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The Death of Queen Victoria’s Mother, the Duchess of Kent

Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, died on 16 March 1861 at her residence of Frogmore House, in Windsor Great Park. Frogmore had been occupied by the Duchess since May 1841 when Queen Victoria asked her mother whether or not she would like to use Frogmore House and its grounds as a country retreat on the death of George III’s daughter, Princess Augusta. The Duchess accepted Clarence House and St. James’s Palace, in addition to the use of Frogmore, having found Ingestre House in London’s Belgravia – which the Queen had leased for her at the cost of £2,000 a year – too small. (Monica Charlot, Victoria: The Young Queen, pp. 87-92, cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 265). Today, the former Ingestre House is the residence of the Belgian Ambassador.

The lease of the Frogmore estate was acquired by the Crown in March 1841 from the executors of Princess Augusta, a purchase recognised by Act of Parliament by the end of 1841, when the estate of Frogmore, together with the Shaw estate, was formally made part of Windsor royal property. (Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd, Frogmore House and The Royal Mausoleum, 6). The Duchess lived at Frogmore for much of the next twenty years, until she died at Frogmore House, in 1861. First interred in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel, the Duchess of Kent was eventually buried in a small, classical mausoleum in the grounds at Frogmore, above the lake, to the west of the House. I want to revisit the death of the Duchess of Kent and explore what it may reveal to us about Queen Victoria. By the time of her mother’s death, the relationship between the Queen and the Duchess of Kent had considerably improved, so that a focus on this also helps to restore the balance of historical judgement, which can still tend to remember more the earlier years, fraught with tension.

After the death of the Duchess, it was evidently easier for Queen Victoria to shift the blame for this onto her mother’s former Comptroller of the Household, Sir John Conroy and the devoted governess of her youth, Baroness Lehzen. The Duchess must have recognized this too, because Queen Victoria wrote to her in 1854 on the death of Conroy: ‘I will not speak of the past and of the many sufferings he entailed on us by creating divisions between you and me which could never have existed otherwise, they are buried with him’. (cit., Hibbert, 265). The Duchess replied more fairly: ‘I shall not try and excuse the many errors that unfortunate man committed, but it would be very unjust if I allowed all the blame to be thrown on him…. God be praised that those terrible times are gone by...’ The Queen’s grief for her mother must surely have been exacerbated by the recognition of the Duchess of Kent’s love for her, as revealed in her private papers, hence the terrible anguish of not only the loss of her mother, but of all those lost years. The papers preserved of the Duchess which reveal her tender love for Princess Victoria do not of course, discount the fact that tension did exist, but they are telling, because they underline what the Duchess felt for her daughter, whatever the difficulty, and therefore show us that Victoria’s early childhood, which she later remembered as ‘very unhappy’, was in fact remembered with the bias of adulthood. (A. N. Wilson, 44).

The Duchess of Kent, as painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (Franz Xaver Winterhalter [United States Public domain, or Public domain])

Frogmore House continued to be used as a private retreat by the Royal Family after the death of the Duchess of Kent, then as now. The Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, gave birth to her first child at Frogmore House – Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale – and Queen Victoria’s third daughter, Princess Helena, Princess Christian, lived at Frogmore House, before moving to Cumberland Lodge with her husband, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Their son, Prince Albert, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, was born at Frogmore, in 1869. Queen Victoria’s beloved granddaughter, Princess Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, gave birth to the future Lord Louis Mountbatten at Frogmore House on 25 June 1900. This occasioned the Queen to write in a letter to Princess Louis, expressing her approval of the fact that the child would be born in the house she very much still associated with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, saying she was pleased it would be ‘where your dear Gt GdMama lived’. 

The death of the Duchess of Kent was very different for the Queen of course, as she witnessed it. Queen Victoria’s other parent, the Duke of Kent, had died at Woolbrook Cottage, Sidmouth – the villa which had been leased to him – back in 1820, before the future Queen was one year old, although she was present in the villa at the time. As we shall see, however, the death of the Duchess also revealed emotional connections with this earlier event, as the Queen discovered to her surprise, poignant documents and objects relating to the death of the Duke, whilst sorting through the personal effects of the Duchess of Kent. Unsurprisingly, Queen Victoria instinctively turned on the death of the Duchess to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, as her mother’s brother, but also to the man who had ever been to her, in her own words in her Journal as Princess Victoria, ‘that dearest of Uncles, who has always been to me like a father … He is indeed “il mio secondo padre”, or rather “solo padre”, for he is indeed like my real father, as I have none’. (cit., Hibbert, 41).

