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20 June 1837: Waking up Queen Victoria

On 20 June 1837, Princess Victoria of Kent was awoken in her bedroom at Kensington Palace, writing later in her journal entry for that day, in which significantly the proud new word ‘alone’ features intermittently (also underlined), we read: “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen’ (Quoted in St Aubyn, pp. 55–57; Woodham-Smith, p. 138).

We do not sadly, have this diary entry in the excited handwriting of a young girl just Queen, written at Kensington Palace; instead, the entry for this day survives in the typescript copy of the Queen’s journals from 1832-1840, by Lord Esher – Queen Victoria’s early diaries survive in her handwriting only up until 1 January 1837, the year of her accession.

The scene of her receiving this momentous news was powerfully imagined much later by the English portrait painter and miniaturist Henry Tanworth Wells, in his painting ‘Victoria Regina: Queen Victoria receiving the news of her Accession’, with the kneeling figures of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham, kissing hands and the nearby Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley. The young Princess Victoria is illuminated not only by the June sunshine streaming through the windows of her sitting room at Kensington Palace but also presumably, by the aura-like radiance of her queenly state, emphasising the dawn of a new life.

This royal symbolism is not unlike the sacred tidings of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, where the blinding light appears to be in the moment of announcement. The picture was not commissioned by the Queen to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her accession in 1887 when Wells signed and dated it. Instead, it entered the Royal Collection in 1903 – two years after Queen Victoria’s death – when it was presented to Edward VII by the artist’s daughters after his death (RCIN 406996). (Author’s note: There is no public domain version of this painting at present, so I have chosen to include an image showing the Queen the year afterwards, at her coronation).

The picture captures something of the remarkable dignity exhibited by the young Queen on her accession as recorded by those that attended her First Council, such as Charles Greville, Clerk of the Privy Council: ‘She went through the whole ceremony… with perfect calmness and self-possession, but at the same time with a graceful modesty and propriety particularly interesting and ingratiating…’ (Quoted in Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, Pg 96, 1997).

Perhaps importantly, a picture of her father, the Duke of Kent, is just discernible on the wall of her sitting-room in Wells’ painting, as she gracefully clasps a shawl, instead of her dressing-gown, an allusion again to the fact that she had been woken from sleep with the news that would make it a morning of her life unlike any other. The candlestick on the pianoforte in the painting is also surprisingly accurate as apparently accidental detail – the Duchess of Kent had been holding a silver candlestick when she hurried to her daughter’s bedroom to wake her and inform her of the arrival of the two gentlemen who had ridden down from Windsor. Remnants on the table in her sitting-room of abandoned pursuits are a reminder that she is now Queen; not all of her girlish behaviour was immediately set aside, however, as onlookers apparently observed her skipping away like a girl on the morning of her accession, the old Princess still evidently a part of the new Queen.

Her accession as Queen had, of course, meant a death. She had learned of her place in the British succession through her governess Baroness Lehzen enclosing in her history books at Kensington Palace, a genealogical table that quite clearly showed that she followed after her uncle, William, thereby just placing it within the year of William IV’s accession in 1830, as George IV had died in January. Princess Victoria had been fond of the King and showed especial sensitivity to his widow, Queen Adelaide on his death. Unhappier memories were associated with the distressing effects of the ‘Kensington system’, finally erupting in the ugly contretemps between the King and the Duchess of Kent at Windsor Castle during the celebrations for the King’s birthday, in 1836. Queen Adelaide had devotedly remained with the King on his deathbed for some ten days; the King’s state worsened. On 15 June, Princess Victoria’s lessons at Kensington Palace were postponed, including to her particular regret, her singing lesson with Luigi Lablache (whom she skilfully sketched): ‘the Doctors think my poor uncle the King cannot last more than 48 hours!’ (Quoted in Staniland, Pg 98). News of the dying King at Windsor grew yet graver; Princess Victoria ‘turned pale and burst into tears’ when this was related to her on 19 June (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 51, 2000).

