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Queen Victoria: Her life through her hair

Hair works like a symbolic thread throughout a person’s life history. For Queen Victoria, this was no exception. Indeed, for a royal personage, hair plays a massive part in ceremonial display and formal dressing as well as private ritual. The role of royal hairdresser is also one that enables exceptional intimacy, thereby an indication of great privilege. Today we can visit Queen Victoria’s dressing room at Osborne and admire, for example, her Minton porcelain dressing table set, a Christmas present from Prince Albert to the Queen in 1853. With Queen Victoria, we can take, I think, a look at her life through her hair.

Even from her birth, her hair was cut as a commemorative gift. I made a quite extraordinary find possibly unknown to the English-speaking world, as an illustrated listing whilst researching the collections of the Hessian State Archives, Darmstadt. Madame Siebold (the skilled obstetrician who delivered Victoria) lived in Darmstadt until the end of her life. This is the same the city where the Queen’s second daughter Princess Alice, had settled on her marriage to Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse in 1862. The gift was given to Madame Siebold from a grateful Duchess of Kent, as an acknowledgement for her assistance during the successful birth. It should be remembered that Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, had died at Claremont as the result of childbirth in 1817 – only two years before the birth of the baby Princess Victoria – and it was this death which opened the way for a new direction in the royal line of succession.

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. This was Prince Albert’s favourite portrait of his wife (Public domain or United States Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The object contained locks of hair of the Duchess of Kent and the baby Princess Victoria in the form of a gold brooch set with blue and white lilies, dating from 1819. The hair is not visible but kept within an oval-shaped ball, as an attachment. It was listed as being in the private ownership of Dr Magda Heidenreich (+ 1995) as its previous provenance.

Hair would be important to the Duchess of Kent in terms of sentimental value. She would compile an album made of various clippings of hair of the infant Princess Victoria, surviving in the Royal Collection. Each lock of hair is exquisitely tied with a pink bow and inscribed in the Duchess’s hand in German, the earliest of which dates from 1820 (Deirdre Murphy, The Young Victoria, 204).

Amongst the earliest of these is a lock of little Victoria’s hair taken at Claremont, where Princess Victoria spent much time in her childhood. I read the Duchess’s writing beneath it: ‘Hair of my beloved Victorichen, cut off, 14 November 1820, Claremont’. The next one reads full of affection: ‘Lieb Vickelchen, Haare den 8 August 1821, Palast Kensington’. [Dear little Vickel’s hair, 8 August 1821, Kensington Palace]’. Samples continue on the page of the Duchess’s album, carefully dated, 1822, 1823, 1824 and 1825 (Murphy, 205). Princess Victoria’s hair was cut from the age of five onwards, by the hairdresser and perfumer, Stephen Taylor (Staniland, 86).

The Duchess gave a gift to her baby daughter – her first gold locket – in 1820. It is preserved in the Royal Collection. It was a present from the Duchess to the little Princess Victoria, movingly containing a lock of the Duchess’s hair and that of the dead father, the Duke of Kent. Its inscription read: ‘Present from her Mother to her beloved Victoria on the First Anniversary of her Birthday 24 May 1820’ (cit., Murphy, 11).

The Duchess of Kent preserved everything, as Queen Victoria would discover after the death of her mother when sorting through her personal effects. The Queen wrote to the King of the Belgians: ‘It is touching to find how she treasured up every little flower, every bit of hair’ (cit., Ibid, 560

When Princess Victoria went on what would prove to be a decisive visit to Ramsgate in 1835, she was first joined by her beloved uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians and his second wife, Queen Louise. Princess Victoria delighted in her beautiful young aunt’s company, trying the new Parisian tastes out for herself, even down to a fashionable rose in her hair. When she became seriously ill with what has been suggested was typhoid, her journal went blank. Weak and convalescent, she sketched herself in the mirror; her big eyes still convey the searching look of the sickbed, but her curls on both sides of the face have recovered somewhat. Before this, she had written that she had lost her hair to the effect that she was ‘litterally [sic] now getting bald’. Lehzen, her devoted governess, cut off a great deal of what was left, which was hardly enough to hold in her hand (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 52).

In the early part of her life, Princess Victoria enjoyed having books read to her whilst her hair was dressed. Her journal records Lehzen doing this. The activity was a useful one as it was not only educational but also seems to have been chosen as an exercise to encourage the young Princess not to gossip in the presence of her servants.

