Queen Victoria’s winter sledge became synonymous with the Windsor Christmas, at least during the lifetime of Prince Albert, who is rightly credited with popularising Christmas traditions in England, including that of the Christmas tree. The royal trees were decorated with coloured wax candles, sweets, toys and artificial snow, whilst the gifts exchanged by the Royal Family were gathered beneath them on the present tables, to be given on Christmas Eve, according to the German custom known as the ‘Heilgenabend Bescherung’.
A beautiful example of this may be seen in the enchanting watercolour made by the artist William Corden the Younger, showing the Queen’s trees at Windsor in 1851, with their candles lit, which gives the onlooker an impression of what the room looked like when the candles on the royal trees had been lit, something usually done the day before Christmas, when the presents were exchanged. Symbolically, with the death of Prince Albert at Windsor Castle on 14 December 1861, Christmas celebrations there for the Royal Family, for the most part, came to an end. Queen Victoria thereafter preferred to celebrate the royal Christmas at Osborne, where in turn, the Christmas tree and present tables were placed in the Dining Room, removing to the spectacular Durbar Room from 1890 onwards. A delightful photograph of the Durbar Room decorated for Christmas 1896 shows a particularly ornate royal tree (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 20).
Queen Victoria’s sleigh, however, is a genuine relic of those royal Christmases at Windsor, an object aside from the photographs and paintings. The Queen herself referred to it as a ‘sledge’, and this was also how it was reproduced as a wood-engraving published in the Illustrated London News on 14 January 1854, showing the Queen and the royal children driving at Windsor during the winter of 1853-4: ‘The Royal Children’s Sledge; and Her Majesty’s Sledge’. This referred to the fact that the royal children had a sledge of their own, harnessed by one pony; the engraving of the latter shows one of the pet dogs, perhaps belonging to Queen Victoria, running alongside (Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 117).
Cross-referencing to the Queen’s journals, we can see that these vignettes were no mere hearsay, for Queen Victoria noted for the beginning of January 1854 that the sledge had been used. I judge it is the same one because the Queen’s journals seem to make a distinction between this sledge and other sledges, as she uses the word ‘our’, which denotes particular meaning. Nor does it appear to be one of the sledges used by Prince Albert to push Queen Victoria over the ice on the lake at Frogmore, because this was called a ‘sledge chair’ by the Queen in 1840. The lovely engraving made of these dates in fact from after Prince Albert’s death – from between 1880-1900 – but the implication is clear, and the sledge is clearly not the same. This is backed up by the charming journal entry for 4 January 1854, where she confirms that Prince Albert drove the sledge, which again, fits with the evidence of what we know of Queen Victoria’s own sledge. The Queen’s delight is evident in the entry, which describes a wintry drive between Frogmore, Old Windsor and Runnymede.
It was perhaps no wonder that Queen Victoria’s sledge was of sentimental importance to her, not least because it became associated with memories of Christmases and an object symbolic of the cult of family that both she and the Prince Consort actively cultivated. Like in so much, from personal jewellery which Prince Albert designed as gifts to the Queen – such as the diamond-studded brooch depicting the Princess Royal as an angel with wings for Christmas 1841 – to the interior design of the new Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s sledge was designed by Prince Albert. As such, we may imagine the Queen’s pleasure in also being driven by the Prince, in the royal sledge whose construction he oversaw.
The Queen’s sledge was constructed by Hooper & Co, who were coach-builders to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. One of the designs for Queen Victoria’s sledge survives at the Science Museum in London; as done by J. Gilfroy as a watercolour on board, c. 1844. There is a ‘sleigh’ as part of a series of six designs by Hooper & Co., also held at the Science Museum, which also includes sketches for two phaetons and a travelling carriage. (The stamp on the design reads in red ink ‘Please to return the drawing’). Though similar, the latter sleigh (illustrated) is, however, not the one by Gilfroy, listed as the ‘Design for Queen Victoria’s sledge’. Hooper & Co. were, most appropriately, based in London’s Victoria Street. The design dates from around 1844, the year of the birth of Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, who had been born at Windsor Castle on 6 August.
Newspaper accounts of the time recorded that Prince Albert drove the Queen’s sledge. It was particularly sumptuous in its design, lined with red velvet and painted red and gold. It was pulled by two horses whose harnesses rang with silver bells, whilst the harnesses themselves were resplendent with rich ostrich plumes. The grooms and outriders wore scarlet livery (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Snow and Royalty, Royal Central).
In this last, comparisons with the Bavarian King Ludwig II – the Queen’s nineteenth-century contemporary – are not misplaced. The mysterious and theatrical King Ludwig of popular legend took to driving through his native Alps at night, like a passing mirage. One account of such an encounter with the poetic Ludwig II was written by one Felix Philippi, an eyewitness to his nocturnal drives in 1879: ‘He stepped into a… carriage upholstered in bright blue, ornamented with gold, and drawn by four richly caparisoned greys decorated with plumes like circus horses – and vanished from my sight’ (cit., Wilfrid Blunt, The Dream King, 170). Several examples of the King’s sleighs survive in the Marstallmuseum at Schloss Nymphenburg, on the outskirts of Munich.
Prince Albert continued to drive the Queen’s sledge. A particularly charming account by Queen Victoria records that he did this in February 1855, when Queen Victoria and Princess Clementine of Orleans were passengers. Precisely ten years previously, the sledge had been sent for by special messenger from Windsor to Brighton, (Cooling, pp. 117-118) where the Royal Family were staying. A delightful hand-coloured lithograph by monogrammist JWG after B. Herring Junior, shows Prince Albert driving the Queen’s sledge, containing the Queen and the Dowager Lady Lyttelton, who held the Princess Royal on her lap. The Queen wrote: ‘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 sledge went delightfully… The bright blue sky & sunshine, together with the sound of the bells, had a very exhilarating effect.’ (cit., Cooling, 118).
We can even seem to hear Queen Victoria catching her breath, so intense is the description. Like her grandfather, George III, the Queen was ever observant about names, noting that the pair of horses (‘Our two dear ponies’) that pulled their sledge were called ‘Keith’ and ‘Kintore’ (Cooling, 118). These names were distinctly Scottish and probably reflect the couple’s growing love of the country, something that would be immortalised in word, stone, jewellery and paint. This episode at Brighton anticipated the laying of the foundation stone of the new Balmoral Castle by some eight years.
Queen Victoria’s winter sledge was put on public display at Windsor Castle for the first time in 2008. It was placed in St George’s Hall alongside the royal Christmas tree, traditionally felled in Windsor Great Park.
Today, this charming relic of a previous royal pastime is housed in the Royal Mews, at Windsor (Cooling, 117).