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Queen Victoria and the number fourteen?

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For Queen Victoria, the number fourteen held a terrible power. This date, the ‘14th’, could seem to haunt the Queen like the shadow of death. Much as she later tried to reclaim it as a sacred date, she beheld it with an almost mystical sense of dark fascination and dread. Her feelings for this day of the month were well founded and can be traced back to the date of the death of her beloved husband, the Prince Consort, after which she literally autographed a photograph in her own handwriting: ‘Day turned into Night’. These feelings dated from 14 December 1861, when Prince Albert died. She later developed a black curiosity for even the number fourteen outside of December, but with good reason. In old age, the date of 14 December became a quieter opportunity for reflection for Queen Victoria, with a memorial service held at Frogmore. But why is this all important?

Before the ‘14th’ came the ‘16th’ – the date of the death of the Duchess of Kent, prompting a blackout of grief for the Queen who sincerely mourned her mother, as well as the lost years of their difficult past. It was however, the 13th of the month that she was forced to confront the likelihood of Prince Albert’s death (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 562). As an historian, I make no comment on the superstitious judgement she attached to these dates, nor have I tried to attach false weight to historical coincidences. What is important is what the Queen herself thought and felt about them, because it is helpful as we attempt to understand her recurring obsession with dates. This number ‘fourteen’ became part of her personal folklore.

14 December 1861 changed the Queen’s life for ever, turning her from Prince Albert’s wife into his widow. It meant the losing of one identity and the adopting of another (alien) one. The cult of their marriage was something which had been celebrated for just over twenty years in word, jewellery and innumerable works of art. Suddenly, the 10 February 1840 became 14 December 1861, and her ‘happiest’ day of her life, turned in her own words ‘into Night’. 

Any historian of Queen Victoria’s family views 1861 with a similar kind of dread. Perhaps significantly, the Queen’s journal (Princess Beatrice’s copies) finds its final entry for 1861 on 13 December. There is no entry for 14 December 1861, instead a chronological blank. Nothing could be more symbolic for the Queen I think, than this silence. There was no journal entry. It is almost as if Queen Victoria has (temporarily) lost her voice – a case in point for the woman who let out an agonized cry when Prince Albert died.

She found cruel comfort in writing reminiscences of her married life, in a small book entitled Remarks – Conversations – Reflections, writing under a black cross on the page: ‘All Alone! Yet – The blessings of 22 years cast its reflection!’ (cit., Ibid, 334). Movingly, Princess Beatrice wrote in red ink under the 13 December, in the copies she made of her mother’s journals, that there was no further entry for this year. As Prince Albert’s daughter, she of course knew the reason for this, but there is no sentence that refers to the death of her father, the date that changed everything. The first entry in the Queen’s journal after the death of Prince Albert is for 1 January 1862. Princess Beatrice has begun a new journal in red ink 1862 January 1 – December 31’. This volume is No. 51 but there had been no entry since 13th December. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria had only managed to write a dreadful note to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia on 16 December: ‘God’s will be done!.. Oh God! Oh! God!’ (cit., Ibid, 333).

In 1871, the Prince of Wales, desperately sick with typhoid at Sandringham, had reached the crisis peak of his illness on 13th December. But this eldest son did not die on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death. Instead, he recovered. Queen Victoria sat in his bedroom at Sandringham, hidden behind a screen. The 14th December arrived and passed. The Queen later wrote: ‘Dear Bertie had been on the very verge of the grave…’

On 14 December 1878 however, one child was indeed called to her father, on the exact anniversary of his death. This was the second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, who had in fact, sat with her father throughout the final stages of his illness and proved so supportive to the Queen. Diphtheria raged at Darmstadt, with all but one child of Princess Alice contracting the illness, as did her own husband, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse. Accounts suggest that it was in her attempt to comfort her desperately ill (remaining) son, Prince Ernst Ludwig that Alice kissed him and thereby contracted the disease herself, which took hold on a constitution already exhausted by sorrow, nursing and bereavement.

The Queen had already begun her journal on that day of 14 December 1878: ‘14th Dec. – this terrible day come round again!’ (cit., Ibid, 464) No news had arrived from Darmstadt, so she went to the Blue Room – where Prince Albert had died in 1861 – to pray. Two telegrams arrived as she walked to breakfast and a third announced the death of her beloved daughter. The Queen found it ‘almost incredible & most mysterious’ that Alice had died on her exact anniversary of her father’s death, seventeenth years earlier.

Queen Victoria wrote to her granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse from Windsor: ‘Dec 14 1878’, telling the teenage princess that her mother had left to ‘join dear Grandpapa & your other dear Grandpapa…’ (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 9). The Queen had underlined the number ‘14’ twice in the original letter. Typically for a Queen obsessed by anniversaries, she touchingly wrote to her granddaughter again, exactly a month later on the ‘14th of January: ‘Today a month since that most dreadful day which shattered your happy home’. The Queen wrote again on 14 May 1878, to Princess Victoria of Hesse and nearing the first anniversary, on 14 October 1879. Queen Victoria’s fascination and horror of this date meant that no one else in her family was allowed to forget it, either: ‘I write these lines to arrive on that dreadful day…’ (Ibid, 20).

The stream of anniversaries continued. On 10 December 1881, we find the Queen writing to her granddaughter again, asking her to show the letter to Grand Duke Ludwig IV on the ‘ever terrible 14th (Ibid, 34).

Anniversaries were a not-unreasonable obsession. When Princess Victoria’s father-in-law died, the Queen wrote characteristically: ‘How strange & mysterious that with only a few hours difference, your dear Father-in-law & Great Uncle [Prince Alexander of Hesse) shld have been taken from us all at the same time of year, – that dreadful month of Dec: wh. took away your beloved Mama, & 17 years before, dear Grandpapa & wh. so nearly carried off Uncle Bertie in 71!’ (Ibid, 97).

The date continued to wield its dark power. Her grandson, Prince Albert Victor of Wales, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, died on 14th January 1892. Her beloved son-in-law, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse – Alice’s widower – died on 13 March 1892, a particularly painful loss which caused the Queen wistfully to remark: ‘Again so near that terrible number fourteen!’ (cit., Ibid, 563).

Acquiring more sacred qualities, the 14th December became known in the Queen’s family as Mausoleum Day, presumably because of the memorial service that was held there on Prince Albert’s anniversary. When Prince Albert of York – the future George VI – was born on 14th December 1895, Queen Victoria bravely suggested that ‘it may be a blessing for the dear little boy, and may be looked upon as a gift from God!’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 602-3).

14 December 1900 was the last of those anniversaries of the death of Prince Albert that she was ever destined to experience. The Queen spent it at Windsor, recalling memories and had the usual service in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore.

By a final curious twist, Queen Victoria’s own great journal – which she had begun at the age of thirteen as Princess Victoria – came to an end, on 13 January 1901. Princess Beatrice’s handwriting in red ink at this last page of her copies, notes that this was the last entry in the Queen’s journal. This time however, Princess Beatrice wrote that it was the final entry before the Queen’s death, unlike her having left the death of her father, Prince Albert, unmentioned.

Volume 111 has no more entries, although the Queen lived to see one very last ‘14th’. This was 14 January 1901. As her biographer, Lady Longford skilfully observed, for the 14 January 1901, there was a blank page. The last long hiatus – significantly – had been for the death of the Prince Consort. This time, it was her own.

Queen Victoria died at Osborne on 22 January 1901.

At last reunited with Prince Albert, the spell of the ‘14th’ had perhaps been broken, at long last.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

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.