It is hard to imagine British history without Queen Victoria. So deeply has she made an impression on British history and bestowed her name upon an era that we could be momentarily forgiven for thinking that she had always existed. During her reign, she oversaw a period of unprecedented national change and industrial advancement, dying just a year after the turn of the 20th century, yet she remembered George IV as a child. Queen Victoria became the longest reigning monarch in British history, an achievement only recently surpassed by the present Queen Elizabeth II, who became the longest reigning British monarch on 9 September 2015.
The popular image of Queen Victoria remained little challenged, until more recent years. In the minds of many, she was the royal “Widow of Windsor” – an elderly matriarch and monochrome queen who wrote her letters on black-edged stationery and wore perpetual mourning, for her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who died in 1861. She had always prayed that she would outlive the Prince Consort, but instead she did exactly that, for forty years. So much did this image of the elderly Queen stick, that we could temporarily imagine she had never been young. Thanks, however, to permanent exhibitions such as “Victoria Revealed” at Kensington Palace and previous landmark exhibitions, such as “Victoria & Albert: Art & Love” in 2010, as well as a wealth of material on the subject, not least her own diaries and sketchbooks, this perception is changing. Together with the release of the 2009 period drama film, “The Young Victoria”, and the online project ‘Queen Victoria’s Journals’, our idea of Queen Victoria has altered, and we have come to know another Victoria, be it as a child princess, a mother, or a queen in love. She bursts into life and her own words enable us to revise that earlier image of her. We are glimpsing another Victoria. In so doing, we should perhaps also look at where her life began.
Rooms, where English and British monarchs have been born, are somewhat unusual, in that few of them have survived or are available to view. Some of them cannot be seen because they were within royal residences which have since been demolished, such as the vanished palace of Greenwich (formerly the Palace of Placentia) for example, where the future Henry VIII was born – one of the greatest palaces of the Tudor dynasty not to have survived. Others cannot be viewed because their private apartments have never been open.
Equally, a royal residence could have been subject to fire damage and/or major remodelling in subsequent years, so that the erstwhile rooms where these historic births took place, no longer exist within their original context – the future Charles II was born in 1630 at St. James’s Palace, a former residence which experienced both of the above and has never been open to the public. (Charles II’s paternal grandfather, the future James VI/I was born in Edinburgh Castle in 1566 – in a room which does still exist.) In purely Hanoverian terms – the British dynasty to which Victoria belonged – the first Georgian kings were born in Hanover, whilst the future George III was born at Norfolk House in London; Norfolk House was previously the London residence of the Dukes of Norfolk, which was offered to Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Augusta by the 9th Duke and so enjoyed a brief period as a royal home. (The Music Room’s panelling at Norfolk House was considered significant enough to be dismantled and re-constructed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the majority of the rest of the house’s collection being removed to Arundel Castle, Sussex).
The future George V was born at Marlborough House, today the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations and the seat of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and therefore not open to the public – similarly, George VI was born at Sandringham House, the private rooms of course, of which are not publicly accessible. Queen Elizabeth II was herself born at 17 Bruton St in 1926, at the London residence of her maternal grandparents – the Earl and Countess of Strathmore – in a house which no longer exists. The fact that the room where Queen Victoria was born not only still exists but is now publicly accessible represents, therefore, something of a rarity in royal terms.
The Duke and Duchess of Kent married in 1818. The tragic and untimely death of George IV’s only legitimate daughter Princess Charlotte in 1817, provoked a succession crisis. This caused several of the unmarried sons of George III – those royal bachelor dukes who had sired 56 illegitimate children between them – to set a competition in action whereby they all rushed towards the altar, in an attempt to be the first to sire the heir to the British throne and so secure the safe continuation of the Hanoverian dynasty. Edward, Duke of Kent married Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in Coburg in 1818 and again in a second English ceremony at Kew in July 1818. We have no reason to suppose that the future Queen Victoria was either a late or premature birth, so we must assume that she was conceived in the weeks after the second ceremony at Kew.
The Duke and Duchess of Kent were determined that their child should be born in England, so as to disprove any doubts about its right to succeed – not for nothing was the future George III – the Hanoverian king who in his coronation speech “[gloried] in the name of Briton”, also the first of the early Georgian kings who was actually born in Great Britain. The Duke and Duchess and their party set out from Amorbach in Germany for Calais – the pace was slow – from Cologne, it took a further two weeks to reach Calais. (The Duke drove his own phaeton to save money.) They sailed for Dover on 24 April. The future Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace exactly a month later, at 4.15 am on 24 May 1819.
That May morning was a cold one. The Duchess of Kent’s labour took just over six hours and the Duke of Kent stayed at his wife’s side throughout the ordeal, praising her for her fortitude: ‘The dear mother and child are doing marvellously well… It is absolutely impossible for me to do justice to the patience and sweetness with which [the mother] behaved’. (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 12). The Duke of Kent described his newly born daughter as being a “pocket Hercules” and “plump as a partridge” to his wife’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg, who duly replied to her daughter, hoping that her daughter was not disappointed the child hadn’t been a son, with the prescient comment: “The English like Queens”. The Dowager Duchess wrote to her daughter: ‘ My God, how glad I am to hear of you… I cannot find words to express my delight that everything went so smoothly… I cannot write much… dear mouse… for I am much too happy.‘ (cit. Ibid, 12). The Duke of Kent had himself been convinced that he would be the father of the future heir to England, saying “The crown will come to me and my children” (cit., Ibid, 10) long before the child’s birth. Now he presented his baby daughter to those around him with the prescient words ascribed to him, “Look at her well, for she will be Queen of England”. (cit., Ibid, 12). Of course, we know, that the Duke of Kent would not live to see this, dying of pneumonia before his baby daughter was even a year old, in January 1820.
