Queen Victoria’s little-known visit to Spain

By M.samei - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81315930

Whilst on one of her late holidays in the south of France, Queen Victoria made her only visit to Spain. It was a visit that aroused the Queen’s socio-historic curiosity in national culture and peoples, something she often gave expression to in watercolour sketches as vivid pen portraits to record what she saw, alongside her accounts in her Journal. The Spanish visit was also historically significant because it made Queen Victoria the first reigning English monarch to be received in the country, a pleasing fact which the Queen would have been quick to recognise.

The Queen made the visit as part of her holiday at Biarritz in March 1889, when she was staying at the Villa La Rochefoucauld. We might recall at this point the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, coming to England to marry Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, Prince of Wales, whose English queenly status was finally restored to her at the behest of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter-in-law, Queen Mary. More importantly, this Spanish visit could also bring to mind Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (‘Ena’), granddaughter of Queen Victoria who was baptised at Balmoral in 1887 and became Queen of Spain, consort of Alfonso XIII. The wedding at Madrid and the same-day attempted assassination attempt in 1906 (the ‘Morral affair’) was, of course, something which her English grandmother did not live to learn of, but a decoration from the wedding gown of Princess Victoria Eugenie survives appropriately in the Royal Collection, a sprig of orange blossom snipped from her wedding dress which was woven in Spain. It is preserved in a glass jar and was given by the new Queen to the future Queen Mary in 1906. The orange blossom trimmed the corsage and train. That same dress was spattered with (horse) blood at the assassination attempt in Madrid.

At Windsor, Queen Victoria had recorded talking with Lord Salisbury in her Journal in mid-February 1889 of a proposed visit to Spain and a possible meeting with the Queen Regent of Spain, Marie Cristina. In Biarritz, Queen Victoria returned to this theme, elaborating that the Queen Regent suggested a meeting if she made an excursion into Spain. This offer was made by the Queen Regent in a letter to Queen Victoria and brought to her by the Queen Regent’s Chamberlain, the Marquis de Casa Irujo, whom the Queen noted – as a true granddaughter of George III, with his extraordinary ability to remember names and places – was the son of the Duc de Soto Mayor, a former Ambassador to England.

The Queen’s first excursion into Basque Country occurred on Saturday 23 March 1889 when she, accompanied by her daughters, Princess Louise, Princess Beatrice and their respective husbands, Prince Henry of Battenberg and the Marquis of Lorne, visited Fuenterrabia crossing the Pont de Fignier which spans over the Bidassoa dividing France from Spain. Queen Victoria got out of the train at Irun and was met at the station with a great press of curious crowds. Once in her carriage, Queen Victoria continued to Fuenterrabia where she was met by a guard firing muskets and presenting arms, whilst a small band played the Spanish national anthem. Queen Victoria admired Fuenterrabia as she drove through the streets. With typical historical curiosity, she described the ancient Citadel, Plaza, church and in particular, the Ile des Faisans, incorrectly recording that it was here that Louis XIV was married to the Spanish Infanta, Maria Theresa.

The so-called Pheasant Island was instead where the important first meeting took place between Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Theresa on 7 June 1660, a political marriage which would join the two former warring countries of the Franco-Spanish War and unite them in the conjugal clause of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed a year earlier. In point of fact, Louis XIV and Maria Theresa were married in the church at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, not on the island where their first meeting had taken place. One of the houses at Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the modern-day Quay de L’Infante is known as the Maison Joanoenea and is reputedly where Louis XIV’s mother, Anne of Austria stayed previously and the Infanta was accommodated prior to her wedding. The church at Saint-Jean-de-Luz preserves a curious tradition in the form of a blocked main entrance, bricked up in order so no other should pass through after this exalted event. The entrance is still bricked up today and has indeed prevented any person from using the doorway after the 1660 wedding ceremony; a plaque in the church states why (Antonia Fraser, Love and Louis XIV, 71). An alternative Basque theory suggests that the doorway was blocked to metaphorically signify the closure of Franco-Spanish hostilities.

