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Queen Victoria and her father, the Duke of Kent

It might be argued that the lack of a father in the life of the future Queen Victoria was the singular most important influence on her emotional life. It is surely significant that she referred to those men she regarded as fathers of sorts, in correspondingly filial language, such as her beloved uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, as “il mio secondo padre”, [a second father to me] or rather “solo padre”, for he is indeed like my real father, as I have none’. She elaborated on this movingly, writing that King Leopold had ‘always been to me like a father… I look up to him as a Father with confidence, love and affection’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 41).

Prince Albert inevitably came to fill a part of this same complicated role, which he subconsciously reinforced when he referred to the Queen as ‘child’, for example. For Queen Victoria, there seems to have been a need to have multiple paternal figures to overcompensate for the lack of a father, as might be seen in both Prince Albert and King Leopold, when they were both living.

The emotional self-sufficiency and iron will forged in the young Victoria at Kensington meant that a subjugation of this strong personality did not come easily to her when she fell passionately in love with her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, when they met again in 1839. Even to the last he maintained a quasi-paternal language with his wife that might be expected to be used for the royal children instead of the queen. Even on his deathbed at Windsor, Prince Albert patted the hand of the Queen – who was drifting like a parent in and out of the Blue Room – and whispered: ‘It is very comfortable like that, dear Child’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 323). The Queen’s deep need for protection and care eventually found companionship in John Brown, her rude yet devoted Highland servant. The complexity that is Queen Victoria meant that this vigorous independence and need to be protected, could co-exist without apparent conflict.

Edward, Duke of Kent had attended his wife’s delivery and so was present at his baby daughter’s birth at Kensington Palace at a quarter past four in the morning on 24 May 1819. He had been present at her christening in the Palace’s classically conceived Cupola Room. When the Duke died at SIdmouth, his wife was at his side. It was strangely replayed for Queen Victoria in 1861 when her beloved Albert died at Windsor. For we must always remember that the Duchess of Kent was a widow long before her daughter famously became one, with enormous consequences for Victoria’s childhood and youth at Kensington Palace.

The Duke of Kent died of pneumonia at Sidmouth on 23 January 1820, six days before his father George III died at Windsor. A paper preserved at Windsor movingly describes the last hours of the Duke’s life. Towards the end, he was overheard to say: ‘May the Almighty protect my wife and child, and forgive all the sins I have committed’ (cit., A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The letters of Queen Victoria, vol 1, 9). His final words were to the Duchess: ‘Do not forget me’.

On 12 February 1820, the Duke was quietly interred at night by torchlight (cit., Longford, 26) in the Royal Vault which George III had established. The day before, the remains of George III’s other sons who had died prematurely, Prince Octavius and Prince Alfred, were transferred to the Royal Vault from Westminster Abbey. On 16 February 1820, George III was buried in the vault. The Duchess of Kent would share this family resting place briefly until her mausoleum – originally conceived as a summer house – had been converted for its solemn purpose at Frogmore. A bronze tablet in the floor of the Quire at St George’s Chapel commemorates the Duchess’s temporary interment there before her remains were transferred to Frogmore.

As late as 1872, the Queen was still referring to herself as fatherless, when she wrote down her private ‘memoir’, the manuscript of which survives at Windsor. Significantly by this point, she was actually an orphan on both counts, her beloved mother, the Duchess of Kent having died in 1861. She wrote in the 1872 memoir, when recalling her uncle, George IV: ‘He had been on bad terms with my poor father when he died, – and took hardly any notice of the poor widow and little fatherless girl [herself], who were so poor at the time of his [the Duke of Kent’s] death, that they could not have travelled back to Kensington Palace had it not been for the kind assistance of my dear Uncle, Prince Leopold…’ When the Duchess of Kent died, Queen Victoria was deeply moved to discover how much her mother had preserved relating to her babyhood. These precious things included a drawing of the room in which her father had died at Woolbrook Cottage – the property he was renting in Sidmouth – his Garter purse and the letters in French which had been exchanged between her parents during the period of their engagement.

