History

Finding a ‘lost’ gift on the birth of a royal baby: Queen Victoria #200



Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold (1788-1859), referred to in most biographies of Queen Victoria simply as Madame Siebold, is a name often treated as a historical footnote, but is in fact, one of quite astonishing importance. It was Madame Siebold, the skilled German obstetrician who successfully helped to deliver the future Queen Victoria, born on 24 May 1819, at Kensington Palace. I recently made a remarkable discovery, listed in a German archive which commemorates her services in 1819, possibly unknown to the English-speaking world, which I can present here for the first time.

It should not, of course, be forgotten that it was a birth (and a death) which changed the direct line of the Georgian succession, with Princess Charlotte, only (legitimate) daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV, dying after giving birth to a stillborn son, in 1817. These tragic events triggered the race in earnest between the remaining bachelor royal dukes, to sire the next heir to the British throne. Victoria’s father, through his marriage to Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, as we know history would subsequently prove, succeeded in this endeavour. With the death of Princess Charlotte and her baby son, the direct line of George IV (in legitimate terms, at least) died out. This meant that history would in due time, come to have its Queen Victoria. Madame Siebold assisted in her birth and made it a success, perilous as the process of childbirth was and indeed, as the death of Princess Charlotte had made all too painful a reality. Had Princess Charlotte survived, the need to sire Victoria at all, may not ever have existed and the Duke of Kent could well have continued his happy relationship with his long-term mistress in Brussels, Madame Julie de Saint-Laurent.

An engraving of Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold, probably the best-known one, dates from around 1820, a year after the birth of little Alexandrina Victoria, as the baby princess was christened.

Crucially, Madame Siebold performed the same task of delivering another royal baby, whose significance in the life of the baby born at Kensington three months earlier, is impossible to overestimate. This was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, born at Coburg, Queen Victoria’s beloved future husband and Prince Consort. The Dowager Duchess of Coburg wrote to Claremont – where the Duke and Duchess of Kent were then living – that Madame Siebold had assisted at the birth of the baby prince, which took place at the summer palace of the ducal family of Coburg, the romantically idyllic Schloss Rosenau, four miles outside the town. Another Duchess had given birth – Luise, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg. The baby prince (her second son) was described as being like ‘a little squirrel’ (cit., Lucy Worsley, Queen Victoria, 27) and he shared the same ‘large blue eyes’ as his baby cousin, Victoria (cit., Ibid, 76).

Madame Siebold provides a human link between Victoria and Albert from birth, pairing their names long before marriage would do so and indeed much later, an institution as venerable as today’s Victoria and Albert Museum for Art and Sciences. Whilst not unusual that a trusted and skilled (female) obstetrician in Germany such as Siebold should attend on two German Duchesses, it nevertheless meant that Victoria and Albert shared the unique circumstance of being a future royal wife and husband, delivered by the help of the same remarkable woman.

Schloss Rosenau then is paired with Kensington Palace, through the births of these two royal children, destined to marry in 1840. Both are, in fact, also surrounded by extensive parkland.

Queen Victoria visited Schloss Rosenau with Prince Albert in 1845 and wrote with joy: ‘How happy… we felt on awaking to feel ourselves here, at the dear Rosenau, my dearest Albert’s birthplace…’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 110). The room in which Prince Albert was born was not the official bedroom of the Duchess – as was the case with Queen Victoria own birth-room at Kensington Palace, which had been adapted for the birth – but in fact, the room later occupied by George Anson, Prince Albert’s secretary, who joined the royal couple on the visit to Coburg in 1845. Queen Victoria, of course, visited the room in which he was born – and endearingly, did so, on the exact day of Prince Albert’s birth, (Ibid, 112) which they spent at the Rosenau.

Unsurprisingly, Queen Victoria felt utterly – by her own admission – at home at Schloss Rosenau. Various commemorative watercolours were made of the rooms at Rosenau in honour of this visit and are today preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Schloss Rosenau is maintained by the Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlösser, Gärten und Seen, [Bavarian Administration of the state palaces, gardens and lakes] which is celebrating the bicentenary of the births of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in a special season of events, running from April to August 2019: Albert and Victoria of Coburg. Prince Albert’s cradle has been displayed in the North Balcony Room.

