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The last Christmas of a great queen

Queen Victoria spent her last Christmas at Osborne in 1900. It was forty years exactly since Prince Albert had celebrated his final Christmas in 1860 at Windsor, the setting for so many happy family festivities in the past. Prince Albert did not live to see Christmas 1861, dying on 14 December in the same room in which with strange historical prescience, George IV and William IV had also died, in 1830 and 1837 respectively. In December 1862, Queen Victoria wrote: ‘Christmas, formerly such a dear happy time, came so sadly before me’.

When Queen Victoria set out in December 1900 for Osborne, the beloved Italianate residence on the Isle of Wight to which she symbolically moved the Christmas celebrations after Albert’s death at Windsor, it would be the final time that she made the journey.

The Queen was crossing over in another way, too. Having reached the twentieth century as a royal octogenarian, with living successors in three generations, she had ‘docked’ as it were in 1900 and was now ready to embark into eternity. Considering that Queen Victoria’s death was once compared to a great liner going out to sea, it is perhaps poignant to imagine the Queen setting out in December 1900 from Windsor for what we know would be the last time, to cross the Solent in the royal yacht Alberta. She spent what would turn out to be the last anniversary of the Prince Consort’s death at Windsor, that day she often referred to with a kind of loyal dread, as the ‘terrible 14th. She quietly visited the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore with the usual memorial service because for her, the ‘terrible 14th was of course, also the ‘sacred’ 14th. She drove to Frogmore again on 17 December 1900 and for the last time in her lifetime, visited the Royal Mausoleum and the mausoleum of her mother, the Duchess of Kent. After the Queen’s death at Osborne on 22 January 1901, her body was returned to Windsor where she was reunited at last with Prince Albert and laid to rest in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore at his side. Her effigy, lost at Windsor but subsequently found, depicted her in the likeness of a young wife and queen and had been made at the same time as Prince Albert’s.

By a curious coincidence, the great journal she had kept since 1832 came to an end on 13 January 1901. The fact that it stopped just short of a‘14th’may have morbidly interested Queen Victoria, given her all-absorbing obsession with dates and anniversaries. Queen Victoria left Windsor on 18 December 1900, having ‘had a very bad night and scarcely slept at all’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 490), despite the fact that she was now taking chloral draughts to induce sleep.

Christmas 1832 was the first that the future Queen Victoria had recorded in the journal she had begun that year. Spent at Kensington Palace, she described the tables and trees, a staple German custom which would be recreated later at Windsor, popularised by Prince Albert but in fact actually introduced by her paternal grandmother Queen Charlotte. Back in 1832, the Christmas trees had been hung with candles and sweets. The young Princess Victoria had received among other presents, a gorgeous toilet table covered in white muslin and a new looking-glass. Reading at the other end of the Queen’s life, the last Christmas entries for 24-25 December 1900 in Princess Beatrice’s copies, leave a simple and piteous impression. (The Queen’s beautiful Hindustani diaries run up until 1 November 1900). It is as if the strong voice of the invincible Queen is flickering and suddenly faint, like a flame about to go out. No other illustration is more symbolic of the Queen who wrote so many words, than these laconic and exhausting lines, as her life slowly draws to a close. By this time, these last entries were dictated. 13 January 1901 is a sad date for any historian of Queen Victoria’s family; it is the date when her journal goes silent, as the dying Queen loses her voice forever.

The day before Christmas was the traditional occasion for the German custom known as the Bescherung [Giving of Gifts] and on 24 December 1900, Queen Victoria adhered to the practice so long established in her family and so reminiscent of Prince Albert. On this day, Queen Victoria’s journal records that she went out with her third and fifth daughters, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein and Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg. She took her “tea”, which by now was little more than arrowroot mixed with milk (Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s life in the Scottish Highlands, 142) because her eating was by now so irregular. By now she was regularly living on Bengers food, a typical invalid diet which well illustrates the weakness of one who had enjoyed such a royal love of eating. She was joined by Prince Arthur and Princess Louise, Duke and Duchess of Connaught and their children as well as the families of Princess Christian and of Princess Beatrice.

The Queen was distressed to note that she could only see with difficulty. Towards the end of her life, she struggled to read letters and her handwriting was barely legible, having disappeared into the thick margins of the mourning stationery she now invariably used and no longer solely for Albert. It was almost as if the clock of her life had gone full circle and she was back at Kensington again, where she remembered in her memoir of 1872 taking her bread and milk in a small silver basin. By 11 December 1900, she was recommended to take ‘a little milk and whisky several times a day’ (cit., Ibid, 490). The day of her last journal entry – after a lifetime of personal historiography – 13 January 1901, she had a drink of milk.

The Durbar Room at Osborne, beloved by Queen Victoria as a setting for both ceremonial dinners and theatrical entertainments, was where the great Christmas tree would be set up, with the attendant tables laden with festive gifts. It was located in the new Durbar Wing of 1890, resplendent with its magnificent Indian plaster decoration. Here, the aged Queen would distribute her presents personally to her loyal retainers. Two presents brought particular pleasure – an enamel of the young Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein, the beloved grandson who had died from enteric fever at Pretoria the night before he was due to return from South Africa, where he had been serving in the Second Boer War. The other gift was a fine bracelet given by Helena, Princess Christian, in memory of her brother Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Queen’s second son. These were recent deaths and fresh in the royal memory, Prince Christian Victor having died in October 1900 and Prince Alfred in July.

This constituted the solemn Bescherung of 1900, customarily in Prince Albert’s lifetime always an evening of shared joy and family communion. Queen Victoria, however, could scarcely see to distribute her presents writing: ‘I felt very melancholy, as I see so very badly’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 611). Symbolically, Christmas with all its candlelight was no longer bright.

Christmas Day 1900 brought new sadness with the death of the Queen’s beloved Lady of the Bedchamber and trusted friend, Jane Churchill. A short memorial service was held for Jane in the Drawing Room at Osborne, whilst Princess Beatrice played the harmonium. The Queen of mourning mused sadly: ‘The loss to me is not to be told… and that it should happen here is too sad’ (cit., Ibid, 491). It was her beloved Jane who had in fact, remarked to her own maid that the Queen seemed by now ‘a dying woman’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 567), words unthinkable to a generation who had never known their own lives, or England – without Victoria.

Christmas 1900 was Victoria’s last.

©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.