For Biarritz where she was staying, Queen Victoria had only cautious praise, saying it was ‘not a nice or pretty place, very bleak and very barren with a constant high wind and no vegetation. The sea is very grand to see in a storm and there are many interesting recollections of the Visigoths but I would never care to go there again’ (ed. Agatha Ramm, Beloved and Darling Child, 141). Whilst not admiring the resort, she was still at Biarritz on 1 April, when she wrote, having visited an Englishman’s villa in the vicinity: ‘I should not have cared for it, for not only does one not see the town, but not a single habitation, & when one is in a foreign country one likes to see some life about one’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 557). Writing to a beloved granddaughter from the Villa Rochefoucauld, Queen Victoria enthused: ‘We are going on the 27th to San Sebastian to meet the Queen Regent of Spain. And on the 2nd we intend to leave Biarritz…’ (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 101).

The visit to San Sebastian on 27 March 1889 was a success. The Queen, writing to the same granddaughter, commented proudly: ‘Wherever we went all the people & children [were] crying ‘Viva la Reina’. This is in fact Spanish…’ She added that the ‘visit to San Sebastian was most interesting & striking & the Queen Regent is quite charming’ (Ibid, 103). Queen Victoria was accompanied by Princess Beatrice and Prince Henry of Battenberg and travelled in her own railway carriage as far as Irun, at which she disembarked and changed into the Queen Regent’s carriage, where she was greeted by a Guard of Honour and a band. She was met by the Marquis de Casa Irujo, the Marquis de la Vega de Armijo, Count Sepulveda and the British Ambassador to Spain, Sir Francis Clare Ford. We must suppose that Queen Victoria was naturally sympathetic to the young Queen Regent, as Maria Cristina of Spain had been widowed early, Alfonso XII having died in 1885, whilst she was pregnant with the future Alfonso XIII. The Queen Regent spoke German with Queen Victoria because she was a Habsburg by birth and spoke the language as Queen Victoria noted approvingly, with a Viennese accent.

Queen Victoria saw the artistic dimension of her visit to Spain, commenting that the black horses that drove her through San Sebastien with the Queen Regent, looked as if they had been painted by Velasquez (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 436), the great artist incidentally, who had painted Louis XIV’s Infanta. Typically for an English Queen (or like Charles II’s Portuguese queen consort, Catherine of Braganza, who was said to have asked for a cup of tea when she landed at Portsmouth), Queen Victoria was offered a cup of tea (Ibid, 436), although unfortunately for the Queen, it did not taste. The crowds cheered her and we must suppose that the Queen aroused the same curiosity as she did in Italy and France, for example, when her ‘incognito’ was a known secret. Queen Victoria not unnaturally, thought of the British equivalent of what she saw, commenting that the postilions who drove her carriage with Maria Cristina wore livery not unlike that the Ascot Livery. Two triumphal arches had been erected for her visit and fireworks were set out in her honour.

With Maria Cristina, Queen Victoria visited the delightful house of the Duchess of Baileu, the Villa Ayete, surrounded by its own park. The Queen Regent took Queen Victoria over the villa herself, after which they had luncheon together. At the close of the visit, Queen Victoria drove back into San Sebastien and admired the beauty of the expansive Plaza and the main church. At the Hotel de l’Ayuntamiente, Queen Victoria was greeted by a choir who sang ‘God Save the Queen’ (the Queen noting that they sang the British anthem in Basque) and was presented with an album of photographs. Afterwards, she sat on the balcony and watched a display of regional dancing. When the visit was over Maria Cristina, with typical kindness, requested to personally accompany Queen Victoria as far as the French frontier at Irun.

Something of a royal friendship appears to have been made on this brief visit to Spain. The following day, both queens exchanged telegrams. Whilst this was sheer formal etiquette, the impression left on Queen Victoria of the young Queen Regent was undoubtedly a warm and most favourable one.

Somewhat prophetically, as history would have it, Queen Victoria had been accompanied into Basque Country by her daughter, Princess Beatrice and her husband Prince Henry of Battenberg, who were the parents of the future Queen Victoria Eugenie (‘Ena’) of Spain. The Queen Regent Maria Cristina would become the mother-in-law of ‘Ena’, baptised at Balmoral, as her son was the future Alfonso XIII.

The visit to Spain had been an important one.

©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. She regularly contributes to academic journals and specialist magazines, newsletters and also, the web. She specialises in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. Her popular blog for Royal Central, the web's leading news site on royalty, was written as guest history writer (2015-2019). Her current research projects include Queen Victoria and hotels.