Madame Siebold had travelled as part of that extraordinary royal caravan which swayed across Europe on its historical journey back to England, with the Duchess of Kent, heavily pregnant with the future Queen Victoria. Also part of the group was a Dr Wilson, a former naval surgeon. (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 33). That Siebold was part of the royal suite should be no surprise, as she was already distinguished in Germany, as a qualified female doctor in her own right. She travelled in the Duke of Kent’s barouche, together with the Duchess of Kent’s devoted lady-in-waiting, Baroness Späth (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 11).

We must imagine that it must have been a great relief to the Duchess to be able to communicate with a fellow German such as Madame Siebold was, in such an intimate process as childbirth. During the nightmarish delivery of the future Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1859, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, had in attendance the Queen’s doctor Sir James Clark, the Queen’s physician Dr Edward Martin and importantly, an English midwife, Mrs Innocent (Ibid, 259). Despite the success of a German (female) obstetrician at her own birth, the Queen nevertheless wrote to one of her favourite grandchildren, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg in 1894, that German oculists and surgeons were superior to the English, but in matters obstetric, the English are ‘the best in the World’.

Despite Siebold’s evident skill, a masculine back-up presence was still thought necessary. We know this because the renowned Welsh doctor David Daniel Davis was also there, in case of any difficulties which might ensue, (Worsley, 27) pointing to a possibly sexist contemporary approach to Madame Siebold’s obvious qualifications. The Dowager Duchess in Coburg, evidently delighted at the birth which followed at Kensington Palace a month later, wrote to express her joy that ‘everything went so smoothly’ (cit., Hibbert, 12).

Darmstadt lends a curious twist to the links with Queen Victoria’s birth. It was of course, in Darmstadt that the Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice came on her marriage to Prince Ludwig (‘Louis’) of Hesse and where her beloved Hessian grandchildren grew up, among them the future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia. Madame Siebold died in Darmstadt in 1859, and a street was named after her, the Heidenreichstrasse. It adjoins the great green lung of the city known as the Landgraben with its ‘Grosser Woog’; next to that is the Park Rosenhöhe, containing the Old and New Mausoleums of the Landgraves and Grand Dukes of Hesse, including that of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, her husband, Ludwig IV and two of their children who died in infancy, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm ‘Frittie’ and Princess Marie ‘May’.

Madame Siebold must have gone to Darmstadt at some point after Prince Albert’s birth in 1819. She thereafter spent her time teaching and raising money for the city hospital, marrying the military doctor August Heidenreich in 1829. Contained within the collections of the Hessian State Archives in Darmstadt is material relating to Madame Siebold and the British court under Queen Victoria, including information about the period spent at Amorbach, from which the royal party set out to return to England.

Because of the services she had performed at the birth of the baby princess, Madame Siebold was rewarded with a special gift, which I discovered listed whilst researching in the Hessian State Archives. This present was carefully preserved by Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold’s descendants down to recent years. The gift was given to Madame Siebold from a grateful Duchess of Kent, as an acknowledgement of thanks for her assistance during the birth. It contained locks of hair of the Duchess of Kent and the baby princess (and future Queen Victoria), in the form of a gold brooch, set with blue and white lilies. The hair is not visible but kept within an oval-shaped ball, as an attachment. It was listed as being formerly in the private ownership of the late Dr Magda Heidenreich (+ 1995) as its previous provenance and is dated from 1819.

The hair would be important to the Duchess of Kent in terms of sentimental value. She would compile an album made of various clippings of hair of the infant Princess Victoria, surviving in the Royal Collection. Each lock of hair is exquisitely tied with a pink bow and inscribed in the Duchess’s own hand in German, the earliest of which dates from Claremont, 1820 (Deirdre Murphy, The Young Victoria, 204). The Duchess gave a gift to her baby daughter – her first gold locket – in 1820, preserved in the Royal Collection. It was a present from the Duchess to the little Princess Victoria, containing a lock of the Duchess’s hair and that of the dead father, the Duke of Kent. Its inscription read: ‘Present from her Mother to her beloved Victoria on the First Anniversary of her Birthday 24 May 1820’ (cit., Ibid, 11).

That Madame Siebold should receive such a personal object from the Duchess of Kent containing not only her hair but the hair of the beloved baby daughter she had helped deliver, shows us that the present was uniquely conceived by the Duchess as a gift of thanks with locks of hair of those two people who had been most involved with what she did – the baby Princess Victoria – and herself. It did not contain the hair of the proud father, then still living, the Duke of Kent.

It is a remarkable discovery prior to the bicentenary of that birth in 1819.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019