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Queen Victoria’s Widow’s Cap

The white caps worn by Queen Victoria have – correctly – come to be regarded as a symbol for her widowhood. They represent one of the few contrasts in colour to the deepest mourning that she adopted after 1861, as a declaration in textile, of the colossal emotional significance to her of the Prince Consort’s death.

White had, of course, been symbolic of her wedding to Prince Albert, when she wore creamy white Spitalfields silk-satin for her wedding dress and her ‘dear wedding veil’.

The Queen was painted in white after death by Hubert von Herkomer, which I believe, could perhaps also represent the end of her widowhood and for the Queen, almost a return to her wedding day, a re-uniting with the Prince Consort, something which is hinted at in the Latin inscription she had engraved over the doors of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore: ‘… here at last I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ, I shall rise again…’

The Queen expressly forbade a black funeral for herself. Significantly, the Queen’s serene marble effigy had no traces of the widow about it; sculpted at her instruction at the same time as that of the Prince Consort, it depicted her in the likeness of a young woman and royal wife. There is no widow’s cap.

These white caps provided momentary relief in the mourning that the Queen wore, together with the occasional massive white handkerchief, both of which were skilfully captured by the portraitist Henrich von Angeli, in his painting of the Queen in 1875. The power of this image – the Queen in black – was also one which she actively cultivated, as a public statement that the royal wife had now become a royal widow, a new identity which was intrinsically linked with Prince Albert’s memory and so was as much a part of memorialising him, as was her programme of erecting statues and monuments after his death. The abandonment of colour for a chiefly monochrome wardrobe was a way of signalling to the world what she had lost. Importantly, the death of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in March 1861, had antedated Prince Albert’s death by six months. It was the death of Prince Albert, however, which plunged the Queen into a black from which she never truly emerged. Regarding colour, it ‘dyed’ her for life.

Hitherto, royal mourning was ordered out of respect and governed by the established dictates of protocol, with court mourning observed for a period of three months, such as that requested for the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte in 1817, after which colour was permitted to be worn again, like the ‘bursting out of spring’ (Quoted in Staniland, 76).

Queen Victoria confirmed this observance in the wake of Prince Albert’s death but ordered that the Royal Household should remain in mourning for an entire year (Ibid, 156). Queen Victoria’s choice to adopt mourning for the rest of her life from 42-years-old onwards, differed entirely from these conventions as the mourning she chose for herself had no timescale. This, in turn, set the tone for court observances concerning dress, although she relaxed this somewhat in later years, for her youthful maids of honour.

In this harsh personal decision, she instead more mirrored the Empress Maria Theresia, whose devastation at the death of her beloved husband, Holy Roman Emperor Franz I, was such that she cut off her famously luscious hair and remained in mourning weeds for the rest of her days. Like Maria Theresia, Queen Victoria had been an equally passionate wife, surely no accident in parallel, and one which offers a ready explanation for the extremity of the like-minded decision regarding dress. The social rules that prevailed for mourning allowed an into the half-mourning colours of white, grey, mauve and purple, such as was observed at the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1863. Although this was not something the Queen saw. She dictated the hue of these ceremonies, as at the marriage of her second daughter, Princess Alice in 1862, where the young bride’s entire trousseau was black.

Concerning the Queen’s clothing, mourning was never to be relaxed and was at most, only relieved, by white cuffs, scarfs, trimmings, or the ubiquitous patterned shawls which the Queen wore and which were the subject of comment by at least two of her granddaughters, Princess Louis of Battenberg and Princess Alix of Hesse, who helped her change them when they accompanied her driving out. Princess Louis of Battenberg remembered in her private reminiscences: ‘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…’ (Quoted in David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 270).

Prince Albert had played an essential role in the Queen’s wardrobe, on whose highly refined artistic taste the Queen relied. In her own words: ‘He did everything – everywhere… the designing and ordering of Jewellery, the buying of a dress or a bonnet… all was done together…’ (Quoted in HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, 164). The Queen preserved her ‘going away’ bonnet, sprigged with orange blossom, in which she travelled to Windsor for her honeymoon; a selection of bonnets with bright or richly flowered ribbons in the collection of the Museum of London are known examples of the Queen’s bonnets before 1861. These show a selection of the colourful palette that the Queen enjoyed in her wardrobe, before the Prince’s death (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 132). Aged only six months as Princess Victoria had been painted for her father, the Duke of Kent, in a Scotch bonnet. For Victoria, the peaked widow’s cap was a very different type of headpiece, making her face heart-shaped, its own sad symbol.

The white cap became a habitual accoutrement of the Queen’s typical dress, a sort of daily crown. It appears much in photographs made of the Queen in the early years of her widowhood, such as the photographs made in around 1862 by Ghemar Freres of Queen Victoria with her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, who referred to the widow’s cap that her mother wore, as ‘Ma’s sad caps’ (Staniland, 157). The black-clad Princess Beatrice, photographed with her widowed mother and in a group with her sisters in mourning dress, clustered around a bust of the Prince Consort, would remark with that strange mix of poignant accuracy contained within the musings of children: ‘What a pity that I was too little to be at your marriage” (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 287).