A touching vignette exists from the early babyhood of the future Queen Victoria at Kensington Palace and opens a rare window onto the pleasant domestic life led by the Duke and Duchess of Kent and their three month old baby daughter. In August 1819, the Duke of Kent ordered the gardener at Kew to cut three bunches of flowers for the Duchess for her birthday – 17 August – by six o’clock in the morning, so we must imagine that the extremely early nature of this instruction, was to make sure the flowers could be got from Kew to Kensington in good time for the Duchess when she awoke. Movingly, the instruction was that there should be ‘a very large posy for myself to give her, and 2 smaller ones’. (cit., Flora Fraser, Princesses, 318). The one posy was to be a present from Princess Feodore, the Duchess’ daughter by her first marriage and therefore the Duke of Kent’s step-daughter. The other smaller posy was to ‘be put into the hands of our little baby [Victoria] which, of course, must be so composed as to have nothing to prick her hands’. (cit., Ibid, 318).
Only during the christening ceremony itself were the final names agreed upon – Princess Alexandrina Victoria – Victoria after her mother, the Duchess of Kent, (George IV said, “Give her the mother’s name also then” – ‘Charlotte’ being considered ill-chosen because of his own late beloved daughter, Princess Charlotte; ‘Augusta’ he thought was too exalted) and Alexandrina after the Russian Tsar Alexander I. The Duchess of Kent’s accounts reveals that she paid over £100 for “dressmaking” for the baby Princess Alexandrina Victoria in 1819 – which presumably included the cost of the christening gown, a layette and perhaps additional items.
Queen Victoria’s own children were all born at Buckingham Palace, the monarchy’s main address since her accession in 1837 – with the exception of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was born at Windsor Castle. The Queen herself retained a sentimental attachment to Kensington Palace, despite the unhappy associations that it held for her during her childhood and adolescence. She made a little-known visit to Kensington Palace on 15 May 1899, to inspect the building before it was opened to the public – on condition that it could be taken back for the use of the Royal Family at any time. We must imagine it interested her greatly to re-visit the room in which she was born, which she recorded doing, also inspecting the local floor and then the room in which she famously held her First Council. The artist Percy T. Macquoid made a drawing of the birth-room as it looked in 1899.
Writing to her fourth daughter, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll on 6 February 1875, Queen Victoria wrote: ‘I like to think of you in MY old home and birthplace and only wish you had my rooms [Kensington Palace]’. (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Darling Loosy, Letters to Princess Louise, 191). Princess Louise did indeed have Kensington Palace as an address, but not the rooms which had formerly been occupied by the then Princess Victoria. Instead, they moved into Apartment I at Kensington Palace, that February, a fact that occasioned the Queen’s reminiscence.
Today, the door that leads into the room where Queen Victoria was born is marked with a plaque that proclaims its historical significance. Before the re-opening of Kensington Palace, the room had been just off of the main entrance hall, where the public entered the building. The birth room only became open to the public with the re-development of the Palace, when the permanent exhibition, ‘Victoria Revealed’ was installed, and the birth room was incorporated into the visitor route. The artist Arthur W Allen made a pencil and wash trompe l’oeuil of the room, showing it bare but for a few chairs. The room now contains objects which relate directly to Queen Victoria’s childhood as well as that of her children; these include some of the wooden dolls that she made and played with at Kensington Palace as a child – of which there were well over a hundred – baby clothes of her children in pull-out drawers, the famous 1821 portrait by Sir William Beechey of the two-year old Princess with her mother, the Duchess of Kent and a carved and gilt wood German cradle, acquired by Queen Victoria to hold her second daughter, Princess Alice – the baby Alice was painted in this very cradle by the artist Sir Edwin Landseer in 1843.
The Duchess of Kent preserved certain items which related to the birth of Princess Victoria, until the end of her life; these were obviously of great sentimental importance to her. We know this because Queen Victoria referred to having found some of these items when going through her mother’s effects after her death in 1861. She was painted by the artist Johann Georg Paul Fischer in 1819 in a watercolour, an image which was probably made for her father, the Duke of Kent for his birthday on 2 November 1819. In this charming study, Princess Victoria at six months, wears a Scotch bonnet and white frock with bows of red and green ribbon, of which fragments survive. (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 82). The tiny black satin baby shoes (from ca. 1820) – thought to be those of Princess Victoria – have also survived in the Royal Collection. At just under 5 inches long, it is possible that they have been preserved in such excellent condition because they were in fact, little worn and already outgrown by the Princess from the start. No dress objects from Princess Victoria’s early childhood appear to have survived; the earliest surviving dress dates from ca. 1831-2 and is a dress of blonde lace, still preserved in the Royal Collection.
Today there is a small play area for visitors in the birth room of Queen Victoria at Kensington Palace, filled with children’s toys for those who are visiting with young babies of their own. It is an evocative and touching idea for a room where in 1819, a very important royal child was born.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2017.