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Snow and Royalty

Snow has provided enjoyment for countless generations of children and adults alike; royalty, of course, is no exception to this time-honoured rule. English monarchs have wintered at Windsor since the twelfth century.

Windsor Castle was the preferred royal residence in which to spend Christmas for Queen Victoria during Prince Albert’s lifetime, Osborne House being chosen on occasion only after the death of the Prince. Christmas was normally spent at Sandringham during the reign of Edward VII, something which the House of Windsor continued to do throughout the reigns of George V and George VI and which Her Majesty The Queen also chooses to do for the most part. Snow has been the inspiration for both charming royal traditions and pastimes but also provided the background to important historical events.

It has been the subject of royal winter sports and activities – in January 1519, Henry VIII enjoyed a snowball fight, borrowing a cap from a boy to keep out the cold (Alison Weir, Henry VIII, King and Court, 94). Snow has also come to have more solemn associations and provided a winter backdrop to tragedy – the body of the beheaded King Charles I was brought through the snow for a night burial at Windsor on 9 February 1649. Anthony Wood, the author of Athenae Oxonieses, describes a sudden snowstorm which began when the King’s body was brought to the western end of St George’s Chapel, although this could equally have been a saintly symbolism, adopted to underline the King’s supposed ‘martyrdom’, the white of innocence.

Prince Albert used to skate on the lake at Frogmore, the private retreat of the British Royal Family in Windsor Great Park – relief halftones in The Royal Collection show Prince Albert pushing Queen Victoria around the lake at Frogmore in a sledge chair – a similar, charming lithograph shows Prince Albert driving a sleigh through the snow in Brighton, which contains Queen Victoria, The Duchess of Kent and the young Princess Royal, in the Queen’s sleigh.

The Queen recorded Prince Albert’s driving her on the ice in her Journal. Queen Victoria’s sleigh was put on public display for the first time in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle as part of the Castle’s festive celebrations in 2008 – the royal sleigh was coloured in red and gold, lined with red velvet and decorated with ostrich plumes and silver bells, according to The Royal Collection’s press release of 10 December 2008. The Illustrated London News featured Queen Victoria driving at Windsor in her sledge in the winter of 1854. Prince Albert also used the lake as a place on which to take part in games of ice hockey. Queen Victoria apparently was taught how to skate by a tutor from Eton.

The sledging tradition was continued by later generations of royal children – the children of George V and Queen Mary enjoyed sledging on the frozen lake at Sandringham – Princess Mary of Wales and Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was photographed on the ice. Prince Albert did much to popularise the Christmas tree although the credit for its introduction to England from Germany rightly belongs to George III’s consort, Queen Victoria’s paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, something confirmed by the Hon. Georgina Townshend, state housekeeper at Windsor Castle in her recollections. Prince Albert is said to be the inspiration behind how the trees themselves were decorated, through the use of wax candles and ‘artificial snow’, even himself putting up a Christmas tree. At Christmas, Prince Albert helped to build snowmen “twice as tall as himself” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, a Personal History, 158). Seven of Queen Victoria’s children participated in a series of tableaux at Windsor Castle depicting the ‘Four Seasons’ to mark the fourteenth wedding anniversary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854; the part of ‘Winter’ was played by Princess Louise, dressed in a white-topped hat with a Claus-like beard.

Queen Victoria spent the Christmas of 1861 at Osborne, the first of her widowhood, following the death of Prince Albert at Windsor on 14 December 1861. Queen Victoria was a highly skilled artist, sketching and painting winter scenes, for example, of the landscape of the Scottish Highlands, such as a snowbound Glen Muick in 1869, or a sketch of a royal tea party caught in a snowstorm at Glen Beg in 1865. One of Queen Victoria’s dogs was a white collie named ‘Snowball’. Most notable, however, is perhaps Queen Victoria’s famous preference for a ‘white funeral’, and in fact, on that icy day at Frogmore in February 1901, snow (or “sleet”) began to fall when the burial service in the Royal Mausoleum was concluded. The artist Nicholas Chevalier sketched the Princess of Wales in a sleigh in the mid-1870s; Prince Francis, Duke of Teck was sketched making a snowball at Sandringham in 1866 – the drawing found its way into Queen Alexandra’s collection. A Mikmaq model bentwood sledge was presented to the Prince of Wales during his Canadian tour of 1860.

At the time of the Russian Imperial Family’s internment at their residence of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo outside St Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II took to shovelling snow and was captured doing so in March 1917, in photographs which are preserved in the Imperial Family’s private albums. In earlier years, the imperial children had participated in traditional winter pastimes at Tsarskoye Selo, such as sledging, skiing, skating and shovelling snow, even climbing snow towers.

Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated as the imperial carriage crossed over the snow on 13 March 1881 (1 March Old Style) in St Petersburg; he was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace, where his daughter-in-law, the future Empress Marie Feodorovna, stood among the others gathered in the room of the dying Tsar, clasping hold of her skating boots, having just come off of the ice, the Russian snow here illustrating the extreme poles of pleasure and tragedy. Marie Feodorovna was the subject of a painting in a sleigh as Russian Empress in 1889 in St Petersburg, by the artist John Axel Richard Ber. Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander III – was also assassinated in the snow of 1905, as his carriage passed under the Nikolskaya Tower of the Kremlin into Senatskaya Square.

On the wider continent, various museum collections of coaches and carriages bear witness to a royal love of sledging – in the Marstallmuseum at Nymphenburg Palace, the summer residence of the Wittelsbach dynasty outside Munich, are preserved the winter sleighs used by King Ludwig II of Bavaria during his nocturnal rides through the snow along with older examples, such as the famous ‘Hercules Sleigh’ of Elector Max Emmanuel.

The ‘Wagenburg’ or Imperial Carriage Museum at Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg imperial summer residence outside Vienna, contains a spectacular collection of gala coaches and state carriages and also includes ceremonial sleighs of the baroque period, including the gilded ‘Karusselwagen’ of Empress Maria Theresia, a special sleigh designed to celebrate the repelling of the enemy troops from Bohemia, at the so-called ‘Damenkarussel’ in Vienna’s Winter Riding School.

Maria Theresia’s eldest daughter, her beloved ‘Mimi’, Archduchess Marie Christine and her future husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Teschen fell in love in a sledge on their way to Schönbrunn and her youngest daughter, Archduchess Maria Antonia – history’s Marie Antoinette – adored the snow, being excited at the sight of it throughout her life (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette, The Journey, 21). Sleighs such as the ‘Silver Sleigh’ of Queen Wilhelmina from 1885 are preserved at the royal palace of Het Loo in the Netherlands, and there is at least one example of a royal sledge at the Livrustkammeren Museum at Stockholm – surviving relics of an abiding royal pleasure.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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.