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The christening of Queen Victoria

Unlike the christenings of Queen Victoria’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the christening of the future Queen is an event about which far less is known. It was not the subject of a painting, nor was much written about it as the ceremony itself was a strictly private one, by order of the Prince Regent. Much later, the many baptismal services which were performed within The Queen’s family were recorded in a variety of art methods, from sketches to watercolours, to full-scale oil paintings and eventually, of course, photography. A key example of the latter being the photograph made at White Lodge of the four generations in 1894, with three successive British heirs-apparent, Queen Victoria holding in her arms, the newly christened future King Edward VIII.

It will be recalled that at the time of the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Kent – which was performed in 1818 first at Coburg and then in a second English double-ceremony together with the Duke and future Duchess of Clarence, at Kew – it was still far from clear that any child born to the Duke and Duchess of Kent would directly become next in line, whatever the Duke’s own private optimism on the subject. This led him to roundly declare: ‘My brothers are not so strong as I am… I have led a regular life. I shall outlive them all. The crown will come to me and my children’. Certainly, the Duke’s vigorous health appeared to support this claim, something which would make his shocking death eight months later all the more unexpected, but he was, of course, George III’s fourth son. The Prince Regent – who became George IV the year after the future Queen Victoria’s birth, in 1820 – had only had one (legitimate) daughter, by his wife, the disgraced Queen Caroline of Brunswick, and the Duke of Clarence stood ahead in the royal succession race. The call to sire a new, legitimate heir to the throne was taken up by the remaining bachelor sons of George III in response to the death of the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, so as to save the British succession.

By the time of the birth of Princess Victoria of Kent, the Duchess of Clarence – the future Queen Adelaide – had already given birth to her first child, Princess Charlotte of Clarence, who was born whilst the couple were in Hanover but died shortly afterwards. A stillborn child followed in September 1819; in contrast to the robust baby girl born at 4.15 am on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace and referred to by her proud father, the Duke of Kent as ‘a model of strength’ and his ‘pocket Hercules’. The Duke for his part, proudly showed off the baby princess, saying that they should ‘look at her well, for she will be Queen of England’. She was placed in a cradle, made of mahogany. It will be remembered that the room in which the Duchess of Kent gave birth to the future Queen Victoria at Kensington Palace, today contains a splendid, Saxon-gilt cradle, which was used for several of the Queen’s own children, notably her second daughter, Princess Alice, who was painted in it asleep, by Sir Edwin Landseer.

Queen Adelaide’s second daughter, Princess Elizabeth of Clarence, was born on 10 December 1820 and died a mere three months later. Heartbreakingly for the Duchess, stillborn twin boys followed in 1822, though to the Duchess’s credit, she bravely wrote to the Duchess of Kent that: ‘My children are dead, but yours lives and She is mine too’.

This serves to show that despite the conviction of the Duke of Kent, the christening of Princess Victoria of Kent was not immediately treated like that of the designated heir to the throne, although it was still very much a royal ceremony. The Prince Regent’s next brother was the middle-aged childless Duke of York, who lived separated from his wife and was unlikely to have an heir. George III’s third son was the Duke of Clarence – later William IV. Princess Elizabeth became the Prince Regent’s next heir for three months, at which age she died in 1821. When the Duchess produced stillborn sons in 1822, it became ever more likely that Victoria would be the Prince Regent’s heir after the Duke of Clarence, but this had by no means been the certainty at the time of Victoria’s christening, which was of course, before both the birth and death of the baby Princess Elizabeth. Time did however, reveal her to be the obvious choice in a re-affirmation of the Duke of Kent’s deeply held conviction, made ultimately clear to her much later at the age of ten, when a genealogical table was placed in front of her at Kensington Palace by her governess, Baroness Lehzen, showing her own place in the succession, which yielded a tearful response: ‘I see I am nearer to the throne than I thought’.

