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Queen Victoria’s Mother – the Duchess of Kent

On 16 March 1861, the Duchess of Kent, born Princess Marie Louise Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and by her first marriage, Princess of Leinigen, died at her residence of Frogmore House, in Windsor Great Park. Though she had been mother to Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Kent had never herself been Princess of Wales, because her second husband, Edward, Duke of Kent had been George III’s fourth son. George III’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales – who became the Prince Regent in 1811 – appealed in 1817 to his remaining brothers to marry and safeguard the continuation of the royal succession. This was because whilst George III had some fifty-six grandchildren by this time, not one of them was legitimate under the terms of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, following the much-lamented death of the Regent’s sole heir Princess Charlotte, in childbirth that year. The fraternal response to this appeal hastened a veritable race among the royal dukes, to be the first in line to sire the next heir to the British throne. Edward, Duke of Kent was – despite some initial reluctance – accepted by Victoire, Princess of Leiningen and they were married after a short courtship at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg on 29 May 1818; a second ceremony followed at Kew Palace, witnessed by a dying Queen Charlotte. By the time of Princess Victoria’s birth, on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace, it was clear that here was the first serious contender in this very royal competition.

The Prince Regent became King George IV on the death of his father, George III at Windsor on 29 January 1820. But significantly, exactly a week earlier, an event of massive importance occurred in the life of the future Queen Victoria – although she would herself have been unable to remember it. Her father, the Duke of Kent, died at Woolbrook Cottage in Sidmouth, the villa which was leased to the Duke of Kent and where the Duke was staying with his family during the winter of 1819-20. Queen Victoria later wrote after the Duchess’s death, that her mother preserved many personal mementoes of her father:

We found a most precious relic of my poor father, which I had never seen. His little writing desk – with his Garter purse, the drawing of the room he died in – his three last letters to dearest Mama (in French) and such loving tender letters, and a little book of hers in which she wrote in every week after his death expressive of such love and tender affection for him – such despair at his death, such longing to be soon re-united with him…” (Roger Fulford, Dearest Child: Letters between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, Pg 319, 1964).

What this of course also meant, was that by the time of the Duchess’s own death in 1861, Queen Victoria lost the only biological parent she had ever known. Direct references to her “poor father” are somewhat rare, but when the Queen did make them, they were certainly poignant enough. Normally, these references were oblique and expressed to those upon whom she had foisted these affections instead, for example, her beloved uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, whom she called her “secondo padre” or even on one occasion, her “only father.” Similarly, she seems to have regarded the father of Prince Albert, Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in paternal terms, giving way to protracted grief at his death in 1844.

The Duchess of Kent had lived at Frogmore House for some twenty years prior to her death. She had refused the use of Kew Palace after the death of the Duke of Kent and was much disgruntled when she was not permitted to move into Buckingham Palace with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; nor had she been satisfied when her own rooms at Windsor Castle were far away from those of the Queen. Queen Victoria took a house for the Duchess in Belgravia, although this house equally did not please. In the early 1840s, the Duchess consented to the use of Frogmore House as a private residence, together with St. James’s Palace and Clarence House, Frogmore House having become available on the death of George III’s daughter, Princess Augusta.

During the difficult years of what became known as the ‘Kensington System’ – devised by the Duchess of Kent’s Comptroller of the Household, Sir John Conroy, to control every aspect of the Princess’s life – Princess Victoria spent far more time with her adored German governess, Louise, Baroness Lehzen, whose devotion to her royal pupil was certainly sincere, but also hints at an obsessive care – for in the thirteen years in her post as governess, Lehzen never “once left her”. (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 22, 2000). Victoria even wrote of Lehzen in marked contrast to her then feelings for her own mother: “My ANGELIC dearest mother Lehzen, who I do so love”. (Hibbert, Pg 34).

During this time, Princess Victoria was also very close to her “truly affectionate Aunt”, the Duchess of Clarence – the future Queen Adelaide – consort of William IV, who acceded to the throne on the death of George IV on 26 June 1830. This affection from the niece appears to have been fully reciprocated by Queen Adelaide, who wrote to her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Kent in a sad note on the death of her own second daughter: “My children are dead, but yours lives and She is mine too”. (Ibid, Pg 30). When the balance had shifted and the Queen viewed her childhood more through the lens of her later life and having rather taken on the deep dislike of Prince Albert for her former governess, she wrote after the Duchess’s death, of how it was “wretched to think how, for a time two people [Conroy and Lehzen] wickedly estranged us”.

Queen Victoria’s relationship with her mother gradually improved with the growth of the Queen’s own family, following her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. The Duchess of Kent’s role as grandmother to her nine children – the youngest of which was her fifth daughter Princess Beatrice, born in 1857 – was a very different one to that of the compliant mother of Conroy’s ‘Kensington System’. The most well-known image of the Duchess of Kent with her daughter is an oil painting from the Royal Collection, today displayed at Kensington Palace, in the very room in which the Duchess gave birth to the future Queen in 1819. Begun by Sir William Beechey a mere four days after the Princess Victoria’s second birthday, it was made for Leopold I, King of the Belgians, and presented later to Queen Victoria by his son, Leopold II in 1867. The Duchess of Kent is still depicted in black, while the Princess Victoria is dressed in white and stood upon the red sofa upon which the Duchess is sitting. In a touching stroke, Princess Victoria is clasping a miniature of the late Duke of Kent, which she places upon the shoulder of her mother’s arm, which embraces her. An echo of this kind of imagery would be found much later in photographs made after the death of Prince Albert, where Queen Victoria had a bust of the Prince Consort feature in family groups, not only to emphasise the traditions of mourning to which she ascribed such obsessive importance, but also presumably, to make sure that despite death, the missing family member was still included. Whatever the bitter interim, this early painting of Queen Victoria and her mother, somehow captures the essence of the later reconciliation.