There is much at Frogmore House which is reminiscent of the Duchess of Kent’s occupancy of the House. Many pieces of furniture evident in the 1861 photographs of the interiors have been returned to the room for example, which she used as both a sitting and writing room; similarly, the Duchess’ favoured colour scheme of lilac and gilt for this room has been re-instated and the bright yellow silk curtains are a reproduction of the originals. A bust of the Duchess after William Theed, is displayed in the Mary Moser Room. In the Victoria Closet hang two landscapes by the Duchess, made by her prior to her marriage to the Duke of Kent, when Princess of Leiningen.

Queen Victoria went to visit her ailing mother, the Duchess on 15 March 1861, at Frogmore House. The Duchess had been suffering from attacks of erysipelas for some months previously and the Queen’s letters throughout March mention her mother’s arm. The Duchess had undergone a surgical operation for an abscess a short time before. There had been talk of having the Duchess visit at Osborne House, or moved to Buckingham Palace, but the Duchess in fact, remained on her sickbed, at Frogmore. As the Queen comments on her mother’s illness, it is perhaps poignant that she mentions the left arm of the Duchess. It is this arm which encircles the young Princess Victoria in the famous image made by Sir William Beechey, which shows the Duchess in mourning still for the Duke of Kent, clasping her daughter, who rests against her mother’s shoulder. A small detail sometimes overlooked, is that Princess Victoria in turn, clasps a miniature of her dead father in her hand. Now at Frogmore, the Queen stayed for what would prove to be, the end.

Now Queen Victoria described her mother’s “sore hand”; and it was the hand of her mother, which the Queen held at her death: ‘I kissed her dear hand and placed it next my cheek; but, though she opened her eyes, she did not, I think, know me. She brushed my hand off… I went out to sob… I asked the doctors if there was no hope. They said, they feared, none whatever…’ (cit., Hibbert, 266). For those familiar with the account written by the Queen much later, describing the death of Prince Albert a mere nine months later, the language is similar, with the Queen taking intermittent breaks from the Prince’s bedside and referring to the advice of the doctors, as if trying to extract from them the reassurance that she so desperately needed. On 14 December 1861, the Queen would write: ‘I took his dear left hand which was already cold… ‘ (cit., Hibbert, 281).

The Queen wrote: ‘As the night wore on into the morning I lay down on the sofa, at the foot of my bed. I heard each hour strike. At four I went down again. All still…’ (cit., Hibbert, 266). This shows us that the restless Queen spent the night of 15/16 March 1861 at Frogmore House and that the room in which she slept must obviously have been above that of the Duchess.

The Duchess of Kent’s mausoleum at Frogmore (WyrdLight.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The Duchess of Kent’s Bedroom is not among those rooms at Frogmore House which are accessible to the public. It is located on the Cross Gallery (which is). The Gallery is a beautiful upper space at first floor level, hand decorated by the artistically talented third daughter of George III and Queen Charlotte, Princess Elizabeth, later Landgravine of Hesse-Homburg. One of its doors was that to the Duchess of Kent’s Bedroom and so provides the important information that the room of the Duchess was on the first floor and therefore, its windows given the location, must have overlooked the main lawn and lake, as does the Colonnade below. The Duchess of Kent’s Bedroom became part of those apartments at Frogmore House used by Queen Mary to house the so-called Family Museum, in Queen Mary’s own words: ‘a “family” souvenir museum as well as a museum of “bygones” and of interesting odds and ends’, (cit., ed. Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd, 9) which had been either given or received by members of the Royal Family, a project which Queen Mary continued involvement with, until her death in 1953. According to information supplied to the present author, the Bedroom had continued to be, until recent years at least, used for storage space.

It was therefore, to this room, that Queen Victoria continued to come, on the night of 15/16 March 1861. She wrote tellingly in her Journal, already referring to the death of her father, the Duke of Kent: ‘Nothing to be heard but the heavy breathing, and the striking, at every quarter, of the old repeater, a large watch in a tortoiseshell case, which belonged to my poor father, the sound of which brought back all the recollections of my childhood…” (cit., Hibbert, Pg 266)

Queen Victoria went back upstairs and lay down ‘in silent misery’. (cit., Ibid). Finally, she returned downstairs at half-past seven in the morning and sat on a stool. It was then that she reached to hold her mother’s hand: ‘At last it [the breathing] ceased… The clock struck half-past nine at the very moment… The dreaded terrible calamity has befallen us, which seems like an awful dream… oh God! How awful… The constant crying was a comfort and relief… But oh! The agony of it.’ (cit., Ibid).

Writing to her beloved uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, Queen Victoria poured out her feelings of grief, in a letter penned later that same day, headed Frogmore, 16 March 1861 – ‘the most dreadful day of my life’. Queen Victoria wrote simply ‘She is gone!’. Her ‘precious, dearly beloved tender Mother’ died painlessly as she recorded, holding her ‘dear, dear hand’ to the last, although the Duchess didn’t know her. It is an extraordinary parallel with the death of Prince Albert a mere nine months later, when she attended his deathbed, going back and forth and holding his hand. Tellingly, the Queen concluded: she felt ‘verwaist [orphaned].’ 

