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Queen Victoria’s last Christmas


By National Media Museum from UK - Queen Victoria, c.1870.Uploaded by mrjohncummings, No restrictions, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria spent her last Christmas at Osborne in 1900. It was forty years exactly since Prince Albert had celebrated his final Christmas in 1860 at Windsor, the setting for so many happy family festivities in the past. Prince Albert did not live to see Christmas 1861, dying on 14 December in the same room in which with strange historical prescience, George IV and William IV had also died, in 1830 and 1837 respectively. In December 1862, Queen Victoria wrote: ‘Christmas, formerly such a dear happy time, came so sadly before me’.

When Queen Victoria set out in December 1900 for Osborne, the beloved Italianate residence on the Isle of Wight to which she symbolically moved the Christmas celebrations after Albert’s death at Windsor, it would be the final time that she made the journey.

The Queen was crossing over in another way, too. Having reached the twentieth century as a royal octogenarian, with living successors in three generations, she had ‘docked’ as it were in 1900 and was now ready to embark into eternity. Considering that Queen Victoria’s death was once compared to a great liner going out to sea, it is perhaps poignant to imagine the Queen setting out in December 1900 from Windsor for what we know would be the last time, to cross the Solent in the royal yacht Alberta. She spent what would turn out to be the last anniversary of the Prince Consort’s death at Windsor, that day she often referred to with a kind of loyal dread, as the ‘terrible 14th. She quietly visited the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore with the usual memorial service because for her, the ‘terrible 14th was of course, also the ‘sacred’ 14th. She drove to Frogmore again on 17 December 1900 and for the last time in her lifetime, visited the Royal Mausoleum and the mausoleum of her mother, the Duchess of Kent. After the Queen’s death at Osborne on 22 January 1901, her body was returned to Windsor where she was reunited at last with Prince Albert and laid to rest in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore at his side. Her effigy, lost at Windsor but subsequently found, depicted her in the likeness of a young wife and queen and had been made at the same time as Prince Albert’s.

By a curious coincidence, the great journal she had kept since 1832 came to an end on 13 January 1901. The fact that it stopped just short of a‘14th’may have morbidly interested Queen Victoria, given her all-absorbing obsession with dates and anniversaries. Queen Victoria left Windsor on 18 December 1900, having ‘had a very bad night and scarcely slept at all’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 490), despite the fact that she was now taking chloral draughts to induce sleep.

Christmas 1832 was the first that the future Queen Victoria had recorded in the journal she had begun that year. Spent at Kensington Palace, she described the tables and trees, a staple German custom which would be recreated later at Windsor, popularised by Prince Albert but in fact actually introduced by her paternal grandmother Queen Charlotte. Back in 1832, the Christmas trees had been hung with candles and sweets. The young Princess Victoria had received among other presents, a gorgeous toilet table covered in white muslin and a new looking-glass. Reading at the other end of the Queen’s life, the last Christmas entries for 24-25 December 1900 in Princess Beatrice’s copies, leave a simple and piteous impression. (The Queen’s beautiful Hindustani diaries run up until 1 November 1900). It is as if the strong voice of the invincible Queen is flickering and suddenly faint, like a flame about to go out. No other illustration is more symbolic of the Queen who wrote so many words, than these laconic and exhausting lines, as her life slowly draws to a close. By this time, these last entries were dictated. 13 January 1901 is a sad date for any historian of Queen Victoria’s family; it is the date when her journal goes silent, as the dying Queen loses her voice forever.

The day before Christmas was the traditional occasion for the German custom known as the Bescherung [Giving of Gifts] and on 24 December 1900, Queen Victoria adhered to the practice so long established in her family and so reminiscent of Prince Albert. On this day, Queen Victoria’s journal records that she went out with her third and fifth daughters, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein and Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg. She took her “tea”, which by now was little more than arrowroot mixed with milk (Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s life in the Scottish Highlands, 142) because her eating was by now so irregular. By now she was regularly living on Bengers food, a typical invalid diet which well illustrates the weakness of one who had enjoyed such a royal love of eating. She was joined by Prince Arthur and Princess Louise, Duke and Duchess of Connaught and their children as well as the families of Princess Christian and of Princess Beatrice.

The Queen was distressed to note that she could only see with difficulty. Towards the end of her life, she struggled to read letters and her handwriting was barely legible, having disappeared into the thick margins of the mourning stationery she now invariably used and no longer solely for Albert. It was almost as if the clock of her life had gone full circle and she was back at Kensington again, where she remembered in her memoir of 1872 taking her bread and milk in a small silver basin. By 11 December 1900, she was recommended to take ‘a little milk and whisky several times a day’ (cit., Ibid, 490). The day of her last journal entry – after a lifetime of personal historiography – 13 January 1901, she had a drink of milk.

The Durbar Room at Osborne, beloved by Queen Victoria as a setting for both ceremonial dinners and theatrical entertainments, was where the great Christmas tree would be set up, with the attendant tables laden with festive gifts. It was located in the new Durbar Wing of 1890, resplendent with its magnificent Indian plaster decoration. Here, the aged Queen would distribute her presents personally to her loyal retainers. Two presents brought particular pleasure – an enamel of the young Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein, the beloved grandson who had died from enteric fever at Pretoria the night before he was due to return from South Africa, where he had been serving in the Second Boer War. The other gift was a fine bracelet given by Helena, Princess Christian, in memory of her brother Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Queen’s second son. These were recent deaths and fresh in the royal memory, Prince Christian Victor having died in October 1900 and Prince Alfred in July.

This constituted the solemn Bescherung of 1900, customarily in Prince Albert’s lifetime always an evening of shared joy and family communion. Queen Victoria, however, could scarcely see to distribute her presents writing: ‘I felt very melancholy, as I see so very badly’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 611). Symbolically, Christmas with all its candlelight was no longer bright.

Christmas Day 1900 brought new sadness with the death of the Queen’s beloved Lady of the Bedchamber and trusted friend, Jane Churchill. A short memorial service was held for Jane in the Drawing Room at Osborne, whilst Princess Beatrice played the harmonium. The Queen of mourning mused sadly: ‘The loss to me is not to be told… and that it should happen here is too sad’ (cit., Ibid, 491). It was her beloved Jane who had in fact, remarked to her own maid that the Queen seemed by now ‘a dying woman’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 567), words unthinkable to a generation who had never known their own lives, or England – without Victoria.

Christmas 1900 was Victoria’s last.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019



About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, also speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a long-standing contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's own magazine, Tudor Life. She specialises in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and she is particularly interested in historic royal weddings. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and has written numerous articles on the Tsarina's life and correspondence. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and conducts original research on the subject, making a number of important finds including 'lost' royal letters and rediscovering Queen Victoria's perfume. Her popular blog for Royal Central, the web's leading news site on royalty, was written as guest history writer (2015-2019). As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of culture heritage, she worked in the heritage sector for ten years and has been an active supporter of numerous societies and charities/organizations including The Georgian Group, Historic Royal Palaces, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V, Verein Potsdamer Stadtschloss e. V, Historic Royal Palaces and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. She also researches and publishes on the life of W. A. Mozart, writing a mini-series on Mozart and Prague for the culture column of the English-speaking Czech newspaper, the Prague Post (2017-2019) as well as for the newsletter of the New York society, Friends of Mozart (2016). Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary journal and poetry magazines, including The Oxonian Review, North of Oxford, Coldnoon, Nine Muses Poetry and Allegro Poetry, with forthcoming poetry in the quarterly literary journal Trafika Europe. Her first short collection, a collection of poems on Prague, is scheduled for publication as a chapbook in 2020 by Marble Poetry.