The Duke of Kent was determined that his unborn child – history’s Queen Victoria – should not be born outside of Britain, to assure its right to succeed to the throne in the British mind. As a true Hanoverian, he was the fourth son of George III, the King who famously ‘glor[ied] in the name of Britain’. Clearly, it was a step forward from the reign of George I, who knew only faulty English and whose son, Prince George Augustus, had once proclaimed that there was not ‘one drop of blood in his veins but what [was] English’.
The Duke of Kent proudly boasted that he was the father of a future monarch, despite the fact that his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Clarence, the future Queen Adelaide, was still young enough to give birth to a baby which would have put his own child one step further down in the royal line of succession. The Duke – a man of formidable strength and rude health – was firmly of the opinion that ‘The crown will come to me and my children’. We know, of course, that the Crown did indeed come to his line – but not his children – instead to his only child, by the Duchess of Kent, whom he had married at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg on 29 May 1818, followed by a double ceremony at Kew Palace, in which his elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, future William IV, married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. A gipsy in Gibraltar, by tradition, had foreseen that the throne of England would one day be the fate of this child, as yet unborn (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 10).
I want to try and trace this return journey to England, about which little is known. Historical focus has – rightly – been concentrated instead on the immediate circumstances of the future Queen Victoria’s birth at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819. We forget perhaps, that the Kents set out on a journey across Germany, sailing from Calais exactly a month previously and fittingly for the Duke and Duchess of Kent, landed at Dover in Kent, a happy coincidence which augured a favourable outcome for the birth four weeks later. The Duchess of Kent went into labour on 23 May at 10.30 in the evening; a cradle was already in place in the newly upholstered room, made of mahogany. The bed in the Duchess of Kent’s bedroom was laid with white cambric (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 36) and at 4.15 on the morning of 24 May 1819, a baby princess was born, ‘as plump as a partridge’, as the Duke of Kent wrote to his mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg (cit., Hibbert, 12). Touchingly perhaps, a cradle is today displayed in the room in which Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace; this cradle is, however, the gilt Saxon cradle which was used for several of her children, notably the second baby daughter, Princess Alice, who was painted asleep in it by the great artist Sir Edwin Landseer, in 1843.
The Duke of Kent’s anxiety to return to England was well founded, and for the child who would later as it happened, give her name to an entire age, it was essential in his mind that the unborn baby that the Duchess of Kent was carrying, should be born in the country over which – as he hoped – it would eventually reign. There is a sense of urgency throughout the Duke’s actions. Very different was say, the behaviour of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who bundled his unfortunate wife, Princess Augusta, downstairs into a carriage at Hampton Court Palace in 1737, to avoid the child being born under the palace roof of his parents, who despised him. That hurried journey – with a royal birth at the end of it – was by all accounts, a nightmarish one. Princess Augusta had already gone into labour and handkerchiefs had to be stuffed up her skirts until she could finally give birth at St James’s Palace, where nothing had been prepared for the delivery, the newborn baby had to be wrapped in a napkin, and the official witnesses arrived too late (Lucy Worsley, Courtiers, 214).
Not for nothing might the Duke of Kent have recalled the death as the result of childbirth of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, his late niece, whose demise in 1817 had provided the impetus for the bachelor dukes to marry, including himself. Princess Charlotte had ever regarded the Duke of Kent as her favourite uncle (Hibbert, 6). One of the Duke’s friends, Joseph Hume, even went so far as to say that the unborn child’s right to reign might be ‘challenged with effect, from the circumstance of the birth taking place on foreign soil’ (cit., Ibid, 10). The Duke’s sister, Princess Augusta reminded her brother by letter that the Prince Regent’s feelings were ‘most delicate upon the occasion’ (cit., Flora Fraser, Princesses, pp. 317-18).
The Duke then needed to amass sufficient funds to cross the Channel with his pregnant Duchess. He appealed to his eldest brother, the Prince Regent, for a yacht in which to make the journey from Calais to Dover, as well as for the refurbishment of his apartments – once those belonging to the Princess of Wales – at Kensington Palace, with the additional request that he, the Duchess and their suite should be given meals in England, when they arrived (Hibbert, pp. 10-11). The Prince Regent replied through his Secretary that he considered it better for the birth to take place on the continent, as this would reduce unnecessary expenditure and also save the Duchess of Kent from the ‘dangers and fatigues of a long journey at [this] moment’ (Ibid, 11).