Ten days later, we see from a letter written from Windsor Castle to the King of the Belgians, that Queen Victoria is visiting Frogmore every day, but the knowledge of the death of the Duchess was a ‘blank [which] becomes daily worse…’ (cit., Ibid, 556). To her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, she wrote that her comfort was to ‘dwell’ on the Duchess. (Roger Fulford, Dearest Child, pp. 319, 300; Hibbert, 266).

On 30 March 1861, the Queen wrote to Leopold, King of the Belgians from Buckingham Palace that the sorting through of her mother’s effects had begun. The Queen wrote that they were having to go through the Duchess’s drawers and take out her ‘dear jewels and trinkets’. (Benson and Esher, 557).

It was then that the Queen realised painfully, just how much her mother had preserved, from her earliest childhood, including letters of her father, asking for the Duchess’s hand in marriage. These were discovered by Prince Albert, preserved at Clarence House (Ibid, 558).

The evident love of the Duchess of Kent for her daughter was something which the Queen would have to accept as a painful and comforting posthumous proof, when she went through her mother’s papers. We must assume that the guilt over the unfortunate misunderstandings and difficulty of their earlier relationship must have intensified the Queen’s private feelings of grief, as with the death of the Duchess, the Queen was forced to confront not only the loss of her mother, but the years that had been painfully difficult. (A. N. Wilson, 44). As if in an echo of the letter written on the death of Conroy, the Queen wrote bitterly to the King of the Belgians: ‘To think how, for a time two people [Conroy and Lehzen] wickedly estranged us…’ (cit., Hibbert, 267).

The Duchess of Kent and her daughter, Princess Victoria, by Henry Bone, after Sir William Beechey (Henry Bone [United States Public domain, or Public domain])

That the Duchess had truly loved her daughter, is evidenced by the notes she wrote to her daughter (in English) when she had her first school lessons or the letter left on Princess Victoria’s pillow on bright pink paper for New Year’s Eve, 1828: ‘Before you shut your dear little eyes: … Believe me, my most beloved child, that nobody in this world can love you better than, your true and affectionate Mother. God bless you!!!’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 45). As previously stated however, this does not of course mean, that the relationship was not a difficult one, despite the obvious love. The Queen was deeply moved to read of the mutual love between her parents whilst going through the Duchess’s effects and to see how greatly she had been loved, finding it ‘too touching’. (cit., Hibbert, 267). To the King of the Belgians, the Queen wrote there were even books documenting her babyhood, full of love and devotion. (Benson and Esher, 560).

After the Duchess of Kent’s death, Queen Victoria assembled together all the letters which her mother had ever written to her. Preserved at Windsor in six volumes, the Duchess of Kent’s letters are bound in black morocco, (A. N. Wilson, 246) the first two of which have the memorial words picked in gold: ‘LETTERS FROM DEAR MAMA’. (Wilson, 246). Movingly, the very last of these letters betray the very physical weakness of the Duchess and the reality of her rapid decline. These are written in pencil to her ladies-in-waiting: ‘Thank you, I slept well, but these pains torment me very much’. (cit., Wilson, 246). Typically, Queen Victoria has recorded the last note ever written by her mother: ‘Beloved Mama’s Last Writing’, which itself bears the sad annotation: ‘HRH’s last writing with her dear right hand’. (cit., Ibid).

Writing to the King of the Belgians from Osborne, a month after her mother’s death, the Queen wrote how deeply it had touched her to find that she had preserved flowers, even pieces of her hair. Also amongst these ‘relics’ were items relating to the Duke of Kent, including a writing desk with the last letters that he had written to the wife with whom he had been so (briefly) happy, in what was a political but also highly successful marriage (Benson and Esher, 560).

The rooms of the Duchess of Kent were recorded at the time of her death, in an album, ‘Frogmore House in the time of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, died 1861’. The Duchess of Kent’s Bedroom was accorded special importance, as it was the room in which she died, with particular attention paid to the sofa on which she had been lying: ‘The Sofa in Her Royal Highness’s Bedroom in which HRH Breathed Her Last, 15-16 March 1861’. Hand coloured photographs were done from photographs of Frogmore’s interiors, to record them for historical purposes. One of these shows the sofa in which the Duchess died, covered with cushions and throws, above which appears to hang an oval portrait of the Duchess herself. A stool – presumably the one which Queen Victoria sat on to hold her mother’s hand – can also be seen. I have not yet been able to trace what happened to the sofa.

