his sometimes domineering manner, he did not discuss it with Louise first.  On 27 October they set sail from Quebec City to Britain, cheered by thousands of Canadians.

During their forthcoming visit, perhaps the Cambridges will visit some of the places named after the Duke’s ancestor, such as Lake Louise and Mount Alberta. What is certain is how warmly they welcome the opportunity to visit Canada again and, through Prince George and Princess Charlotte, to show the country the future.

Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (pub. Sept. 2014 by Blink Books).

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