Across the Quadrangle at Windsor Castle is a room, clearly visible, jutting out in a pentagon shape amongst the jigsaw of the Clarence, Queen’s, Augusta, York, and Lancaster Towers and King George IV Gate. Part of the private apartments, it was merely called what it was: The Oak Room or Oak Dining Room. The room is important. It was the room in which Queen Victoria breakfasted on occasion, when at Windsor. It was hung with Gobelin tapestries which Queen Victoria had been given by the French King Louis-Philippe at the Chateau d’Eu in 1843. It contained a sizeable six-arm chandelier, which hung above the Gothic-style dining table and chairs; a Vulliamy clock with the figure of Time was also placed there. It even – among other paintings – contained an oval portrait of the Princess of Wales, which was set into a wooden panel in the wall.
We know she breakfasted here because of photographs which were made; for example, those taken in 1895, showing the elderly, septuagenarian Queen and Empress, surrounded by three of her grandchildren, Prince Leopold, Princess Victoria Eugenie and Prince Alexander of Battenberg, together with her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice and her husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg. Edward VIII, the future Duke of Windsor, remembered in his memoirs: ‘What fascinated me most about ‘Gangan’ was her habit of taking breakfast in little revolving huts mounted on turntables so that they could be faced away from the wind… her Indian servants would be waiting with her wheel-chair. They would serve her breakfast, which always began with a bowl of steaming hot porridge…’ (The Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story, 10; quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, pp. 415-16).
We can see Indian servants in the photograph of Queen Victoria and the Battenberg family in the background in the Oak Room in 1895. The porridge may well be a legacy of the Queen’s romantic love of Scotland, with the oatmeal porridge which she had enjoyed in the Highlands that she loved. Behind the Queen hangs a version of the well-known portrait made of her by the German portrait painter Heinrich von Angeli, described by the Queen as ‘absurdly like’ and showing the Queen in black, relieved only by the white of her widow’s cap, the ribbon of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert and the large white handkerchiefs which the Queen had a habit of carrying around wherever she went. These images of the Queen and the Battenbergs, made by Mary Steen, have alternatively been labelled as ‘Royal Group having dinner in the Oak Room, Windsor Castle, 1895’. Various other names have been ascribed to the room over time, including the Oak Sitting Room and Gothic Breakfast Room, according to gelatin prints commissioned by the Royal Collection for inventory purposes.
The room, therefore, opens a door – literally – onto the Queen’s daily routine and domestic habits, as well as pointing us towards the fascinating question of what the Queen ate during this meal. Queen Victoria’s penchant for wanting to breakfast in Gothic surroundings is something she continued to like to do at Frogmore, for example. She sometimes used the Gothic Ruins at Frogmore as a breakfast room, just as she also liked to breakfast in her Garden Cottage at Balmoral and in the square alcove with two arched open sides, when outside at Osborne.
The Battenberg children were apparently given ‘dull nursery meals – beef, mutton and milk puddings – but visiting children were allowed eclairs and ices. Once Princess Ena [of Battenberg], in indignation at this, said as her grace, “Thank God for my dull dinner”. Queen Victoria was enraged at this and punished her…’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 418). As a child herself, the future Queen had recalled that she generally come into dinner – which was at seven – ‘eating my bread and milk out of a small silver basin. Tea was only allowed as a great treat in later years’ (Quoted in Arthur Benson and Viscount Esher, A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the Years of 1837 and 1861, vol 1: 1837-1843).
The Queen’s breakfasts are diligently documented in the Royal Archives, where the daily menus are copiously detailed, enabling us to see what Queen Victoria was eating and what she sat down in front of during her day. In fact, the menus for breakfast might surprise and read more like meaty suppers, smashing the singular myth of the Queen only eating one boiled egg for breakfast. We read, for example, in 1858, that she ate ‘mutton chop and mashed potatoes’ and in 1875, ‘sausages with potatoes, grilled whiting, poached eggs in stock, hot and cold roast fowl…’ and in 1890 she was given ‘bacon and eggs, fried sole, cold fowl, ham and tongue…’ (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, pp 177-8). In 1898, the breakfast menu had stretched to include ‘asparagus omelette’ and ‘grilled chicken’ (Ibid, 178).
In the private memoirs of Princess Louis of Battenberg – Queen Victoria’s granddaughter – we read: ‘For breakfast and tea Grandmama used two special cups and would pour the tea from one into the other to cool it…‘ (Quoted in David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 271).
We know that as Princess Victoria, the future Queen took her breakfast at Kensington Palace at half-past eight in the morning, because she remembered this in the memoir she wrote down much later, in 1872. The young Tsarevich Nicholas – future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia – wrote down in his diary on his 1894 visit to Queen Victoria at Windsor that the Queen would often breakfast or take morning coffee at Frogmore, where he joined the Queen, together with his fiancée, Princess Alix of Hesse.
The Queen’s breakfasts could be understandably small on days of great importance – such as the day of her coronation – 28 June 1838 – where she had only eaten little that morning, but found an altar in St Edward’s Chapel (into which the Queen had processed after stepping down from the throne) at Westminster Abbey, covered with sandwiches and bottles of wine, no doubt to fortify those involved throughout the great day. On the morning of her wedding to Prince Albert on 10 February 1840, she had her breakfast at half-past nine.
The wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace was, of course, no ordinary breakfast in the life of the Queen. Made by the Queen’s Yeoman Confectioner at Buckingham Palace, Mr John Mauditt, the huge wedding cake measured some three yards in circumference, was 14 inches in depth, ‘cost above L 100’ and weighed more than 140 kg. An engraving after Sarsfield Taylor, in the Royal Collection, shows The Royal Wedding Cake in a hand-coloured lithograph; a fabulous iced creation decorated with sprays of orange flower blossoms and myrtle, it was decorated with figures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, topped by a benevolent, blessing Britannica. Further down were winged putti and children, a happy presage of what would be a family of nine, the Queen’s first child being born in the same year as their marriage. Remarkably, two boxes containing the wedding cake of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, survive in the Royal Collection, inscribed on the cardboard (crowned) box: ‘The Queen’s Bridal Cake, Buckingham Palace, Feby 10, 1840’.
In the Queen’s last journal entry for Sunday 13 January 1901 – which she presumably dictated – the Queen had only been able to take a little milk in the morning. For one who loved her food, it makes sad reading and prepares the reader for the event that it predicted, which took place nine days later – 22 January 1901 – the Queen’s death. In red ink, the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, has written beneath the last entry that this was the final one before her death, followed by the date. Princess Beatrice had edited, copied and re-written the Queen’s voluminous journals, at the Queen’s request. In this last, moving entry, we see that Queen Victoria had almost become childlike again, when she had taken her bread and milk in a silver basin, as she remembered when she wrote down her memories of her early childhood, in 1872.