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Queen Victoria and the Archbishop

Biography is also made up of people in the background; so it is with William Howley, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The appearances he made in the life of the future Queen Victoria were of extreme significance, in a way that was unique, and whilst these functions formed a natural part of his official duties as dictated by the Church of England, he was part of her world almost literally from the first, and so he remained until 1848, when he died. As such, he appears in paintings, sketches, descriptions in the Queen’s great journal. The Queen would quite rightly view him as having been a member of her life from the beginning and with his death, she felt a passing of the old world. Another piece lost from the jigsaw of her lonely, Kensington childhood, which she came to see as unhappy in the memoir she wrote down much later.

Howley is sort of spiritual ‘red thread’, running throughout the Queen’s early life, but rather because of the services he performed at key points of personal and ceremonial significance in that life, by the grace of his office. The Queen’s religious views were in themselves far from High Church – which is what Howley was – but she increasingly became involved with the Anglican Church in the latter half of her reign; her own beliefs leaned positively towards the Presbyterian. Despite a personal distaste for ‘bishops’, she admired and respected those great Victorian churchmen of her day, such as Gerald Wellesley, Dean of Windsor, Arthur Penrhyn, Dean of Westminster and had genuine affection for men such as Dr Norman Macleod, who was the Vicar at Craithie Church, where the Queen worshipped when at Balmoral. Queen Victoria’s journal mentions him, as we might expect of her detailed entries when describing a service at which he officiated. She also visited him in 1842 at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Howley had been consecrated Bishop of London at Lambeth in October 1813.

William Howley was born in Yorkshire in 1766, the son of the local vicar. He was educated at New College, Oxford, becoming Chaplain to the Marquess of Abercorn in 1792; he was made a Canon of Christ Church College, Oxford in 1804. He married Mary Frances Belli in 1805, a woman who Queen Victoria would later call ‘Mrs Howley’. He was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford in 1809.

Had she been able to remember it – her first memories were of crawling on a carpet at Kensington Palace – the baby Princess who was christened Alexandrina Victoria in the richly decorated William Kent Cupola Room at Kensington Palace on 24 June 1819, would have seen a face which would feature strongly throughout the early half of her reign, part of her life of ceremonial events. William Howley was part of the officiating body of Anglican clergy present to baptise the baby Princess Victoria, in his capacity as Bishop of London, alongside the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton, whom Howley succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1828. Both stood close to the magnificent silver gilt font commissioned by Charles II, brought over from the Tower of London, in which the baby Princess Victoria would be christened. A marble bust of Howley made in 1821 by Joseph Nollekens, is at the Yale Centre for British Art.

William Howley was the Archbishop of Canterbury at a time of astonishing political and social development, such as the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 and the Representation of the People Act 1832, more commonly known as the Great Reform Act. (The year Queen Victoria began the first of her journals).

Howley was present at Windsor on the dying William IV and together with the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham galloped to Kensington Palace, where they both knocked at the palace door on 20 June 1837, whereupon the new Queen was woken at 6 am and taken down to receive the gentlemen in her sitting-room. The news of the death of her uncle, King William IV as relayed by Lord Conyngham, translating to the realisation ‘consequently that I am Queen’.  

This scene was romantically imagined some fifty years later – in the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – by the English portrait painter and miniaturist Henry Tanworth Wells, in his picture ‘Victoria Regina: Queen Victoria receiving the news of her Accession’; Howley –  Archbishop of Canterbury nine years into his post – is depicted with a sense of reverent awe before the young Queen in her nightgown (Victoria correctly describes herself as having been ‘only in my dressing gown’) and kneeling, as light shines upon her, halo-like, with the news of her accession.

Howley informed Victoria that her uncle, the late King ‘had directed his mind to religion, and had died in a perfectly happy, quiet state of mind, and was quite prepared for his death’ (Quoted in A. N Wilson, Victoria, 75). Howley was himself less than five feet tall (Ibid, 74), a fact cleverly disguised by the fact that he kneels before his new and diminutive Sovereign, herself not much taller. Howley also wore a wig, like the uncle of her Kensington childhood, the Duke of Sussex. Queen Victoria had in fact, recorded her early dislike of bishops, in the memoir she wrote down later: ‘I had a great horror of Bishops on account of their wigs and aprons, but recollect this being partially got over in the case of the then Bishop of Salisbury (Dr Fisher, great-uncle to Mr Fisher, Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales), by his kneeling down and letting me play with his badge of Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. With another Bishop, however, the persuasion of showing him my ‘pretty shoes’ was of no use…’ (ed. A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol 1 (1837-1843), 10). The Queen all her life seems to have had a profound dislike of ‘bishops’, so perhaps the sight of Howley, an Archbishop and bewigged at six o’clock in the morning, was not a sight which immediately reassured the new Queen.

The new Queen wrote to her uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians: ‘Dearest, most beloved Uncle,—Two words only, to tell you that my poor Uncle, the King, expired this morning at twelve minutes past two. The melancholy news were brought to me by Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury at six. I expect Lord Melbourne almost immediately, and hold a Council at eleven. Ever, my beloved Uncle, your devoted and attached Niece, Victoria R’. The letter was dated from half-past eight that morning. We might imagine the young Queen still perhaps in her dressing-gown; some two hours after the news. It is surely significant that she took up her pen to her uncle, King Leopold, only a few hours afterwards. She had written to her uncle only the day before: ‘I look forward to the event which it seems is likely to occur soon, with calmness and quietness…’ (ed. A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol 1 (1837-1843), 74).

