HistoryInsight

‘Dear Mama’: A little-known memorial to the Duchess of Kent


By WyrdLight.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On 16 March 1861, Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, died at Frogmore House, the private residence in Windsor Great Park which she had often used, living there for approximately two decades. After her death, the summer house she had planned during her lifetime was converted into a mausoleum on two levels, built on a mound overlooking the lake. The lower level contains the burial chamber, where the Duchess’s sarcophagus is located. In the Mary Moser Room at Frogmore House, a view may be found of the interior of this chamber, showing the Duchess of Kent’s mausoleum with its doors open and the sarcophagus visible, bearing the initial ‘A’. So sacred did Queen Victoria consider Frogmore Gardens to be after the death of the Duchess and Prince Albert, that she visited them frequently during her widowhood, writing and working outside, wherein ‘this dear lovely garden, all is peace and quiet’ (cit., Royal Collection Enterprises, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, 6).

An album of hand-coloured photographs was made by an unknown artist after the death of the Duchess to record the appearance of the house’s interiors when she died, Frogmore House in the time of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, died 1861. More than anything else, one item of furniture came to be associated with the Duchess of Kent’s death, and this was the red sofa or chaise-longue on which the Duchess died. Special respectful attention was given to the watercolours which recorded the Duchess of Kent’s bedroom, a room which today is used for storage and is situated on the first floor of Frogmore House’s Cross Gallery and not open to the public. The door to the Duchess’s bedroom may be seen, this same door which Queen Victoria must have gone in and out of in increasingly distress, when she spent the last evening of her mother’s life at Frogmore, 15/16 March 1861. Today, the Duchess of Kent’s bedroom is one of those rooms designated by Queen Mary to house the Royal Family Museum of ‘bygones’, or a collection of souvenirs and mementoes, given or received by members of the Royal Family (Ibid, 14). Also within the album is a watercolour by William Corden the Younger, showing the sarcophagus in close detail; the granite was Scottish, in Aberdeen, the columns from Penrhyn.

I have attempted to trace what happened to this red sofa, or chaise-longue, a piece of furniture of unique historical importance. One of these watercolours – acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – depicts the couch, covered with cushions and throws.  A stool – presumably the one which Queen Victoria sat on to hold her mother’s hand – can also be seen, adding an extra layer of poignancy. In true, Victorian memorial language, this watercolour is mournfully and grandly named The Sofa in Her Royal Highness’s Bedroom, in which HRH Breathed her Last 15-16 March 1861. The watercolour appears to show an oval portrait of the Duchess and various landscapes adorning the walls, whilst sunshine filters through the windows, not unlike the beam of sunlight depicted in Henry Tanworth Wells’ popular rendering of the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria in her nightgown, receiving the news of her accession at Kensington Palace, painted in 1887. Just visible in the picture, is the door, to the right corner, presumably that which leads onto today’s Cross Gallery.

Queen Victoria described the moving moment thus, kneeling before the Duchess, dying with erysipelas, having undergone an operation that month from a painful abscess on her arm, or in the Queen’s unforgiving words: ‘the surgeon should go to the marrow to see dear Mama’s arm’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 314). The Duchess’s breathing was heavy. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal: ‘As the night wore on into the morning I lay down on the sofa, at the foot of my bed. I heard each hour strike. At four I went down again…’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 266). Contained within the six morocco-bound volumes of the Duchess’s last letters to her daughter, glimmering with the golden words: ‘LETTERS FROM DEAR MAMA’ is noted in the Queen’s hand ‘Beloved Mama’s Last Writing’ (‘HRH’s last writing with her dear right hand’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 246).

Movingly, Queen Victoria could hear the striking sound of the repeater watch in its tortoise-shell case, which called up for her all the mingled memories of her Kensington childhood. At the bedside of her dying mother, we may suppose that she felt like a child again.

