On the upper floor of the Swiss Cottage at Osborne, a rustic structure carved with Biblical texts in German and built behind the individual garden plots belonging to each of the royal children, today’s visitor finds this large room set as if for tea, with napkins turned to the shape of the Prince of Wales’ feathers, as if the Royal Family are at any moment, expected. An afternoon memorialised, life returning to the room, like colour to a cheek. The Queen used this room in later years when her children were long since grown up, and it became instead, a place revisited by them in adulthood, with children of their own. Queen Victoria sometimes used it to conduct her correspondence or write her journal, presumably because the spot was both quiet and reflect enough to inspire such activities. The writing table the Queen used, now under glass, is covered with ‘accessories constantly used by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort’, such as pens, inkwell and blotter.
On the walls of this upper room, however, hang some quite extraordinary private ‘relics’ of royal weddings in Queen Victoria’s family, the flowers worn by each of the five princesses at their weddings.
The Queen took an interest in the sentimental (and artistic) craft of pressing flowers and several albums of her work survive in the Royal Archives, their pages pressed with flowers by Queen Victoria, one of which is the remnants of a bouquet, pressed first in this case, into the Queen’s hands, presented to her on her Diamond Jubilee: ‘From one of the Jubilee bouquets = June 1897=’. This was extended in wedding terms, to cutting sprigs from orange flowers, such as those waxen blossoms which the Queen preserved in an envelope and autographed in her handwriting: ‘From Alix’s (Ps of Wales) bridal wreath, March 10th/63’. Another envelope contained a ‘Piece of the Wedding Cake of the Prince and Ps of Wales, Windsor Castle, March 10th, 1863’. The myrtle in Princess Alexandra’s bouquet was taken from the myrtle bush at Osborne, grown from a sample taken from the Queen’s wedding bouquet of 1840.
When one of the Queen’s beloved granddaughters, Princess of Alix of Hesse, married the new Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersburg in 1894, she promised to send her English grandmother cuttings of the myrtle and orange blossom that she wore, and even a snippet from her wedding dress (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 113). Another granddaughter, Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg – the future Queen Ena of Spain – preserved a piece of her wedding gown decoration, an orange blossom sprig from her wedding to Alfonso XIII in 1906, which she gave to Queen Mary on her actual wedding day; it survives in a glass as a keepsake of that memorable day in Madrid, in the Royal Collection.
Preserving such pieces then, was sentimental practice in Queen Victoria’s family, unsurprising when the matriarch had preserved her wedding veil, lace and dress, as well as her bridal wreath of simple orange blossoms.
On the walls of the large upper room at the Swiss Cottage hang engravings of Queen Victoria’s five daughters – but with one remarkable detail set into the top of each picture. Each engraving contains dried pieces from the flowers each princess wore on her wedding day, an extraordinary memory in miniature, perhaps recalling the Queen’s definition of her wedding day as having been the ‘happiest’ of her life. Set into oval mounts over silver-gilt frames, each princess hangs beneath a tiny sample of her wedding flowers, although perhaps unusually, the pictures are not hung in chronological order. The Princess Royal is followed left to right, by her younger sisters, Princesses Louise and Beatrice, whilst Princess Helena and Princess Alice, continue onto the adjoining wall.
The Princess Royal’s wedding dress had included sprays of orange flowers and myrtle on 25 January 1858. The Queen tells us that her bridesmaids had their own bouquets, which consisted romantically, of pink roses and white heather. Princess Alice’s wedding on 1 July 1862 saw her too wearing the now established tradition of orange blossoms and myrtle. On Princess Helena’s wedding on 5 July 1866, the Queen describes similarly, sprays of myrtle and orange flowers and the fact that the bridesmaids somewhat charmingly, wore trimmings of forget-me-nots, roses and white heather. Interestingly perhaps, four of the Queen’s five daughters later changed into bonnets sprayed with orange flowers, surely reminiscent of the Queen’s ‘going-away’ bonnet, which she carefully preserved from her carriage ride to Windsor, for her honeymoon in 1840 and which survives in the Royal Collection.
Princess Louise’s wedding was celebrated on 21 March 1871; she wore trimmings of myrtle, orange flowers and white heather. A photograph showing her in her wedding attire allows us to see her clasping a bouquet of sorts, whilst an artwork such as the painting of the wedding of the Princess Royal shows only the bridesmaids with bouquets and the Princess Royal with numerous sprays and trimmings. When the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice married on 23 July 1885, we read that Beatrice wore garlands and trimmings of orange blossom, myrtle and of course, white heather.
So perhaps, there were no traditional ‘bouquets’ as such; this research shows that sprays and trimmings seem to have been the rule instead.
These remnants of five royal weddings are, however, unique. They are not preserved between the pages of an album or enclosed within a letter or envelope. They are contained inside glass beneath the portraits of the royal women that wore them in 1858, 1862, 1866, 1871 and – 1885.