The first thing that Princess Victoria did on the morning of 20 June 1837 was to reach for her dressing gown. This historic moment in the Queen’s life has always held a particular fascination for me, and I have regularly revisited it from various angles, from profiling the Archbishop of Canterbury who knelt before her that morning with the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham, to the staircase she descended to her sitting room, to receive the news of the death of her uncle, King William IV. We must suppose that she fully knew what news awaited her at the bottom of the stairs, stairs down which she had never been permitted to climb, without someone also holding her hand to assist her. We know this because Princess Victoria had been informed of the fact that the King was near death the evening before, at which point she had promptly burst into tears and ‘continued much affected’ (Quoted in A. N. Wilson, Victoria, A Life, 74).
This came as no surprise because the state of the King’s health was a recurring feature of Victoria’s journals throughout June. On 15 June for example, Victoria had commented with some weight: ‘The news of the King are so very bad that all my lessons save the Dean’s are put off, including Lablache’s… [her singing-master, whom she sketched]’ (Quoted in Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, pp 97-98). Clearly, Victoria felt her destiny approaching, as is the nature with the death of any monarch, translating to a swift shift of focus towards their successor, to the royal rising sun, from the setting one. It was the reality of that exercise at Kensington Palace when she was aged eleven, when her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, had placed a genealogical table in front of her, as an insert during a history lesson. ‘I never saw that before… I see I am nearer the throne than I thought,’ (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 29) was Victoria’s reaction, whereupon she burst into tears. These tears were perhaps, the same ones which she shed seven years later, the evening before the King’s death. For the one-time child at Kensington Palace, the throne was now actually within reach.
Princess Victoria was awoken at six o’clock on the morning of 20 June 1837, by her mother, the Duchess of Kent to tell her that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham awaited her in her sitting room below, having come directly from Windsor, with the news that King William IV had died earlier that morning at 12 minutes past 2 a.m. The Duchess of Kent later remembered that she woke her daughter with a kiss (Wilson, 75) and held her hand as she climbed downstairs, holding a silver candlestick in her other hand. The ever-devoted Lehzen followed carrying smelling salts; again, the fact that these were so readily to hand, could suggest that the news from Windsor had been long expected at any moment. We must suppose that Victoria was still not fully awake and drowsy, so that the news she would be given still has a warm, sleepy and dream-like quality to it, something well captured by the artist Henry Tanworth Wells, some fifty years after the event, entitled Victoria Regina: Queen Victoria receiving the news of her Accession’.
Queen Victoria later wrote up in her journal for that momentous day: ‘I went into my sitting room (only in my dressing gown) and alone and saw them…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 52). The dressing gown is an afterthought. It is the first mention that she makes in her journal of a dressing gown (since she began her journal, in 1832), and yet it is such an instinctive and human first thought, in a new monarch no less so. To be woken so early on a morning in May, it would also have been warm, and her private sitting room below at Kensington Palace would not yet have been properly heated, at least the journal entry reads so impromptu, that it seems unlikely. We must also imagine that the youthful vision of the new Queen in her dressing gown before the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain, roused from sleep and just eighteen years old, contrasted so markedly in their minds from the elderly King William IV, whose death they had witnessed a mere four hours before.
I wonder what may have happened to this particular dressing gown. Much of the Queen’s underwear was distributed amongst the Royal Household on her death; we know this much. The next mention in the Queen’s journals to putting one on occurs over two years later, and she refers to it that as if it was just one of several, undoubtedly she would have only a number of them. After Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, we see references to both of their dressing gowns in the Queen’s journal, and we know, of course, that from the beginning, both the Queen and the Prince took great interest in one another’s clothes and dressing patterns, something established from the beginning of their honeymoon, when Queen Victoria delighted as Prince Albert helped her on with her stockings (Hibbert, 124).
Much later, dressing gowns would have darker, sadder associations for the Queen. She must surely have come to associate intense personal meaning with Prince Albert’s dressing gown or gowns, because of their connection with the Prince’s final illness at Windsor in 1861. Queen Victoria had written: ‘My dearest Albert did not dress but lay on his sofa in his dressing-gown…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 277). After his death on 14 December 1861, the Queen ordered that Prince Albert’s dressing gown be placed each evening upon his bed, along with fresh clothes (Ibid, 286). The distracted Queen took to sleeping, clasping a nightshirt that the Prince had worn (Ibid, 287). The morning after the Prince’s death, the Queen – warned by the doctors not to kiss the Prince’s body – kissed his clothes instead (Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, 27). The Queen’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, now Crown Princess of Prussia, visited her mother in March 1862 and wrote to her husband, Crown Prince Frederick, back in Germany: ‘Mama… cries a lot… she always sleeps with Papa’s coat over her and his dear red dressing-gown beside her and some of his clothes in the bed!’ (Quoted in Ibid, 290).
Most moving, however, is the fact that when the Queen died in 1901, she had left explicit instructions as to the items that should be placed in her coffin, which were of paramount personal importance; these precious objects including the Prince Consort’s dressing gown, perhaps the exact ‘red’ one mentioned (Hibbert, 497).
Several of Queen Victoria’s actual dressing gowns survive, in the collections of the Museum of London. They help us to get closer to Queen Victoria the woman and the wife, showing clearly how much the Queen delighted in the art of dressing, enjoying fine feminine applique such as lilac ribbons, another of these dressing gowns is made of broderie anglaise (Staniland, pp 136-7). The recurring feature of the dressing gown itself, however, has for the Queen’s life story, a poignancy and importance perhaps too often ignored.