Lady Augusta Bruce (both friend and servant of the Queen and the Duchess of Kent, commemorated by a memorial cross which faces the Duchess’s mausoleum at Frogmore) saw Queen Victoria’s nervously sad figure carrying a lamp as she went twice down to her mother’s room (Longford, 314). The Duchess of Kent died the next morning, Queen Victoria holding her hand. It was a strange foretaste of Prince Albert’s death a mere nine months later at Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria hovering back and forth between the royal sick-room and holding his ‘dear left hand’ (cit., Hibbert, 281) at last.

In 1820, the Duchess of Kent had stayed at the bedside of the dying Duke of Kent, attending him devotedly, as he lay on his bed at Woolbrook Cottage, Sidmouth, the house he had rented for himself and his young family. The Duke of Kent died on 23 January 1820, his last words whispered – in an echo of Prince Albert’s last words to his wife ‘Gutes Frauchen’ [My good little wife]’ – to the Duchess simply being ‘Do not forget me’ (cit., Longford, 26). Nor did she forget him. The Duchess, like her daughter, would in so short a time, expressed the wish to be reunited with her husband. We know this because Queen Victoria found evidence saying as much in the Duchess of Kent’s papers and belongings, as she sorted her mother’s effects. The Duchess, of course, had been a widow and mother, of the woman whom history would think typified what it meant to be a widow.

A strange fact was that nearly forty years later at Osborne House, Queen Victoria would die on a kind of sofa or ‘couch’ bed (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 18) in the Queen’s Bedroom, on 22 January 1901, surrounded by her family and supported upright on a pillow by her trusted doctor Sir James Reid and her German grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II on her other side. The Kaiser, who later begged for the Union Jack (Longford, 614) which hung in the Dining Room at Osborne – where she lay in state – as a keepsake, had remained at his English grandmother’s side in this last position for two-and-a-half hours.

Fittingly for the Queen, however, who had so passionately loved her husband, Prince Albert, there was also another sofa. Today displayed in the Queen’s Bedroom at Osborne, this beautiful sofa of Victoria and Albert chintz, contained hidden profiles of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, traceable in the stems of the curving roses (Turner, 17).

Research made by the present author has finally helped resolve the mystery of what happened to the red sofa, the Duchess of Kent’s chaise-longue. This moving piece of furniture became itself, a memorial to the Duchess. It has survived, in the Royal Collection. When it was restored in recent years, the back of it was taken off, and a plaque long hidden inside it was revealed.

Typically for the Queen who memorialised so much, the plaque recorded in a sacred language that on this sofa, the Duchess of Kent had died, in the presence of her daughter, Queen Victoria. The wording greatly resembles the titles of the commemorative watercolours. Equally importantly, the sofa now is situated back in its original position, in the Duchess of Kent’s bedroom, where it arguably belongs.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019


About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, also speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a long-standing contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's own magazine, Tudor Life. She specialises in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and she is particularly interested in historic royal weddings. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and has written numerous articles on the Tsarina's life and correspondence. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and conducts original research on the subject, making a number of important finds including 'lost' royal letters and rediscovering Queen Victoria's perfume. Her popular blog for Royal Central, the web's leading news site on royalty, was written as guest history writer (2015-2019). As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of culture heritage, she worked in the heritage sector for ten years and has been an active supporter of numerous societies and charities/organizations including The Georgian Group, Historic Royal Palaces, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V, Verein Potsdamer Stadtschloss e. V, Historic Royal Palaces and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. She also researches and publishes on the life of W. A. Mozart, writing a mini-series on Mozart and Prague for the culture column of the English-speaking Czech newspaper, the Prague Post (2017-2019) as well as for the newsletter of the New York society, Friends of Mozart (2016). Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary journal and poetry magazines, including The Oxonian Review, North of Oxford, Coldnoon, Nine Muses Poetry and Allegro Poetry, with forthcoming poetry in the quarterly literary journal Trafika Europe. Her first short collection, a collection of poems on Prague, is scheduled for publication as a chapbook in 2020 by Marble Poetry.