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Queen Victoria and Windsor Castle

Queen Victoria is inextricably linked with Windsor Castle, but these associations, whilst deep-rooted, are in fact not always visible. A statue of her is within the first section of the State Apartments at Windsor Castle and her throne and footstool – presented to her in 1851 – upon which she chose to be photographed officially as Empress of India, is displayed in the Garter Throne Room. A portrait of her hangs in the State Dining Room in the Semi-State Rooms, the private rooms designed for George IV. Whilst Windsor Castle came to have darker associations for the Queen, many significant events of her life are entwined with that of the Castle so that taking a closer look at how the two came to share a history, gives us a richer understanding of Queen Victoria’s Windsor.

Princess Victoria, her visits to Windsor Castle were rare, as she remained cossetted within what became known as the ‘Kensington System’, devised by the Comptroller of the Household of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, Sir John Conroy, at Kensington Palace. One of these visits was the occasion of a spectacular outburst to ascertain his royal authority on the part of her uncle, King William IV, at Windsor Castle on the King’s Birthday, 21 August 1836. The King had invited the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria to Windsor Castle for the Queen’s birthday on 13 August, as part of which they could remain at the Castle until his own.

The State Apartments in the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Duchess declined and instead only came for the King’s birthday. This was deeply resented by William IV, whose relations with his sister-in-law had been strained since the death of the Duke of Kent and all the more so, because of the way in which Princess Victoria remained shut up at Kensington Palace, a point underlined by the fact that when the young Victoria arrived at Windsor Castle, the King expressed “his regret that he did not see her oftener”, as recorded in the memoirs of Charles Fulke Greville (1794-1865). She also paid, in August 1836, a visit to the Royal Vault in St George’s Chapel and movingly, looked upon the tomb of her father, the Duke of Kent, who had died in 1820 before she was even one-year-old. She acceded to the throne on William IV’s death in 1837. Queen Victoria came to Windsor for the first time as Queen in August 1837. As a young Queen, she used the famous Grand Corridor for games of battledore and even shuttlecock. (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 87, 2000).

Queen Victoria’s twentieth Birthday Ball was held at Windsor Castle in 1839; as part of this, she danced the mazurka with the future Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was visiting Windsor. A ball was held after dinner in St George’s Hall, which lasted until nearly two o’clock in the morning, on which the young Queen commented breathlessly: “I never enjoyed myself more.” (Hibbert, Pg 103). A large urn of malachite was presented to Queen Victoria from the Tsarevich’s father, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in 1839, which today can be seen in the Grand Reception Room at Windsor Castle. The imperial visit of Emperor Napolean III and Empress Eugenie took place at Windsor in 1855, with dinner in St George’s Hall and a ball in the Waterloo Chamber.

Windsor Castle provided, however, the setting for a complete coup de foudre; the second visit of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha took place on 10 October 1839, who she saw that very evening from the top of the stairs. Five days later, the Queen proposed to Prince Albert in the Blue Closet at Windsor Castle; the evening of their engagement, Prince Albert appeared at dinner in the blue and red Windsor uniform. Following their wedding in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace and the wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace on 10 February 1840, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set out for their honeymoon at Windsor Castle. The Queen’s ‘going away’ bonnet sprayed with orange blossom sprigs, is still preserved.

Queen Victoria gave birth to her second son, Prince Alfred, future Duke of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, at Windsor Castle on 6 August 1844, the only one of her nine children not born at Buckingham Palace; his christening was performed in the Castle’s Private Chapel on 6 September 1844, officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley. The idyll of her early married life with the Prince Consort is well captured in the painting by Sir Edwin Landseer, ‘Windsor Castle in Modern Times’, which shows the Queen, Prince Albert with his beloved greyhound Eos – who had accompanied him from Coburg – and their first child, the Princess Royal. The Princess Royal would in fact, also spend her honeymoon at Windsor Castle, following her wedding to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858. Five of the Queen’s children would marry at Windsor, four at St George’s Chapel and one in the Castle’s Private Chapel.

