Queen Victoria had twelve bridesmaids. What do we know about them? What did they wear? Certainly the Queen – as might be expected – had a greater number of bridesmaids than her daughters would at their weddings, eight being a recurring choice. We can see them clustered in pairs in Sir George Hayter’s large painting The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840, gathered respectfully behind the Queen, holding her train – and with good reason. Later an anecdote was recorded of the difficulty the bridesmaids had experienced when the Queen processed up the aisle towards the altar at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. Owing to the fact that the train was too short, they had to disguise the fact by walking with great care, so that they did not kick the ankles of each other and worse still, tread on each other’s dresses.
Later each of the Queen’s bridesmaids were given exquisite brooches in the shape of an eagle, designed by Prince Albert, made by the London jeweller, Charles du Vé. The Times wrote on 10 February 1840 that ‘the whole workmanship [of the brooches] is very superior’. The Queen wrote of the brooches as gifts: ‘I gave all the Train-bearers as a brooch a small eagle of turquoise’.
The twelve ‘train-bearers’ or bridesmaids, were waiting at St James’s Palace, for Queen Victoria to arrive. They had been waiting for her arrival in the Queen’s locked dressing-room for some ninety minutes and must have been hot, fidgety and bored, for they passed their time looking at the soldiers on guard beneath ‘who looked a good deal rusted by the rain’ (cit., Lucy Worsley, Queen Victoria, 143). When all was ready, the bridesmaids and the Queen’s ladies followed the Queen into the Throne Room at St James’s Palace to allow the procession to form, which ‘looked beautiful going downstairs’.
Most interestingly perhaps, Queen Victoria had helped to ‘design’ their simple white dresses. We know this because she made a preparatory sketch herself. This is an interesting reflection when we remember the sketches of the dolls she made and painted and the wooden dolls at Kensington she had dressed as a young girl, perhaps using scraps from Baroness Lehzen’s bag of materials. (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 90). The drawing is delightful – Sketch by VR for the dress of the Queen’s 12 Brides Maids, 1839-40 – and it survives in the Royal Collection.
The sketch was given to the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, the Duchess of Sutherland, who accompanied her in the carriage to St James’s Palace. We see that the Queen wanted her bridesmaids to be dressed in simple gowns of white silk, with white shoes. The bridesmaids wore trimmings of white roses at the tulle overskirts, at their bodices and in their hair. The Queen’s own wedding dress would be of creamy white Spitalfields satin, with a deep lace flounce and a wreath of orange flowers. The Queen made a quick pen and ink sketch of herself on her wedding day, wearing her bridal headdress of orange blossoms.
The Queen’s verdict on her bridesmaids was, as she wrote approvingly in her journal, that they ‘had a beautiful effect’ but this view was not universally shared. Indeed, some considered they ‘looked like village girls’ (cit., Worsley, 143), a misunderstanding perhaps, of simplicity.
Who were then, these twelve bridesmaids? Their names are not recorded in the Queen’s journal. They are reduced to silent witnesses, as silent as the Queen’s sketch that she handed to the Duchess of Sutherland. The moralizing of Prince Albert’s prudishness, as a result no doubt of his upbringing and the sad results of adultery in the lives of both his parents, led to him suggest initially that these virginal ‘train-bearers’ should be daughters of aristocratic women of impeccable character. Lord Melbourne had to show that this was quite unrealistic and in fact, their marriage of supreme morality would point the way for the future (Worsley, 143).
Outside at St James’s Palace, the twelve bridesmaids ‘consigned the train to Prince Albert’s care’, (cit., Ibid, 146) before he himself climbed into the carriage bound for Buckingham Palace and the official signing of the marriage register and wedding breakfast.
Thanks to the selections from the Queen’s journals made by Lord Esher, I can identify the twelve bridesmaids at Queen Victoria’s wedding, not normally listed even in standard biographies of the Queen. These were Lady Adelaide Paget, Lady Sarah Frederica Caroline Villiers, Lady Frances Elizabeth Cowper, Lady Elizabeth West, Lady Mary Augusta Frederica Grimston, Lady Eleonora Caroline Paget, Lady Caroline Amelia Gordon Lennox, Lady Elizabeth Anne Georgiana Dorothea Howard, Lady Ida Hay, Lady Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina Stanhope, Lady Jane Harriet Bouverie and Lady Mary Charlotte Howard. (ed. Lord Esher, The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Diaries between the years 1832 and 1840, 319).
Queen Victoria first referred to ‘train bearers’ in 1838, in connection with her Coronation. Like her grandfather George III, she maintained an extraordinary gift for recalling names and relationships. For example, in 1892, she recorded in her journal the name of one of the sons of Lady Sarah Villiers, noting that Sarah had been her bridesmaid in 1840. Lady Sarah became Princess Esterhazy through marriage to Nikolaus III, Prince Esterhazy. A stipple engraving of her is held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, showing her with her sisters Clementina and Adela Villiers by H. Cook, all daughters of George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey. Lady Sarah died in 1853. Queen Victoria noted it in her journal. Elizabeth, Duchess of Bedford became the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes in 1880; she also had been one of Queen Victoria’s bridesmaids, as the Queen also noted in her journal. This was the former Lady Elizabeth (Sackville)-West. Elizabeth was appointed Extra Lady of the Bedchamber in 1883. Whilst on holiday at Nice, staying in the fittingly named Hotel Regina at Cimiez, Queen Victoria sadly recorded the sudden death of Elizabeth in her journal on 23 April 1897; she again recalled that Elizabeth had once been one of her bridesmaids.
Clearly then, Queen Victoria did not forget her bridesmaids.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.