Particularly poignant, is the fact that the left arm of the Duchess of Kent encircles her daughter, in the Beechey portrait. For it was the Duchess’s left arm which had suffered some of the worst outbreaks of sores throughout the erysipelas attacks to which the Duchess had been subject for the last few months. Queen Victoria also mentioned her mother’s “sore hand”; and it was the hand of her mother, which the Queen held at her death. The Duchess of Kent died at half-past nine on 16 March 1861. The Queen had sat beside her mother for the last two hours. Poignantly, perhaps as if subconsciously emphasising again the loss of both her parents, the Queen wrote of: “the striking, at every quarter, of the old repeater, a large watch in a tortoiseshell case, which belonged to my poor father, the sound of which brought back all the recollections of my childhood…” (Quoted in Hibbert, Pg 266)

Queen Victoria’s grief at her mother’s death was dreadful and protracted: “The dreaded calamity has befallen us, which seems like an awful dream… But oh! The agony of it…” She sorted her mother’s papers and found much in which she read of the love of both of her parents for both one another and for herself, which she found “too touching”. The Duchess had kept many things relating to her then, baby daughter: “Her love for me is beyond everything! Not a scrap of my writing – or of my hair has ever been thrown away – and such touching notes in a book about my babyhood…” (Fulford, Pg 319). Afterwards, she returned to the Duchess of Kent’s bedroom at Frogmore House and sat there alone. Prince Albert, who had himself been deeply moved by the Duchess’s death, suggested that the Queen go to Osborne, after the death of the Duchess. In the Queen’s case, we can only imagine that this would have again provided its own bittersweet memories – of the Duchess’s visits to Osborne, but also because of her predilection for having her residences, from the walls down to her desk, full of family pictures, which again would have awakened their own mixed pain. Whilst it is important to bear in mind that the Prince Consort himself would die within the same year, triggering for the Queen a veritable agony of grief, looking forward in this way can prejudice historical judgement, because we then look an event in the light of what we know lies ahead for our subject, but of which they themselves know nothing. What is correct, is that the loss of Prince Albert followed a mere nine months after that of the Duchess of Kent. The Queen in fact hinted at the massive personal importance to her of both her mother and the Prince in a letter to her eldest daughter, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, written on the day of her mother’s death: “You may imagine what it is – when it is the dearest object (but one) you possess!…” We may see retrospective guilt in the Queen’s sentences as if possibly reflecting on the difficult years of their relationship: “For forty-one years never parted for more than three months…”

The rooms of the Duchess of Kent were faithfully recorded at the time of her death, in an album made especially for this purpose, ‘Frogmore House in the time of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, died 1861’. The Duchess of Kent’s Bedroom was treated with special importance, as it was the room in which the Duchess died, with particular attention being paid to the sofa on which she had been lying. Hand coloured photographs of the room were made by an unknown artist, showing the furnishings, including the bed and various family portraits. These appear to have been done from photographs of Frogmore’s interiors which were also made in 1861 after the Duchess’s death, presumably for a grieving posterity but also to record them for historical purposes. One of these shows the sofa in situ, still covered with cushions and throws, above which appears to hang an oval portrait of the Duchess herself. A stool – presumably the one which Queen Victoria sat on to hold her mother’s hand, can also be seen.

Today, Frogmore House is only open outside of private group visits, on a handful of select days in the summer, when the Royal Collection donates the entrance fee to visit the House and Gardens to three chosen charities. Three rooms that formerly were designated for the Duchess of Kent’s personal use may be viewed – the Duchess of Kent’s Sitting Room, Drawing Room and Dining Room, the latter being now known as the Britannia Room, because of the arrangement of objects in the room organised by The Duke of Edinburgh, after the Royal Yacht’s decommissioning in 1997. The rooms which are on the level of the Cross Gallery include the Duchess of Kent’s Sitting Room and Bedroom, where she died. None of these have ever been publicly accessible and are today amongst those rooms used to house the so-called ‘Family Museum’ assembled by Queen Mary, consisting of mementoes associated with the Royal Family, a project continued by the Queen until 1953, when she died.

Several of the other rooms at Frogmore House had close associations for Queen Victoria’s children, in connection with their grandmother’s death. The Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice, wrote to her mother in 1862 from Darmstadt, as Princess Louis of Hesse: “These words are for the 16th… do you recollect when all was over and dear Papa led you to the sofa in the colonnade and then took me to you…” (Alice: Biographical Sketch and Letters, Pg 69, 1884). Today, the ‘Colonnade’ at Frogmore House is dominated by busts and plaster casts of the Queen’s family, notably of her nine children, after the originals by Mary Thornycroft, at Osborne House.

The Duchess of Kent was initially interred at St. George’s Chapel, until the work on the Mausoleum – originally designed as a summer-house for the Duchess, was completed, in the grounds of Frogmore. The Duchess’s remains were transferred to the Mausoleum in August 1861; the building, a deeply moving tribute of a daughter’s love for her mother and recorded as such in the Latin inscription on the Mausoleum’s pediment, is today to be found above the lake at Frogmore. It has never been opened to the public.

In the words of the Duchess of Kent to Queen Victoria: “God be praised that those terrible times are gone by and that only death can separate me from you My beloved Victoria”. (Quoted in Hibbert, Pg 265).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

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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.