In January 1901, Queen Victoria herself would die on a small couch bed, surrounded by her children, at Osborne House. Perhaps poignantly, there are two watercolours relating to the Duchess of Kent’s mausoleum at Frogmore, in the Queen’s Bedroom at Osborne, according to how the room is arranged today. The first of these shows a view of the mausoleum of the Duchess with the lake in the foreground and the second picture, an interior view of the Duchess of Kent’s mausoleum at Frogmore, showing a view of the upper level with the life-size statue erected by William Theed. Incidentally, the album ‘Frogmore House in the time of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, died 1861’, also contains an image of the interior of the mausoleum, showing the doors ajar and the sarcophagus of the Duchess. The Queen’s Bedroom at Osborne also fittingly, contains a watercolour of another mausoleum, the Royal Mausoleum, built to house the remains of the Queen and the Prince Consort.

The Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice, wrote to her mother in 1862 as Princess Louis of Hesse: “These words are for the 16th… do you recollect when all was over and dear Papa led you to the sofa in the colonnade [Colonnade at Frogmore House] and then took me to you…” (cit., Alice: Biographical Sketch and Letters, 69). She continued to write to her mother for the anniversary of the Duchess of Kent, for example in 1869: ‘I thought of you so much on the 16th…’ (cit., Ibid, 212).

The Queen told Prince Albert that she was convinced ‘that the loss is irrevocable’. (cit., Hibbert, 266). Prince Albert had himself left the Duchess’ Bedroom shortly before she died, in tears. Poignantly, a bracelet surviving in the Royal Collection, inserted with a watercolour of the Duchess of Kent, was to have been a Christmas present for 1861 for Queen Victoria from Prince Albert – given to her in the year of her mother’s death. Prince Albert, however, himself died on 14 December 1861, so Princess Alice gave it the Queen instead. Queen Victoria ordered an inscription to be engraved on this bracelet, which was later placed in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, where the Prince Consort had died: ‘Last gift / from my / beloved & adored Albert / ordered by him / for Xmas 1861 / Given me by Alice / Jan. 1st. 1862’.

Forty years later, the Queen claimed that even her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, never forgot her grandmother, although she was only three at her death: ‘I am glad to say that Beatrice even remembers her quite well’. (cit., Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, 18). To King Leopold, Queen Victoria wrote (with possible exaggeration, that little Beatrice had been adored by her elderly grandmother, the Duchess of Kent, saying that Beatrice often spoke of her being now “in Heaven”, but still hoped to see her once more (Benson and Esher, 560).

Princess Alice continued to cherish the memory of the Duchess of Kent, writing to Queen Victoria: ‘Should dear Grandmama’s and Grandpapa’s eyes come up again amongst some of the grandchildren, how nice it would be!’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 261). Princess Alice had spent some of the evenings following her engagement to Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse, with the Duchess of Kent, reading or playing the piano to her. (Ibid, 16). Princess Alice bought a miniature of the Duchess of Kent wearing a ‘black velvet gown, with a red shawl over her shoulder – shortly after her marriage’ (cit., Ibid, 183) in Homburg in 1867; Queen Victoria sent Alice a print of her grandmother in 1873. Alice also mentions that there was a picture of ‘dear Grandmama’ in the schoolroom, sitting-room and nursery at Darmstadt, as well as ‘in my room and the schoolroom, the Duke of Kent also.’ (cit., Ibid, 299). A picture of the Duchess of Kent is almost certainly to be identified in one of the rooms of Alice’s daughter, Princess Alix of Hesse, in the Neues Palais in Darmstadt, above one that gives every appearance as being of the Duke of Kent and resembles a detail from a painting of the Duke in the Royal Collection, dated 1818, in the uniform of a Field Marshall. Interestingly, the betrothal of Princess Alix of Hesse with the Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia in 1894, took place at Coburg, where the first wedding had been celebrated between the Duke and Duchess of Kent back in 1818, the second ceremony being repeated later in a double wedding at Kew.

The Duchess of Kent was interred in a small mausoleum on a mound above the lake at Frogmore. The building was originally intended to be a summer house for the Duchess, but was converted into a mausoleum after her death, to the designs of the Prince Consort’s artistic adviser, Professor Ludwig Gruner of Dresden and executed by A. J. Humbert. The Duchess’ sarcophagus was placed on the lower level, whilst the upper level contained the aforementioned life-size statue of her, by Theed. According to the Mausolea & Monuments Trust, (retrieved 13/3/19), the mausoleum was inspired loosely by Bramante’s Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio.

Fittingly, around the pediment of the mausoleum’s dome, is an inscription in Latin. Passages of this inscription have been translated for the present author and unsurprisingly, there is a reference to the Duchess having been a ‘much loved Mother’.

Let the Duchess of Kent’s own words be the last tribute, as she wrote to Queen Victoria in a letter, in 1854: ‘Only death can separate me from you My beloved Victoria”. (cit., Hibbert, 265).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

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