That momentous morning when she was awoken in a darkened Kensington Palace as day broke, to learn of the death of her uncle, William IV, found the new Queen’s hair romantically hanging loose, down her dressing-gown. It was, of course, her hair which was covered by the circlet of diamonds when she entered Westminster Abbey at her Coronation in 1838, the day she would remember as the ‘proudest’ of her life. There, her head received the State Crown [made by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell], bare-headed before the Archbishop of Canterbury, after which ‘the Procession being formed, I replaced my Crown (which I had taken off for a few minutes), took the Orb in my left hand and the Sceptre in my right, and thus loaded, proceeded through the Abbey – which resounded with cheers…’

The royal hairdresser in this early period was named Isidore Marchand, who was employed in this post from 1837 until 1846 (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 130). The Department known as the Office of Robes at St James’s Palace had to be reconfigured for the new Queen’s appointments, as she had acceded after William IV when it had been known in the royal masculine as the King’s Office of the Robes. The wages of the Queen’s hairdresser came under the expenses set out to cover the Queen’s toilette allowance (Ibid, 100). When Marchand left as the Queen’s official hairdresser, his son-in-law took his place, named Jean Nestor Tirard. He remained in his position until 1867, when he retired with a pension in 1867.

Probably, the young Queen wore a morning cap when not required to dress for formal occasions. One of these may survive in the Museum of London (Ibid, 126).

If Coronation Day was the ‘proudest’, then her wedding day was in her own words, the ‘happiest’ day of her life. Over her hair, she wore her simple wreath of orange blossoms and what she would later describe as her ‘dear wedding veil’. On her wedding morning, she wrote: ‘Had my hair dressed and the wreath of orange flowers put on’ (cit., Ibid, 122). Prince Albert’s favourite portrait of the Queen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter famously showed her with her hair undressed and erotically draped over her shoulder, her neck exposed.

In her widowhood, Queen Victoria’s hair was covered with the widow’s cap that became so closely associated with her. The severity of this was in line with her total personal devastation. Perhaps the Queen associated her hair with her married life, as a personal attraction for her husband, no longer relevant in her mourning. Empress Maria Theresia, Queen of Hungary and Holy Roman Empress by marriage also reacted this way when her beloved consort Holy Roman Emperor Franz Stefan, died in 1765. She listed the exact period of her married life in a tragic collection of numbers, from years down to the very hours. Importantly, she cut off her luxuriant locks of hair ostensibly to symbolise her sorrow (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 30).

Much later, one of her favourite granddaughters, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg remembered Queen Victoria’s hair: ‘Though it is well known from her portraits that the Queen always wore some form of widow’s cap, yet in the privacy of her own room she would sit without it, with only a little bow arrangement pinned on to the back of her hair, which it covered, leaving the greater part of the head free…’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 270).

Several examples of Queen Victoria’s later hair survive in the Royal Collection, all pin brooches containing grey curls, given as personal gifts.

All this was much in keeping with the Queen’s practice in life, of collecting hair of those she valued and loved. A container of locks of hair belonging to her children may today be seen in the Museum at the Swiss Cottage at Osborne, acquired and presented later by Queen Mary.

Locks of hair in memoriam were collected as part of the supreme cult of Victorian mourning. For example, Queen Victoria endeavoured to obtain a lock of hair of the late Duke of Wellington on his death, as she did of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 497). When her first cousin Victoire Nemours, died at Claremont after giving birth, the room was kept ‘as she left it’.

A year later, when Queen Victoria revisited Claremont, she saw some of her cousin’s gorgeous locks of hair kept in that same room, preserved in a glass case (Longford, 310). When Queen Amelie of the French died at Claremont, a ‘wonderful relic’ was found, as the house was being sorted. This was some hair belonging to the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte. Queen Victoria wrote admiringly: ‘Such fine, thick long hair… cela m’a donne de l’emotion… fresh as yesterday, after 49 years!’ (cit., Ibid, 381). At the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh, another extraordinary ‘relic’ can be seen in keeping with this tradition. A length of hair: ‘of Mary Queen of Scots, presented to Queen Victoria in 1868’, is in a glass case along with other Stuart ‘relics’.

Hair predictably remained a feature until the very end. One of the Queen’s widow’s caps covered her hair as her body was prepared for burial (Longford, 614). Hair was placed with her too, according to the private instructions she left to her dressers ‘to be opened directly after my death and to be always taken about and kept by the one who may be travelling with me’, written on 9 December 1897.

This remarkable list contained the wish for various lockets to be buried with her, including those that held the hair of Prince Albert and the Baron Stockmar. The hair of John Brown, her devoted Highland servant, was also ordered to be placed there with her, together with a photograph of him. Sir James Reid, the Queen’s dedicated doctor, helped the dressers to prepare the Queen’s body and also apparently, cut off some locks of the late Queen’s hair (Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, 358).

Perhaps Queen Victoria’s life can literally be told through her hair.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019
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.