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A German Princess’s memories of Queen Victoria

marie battenberg
Marie and her parents (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

To Queen Victoria, she was ‘dear Marie Erbach’. That was what the Queen called Princess Marie of Battenberg, later Princess zu Erbach-Schönberg, whose memoirs first appeared in English in 1925, printed by London publishers George Allen & Unwin. Princess Marie Karoline of Battenberg was born in 1852 and married in 1871 Gustav Ernst, Count, later Prince zu Erbach-Schönberg (1840-1908). She was the eldest and only sister of amongst four brothers, Prince Heinrich (Henry) of Battenberg, who married Queen Victoria’s beloved youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice in 1885. Marie’s published Reminiscences from the 1920s contained some valuable personal memories of Queen Victoria, which I hope to bring to a broader audience here, as we draw close to the 200th anniversary of the Queen’s birth, later this month.

Importantly, Princess Marie was not a child, grandchild or great-grandchild of Queen Victoria and so her memories are consequently not coloured by this fact. The Princess encountered the Queen as the mother-in-law of her brother, Prince Henry of Battenberg and their relationship developed into one of respectful, mutual friendship.

The references to Princess Marie in Queen Victoria’s journal are full of warmth and affection, something which Marie in her memoirs readily reciprocates. Indeed, so profoundly did Princess Marie cherish the times she spent with the Queen that she numbered them in her own words as ‘belong[ing] to the most beneficial and delightful experiences of my life’ (cit., Princess Marie of Battenberg, Reminiscences, 236). So proud was Queen Victoria of her German heritage that Princess Marie admitted privately in her memoirs that she had ‘never felt more German than when with her’ (cit., Ibid, 236). According to Marie, the Queen ‘always spoke German with me, and all the letters I possess of hers are written in German’ (cit., Ibid, 237).

Some of Queen Victoria’s peculiarities were distinctly German. Marie tells us that ‘the Queen had many German ways – for example, she liked to soak cake, and things of that sort, in her coffee, which in England is absolutely forbidden…’ (cit., Ibid, 237). This is in keeping with our fond image of the Queen, burrowing away at her work outside in a tent, surrounded by her constant companions – her travelling family of cups and tea-things.

Princess Marie visited Queen Victoria for the first time in March 1886. Marie included some fascinating extracts in her memoirs, from letters written to her husband, Gustav Ernst. These tell us that Princess Marie was met at the station in Windsor and then once at Windsor Castle, by Queen Victoria herself who, ‘very kind and very embarrassed, greeted me’ (cit., Ibid, 230). Marie wrote later that ‘I learned to know her in her purely human simplicity and greatness, and in her almost girlish bashfulness, which she retained into old age’ (cit., Ibid, 216).

This may surprise, that a reigning Queen (and Empress since 1877) retained this strangely girl-like shyness, throughout her life. Princess Louis of Battenberg – the eldest daughter of the Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse – confirmed this behaviour in her own private memoirs: ‘The Queen was a very shy person all her life and her apparent stiffness on meeting people for the first time was due to embarrassment’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 271). The shyness was noticeable to Charles Dickens when he met her, the Queen then being 51-years-old.

Those she met were struck by the Queen’s girl-like habit of blushing and that when she giggled, her teeth were like those of a mouse. An early observer of her, in the immediate period after her accession, commented that ‘there was a blush on her cheek which made her look both handsome and interesting’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, pp. 55-56). Incidentally, the Queen’s teeth had been noted down one by one, by her doting mother, the Duchess of Kent, in her childhood as Princess Victoria. This is evidenced by the discovery the Queen made after the death of the Duchess of Kent in 1861 when she was combing through her mother’s effects. She was surprised and moved by the deep love contained in these objects which the Duchess had carefully preserved from her childhood, such as the little book she found in which her mother had recorded each tooth, as it came (Deirdre Murphy, The Young Victoria, 204). This contrasts significantly with the one-sided negative view of their budding relationship. Indeed, it is more than fair to say that the love Queen Victoria came to fully feel for her mother, was redoubled by her death and this painful realisation.

Later, royal teeth would inspire personal jewellery of their own. An enamel gold thistle brooch provided the setting for the first tooth of the Queen and Prince Albert’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, which came out in Scotland in 1847. Similarly, a pair of earrings and a pendant, made by the Crown Jeweller in 1864, contain Princess Beatrice’s (Princess Henry of Battenberg’s) milk teeth (Charlotte Gere, Victoria and Albert, Love and Art: Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery, 3). One of the Queen’s grandchildren, Princess Alix of Hesse, had one of her teeth set in a lily-of-the-valley piece, which survives in the Royal Collection.

Fascinated by the Queen’s coy behaviour, Marie wondered on paper in her letters to her husband: ‘How is it possible one can remain so girlishly shy until late in life? And yet she is a mighty sovereign for whom all, high and low, entertain a respect bordering on fear. Short of stature though she is, there is something uncommonly impressive in her walk and carriage. Her smile, too, is fascinating, it has a charm which bewitches everyone’ (cit., Princess Marie of Battenberg, 234).

Princess Marie’s apartments during her visit were in Windsor Castle’s Augusta Tower, ‘directly under the Queen. A large sitting room with a view over the home park [sic], a beautiful bedroom…’ (cit., Ibid, 230).