One of the little mourning dresses worn by the young Princess Beatrice and made of black poplin with crape bands survives at the Museum of London. The Queen was described as ‘sadly worn and thinned, and very small altogether, in her little widow’s cap, without strings but with streamers behind, and her heavy clinging woollen gown’ (Eleanor Stanley, Twenty Years at Court, 394, quoted in HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, 167). Queen Victoria wore mourning hoods when dressing for outdoors, edged with white frills (Staniland, 154).

The Queen wore her white, widow’s cap in the engraving by Thomas, the Marriage of Princess Alice to Prince Louis of Hesse, which was performed at Osborne in 1862. The Queen sits to the left of the engraving, whilst above hangs a portrait of her mother – who had died in March 1861 – and above the altar, a copy of the large painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Royal Family in 1846, in which a painted Prince Albert, stretches out his hand towards his eldest son, the Prince of Wales.

Typically for the Queen on any wedding day of her daughters, she referred to Princess Alice’s wedding clothes and then what she was wearing: ‘She is dressing in her Beloved Papa’s room, which I am having my widow’s cap adjusted! I think it is a dreadful dream!’ (Quoted in Ibid, 172). The Queen began to be photographed in her white peaked caps, spinning; an occupation that the Queen took up, which perhaps underlined her solitary state and one which, like her painting box, enabled creativity within that solitude. Sir Joseph Boehm sketched the Queen in 1869 spinning, by which time a spinning wheel had been placed in her sitting room (Ibid, 177). Again, Boehm shows her wearing her mourning weeds and her white cap, tantamount now to a type of widow’s uniform. She also wore the caps engaged in another solitary occupation, knitting or crochet work. Bassano photographed her wearing the cap. Carl Rudolph Sohn painted her in her white mourning headdress in 1883, as did Josefine Swoboda ten years later, at Balmoral. By 1886, the photographer Gustav Mullins was able to record Princess Beatrice with her niece, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, holding her daughter, Princess Alice of Battenberg, together with Queen Victoria in one of her white caps, but in this pleasing image, the by now elderly Queen adopts a smile.

The Queen’s white ‘sad caps’ were made of tulle, although where they were manufactured is not clear. By the late 1880s, she wore them pinned higher up than the rather sunken fashion of the 1860s, when they were worn close to the head, creating a flat impression. In later years, these ornate creations had evolved into deep, stately frills of tulle or silk with streamers and may have been supported by wires (Staniland, 160). At about this time, the Queen’s bonnets were being trimmed with black or white flowers, feathers, lace and ribbons (Ibid, 161). Princess Louis of Battenberg recalled that in her later years, the Queen habitually wore a ‘broad-brimmed straw hat in summer’ (Quoted in Duff, 270). In the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, she was photographed wearing a bonnet trimmed with white flowers, white aigrette and black lace (Ibid, 172).

Only one of the Queen’s white widow’s caps was apparently known to have survived and was preserved at the Museum of London. A fragile survivor, it is loaded with Queen Victoria’s personal symbolism and dates from around 1899. It is extremely rare and may have been discarded when it ceased to be in wearable condition.

A large painting commissioned by the Royal Agricultural Society in 1897, depicting the Queen with the Prince of Wales, Prince George, Duke of York and the future King Edward VIII, depicts Queen Victoria wearing one such widow’s cap. The artist, Sir William Quiller Orchardson, was permitted to borrow one of the Queen’s caps to paint his picture; the cap that he was given was subsequently bequeathed to the London Museum in 1917, by his widow (Staniland, 168). This cap does not appear to be the widow’s cap belonging to Queen Victoria, which is now displayed in a glass case at Kensington Palace, listed as Historic Royal Palaces 3502037, ‘Widow’s Cap, 1864-1899, Tulle’, as this contains far more tulle frills and the London Museum (later to become the Museum of London) example is considerably more fragile, even more so, because it has been washed. The Kensington example must, therefore, be a separate acquisition.

Any historic items of clothing retain something of the presence of the wearer, whilst recreating their respective bodily dimensions as well as providing a physical link with an event or events at which they were worn. This is why costume has such precise potency for the onlooker and the handler, outside of the purposes of historical record. Loaded with personal meaning, such items also preserve a particular fascination, because of their worn contact with the historical figure and therefore convey a sense of ‘untouchable touch’ even when displayed under glass. In this way, I found staring at the widow’s cap displayed at Kensington Palace, a unique experience. Queen Victoria’s exact measurements are not known. Although, she is believed to have been somewhere around five feet or under. Standing opposite it was like staring into the Queen’s missing face. As an object, it is strangely still full of the Queen’s dominant personality.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
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.