The Duchess of Kent with her daughter, Princess Victoria.
The latest instalment of our Influential Queen Mothers series delves in to the life of Victoria of Saxe Coburg Saalfeld, the mother of this country’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Victoria.
Victoria may not have been the wife of a King, but anyone who thinks that this diminished her influence would be thinking wrong. Some may argue that the influence that the Duchess of Kent possessed over her daughter was for the young Victoria’s own good, while many will claim otherwise.
When the future Queen Victoria was born in 1819, there was little talk of her ever becoming Queen. King George III was still alive and it was expected that one of his heirs, the future George IV and William IV, would eventually produce their own male heir. If that didn’t happen, it was expected that Victoria’s father, Prince Edward Duke of Kent, and mother would produce a male heir to succeed, though as readers will know this was never the case. In early 1820 the Duke of Kent died, so Victoria was left fatherless and her mother was now a widow. That same year, Victoria’s grandfather, King George III, died and the Crown passed to his son, George. However, the possibility of Victoria ever ascending the throne was still minimal.
The Duchess of Kent’s influence over her daughter became apparent at a very early age. Throughout the reign of King George IV, both Victoria and her mother lived a quiet and secluded life, away from court at Kensington Palace. The Duchess of Kent took charge of her daughter’s upbringing , she saw fit to make sure that Victoria received a very liberal education in music, drawing, history and foreign languages. The tutor put in charge of this was German governess Louise Lehzen who, dare I say, became a friend of the future monarch.
When King George IV died in 1830 and he was succeeded by his brother William IV it became apparent that Victoria would be heir to the throne. William was well into his sixties and the chance of him producing a legitimate male heir was very slim. The quiet life that young Victoria had been accustomed to was over and she was now the pawn of some very unfortunate family feuds, substantially fuelled by her mother and her Comptroller of the Household, Sir John Conroy.
Both the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy disallowed Victoria from attending her uncle William’s coronation. The row apparently came about over the issue that Victoria was improperly assigned a seat at Westminster Abbey behind the Dukes, rather than behind the King himself, as the heir to the throne should be. The Duchess of Kent’s closeness to Conroy escalated the feud further and it didn’t assist matters that the Comptroller was heavily involved in the day to day life of the heiress presumptive. What cannot be argued though is that although Sir John seemed to be making all the decisions regarding Victoria, the Duchess surely must have been agreeing with the Comptroller, even though the majority of his decisions had a hidden agenda and were not in the best interests of Victoria, but more beneficial to himself and the Duchess.
The Duchess’s influence seemed to be self-enhanced, so much so that she thought she was important enough to take rooms for herself at Kensington Palace that were King William’s own. Although that this shows no signs of the Duchess having influence over Victoria directly, what it does show is that the Duchess thought she had more dynamism than she actually did; maybe her alliance with Sir John gave her this false sense of influential prowess… The whole ‘room’ debacle led to a heated exchange between the Duchess and the King during a dinner in 1836 where the King publicly declared that he hoped he should live so long that a regency is avoided, for the sole reason that the Duchess and Conroy would have no influence over the Crown. The King also condemned the influence that the Duchess held over the young Princess Victoria; maybe he was also hinting at the influence that the Duchess’s apparent new love interest, Sir John Conroy, had.
Readers have probably noticed that Sir John Conroy has made frequent appearances throughout this article, nonetheless there is a reason for this. There is strong evidence to suggest that Sir John was pulling all the strings in the way that the Duchess treated Victoria. Conroy had high hopes for himself, some would say he also had high hopes for the Duchess, though that is debatable, so when the prospect of a regency arose, Sir John was there like a whippet and saw only self-enrichment. Should Victoria ascend the throne while she was underage then the Duchess of Kent would act as regent in the best interests of Victoria or, as it seems more likely, in the best interests of Conroy. As the Duchess’s personal secretary, Conroy knew he would be the genuine power behind the throne. What Sir John didn’t count on though was the Duke of Cumberland being another possible candidate for Regent, though this wouldn’t hinder Sir John’s ambitions. He began to spread vicious rumours that Cumberland planned to kill Princess Victoria in order for his own accession to the throne. This string of events led to alienation between the Kensington household and the King’s Court.
As Princess Victoria grew up, relations between her and her mother became very poor. The Duchess was so wrapped up in preparing Victoria for her future as Queen that she often treated her in a cold and flippant manner, though for the public she acted with motherly affection for her Royal daughter. What’s more, Victoria came to associate her mother with Conroy’s schemes. When the Duchess pressurised her own daughter to sign a document declaring Sir John as her own personal secretary, relations were well and truly sour.
When King William IV died in June 1837, the country narrowly avoided a regency and Victoria was crowned Queen in her own right. Her mother’s continuous influence became non-existent when Victoria ascended the throne, with the teenage Queen even relegating the Duchess to accommodation away from her own. As for Sir John, he was dismissed from Victoria’s household, though she wasn’t able to dismiss him from her mother’s household.
History suggests that when Victoria and her husband Albert had their first child, The Princess Royal, Victoria’s attitude towards her mother softened and she was welcomed back in to Victoria’s inner circle. It’s suggested that the Duchess’s return to being in favour was down to a different sort of influence that Albert had over Victoria, a kinder influence. He had already persuaded the Queen to dismiss Baroness Lehzen and many have been persuaded that Albert leaned upon The Queen to reconcile with her mother. Victoria and the Duchess became closer than they had ever been before.
It was testimony to how close mother and daughter had become when upon the Duchess’s death on 16th March 1861, The Queen and Prince Albert dedicated a window to the Duchess in the Royal Chapel of All Saints in Windsor Great Park. Queen Victoria was deeply saddened and greatly affected by her mother’s death in 1861; this was the same year that would see Prince Albert tragically pass away as well.
So there we have Princess Victoria of Saxe Coburg Saalfeld. Many will argue that she was an uncaring and cold mother who had an inconsiderate influence over her daughter. Others will claim that the Duchess was being controlled by Sir John Conroy and it was he who had the influence over both Victoria’s. In my opinion, I cannot say which side I agree with. I do think that at times the Duchess acted very harshly towards her only child, but one wonders how much control Sir John had over her for sure; she was the Royal after all and he was just staff. What we can be thankful for though is that mother and daughter did reconcile to a certain extent and the Duchess became a doting grandmother too. With all of this in mind, we must ask: did the Duchess regret her behaviour towards Victoria when she was growing up? Or was it part of a big master plan in order to achieve her Royal ambitions?
Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via photopin cc
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