Princess Marie describes a ‘famous corridor… which runs all round the castle… laid with a thick red carpet, and is crowded with pictures, beautiful furniture, and objects of art…’ (cit., Ibid, 230). This is Marie’s impression of the legendary Grand Corridor, also known as the ‘Long Gallery’, part of the private apartments of Windsor Castle. Princess Marie was fortunate enough to be taken over the castle by her brother, Prince Henry of Battenberg, telling us fascinatingly that ‘all the rooms are left open and are heated so that one can go everywhere without requiring the presence of a chatelaine with keys…’ (cit., Ibid, 231).

A particular pleasure for Marie was a carriage ride alone with Queen Victoria, for an hour and a half. Queen Victoria mentions the drive in her journal on the same day that Princess Marie writes her letter home to Germany: ‘The changing of the mantles and wraps during the drive, to which I had to see, went off quite well… On every change of temperature during a drive the Queen has to have a thicker or lighter wrap, as the case may be, put round her’ (cit., Ibid, 231). This habit of changing shawls or wraps on her drives was commented on by another companion in the Queen’s carriage, none other than Marie’s own sister-in-law, Princess Louis of Battenberg in her private reminiscences: ‘She never went out without a collection of capes of different thickness, and many a time have I helped her in the carriage to take a thinner one off and put a thicker one on and vice versa’ (cit., Duff, 271). Queen Victoria was of course, famously sensitive to extremes of heat and hated hot rooms, in particular, loving the cold by contrast.

Marie was also present at Windsor when the great composer Franz Liszt visited Queen Victoria on 27 March 1886, complete with his own grand piano, which he had brought with him from London. Marie wrote with feeling: ‘I much appreciated the sight of the two figures as they stood facing one another. Both little, both white haired, both in black… both a little embarrassed. She the ruler of the great British Empire, the ruler in the realm of music…’ (cit., Princess Marie of Battenberg, 233). As a souvenir of the occasion, Queen Victoria later sent Marie a tiny bust of Liszt by the great sculptor who sculpted so many members of the Queen’s family, Joseph Edgar Boehm (Ibid, 234).

It is to Princess Marie that we owe a particularly interesting memory of Queen Victoria, concerning how she took tea. The Queen, of course, is quintessentially linked in the popular mind with the custom of afternoon tea, but Queen Victoria’s love of tea correctly predates the tradition, long before it had become a staple of the late-Victorian social ceremony. Queen Victoria had her neo-Gothic teahouse in the grounds of the private retreat of Frogmore, Windsor. According to Marie: ‘She drank her tea and coffee after it had been poured from one cup to another to cool it. On this account, she had always several cups in front of her. Her table beverage was seltzer-water with a little whisky…’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 236-237). Princess Louis of Battenberg confirmed this in her memoirs: ‘For breakfast and tea Grandmama used two special cups and would pour the tea from one into the other to cool it’ (cit., Duff, 271).

Princess Louis also commented on the use of whisky, which led to its legend: ‘She only drank whisky and water at her meals. The whisky, probably, was finished off by her servants and thence the legend has arisen of her drinking lots of alcohol…’ (cit., Ibid, 271). Marie Erbach confirmed this in her memoirs that the whisky was partly for its medicinal properties, as ‘ordered by the doctor; and out of this has grown the alcohol legend!!’ (cit., Princess Marie of Battenberg, 237).

Princess Marie of Battenberg had been present at Schönberg when Queen Victoria was visiting in Germany and planted a lime tree, known affectionately in local parlance as the ‘Victoria-Linde’ [Victoria Lime], which was planted in 1885, the year before Marie’s visit to Windsor. Marie wrote in her memoirs: ‘During this visit Queen Victoria planted a lime-tree in the garden at the castle in memory of her great-grandfather, Count Georg Augustus, of Erbach-Schönberg, who first laid out the garden. Since then the lime has developed into a large shady tree’ (cit., Ibid, 216).

Today, the royal lime is hung with its own proud shield, reading: ‘This lime tree was planted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria of England on the occasion of her visit to the Schloss 1887 to honour her great-grandfather Count George Auguste of Erbach-Schönberg, the founder of this park’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 179). The Count was the Queen’s great-great-grandfather, and the visit was made in 1885, as Princess Marie confirms. Queen Victoria’s memory of it was simply this: ‘We went out to look at the beautiful view from the terrace, and walked in the gardens, where I planted a tree’ (cit., Ibid, 178).

The last entry in Queen Victoria’s journal concerning Princess Marie occurs in 1898, three years before the Queen’s death. On a later visit to London after the Queen’s death, Princess Marie stayed at Kensington Palace, to stay with her sister-in-law, Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg. Marie noted that ‘Beatrice’s principal reception-room is the celebrated Council Chamber in which Queen Victoria, as a girl of eighteen, held her first Cabinet Council…’ (cit., Ibid, 356).

One photograph of Princess Marie zu Erbach-Schönberg exists in the Royal Photograph Collection, alongside one of her husband, Prince Gustav, dating from c. 1874.

Marie’s last words sum up the mutual affection and warmth of feeling between herself and Queen Victoria, by a short sentence when she visited Windsor, after the death of Queen Victoria: ‘I went twice to Windsor, and found it very painful not to see the dear Queen there any longer...’ (cit., Ibid, 356).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019