Later that day, she gave her First Council at Kensington Palace, recorded in a portrait by Sir David Wilkie, whose rendering the Queen did not like, as it showed her wearing a white dress ‘for effect’, instead of the black dress she wore for the occasion – possibly out of solemn feeling for the death of her uncle, King William IV. This theory is also reinforced by the description of her going into the Red Saloon ‘quite plainly dressed and in mourning’ (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 54). This black dress is reputed to be the now rust-brown coloured dress preserved by the Queen in the Royal Collection; the fact that it was preserved at all does seem to suggest it having had a special significance for the Queen and therefore, possibly was indeed the dress she wore on that first morning as Queen. Howley’s face also features in the (male) gathering at Queen Victoria’s First Council, all eyes dramatically focused on the young Queen, as was undoubtedly the case. She also met privately with the Archbishop of Canterbury later that morning, after the First Council was concluded.

On the morning of her coronation in 1838, it was, of course, Howley in his official capacity as Archbishop of Canterbury, who lead the solemn service in Westminster Abbey. As it was later imagined by the artist Sir George Hayter, who painted the Queen in her coronation robes and was described later as being ‘Painter in Ordinary to Her Majesty’. The glittering moment of the crowning, the cheers in the Abbey, all is brilliantly captured by Hayter; the silence of portraiture does not dampen our ability to imagine the cries that rang bell-like, from the excited congregation, who shouted ‘God Save Queen Victoria’. Her clear voice, described on her accession as ‘naturally beautiful’ and ‘clear’, replied to Archbishop Howley ‘All this I promise to do’ (Ibid, 73). It was he, of course, who anointed Victoria, in the most solemn and religious part of the coronation ceremony.

Howley had presided as Archbishop at the Coronation of William IV in 1831; an event which cost considerably less than the lavish coronation of George IV in 1821 and the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, the Privy Council setting a budget for a more ‘modest’ coronation for William IV of some £30,000 in 1831. Because of a quarrel over royal precedence, Princess Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent declared that Victoria would not attend William IV’s coronation at Westminster Abbey, because she could not afford it and for reasons of her daughter’s health. Princess Victoria commented at the time: ‘Nothing could console me… not even my dolls’ (Sidney Lee, Queen Victoria, 31, quoted in ibid, 33).

The embarrassment and lack of organisation at the Queen’s coronation ritual resulted in numerous mishaps in the Abbey, despite the fact that it took place just over a year since her actual accession, meaning there had been at least eleven months of preparation, a pattern which was established by the Queen’s paternal grandfather, George III (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 108). Astonishingly perhaps, there had been no rehearsals. Not least was the occasion when it came to the placing on of the coronation ring which Archbishop Howley jammed on to the Queen’s fourth finger, after which it could only be removed with the ‘greatest difficulty’ (Ibid, 74), and that by this point, the unfortunate Archbishop was ‘so confused and puzzled and knew nothing’, because the Queen had been given the coronation orb before the correct point in the proceedings (Ibid). But all this evidently did not perjure the Queen’s later opinion of him, for she went on to describe him as ‘so mild and gentle’ (Wilson, 140). Perhaps Howley, as he crowned and anointed Queen Victoria, recalled the baby at Kensington Palace, at whose christening he had assisted as Bishop of London, in 1819.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, it was, of course, Howley who presided at the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (‘the happiest day of my life!’) at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace on 10 February 1840. As such, he appears again in the official portrait made of the wedding, showing the joining of the hands – again by Sir George Hayter – ‘The Marriage of Queen Victoria’. We know that the white-clad Queen was described as having been applauded when she reached the altar; the picture shows the Queen and Prince Albert stood before the altar rails (Ibid 121). A version of it hung in Princess Victoria’s bedroom at Kensington Palace as it appeared when it was formally opened to the public, as late as 1996. The original hangs today in the Ballroom Annexe at Buckingham Palace.

Howley duly appears again in the portraits made of the christenings of the Queen’s children, who had been born by 1848, the year of his death. When he died, the Queen would later recall – typically for her, the loss of any person occasioned a kind of obituary in personal terms – how he had baptised them each in turn: ‘He was one of those who examined me when I was 12 years old. He confirmed me, came to me, the morning of the late King’s death, crowned me, married me, & christened our 5 children, besides churching me 3 times!

Churching relates to the ancient practice whereby a woman, royal or otherwise, returns to the church for thanksgiving following childbirth. As we would now expect, it is Howley’s figure, who holds the firstborn child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Princess Royal, in the portrait made of her evening christening in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace in 1841, by Charles Robert Leslie. He is correctly also painted holding the baby Prince of Wales at his christening at St George’s Chapel in 1842; as seen from the altar, less than life-size. No portrait appears to have been made of Princess Alice’s christening in 1843. Howley does appear though, in the pictures made for the christening of Prince Alfred in the private chapel at Windsor Castle in 1844, assisted by the Bishops of Norwich and Oxford and also, the Dean of Windsor. He similarly appears, with the baby Princess Helena in his arms, in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace, as painted by Louis Haghe, in 1846.

Howley died in 1848 and was interred at the parish church of St. Mary the Blessed Virgin, Addington. A location no doubt chosen because it was in the Borough of Croydon, where the Archbishops of Canterbury resided throughout the nineteenth century, in the Georgian mansion known as Addington Palace, which replaced the Old Palace in Croydon as the summer palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury, in 1808. Howley was interred in the chancel. His predecessor, Manners-Sutton, was buried in a vault beneath the vestry. Three other Archbishops of the Victorian period were also interred at Addington, Bird Sumner, Longley and Campbell Tait, who are all buried in the closed churchyard, which also contains a memorial to all five Archbishops.

Let Queen Victoria’s words be the last: ‘There was no important event in my life in which he was not interested & did not officiate…’ (Quoted in Wilson, 140).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
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.