The Prince Regent’s behaviour disappointed the Duke, who was forced to turn to his friends for money to support his project, successfully raising some £15,000. The royal caravan, therefore, set out for Calais on 28 March 1819. The Duchess was by then, just over seven months pregnant and a journey of over 430 miles (A. N. Wilson, 33) lay ahead of them, at a time when continental travel was perilous. The Duke and his party set out anyway, even though they had not secured the approval of the Prince Regent for their return; indeed, the Duke of Sussex warned his brother that his apartments at Kensington Palace were as yet, still unready (Fraser, 218).
It must have been an extraordinary party to encounter on the roads of early nineteenth-century Europe, with the Duke driving the cane phaeton that contained both himself and the Duchess, thereby saving the cost of a coachman. The barouche that belonged to the Duke carried Baroness Späth and Frau Siebold, the talented obstetrician who would assist at the birth – incidentally also in August that same year, at that of a baby boy in Coburg, later to be christened Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The Duchess of Kent’s daughter by her first marriage, Princess Feodora, travelled behind in a post-chaise, together with her governess and English attendants (Hibbert, 11). The Duke’s cooks, manservant and valet travelled in tow in respective carriages, with other members of the royal suite, including the Duke’s physician, Dr Wilson. The fact that the party travelled with a number of pet cats, dogs and caged canaries in tow, lends comedy to the serious concern of getting to England in time for the birth. There is something fateful about this journey, as seen with the hindsight of later history. Poetically speaking, it is almost as if England has some presentiment about the importance of this coming child. The reality, of course, was very different. At the time of the baby’s birth, the future that lay ahead of her was by no means certain, despite the firm conviction of her father, the Duke of Kent. As it happened, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg’s remark after the birth was a prescient one: ‘The English like Queens’ (cit., Hibbert, 12).
I had wondered whether the route to England went by way of Belgium, as it was in the rented (whitewashed) house in Brussels, that the Duke of Kent had been living with his long-term mistress, Julie de Saint-Laurent, at the time of his niece, Princess Charlotte’s death, tossing the Morning Chronicle to Madame de Saint-Laurent over the breakfast table, in which an article begged the bachelor sons of George III to marry, for the sake of the royal succession. The journey did go by way of Frankfurt, where the Duke of Kent’s thoughts seem to have been of his former mistress momentarily, for he wrote a letter to the Baron de Mallet, expressing concern for her health, ‘for I fear what she has read recently in the papers has had again a very sensible [sic] effect on her nerves’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, 33). Princess Elizabeth, the Duke of Kent’s sister, saw the party en route at Frankfurt, commenting that the Duchess of Kent was ‘very big [with child] and, not being tall, shows it much’ (cit., Fraser, 318).
We know, of course, that Queen Victoria was intensely proud of her German heritage and her visits to Germany throughout her reign make fascinating reading in their own right, where the Queen’s detailed pen portraits and travelling paint box tell vividly of the places and people she saw on her travels. Interestingly, two of the great German cities that the Kents had passed through en route to England for the future Queen’s birth – Frankfurt and Cologne – are mentioned explicitly by the Queen much later, on her German travels. On the Queen’s first visit to Germany, the Queen was pleased to notice that ‘in all the Inns, they had hung up our portraits… and at Frankfurt and Deutz they had mine with the two children, by Landseer’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 38). Queen Victoria visited Cologne as part of her great visit to Coburg in 1845; when she drove between railway stations in the city, there had been the charming idea to sprinkle the streets with its signature fragrance, eau-de-Cologne (Ibid, 54). Bonn, of course, had a strong connection with Prince Albert’s student days, and following a visit to Brühl, the Queen wrote in words that sound impressed but tired, that the royal party had watched illuminations on the river at Cologne: ‘& finally the Cathedral glowing red – the most splendid thing possible, and all that reflected in that splendid river, the Rhine’ (cit., Ibid, 57). Frankfurt on this visit, the Queen thought to be ‘a really beautiful and very gay looking town’ (cit., Ibid, 79).
But this is to anticipate the reign of Queen Victoria by over twenty-five years. The Duke of Kent and his party reached Cologne on 5 April 1819 (Hibbert, 11) from which it took them another two weeks to reach Calais, where their crossing was delayed by several days by high winds. At Calais, the Duke discovered that the Prince Regent had sent a yacht for them, after all (Hibbert, 11).
Once at Dover, Britain had its monarch-to-be on its own soil – as yet unborn, inside the pregnant belly of the Duchess of Kent. England had got its (future) Queen Victoria.