The Cupola Room at Kensington Palace. By Thomas Sutherland (b.1785) after Richard Catermole (1795-1858). (United States Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The christening of the future Queen Victoria took place at Kensington Palace, precisely a month after her birth, a favoured royal residence until 1760. Not only was Kensington the palace of her birth and childhood, but her girlhood under what became known as the ‘Kensington system’ devised by the Duchess of Kent’s Comptroller of the Household, Sir John Conroy, meant that the palace was a place which did much to form the character of the future Queen Victoria. It would also be where she was famously woken up on 20 June 1837, to be informed of the death of her uncle, King William IV earlier that morning, writing that ‘consequently I am Queen’.

The room chosen for the christening was the Cupola Room. Resplendently decorated by William Kent in George I’s reign, overseeing the magnificent painting of the coffered dome in a fictive design, adding wooden pilasters and statues of Roman deities. Today, there is little to show that the future Queen Victoria was christened here, perhaps a correct reminder that this event numbers only one in any royal room’s individual history, much in the way that Queen Victoria’s firstborn, the Princess Royal, was christened in Buckingham Palace’s Throne Room, in 1841, when the throne was removed and a temporary altar set up for the occasion. The silver-gilt Lily Font which was made for the christening of the Princess Royal has been used on many occasions since; the future Queen Victoria by contrast, was christened in a silver gilt font which had been brought over from the Tower of London and commissioned by Charles II; it was first used in 1688 for the baptism of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart – history’s ‘Old Pretender’, by an interesting irony, this ‘warming-pan’ baby was born in the so-called ‘Mary of Modena bed’, which is thought to be that today displayed in the Queen’s Bedchamber, at Kensington Palace. The Archbishop of Canterbury who officiated at the christening of the Princess Royal was the same William Howley, who had in fact been present at Queen Victoria’s christening when Bishop of London; Howley was also present at Kensington Palace on the morning of 20 June 1837, when he informed the young Queen of her accession on the death of the King, together with Lord Conyngham, the Lord Chamberlain. The Cupola Room was hung with crimson velvet from the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace.

What we do know about the christening, in fact, tells us far more about the power tensions then present within the warring Royal Family as opposed to the event itself; in fact, the ceremony was performed accurately enough, beneath William Kent’s glorious ceiling, which was itself the cause of an earlier, architectural argument. This was caused by the matter of the commission of George I’s Cupola Room, a decorative tussle between the baroque architect James Thornhill and the newly fashionable William Kent. Kent won the day, and it was beneath his ceiling that the baby daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent was christened. The disagreement over names even continued on the day itself. Because of this, we have no descriptions at the baby at the heart of the ceremony and instead, the terse arguments between those members of the Royal Family present, took centre stage. We must assume however, that she was as she had been described at her birth – ‘plump as a partridge’.

The future Queen Victoria was christened at three o’clock in the afternoon by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Charles Manners-Sutton. Similar to the mishaps that would occur during the coronation ceremony of Queen Victoria, her christening was not without its complications; in fact, the argument-like atmosphere prevailed on the day itself, revealing the nature of the relationships between the Royal Family at large. The Archbishop was unsure of the choice of names for the child. Despite the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Kent had written to the Prince Regent about the names that would be selected for the baby princess, the Prince Regent replied the day before that ‘Georgiana’ could not on any account be chosen, because there was the question of precedence given to which monarch’s name would be first, the Russian Tsar Alexander I being another of the child’s godparents, for which reason ‘Alexandrina’ was chosen, as ‘Georgiana’ could not be before that of the Tsar, and certainly couldn’t come afterwards. Nor was the name ‘Charlotte’ a welcome choice for the Prince Regent, because of his late daughter, Princess Charlotte. It was in fact, agreed that ‘Alexandrina’ should be the sole choice of baptismal name, up to the day of the christening itself. On the day as it happened, the Prince Regent uttered the name ‘Alexandrina’ for the Tsar (She would be known as ‘Drina’ for short, a name which stuck in infancy, but was dropped together with Alexandrina, when Victoria became Queen). Then – perhaps as an afterthought – but the name that would in fact come to define an age – ‘Give her the mother’s name also then’. The Duchess of Kent’s full name was Marie Luise Victoria, but was actually known as Victoire. So the child was baptised Alexandrina Victoria. Perhaps all this was but a further example of the terse Georgian inheritance of tension between a (future) King and his (possible) heir; although in fact, later accounts would show that on his accession, George IV did somewhat warm to the child.

