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Royal Snow and Snowmen

The onset of winter provides another opportunity to look again at the links between the many fascinating outdoor pastimes and pursuits enjoyed by royalty, which I touched on in my article of December 2017, Snow and Royalty. Whilst the German Christmas was much popularised by Prince Albert, the preference of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort to spend Christmas at Windsor Castle with the royal children was in fact, a continuance of an earlier, medieval pattern, English monarchs having wintered at Windsor since the twelfth century. The winter wedding of King Henry I – his second marriage – to the French Princess Adeliza of Louvain, was celebrated at Windsor on 24 January 1121. Windsor Castle came to be closely associated with Christmases within the Royal Family until the death of Prince Albert, after which Queen Victoria generally took to celebrating Christmas at Osborne.

I am particularly interested here to explore a little closer the actual royal pastimes enjoyed with the snow itself, as opposed to the various charming winter pastimes on the ice such as skating and sledging – Prince Albert having been an extremely keen and enthusiastic skater. Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria – the French Queen Marie Antoinette – adored the snow, which she ever associated with her Viennese childhood; indeed, she remained excited at the mere sight of it for the rest of her life. (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 21). Snow, therefore, provides the setting for many charming vignettes and provides the background for generations of royal play.

In Tudor England, the court used the snowfall as an opportunity to make royal winter sports, as might befit the cycle of seasonal entertainments it enjoyed around its yearly calendar. We know from the accounts of Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon and Marquess of Exeter, that the courtiers of Henry VIII engaged in snowball fights (Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King & Court, 94; 519) and thanks to the records contained within the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, that on at least one occasion, the King joined in. This occurred in January 1519, when a 28-year-old Henry VIII borrowed a cap from a boy to keep out the cold. (Ibid, 94). The King once travelled by winter sleigh over the frozen Thames from his Palace at Whitehall to Greenwich in 1536. (Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 110).

By the reign of Queen Victoria, ‘artificial snow’ was even included in the decoration of the Queen’s trees at Windsor, probably to trim the fir branches to make them seem snow-covered as they would have appeared in Prince Albert’s native Coburg. Significantly, the royal children performed a tableau at Windsor Castle to mark the ‘Four Seasons’ on the 14th wedding anniversary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854. The Prince of Wales was dressed as the part of ‘Winter’, perhaps because he had been sculpted in this allegory by Mary Thornycroft in 1847, with the four eldest royal children as one of each of the seasons, a group eventually shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851. For the tableau, the Prince of Wales wore a cloak covered in make-believe snow, a long white beard, wig and fur lined boots.

Prince Albert helped the royal children built snowmen at Windsor, which were apparently at least “twice as tall as himself” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, a Personal History, Pg 158). Queen Victoria and Prince Albert spent the Christmas of 1841-2 at Windsor, driving over to Claremont, the Surrey residence close to Esher which had been the home of her uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians and where his first wife, the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, had died following childbirth in 1817. In January 1842, the Queen noted that a large snowman had been built, with the help of the gardener at Claremont and five other men. She further described that it was at least twelve feet high and that it was in fact, the first snowman she had ever seen. (Cooling, 120). The Queen’s journal describes Prince Albert making a snowman during March snowfall at Osborne in 1847, with Edward of Weimar. In January 1854, the Queen’s records in her journal that the Royal Family made a snowman together, at Windsor. Snowmen were built again at Osborne in March 1858, and in December 1859, the latter when the Royal Family were on this occasion, at Osborne, and a snowman was made by Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales and other gentlemen.

A charming pencil and watercolour survives in the Royal Collection, made by the artist Ella Taylor, who incidentally, sketched Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice and her children at Darmstadt, including two delightful pencil studies of her youngest daughters, Princess Alix and Princess Marie ‘May’ of Hesse. Ella Taylor depicted Queen Victoria’s cousin, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge (1833-97) and John du Plat making a snowman on New Year’s Day 1861. (Ibid, 120). Poignantly, when this watercolour was made, the Christmases enjoyed by the Royal Family with Prince Albert were already at an end, had the Queen but known it; the Prince Consort spent his last Christmas at Windsor with the Royal Family in 1860. He died at Windsor Castle on 14 December 1861.

One of Queen Victoria’s collie dogs was called ‘Snowball’, whom she acquired in 1887 and who was painted on at least two occasions, once with two of her other dogs, her Spitz Marco and Mittel Spitz Janey, with what is possibly Windsor Park in the background. Her youngest son Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, owned a pet cat named ‘Snowdrop’.

The love of snowballing ensured that it remained a popular royal pastime. The young Francis, Duke of Teck was sketched making a snowball at Sandringham on unheaded Sandringham notepaper for Queen Alexandra’s album: ‘Snowballs/Sandringham/19th Jany/1866′. A similar image that found its way into the Queen’s scrapbook was one of her two eldest sons, Prince Albert Victor and Prince George in Highland dress in December 1874, snowballing the Rev William Lake Onslow, who was the Rector at Sandringham and also Chaplain-in-Ordinary to the Prince of Wales. Earlier that same year, Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh – uncle to the young Princes – had married the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna in St Petersburg. The artist Nicholas Chevalier’s exquisite oil on canvas painting of the wedding – celebrated on 23 January 1874 – contained such gorgeous aesthetic detail as the delicate snow gathering on the windows of the Cathedral at the Winter Palace.

Snow provides a background for royal pleasure and activities – then, as now.

©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.