Queen Victoria’s accession began with a staircase. Fascinating to consider is the fact that this very staircase survives at Kensington Palace and may be seen today. A staircase had also played a part on another historic day in Victoria’s life, much later. On 10 October 1839, the young Queen stood at the top of the staircase at Windsor Castle, at half-past seven in the evening, to receive her German cousins, Prince Albert and Ernest of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who had come to visit. This time it was the fateful meeting that led to their formal betrothal on 15 October; Prince Albert had visited England in May 1836 with his brother Prince Ernest, but was only aged sixteen at the time. We must assume that this was the main staircase in the Queen’s Private Apartments at Windsor; at least, her journal does not state otherwise.
The Kensington Palace staircase was significant for her in a different way, marking her beginning as a British monarch. Descending this staircase, Princess Victoria must have been reasonably sure what news awaited her at the end of it. Her journal for the preceding week of June 1837 makes it clear that the death of her uncle, King William IV was very much expected. When told of the King’s state of health the day before his death, Princess Victoria ‘turned pale and burst into tears’ (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 51). The Queen’s long journal entry for that important day – that of her accession, 20 June 1837 – describes how she 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…’ (Quoted in A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, 75).
Princess Victoria shared her bedroom with her mother, the Duchess of Kent since her childhood. So guarded was she as Princess, that her beloved governess, Baroness Lehzen, stayed in the bedroom until the Duchess of Kent went to bed (Ibid, 22). This historic room, where Victoria was awoken – having been technically Queen for some three and a half hours – is not currently accessible at Kensington Palace, the bed which was once in it, now in storage at Buckingham Palace. The private staircase which led down from the bedroom was hardly unique in the nature of royal rooms, marking the growing need for privacy as well as ease of access, but this staircase is symbolic in other ways, too. Princess Victoria had been so protected, that she had not even been allowed to descend the staircase alone, someone always been required to hold her hand.
Years ago, I was given the privileged opportunity to descend this staircase, to what was Princess Victoria’s private sitting room, where she received the news of her uncle’s death and her accession. These are the kind of moments where history becomes experiential in a way in which no written record can quite give the same insight. The private staircase was incredibly steep, and I was able to understand just why Princess Victoria’s hand had been held when she climbed down it. It may have been more than just over-protection, as much as to shield the British heir apparent from a hapless accident.
The Duchess of Kent held her hand as she descended the staircase on that early morning in June 1837 too, (Ibid, 51), most likely aware that she was now leading her daughter downstairs to be told she was, at last, Queen of England. The Duchess of Kent was carrying a silver candlestick – which may perhaps be the candlestick that features in the painting by the artist Henry Tanworth Wells, recording the event, some fifty years later. Baroness Lehzen followed on behind, with smelling salts. But the young Victoria was composed.
Reading Victoria’s first journal entry as Queen, we may be struck by the decidedly independent tone of it, which was deliberately chosen. In the surviving typescript by Lord Esher, we see that Queen Victoria has underlined the day once and the rest of the date twice, as well as underscoring the word ‘Queen’. We read in her own words: ‘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 A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, 75). The journal entry continues with various references to her rooms at Kensington Palace: ‘Took my dinner upstairs alone. Went downstairs’ (Quoted in Ibid, 76). That same day, her bed had been taken out of the bedroom she had shared for so long with her mother. A doorway was made to join Lehzen’s bedroom with the room she would sleep in. That evening, she significantly went downstairs to wish ‘goodnight to Mama etc.’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 56).
I wonder where Princess Victoria moved her bed within Kensington Palace. Her rooms were after all, on the level with the King’s Apartments, with one chamber separating her bedroom from the colossal Cupola Room designed by the great William Kent, in which she had been christened, in the presence of her parents and King George IV. The Duke of Kent had requested before Princess Victoria’s birth, that he and the Duchess should be allowed newly renovated apartments at Kensington Palace (Ibid, 10). His original (surviving) apartments at Kensington Palace were on two floors in the south-east corner of the palace, but are no longer recognisable within the modern configuration of the Palace’s (accessible) rooms. When Queen Victoria visited Kensington Palace in 1899, shortly before the palace was opened to the public, her journal describes the rooms that she revisited. Perhaps significantly, the former bedroom she had shared with her mother, nor the staircase or room in which she was told the news of her accession, are not mentioned.
The presentation of the rooms at Kensington Palace do allow some glimpses, however, of that historic staircase, down which a young eighteen-year-old Princess descended, in her dressing gown. We must suppose that there was a surreal quality to that morning, being roused from sleep to be told such a message of such extraordinary personal (and public) import. There is a sense of destiny about this private back staircase because of the weight of what it witnessed, that morning in June 1837. A Princess descended it; a Queen emerged downstairs.