Interior of the Cupola Room (By Jordiferrer [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)

The future Queen Victoria was therefore given the names ‘Alexandrina Victoria’ by which time the Duchess had burst into tears. Only one of the baby princess’ godparents was present, the Prince Regent. The others, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg (her maternal grandmother) and her aunt, the widowed Queen Charlotte of Württemberg were represented in proxy by the Duke of York and two of George III’s other daughters, Princess Augusta and Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester. (The latter was the last of George III’s daughters and survived into the early age of photography; surviving images in the Royal Photograph Collection show a young Queen Victoria visiting her elderly aunt, with the Prince of Wales and her second daughter, Princess Alice, made by Antoine Claudet). The Duke of Gloucester also attended, as did the Duchess of York and Prince Leopold, later King of the Belgians and widower of the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte.

Poignantly, the Duke of Kent was present at the baptism of his baby daughter, a picture of paternal pride. The future Queen Victoria would never remember her father, who died in January 1820 at Sidmouth, when she was only eight months old. Tantalising glimpses survive of her attempt to achieve a kind of closeness with the father she had never known, including pictures of him which she acquired for the Royal Collection and a painting in particular of him in Field Marshal’s uniform, that she purchased in 1839, the year prior to her marriage and hung in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace. A charming account survives of how, two months after the christening of the baby Princess Victoria, he ordered the gardener at Kew to pick three bunches of flowers for the birthday of the Duchess, at six o’clock in the morning. One should be given ‘into the hands of our little baby, [to give to the Duchess] which of course, must be so composed as to have nothing to prick her hands’.

The earliest image of Princess Victoria of Kent in the Royal Collection dates from August 1819. The artist Johann Georg Paul Fischer also created two very early photos of the future Queen, dated 1819; one of these is a delightful half-length image of the baby princess wearing a white frock decorated with red and green bows, and a Scotch tartan bonnet, placed on a chair over which a cloak is wrapped, trimmed with ermine. Some of the red and green ribbons survive; undoubtedly some of the earliest textiles to be preserved associated with Queen Victoria and perhaps amongst those ‘relics’ connected to her babyhood that she recorded finding in with her mother’s effects in 1861. Whatever the baby Princess Victoria was christened in, it has not survived; the earliest known dress which has been preserved which is associated with Queen Victoria dates from around 1831-32 and is kept in the Royal Collection. So it must have been from when Princess Victoria was about twelve-years-old. Another miniature on ivory by Fischer showing the baby Princess Victoria in her cradle was supposedly made for the Duke of Kent’s birthday on 2 November 1819; a preliminary sketch was made for this is now in the Royal Library and another drawing by Fischer showing the Queen as a baby is in Schloss Ehrenburg, Coburg. Fischer himself claimed that he had painted ‘the very first portrait of Her Majesty, when in her Cradle’ (RCIN 420266) 

Due to the curt argument over the choice of the christening names (it will be remembered that another christening had been the cause of a glowing Georgian, royal disagreement – over the choice of godparents of Prince George William, son of the future George II), no accounts survive that describe the baby Princess Victoria on the occasion of her baptism, as if the disagreement itself took centre stage as opposed to the child. It is possible that an entry in the Duchess’s household accounts for ‘dressmaking for Princess Victoria in 1819’ may cover the costs of christening clothes.

The Cupola Room is the third room within the King’s State Apartments, between the Privy Chamber and the King’s Drawing Room. Standing in it, it is easy to focus instead on the lush decoration of William Kent and forget that the future Queen Victoria’s christening was performed there. The Queen returned to Kensington Palace in 1899, after which she would declare the palace open to the public. She revisited those parts of the palace which were familiar or important to her; she did not mention the Cupola Room, however.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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