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St Mildred’s: Queen Victoria’s church on the Isle of Wight

Though I stood for the ninth time near a child and for the fifth time near a daughter, at the altar, I think I never felt more deeply than I did on this occasion… When the blessing had been given, I tenderly embraced my darling “Baby” ‘ (op. cit, Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 412, 2000). With this words, Queen Victoria described the wedding day of her fifth and youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, and Prince Henry of Battenberg in her journal. It took place at St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, the church used by the Royal Family when in residence at Osborne House, just as Crathie Church was when the Queen was at Balmoral. Queen Victoria’s words were not entirely accurate however; possibly the emotion of the event made her forget that she had not in fact, been present at the wedding of her second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, which was performed in St. Petersburg. Princess Beatrice’s wedding at Whippingham was the first time that a royal bride had been married in an English parish church (Ibid, Pg 412).

The parish church was rebuilt by Prince Albert, according to designs agreed between him and the architect A. J. Humbert, who was also partly responsible for the design of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. The greatest day in the church’s history is arguably the marriage of Princess Beatrice, but the church is remarkable for other reasons too, not least because of the number of royal memorials contained within it.

The original church at Whippingham was demolished in 1804 and rebuilt by the great architect John Nash, a year before the first church at Crathie was built. Queen Victoria, therefore, knew the original church well, commenting on how “nicely” the congregation behaved. Building on the new church at Whippingham properly began in 1854; necessitated because of the Royal Family’s decision to acquire Osborne, which was also rebuilt. The foundation stone of St Mildred’s Church was laid by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; the lych-gate to the churchyard was a gift from Queen Victoria. The Queen gifted the pair of wrought iron candelabra, as well as the fine stone font to the church, which was designed by her fourth daughter, Princess Louise, who incidentally, had helped with the artistic decoration of the font in Crathie Church.

The font designed by Princess Louise (John Salmon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The most substantial monument in the church is that created in memory of Prince Albert, who died the following year, erected “by his broken-hearted and devoted widow, Queen Victoria”, unveiled in 1864, showing two angels holding a wreath of stars over a medallion of the Prince. Stars were important in relation to memorializing the Prince Consort; the ceiling of the room in which he died at Windsor Castle was spangled with stars, when it was altered into a sacred, ‘living’ memorial to him. There are also marble memorials to Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, her second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse and a tablet to the two sons of her eldest daughter, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, Prince Sigismund and Prince Waldemar. Queen Victoria’s own original blue chair and cushion for her feet, is still to be seen in the Royal Pew, which was installed at the behest of Edward VII. Edward VII established a memorial tablet to Queen Victoria (“Her children rise up and call her blessed”) and also contributed together with other members of the Royal Family, for the installation of marble reredos depicting the Last Supper, in memory of the Queen. The congregation at Whippingham presented the beautiful pulpit to the church, as a memorial to Queen Victoria.

The chancel and altar, to the right, the Royal Pew and just visible, the memorial to Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (John Salmon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Victoria regularly referred in her journal to St Mildred’s Church, whenever the Royal Family were in residence at Osborne. At least three of Queen Victoria’s daughters were confirmed at Whippingham Church, Princess Helena on 17 April 1862, (four months after the death of Prince Albert, she was photographed in front of a mocked-up altar outdoors) Princess Louise on 21 January 1865 and Princess Beatrice on 8 January 1874. For the latter’s confirmation, the pillars of the church were entwined with garlands of flowers. After Prince Albert’s death, winter at Osborne was a solemn business; for Christmas, the pillars of Whippingham Church were festooned with greenery (HRH The Duchess of York & Benita Stoney, Victoria & Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, Pg 176, 1991).

The carpets in the church are also historically significant; the carpet around the font was designed by Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice, who helped to work it. Princess Beatrice embroidered the carpet in the Battenberg Chapel. The carpet which is laid in the sanctuary was a section from that used at the coronation of Her Majesty The Queen at Westminster Abbey in 1953.

The wedding of Princess Beatrice and Prince Henry of Battenberg was celebrated on 23 July 1885. Two heavy, leather-bound gilt Bibles in glass cases in the church were given to Princess Beatrice on the occasion of her wedding; Princess Beatrice herself later presented a crucifix to the church. Guns sounded as the bridal procession reached the church. The route to Whippingham Church was full of enthusiastic well-wishers; the Canon Prothero of Whippingham officiated at the service together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Winchester and the Dean of Windsor. The roof and columns of the church were decorated in red and white (Ibid, Pg 190). Amongst the many wedding gifts that Princess Beatrice received, was an opal-glass candelabrum of twelve flowers, from the Whippingham parishioners and children of Whippingham School (Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, Pg 148-49. 2007).

St Mildred’s was crammed to bursting, the consequence of a royal marriage being performed in a parish church. Queen Victoria described St Mildred’s on that day to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as: “The simple, pretty little village church, all decorated with flowers…” (Ibid, Pg 154). Prince Henry of Battenberg’s sister, Princess Marie of Erbach-Schönberg, also described the church as “pretty” in her Memoirs. Somewhat touchingly, the road which now leads to Whippingham Church is named Beatrice Avenue.

St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, as seen from Beatrice Avenue (By Hassocks5489 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons)

It is fitting that the church is dominated by the Battenberg Chapel, which now houses the large marble sarcophagus designed by Sir Alfred Gilbert, of Princess Beatrice and Prince Henry; Prince Henry died of malaria at the age of thirty-eight in 1896, during the Ashanti War. His remains were brought back to Southampton and laid to rest in the chapel, a sword on top of his tomb. The Battenberg Chapel is full of rich, family meaning. Prince Henry’s Garter Knight banner and helmet were placed on the north wall of the chapel. A compelling picture, depicting a dying soldier, above which hangs the crucified Christ, was given by Queen Mary to Princess Beatrice, who gave it to the church – not, however, in memory of her husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg, but instead as a memorial to her son, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, who was killed at Ypres in 1914.

The tomb of Princess Beatrice and Prince Henry of Battenberg in the Battenberg Chapel (By JohnArmagh [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

The Battenberg Chapel also contains a poignant memorial to the murdered Russian Imperial Family; an Orthodox crucifix, with letters on it in Cyrillic. It was put there in memory of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, the imperial children and also Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia. Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia had, of course, been granddaughters of Queen Victoria; Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their children visited Cowes for Regatta Week in 1909. Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna – like her aunts, who hand embroidered some of the carpets of St Mildred’s Whippingham – also embroidered the altar cloth for the Russian Chapel in Darmstadt. The Tsarina had also been one of Princess Beatrice’s bridesmaids on her wedding day back in 1885.

St Mildred’s Whippingham also contains another essential link with Queen Victoria’s family. Prince Henry of Battenberg’s eldest brother, Prince Louis of Battenberg, Admiral of the Fleet (1854-1921) and his wife, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg are both buried beneath the ‘Battenberg’ cross in the churchyard, from which the yachts may be glimpsed on the distant River Medina. Queen Victoria painted the River Medina in a watercolour sketch in 1864, when she sketched at the Rectory of Whippingham with her daughters, Princess Alice and Princess Helena. The Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who wrote the foreword to the guidebook of St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, remembered: “The church has a very special connection for me because my paternal grandparents Prince and Princess Louis of Battenberg (later Marquess and Marchioness of Milford Haven) are buried in the churchyard, having for a few years lived in Kent House in Cowes, which had been given to my grandmother by her aunt Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, Queen Victoria’s daughter…”

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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