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The Duke of Kent: Queen Victoria’s missing father

We know of course, that Queen Victoria’s relationship with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, whilst difficult in the early years of her childhood and adolescence, gradually improved with her marriage to Prince Albert, becoming one of genuine closeness and affection. The death of the Duchess of Kent in 1861 – nine months as history would show, prior to the death of Prince Albert – provoked an outpouring of intense grief on behalf of the Queen, perhaps also, shot through with guilt and subsequent regret for the years in which their relationship had been fraught with tension. For importantly, the Duchess of Kent’s death left Queen Victoria an orphan, depriving her of her one remaining royal parent, the only parent she had known. Because in all this, there was the issue of the missing father.

The death of George III’s fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820) was to profoundly affect the life of his baby daughter, Princess Victoria, not yet one years old. The Duke of Kent died at Woolbrook Glen, Sidmouth, in the villa which had been leased to him for the winter of 1819-20; he had been ill with a chill which he had caught on a visit to Salisbury Cathedral, which worsened over Christmas when he brought his small family to the seaside. After extreme suffering, which involved “bleeding” and “cupping”, the Duke died in his bedroom.

Today known as the Royal Glen Hotel, the Duke’s room at Sidmouth may still be seen and was shown to the present author in 2015; simply furnished with period features and contemporary engravings, it does not take much imagination to picture the pathetic scene of the Duke’s death in 1820. When the Duchess died in 1861, Queen Victoria discovered among the Duchess’s effects a drawing of the room that the Duke died in at Sidmouth, alongside a book in which the Duchess wrote each week after his death and the last three letters which the Duke had written to the Duchess in French. When the Duchess was dying at Frogmore House, Queen Victoria remembered hearing the repeater watch, which the Duchess had kept, as it ticked. It had belonged to the Duke of Kent. After the Duchess’s death, the Queen wrote: “We found a most precious relic of my poor father, which I had never seen. His little writing desk – with his Garter purse…” (Roger Fulford, Dearest Child: Letters between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, pg 319, 1964).

Several images of Woolbrook Glen exist in the Royal Collection, including a photograph showing the villa taken in 1892 and listed as “Woolbrook Glen, Sidmouth where HRH The Duke of Kent died and where the Princess Victoria stayed when a child”. Even more poignantly given the fact that the Queen would have been seventy-three when it was produced, it was acquired by her for an album of photographic portraits whose years span from 1892-98.

We might think that Queen Victoria might not make much mention of the father she never knew, but I view the lack of a father as significant for her emotional attitude in many of the most important relationships in her adult life. Her romantic feelings for Prince Albert are often expressed in terms which seem to indicate a subconscious need to be protected; her beloved uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, was referred to by her as her “second father” and even her “only father”. She appears also to have regarded the father of Prince Albert as something of a father figure, writing after her visit in 1845 to Coburg and the place of Albert’s birth, that she had seen the rooms of the late Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha: “[It] was poor dear Papa’s bedroom with his bed and everything left in it just as it was – and a sitting room which is just as poor dear Papa used to have it; on his writing table are the pens with ink in them, just as he left them! And so they must remain, they are quite sacred to us…” (HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, Pg 111, 1993) When Prince Albert’s father had died in 1844, Queen Victoria wrote characteristically to King Leopold: “You must now be the father of us two… I loved him and looked upon him as my own father…” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, pg 159, 2000).

The Duke had been extremely proud of his health baby daughter, having been determined to sire the next heir to the British throne, confidently declaring that “the crown will come to me and my children”. To the extreme displeasure of the Prince Regent, the Duke was convinced of the importance of his child being born on British soil and went to great lengths borrowing money from friends and associates such as Lord Dundas, the Duke of Cambridge, Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Darnley and Alderman Matthew Wood, to raise sufficient funds to cross the Channel in time for the Duchess’s confinement. He referred to the new born child as his “pocket Hercules” and had remained with the Duchess throughout the birth. The Duke delighted in showing his baby daughter to his friends, roundly declaring that they should “look at her well, for she will be Queen of England”. (Hibbert, op. cit, Pg 12).

Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (By Original steel engraving (1844) engraved by E. Scriven, after W. Beechey. [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

There seems to have been an attempt on behalf of Queen Victoria to acquire pictures of her father for the Royal Collection. Perhaps this quite literally helped fill the obvious gap on the wall: Queen Victoria had once had an oil painting of her father as a child in one of her rooms; it is a miniature of her father that she is holding in the famous portrait of her as a child leaning on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, ‘Victoria, Duchess of Kent with Princess Victoria’, made by Sir William Beechey sometime after 1821. The Royal Collection contains a fair number of portraits of the Duke of Kent, including miniatures. Unsurprisingly, some of these, such as the watercolour on ivory by the artist Sarah Biffin showing the Duke in his Field Marshal’s uniform and Garter badge, was acquired by Queen Victoria in 1840, the year of her marriage. She commissioned a miniature of her father after the original by Thomas Gainsborough, from the enamellist Henry Pierce Bone, that same year.

As a token of the importance of her father, she gave a miniature of the Duke of Kent to Prince Albert as a gift in 1841; it was painted by the miniature copyist Johann Paul Georg Fischer, who had also painted her as a baby, in a study entitled ‘Princess Victoria Alexandrina, 1819’, which was in fact, made for the Duke of Kent’s birthday on 2 November 1819; fragments of the red and green ribbon which the baby princess is wearing in the painting survive today. A full length portrait of the Duke by George Dawe was purchased by Queen Victoria from James Prendergast for the Royal Collection, for £120 in 1859; showing the Duke in the uniform of a Field Marshal and his Garter star, it hangs above the Grand Staircase at Buckingham Palace. According to one source, it used to hang in Queen Victoria’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace. (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, Pg 79, 1997). A marble bust of the Duke of Kent in military uniform is today displayed in St. George’s Hall at Windsor Castle, probably the one which was acquired for the Collection in 1883. Another portrait of the Duke is displayed in the Crimson Drawing Room, which apparently belonged to the Duchess of Kent.

Once after discussing her uncles with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, she concluded that “from what I heard, my father was the best of all”. Movingly, a monument to the Duke of Kent is now to be seen in Queen Victoria’s own Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, although it was not placed there at her behest. It was only moved there in 1950 from St. George’s Chapel, where it had previously been placed in 1874. The Duke of Kent was in fact, interred in the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel on 12 February 1820; Queen Victoria described a lonely visit to the Vault and the tomb of her father, one evening in August 1836, which deeply affected her.

Queen Victoria makes mention of the father she never knew some seventy-seven times in her journal. These comments refer to people who had known her father or to his relationship with her mother. Even as late as 1890, she marked the anniversary of her father’s death in her journal.

Proof if any were needed, that the father she had never known, was still a missing figure in her life – and one, far from forgotten.

© Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

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