Particularly poignant, I think, is the Queen’s touching habit of wanting to acquire artwork which depicted the dead father she had never known, for the Royal Collection. One of these is the large portrait of the Duke of Kent painted in the uniform of a Field Marshal by George Dawe (1781-1829) which the Queen purchased in 1859 from Dawe’s nephew for £120 and hung in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 79). It is still at Buckingham Palace, hung over the Grand Staircase. The Queen never forgot she was a soldier’s daughter and remained proud of the fact, whatever the truth of the Duke’s savage militarism in Canada. It is a miniature of her father which she clasps as Princess Victoria in the picture of her and the Duchess of Kent painted by Sir William Beechey after 1821. One of the earliest pictures of Princess Victoria was that made by Paul Johann Georg Fisher, who may have painted his study for the Duke of Kent’s birthday in 1819. The Duke was proud of his ‘pocket Hercules’‘, who can be seen in Fischer’s picture, wearing a Scotch bonnet with bows of red and green ribbon, of which fragments survive (Ibid, 82).

Queen Victoria would never forget Sidmouth where her father died in 1820, before she was quite one years old. Touchingly, the Queen sailed past the town on 30 August 1843 and asked Charlotte, Lady Canning who was in attendance, to make a little sketch of it because it was the place where her father had died. Lady Canning’s sketch survives in the Royal Collection. Looking at the Queen’s (edited) journal for this day, the royal party did indeed pass Sidmouth in the royal yacht Victoria and Albert, but there is no mention of the Duke of Kent in Princess Beatrice’s copies.

Arguably the most poignant of these references to her father must include the occasion when Queen Victoria visited his tomb in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel. When the mausoleum of her mother, the Duchess of Kent was completed above the lake at Frogmore, her mother’s remains were transferred there. It seems unlikely that she ever had the remains of the Duke of Kent transferred to Frogmore because we know from private descriptions of the Duchess’s mausoleum that the upper level of the building contained a life-size statue of the Duchess and the lower level, her sarcophagus alone. What doubly confirms this is Queen Victoria’s record of a visit to the Royal Vault (‘roomy and airy’) on 15 May 1873, when she was profoundly affected as ‘his only child’’ (cit., Longford, 464), to be standing next to the coffin whilst the Dean of Windsor translated the inscription written on it. The Queen’s journal entry is wonderfully descriptive and was written en route from Windsor to Ballater in the Royal Train. She also recorded that her father had been interred – near to the entrance of the Royal Vault.

An earlier occasion was in 1836 when as Princess Victoria, she was visiting Windsor for her uncle, William IV’s birthday celebrations. Princess Victoria paid a visit to the area where the Royal Vault was located on a Sunday – 21 August 1836 – and described her feelings walking over the Chapel flagstones, pondering that her father’s tomb lay beneath. It must have left a deep impression as three months later, she noted her father’s birthday in her journal.

A statue was sculpted of Edward, Duke of Kent. Today it may be found at Frogmore, in the Royal Mausoleum’s Chapel of the Crucifixion. It is a recumbent statue of the Duke by the great sculptor Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm which formerly stood in St George’s by order of Queen Victoria in 1874 but was transferred to Frogmore in 1950 (ed. Royal Collection Trust, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, 47). Queen Victoria records Boehm’s statue of her father twice in her journal. The first occasion was in May 1874 when she drove to Boehm’s studio from Buckingham Palace especially to see the statue and the second when she saw it in situ in December at Windsor, placed on an alabaster pedestal. A maquette of Boehm’s statue survives in the Royal Collection, showing the Duke in his military tunic with crossed hands. Another statue of the Duke of Kent stands in Park Crescent, London, showing him in Garter robes.

As late as 1890, Queen Victoria recorded the anniversary of her father’s death – 23 January – in her journal. By that time it had happier associations as the anniversary of the wedding of her second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia, in 1874.

The Duke of Kent’s ‘little fatherless girl’ died as Queen and Empress on 22 January 1901 at Osborne. At the last, Queen Victoria would request a military funeral for herself. There was a short service at St George’s Chapel after which her body fittingly lay in state in the Albert Memorial Chapel until 4 February 1901 – not far from the entrance to the Royal Vault. Her coffin, covered as she had commanded, with the Royal Standard (‘thrown partially over the pall’) was escorted by a guard of sailors on a gun carriage to Frogmore in 1901, as befitted a royal soldier’s daughter.

She was succeeded by her eldest son, now Edward VII. Following his birth in 1841, he had been christened Albert Edward at St George’s Chapel. The Queen chose to believe the best about her new born son, because she wrote in her journal, he had his dear father’s name – Albert. What she did not mention was that Edward was almost certainly chosen for her own father, the Duke of Kent. Reading Queen Victoria’s journal entry for the christening of the Prince of Wales – 25 January 1842. It is poignant that she mentions on the day of the christening, St George’s Chapel being the final resting place of among others, her own father.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.