King William IV died on 20 June 1837 in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, the same room where George IV had died in 1830 and in fact, the very place where Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, would later die in 1861. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office was responsible for the announcement of court mourning, duly dating its official statement from the morning of Queen Victoria’s accession, 20 June 1837. General public mourning, in turn, was announced from Herald’s College by the Earl Marshal.

A rust-brown dress preserved in the Royal Collection, now much faded but once black and known as the ‘Privy Council dress, 1837’, is supposedly that worn by Queen Victoria at her First Council at Kensington Palace on 20 June 1837, which she held at 11 o’clock in the morning, in the Red Saloon. The painter Sir David Wilkie’s subsequent rendering of the event was much resented by the Queen, who took exception at his disloyalty to the truth: ‘He put me in white for effect, I was in black notwithstanding’ (Millar, 1969, Pg 144; Ginsburg, Pg 48; Staniland, Pg 94).

Princess Victoria’s bedroom at Kensington Palace no longer contains the bed in which she slept, but the overall impression of this remarkable room – now all but empty of original furniture when I last visited it, with the bed now in storage – still manages to convey an incredible power of stunned and sleepy surprise, mixed in with the realisation of new royal status. The stern octogenarian Queen Victoria of popular imagination, happily counterbalanced by a wealth of recent research – can become for us in this room, the young eighteen-year-old Princess, woken at her historic hour.

I remain fascinated by this room, because Queen Victoria did in fact, technically become Queen in her sleep, some four hours before she was woken up; the messengers that brought the news meant that her receiving this sad bulletin of her uncle’s passing immediately left her in no doubt of her new status, as his heiress presumptive. The news of the death of a monarch immediately therefore translated into the accession of another, meaning that inevitably, the plans for coronations followed after funerals, although in Queen Victoria’s case, there was the delay of nearly a year. King William IV was interred in the Royal Vault established by George III at St George’s Chapel, Windsor on 8 July 1837. Queen Victoria’s coronation was celebrated at Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838.

The sitting-room where the young Queen Victoria received the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury, still exists, but today seems to be incorporated into the space of the permanent exhibition at Kensington Palace on Queen Victoria, ‘Victoria Revealed’. I had the immense privilege many years ago to be allowed to go down the staircase which led from Princess Victoria’s bedroom to her private sitting-room, which at that time was still furnished. The staircase still survives and is in fact extremely steep, which accounts slightly more for why the young Princess had always had someone hold her hand when she descended them to the room below; a rare historical insight which I hadn’t expected. The Duchess of Kent repeated this action, of holding her daughter’s hand – the last time as Princess – down these private stairs to her sitting-room, to receive Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury; Baroness Lehzen, Princess Victoria’s beloved German governess, followed behind, with smelling salts. But these were not needed and nor would they be.

Princess Victoria’s small sitting-room contained sofas, shrouded in white protective sheets; the room was dark because of the drawn blinds and several portraits, which I believe represented the Princess Victoria’s maternal, Leiningen relations, stared out from the green wallpaper. It was the kind of episode that enables a literal ‘stepping’ into history because the room was the same and the moment not difficult to imagine. It could, however, not have been more different to the painting by Henry Tanworth Wells, which immortalised that episode. It did make it easy to understand how opening the blinds of this sitting room could have revealed the glorious sunshine of that June morning back in 1837 as Wells had imagined it, with light streaming onto the young Queen Victoria, in semi-religious quality, perhaps anticipating the sacred aspect of her coronation of the following year.

In Victoria’s own words, she was informed of the King’s death: ‘and consequently, that I am Queen’ (Quoted in St Aubyn, pp. 55–57; Woodham-Smith, p. 138).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. Her academic subject is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has spent nearly ten years conducting original research on historic royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on TV and radio, including the BBC. Her research interests include royal correspondence and royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor on BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. She is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical and genealogical journal, Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for Tudor Life Magazine, the official magazine of the Tudor Society. She was History Writer for Royal Central (2015-2020), writing a blog for the web's most popular royal news site. Her current projects include the portraiture of Queen Jane Seymour and Prince Henry Tudor (*1511).