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Queen Victoria and royal widowhood

For some, Queen Victoria remains etched into the popular memory as the monochrome royal widow, dressed in black for the rest of her life, a black occasionally relieved by the enormous white handkerchiefs which she often took around with her, or the little lace cap, that became in a different way, a symbol of her mourning. This, of course, is true. It is an image the Queen firmly cultivated. But it is only half of the story.

Queen Victoria’s obsessive observance of royal mourning remained a key aspect of her behaviour throughout her life; the loss of her mother, the Duchess of Kent and the death of Prince Albert in the same year – 1861 – gave this tendency its ultimate expression, plunging the Queen into black, making even her handwriting disappear into ever deeper black-edged borders in her letters, for as she annotated an early photograph of herself and her family at Windsor shortly after the death of the Prince Consort: ‘Day turned into Night’.

I view it as important to understand that the Queen’s cult of mourning for Prince Albert was merely a darker expression of the cult of their marriage whilst he was alive, when the royal mutual love was the subject of endless gifts and works of art. After the death of Prince Albert, it was only natural that there should be an equal outpouring for the Queen grief in art and sculpture, as there had been in love. The immediate link is that the royal wife and the royal widow were the same woman but that the death of the Prince had turned one into the other – an obvious point perhaps – but one that I feel, that helps us to understand the Queen as a widow much better.

Behind the violent grief was a passionate wife. The Queen who had written on Prince Albert’s death: ‘Truly the Prince was my entire self… my very life and soul… I only lived through him My heavenly Angel’ (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 290) was the same woman who had written on her wedding day: ‘I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side… really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!’ (Quoted in Ibid, 123).

Importantly, Albert had been memorialised long before his death; although it would be wrong to think that this was pure presentiment. The Queen’s deep love for her husband meant that the gifts she gave him inevitably involved herself or their children, such as the portrait she commissioned from the portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, depicting her in her wedding dress as a present for the Prince on their seventh wedding anniversary in 1847. That was a celebration of life, not death and importantly, their life together. This is a fundamental point, for with the death of the Prince, came the Queen’s loss of identity as a wife. After Albert’s death, the room where he died at Windsor was changed into a kind of memorial shrine and was a living, sacred space, in which the Queen regularly prayed and clearly felt some link with the Prince’s last illness and death.

I first became fascinated with this room – the Blue Room – back in 2013, when I researched its history in depth and wrote about it (Elizabeth Jane Timms, The Blue Room at Windsor Castle, The European Royal History Journal, Issue XCVI, 2013). Fresh clothes for the dead Prince were laid out daily on the bed as if he would still need them (Hibbert, 286). I think this finds a possible parallel with earlier artwork during his lifetime – for example, the watercolour by George M. Greig of Alt-na-giubhsaich, Prince Albert’s Dressing-Room, which shows the Prince’s clothes laid out and the door open as if he was about to come and change for dinner (Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, 132). The Prince was then, of course, very much alive, but the need appears to be there, to feverishly record even royal minutiae.

Queen Victoria had widowhood literally in her veins on both sides. This has not often been the subject of much attention, with Queen Victoria having become for many, the ultimate matriarch of mourning. It was, however, part of her royal, family fabric. Although these cases are, of course, individual stories in their own context and to construe otherwise would make bad theory, I have found it fascinating to uncover more details about this, given the obvious similarity with the Queen much later, because her experience found emotional symmetry with other widows in her lineage, both Hanoverian and Saxon. On the Hanoverian side, her paternal great-grandmother, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, had lost Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1751; he died, as Prince Albert would, with his wife at his bedside. As Prince Albert had listened to one of his daughters play the piano at Windsor in the first stages of his illness, so the musically-turned Prince Frederick had been sat up in bed enjoying pieces on the violin played by his dancing master, Dunoyer (Stella Tillyard, A Royal Affair, 3). The Dowager Princess of Wales presumably commissioned the artist George Knapton to paint her and her family after the death of Frederick – the portrait is signed and dated 1751, and the Prince is depicted as a portrait within the painting. The Dowager Princess is central to the artwork and wears a mourning veil; the widowed Queen Victoria, of course, in time, would have herself photographed, surrounded by her large family, with a bust of the dead Prince Albert.

Her maternal grandmother, the beautiful Countess Augusta Reuss-Ebersdorf and Lobenstein (1757–1831) was painted by the great artist Johann Heinrich Tischbein as Artemisia, in mourning for her husband, Mausolus, whose magnificent tomb at Halicarnassus gave the term ‘Mausoleum’ to the ancient world (A. N Wilson, Victoria, 20). There is, thus, another parallel – for parallel, it can only be – with Queen Victoria, who of course, constructed the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, which she would ultimately share with Prince Albert, on her own death in 1901. Queen Victoria’s biographer, A. N. Wilson went further and suggested there is something ‘prophetic’ in the fact that this maternal grandmother of the ‘Widow of Windsor’, is depicted with her husband’s urn, still young herself (Ibid, 20).

Somewhat strangely, however, Tischbein was commissioned to depict Countess Augusta as a widow, before her actual marriage. The picture was painted by order of Augusta’s father, Heinrich XXIV Count Reuss of Ebersdorf, (Ibid, 20) to attract a suitable fiancé from amongst the wide pool of German nobility. Countess Augusta married Duke Francis of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1777. Countess Augusta was not actually widowed until much later, in 1806. It is clear then that Tischbein chose this as a purely classical pose, but given that the Countess’ granddaughter would become a widow in her forty-second year, the image is for us, curious.