‘Windsor Castle in Modern Times’ by Sir Edwin Landseer (Edwin Henry Landseer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Windsor became synonymous with the celebration of Christmas in Queen Victoria’s family, the German tradition of the tree having been properly introduced into England by Queen Victoria’s grandmother Queen Charlotte but which Prince Albert undoubtedly helped to popularise. Several watercolours exist in the Royal Collection showing the tables laid out for Christmas with gifts beneath two fir trees at Windsor, each lit with tapers.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had become fond of Windsor Castle, but in 1861, the Queen’s earlier dislike of Windsor Castle returned, but in a far darker shade than before, this time in the black colour of bereavement and widowhood. In March 1861, Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, died at Frogmore House, her private residence in Windsor Great Park. The Duchess was temporarily interred in St George’s Chapel until her own Mausoleum at Frogmore, was completed. The Queen later described Windsor Castle as “prison-like”, even as a “dungeon” (Roger Fulford, Beloved Mama: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the German Crown Princess, 1878-85, Pg 172, 1971-72).

Six months later, Prince Albert himself died at Windsor Castle, supposedly of typhoid. An event which had hitherto been unthinkable to the Queen, resulted in an outpouring of unimaginable grief, writing in the first rawness of the Prince’s death, to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia: “Oh! I who prayed daily that we might die together & I never survive Him!” Prince Albert was also buried at St George’s Chapel, in the Albert Memorial Chapel, until the completion of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, in 1862. A little-seen figure on the memorial to the Prince in the Albert Memorial Chapel shows a kneeling, grieving, cloaked figure, probably symbolising Queen Victoria herself.

The Blue Room at Windsor Castle where Prince Albert died, became a veritable shrine, preserved as the Queen desired, as it was at the time of the Prince’s death. Although in fact, the room changed considerably to memorialise not only Prince Albert, but to make the space into a more sacred one, by artistic means. The Queen often prayed in the room, whose ceiling was later spangled with stars. It had, in fact, been the same room in which her uncle, King William IV, had died in 1837 and in which also her elder uncle, King George IV, had died in 1830. The Prince Consort, with characteristic fatalism, had asked to be moved into the Blue Room as his illness advanced, perhaps anticipating that he too, would die in a room in which had died the last two preceding British kings. Queen Victoria’s paternal grandfather, George III, also died at Windsor – in 1820 – but not in the same room.

Queen Victoria thereafter viewed the Blue Room in sacred terms, not as a death chamber, but as a living memorial to her husband. A sad watercolour in the Royal Collection shows her own artistic impression of the roof of the distant Royal Mausoleum in the Great Park, visible from her windows. The Queen’s devoted Highland ghillie, John Brown, (her “dearest and best friend”) also died at Windsor Castle in 1883. The room where he died in the Clarence Tower, appears to have also become a memorial room, in which his funeral service was also held, which the Queen – lame from a fall – personally attended.

Statue of Queen Victoria at the foot of Castle Hill. Photo: Peter Trimming / Statue of Queen Victoria at Windsor / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Queen allowed gas lighting to be installed at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace but preferred candles at Balmoral Castle. Windsor Castle was notoriously chilly and its library cold. Its vast rooms and corridors were also quiet. There was a great gathering amongst Queen Victoria’s family for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, as part of which the statue to Queen Victoria at the foot of Castle Hill, was unveiled on 22 June 1887. It was sculpted by Sir Edgar Boehm. Like a bronze statue, it unknowingly perpetuates the dark figure of the Queen in her mourning weeds, as the ‘Widow of Windsor’, whilst itself celebrating the happy occasion of the Queen’s Jubilee.

At the turn of the 20th century, Queen Victoria would still have been able to remember King George IV; whom she had visited at Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, having been driven around the park with him and his younger sister, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, in his phaeton. George IV had driven the child Princess Victoria to Virginia Water and then conducted her over his exotic private zoo in the Great Park, which was closed to visitors.

Full mourning returned to Windsor again in 1901. However, this time, mourning for Queen Victoria, who died at Osborne House on 22 January 1901. Her short funeral service was celebrated in St George’s Chapel, after which her coffin set out on a gun carriage, for the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore.

Fittingly, Queen Victoria’s journals – are held in their own bookcase in the Royal Archives at Windsor, perhaps the Queen’s greatest legacy to Windsor Castle – alongside the many countless artworks which she and Prince Albert had helped to amass, many of which are at Windsor. Through the one hundred and forty-one volumes spanning the years 1832-1901, her voice lives on – confirming how her life and Windsor Castle will remain forever linked.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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