Countess Augusta is essential in the story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – she was their shared grandmother, as among her children were Victoria’s mother, Victoire – the future Duchess of Kent – and Albert’s father, the future Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the reason why Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were cousins. It was this mutual grandmother – the Dowager Duchess of Coburg as she became known – who was informed of the future Queen’s birth in 1819 and responded: ‘My God, how glad I am to hear of you… I cannot find words to express my delight that everything went so smoothly…’ (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 12). With prescience, she added on the birth of the baby princess: ‘The English like Queens’ (Quoted in Cecil Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times, 30). The Queen’s ‘dear Grandmama of Coburg-Saalfeld’ (Quoted in HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, pp. 177-78) may be seen in a portrait in the Family Hall in the Ehrenburg in Coburg. The maternal line of widowhood doesn’t stop here. However – Countess Augusta’s mother – the Queen’s ‘great Grandmother, Princess Caroline of Erbach’ (Quoted in Ibid, 177) had been widowed in 1779 on the death of Heinrich XXIV Count Reuss. Her mother, in turn, Princess Ferdinande Henriette of Stolberg-Gedern had predeceased her husband, George August of Erbach-Schönberg, who outlived his wife by eight years.

The Queen’s Stuart relative through her direct ancestor James I – as opposed to the Hanoverian line of which she was part, being herself of the House of Hanover which can be traced back to James in a different line via his daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, taking in the 1701 Act of Settlement – was Queen Anne. An earlier British Queen Regnant – since the Acts of Union (1707), she gave very definite expression of her grief at the death of her husband, Prince George of Denmark, to whom she had been devoted. Queen Victoria made references to Prince George of Denmark in her journal; she discussed him with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne and also seems to have been interested in taking him as a royal case in point, because he had been a Prince Consort to a ruling Queen, especially as a precedent prior to her marriage to Prince Albert.

Prince George died at Kensington Palace – the palace of Queen Victoria’s birth – in 1708. Queen Anne remained with her husband’s body, according to a letter written to General Cadogan: ‘His death has flung the Queen into an unspeakable grief. She never left him till he was dead, but continued kissing him the very moment his breath went out of his body…’ (Quoted in Edward Gregg, Queen Anne, 280). We might recall Queen Victoria’s words on Prince Albert’s death at Windsor: ‘Two or three long, but perfectly gentle breaths were drawn, the hand clasping mine, & (oh! It turns me sick to write it) all, all was over…’ (Quoted in A. N Wilson, 255). Queen Anne wrote to her nephew, the King of Denmark: ‘the loss of such a husband, who loved me so dearly and so devotedly, is too crushing for me to be able to bear it as I ought (David Green, Queen Anne, 198; Anne Somerset, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, 372). Queen Victoria had dreams of Albert in the immediate period after his death, and on one occasion ‘took his dear hand and kissed it so long and so often and cried over it and did not like to let it go‘ (Hannah Pakula, An Uncommon Woman, The Empress Frederick, 160; quoted in Hibbert, 290).

Queen Adelaide – widow of King William IV, on whose death, Victoria as his niece, succeeded as Queen – was treated most sensitively by the young Victoria, who was extremely fond of her aunt. She continued to address her as ‘Her Majesty the Queen’ and when prompted to amend this to ‘Her Majesty, the Queen Dowager’, Victoria retorted: ‘I am quite aware of Her Majesty’s altered status, but I would rather not be the first person to remind her of it’ (Giles St Aubyn, Queen Victoria, 66; quoted in Hibbert, 54). Significantly, William IV had died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, the very same room into which Prince Albert was moved in the latter stages of his illness and in which on 14 December 1861, he would die.

One of the immediate examples Queen Victoria had of course, was the widowed state of her own mother, the Duchess of Kent. Her mother had been a widow twice over, having lost her first husband, Emich Carl, Prince of Leiningen, in 1814. The death of the Duke of Kent in 1820 before the future Queen was one-year-old, meant that the Duchess – who had married to the Duke in a double English ceremony at Kew in 1818 – was widowed for the second time in her life. This finds poignant expression in the painting by Sir William Beechey – now at Kensington Palace – which shows a toddler Princess Victoria aged two, with her mother, the Duchess, dressed in mourning, whilst the little Victoria clasps a miniature of her father, the Duke. On the Duchess’ death in 1861, Queen Victoria found amongst her mother’s effects: ‘… a most precious relic of my poor father, which I had never seen. His little writing desk – with his Garter purse, the drawing of the room he died in – his three last letters to dearest Mama (in French) and such loving tender letters, and a little book of hers in which she wrote in every week after his death expressive of such love and tender affection for him – such despair at his death, such longing to be soon re-united with him…’ (Quoted in Elizabeth Jane Timms, Woolbrook Cottage, Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2013/1; Fulford, Dearest Child: Letters between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, 319). As the Duke’s sister, Princess Augusta later remembered: ‘She quite adored him and they were truly blessed in each other’ (Quoted in Hibbert, 9).

Queen Victoria for many remains, the popular ‘Widow of Windsor’. It is still the Queen’s solemn but magnificent statue which greets us as the foot of Castle Hill in Windsor today, although this statue dates from the triumphant period of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, when the Queen had come out of her self-imposed seclusion. Looking at the widowhood in her own family, we see instances, all too often been overlooked, that provide interesting parallels for consideration, although the Queen’s own behaviour after 1861 was of course, personally characteristic of herself and no one else.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She also specializes in Empress Elisabeth of Austria and has written a series of academic articles on her life based on original research in Vienna and Geneva and spoke about the Empress on the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). Elizabeth is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She is a former contributor to the European Royal History Journal and Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine. She joined the team of History of Royals magazine in 2016 and was History Writer at Royal Central (2015-20). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.