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Revisiting the birth of Queen Victoria

On 24 May 1819, a baby girl was born whose birth would be of overwhelming importance but on whose delivery it was by no means certain that she would succeed. This, despite the proud boast of her father, the Duke of Kent, who was determined in the royal marriage race that ensued on the death of the Prince Regent’s heir, Princess Charlotte, that ‘the crown will come to me and my children’. (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 10). A gypsy in Gibraltar had purportedly predicted this fate for the Duke’s child, as yet unborn. When his baby daughter was finally born at Kensington Palace, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg – mother to the Duchess of Kent – wrote ecstatically to her own daughter, in an epistolary sigh of relief: ‘My God, how glad I am to hear of you. I cannot find words to express my delight that everything went so smoothly…’ (cit., Ibid, 12). With confident flourish she added, significantly: ‘The English like Queens’. (cit., Ibid, 12). Mme d’Arblay (nee Fanny Burney) who saw the baby child in the summer of 1819, referred to her with prescience as the ‘Queen presumptive’. (cit., Flora Fraser, Princesses, 318).

We know of course, that the baby princess would go on to become Queen Victoria, a figure of legend in her own lifetime, an Empress of Empire, giving her name to an entire age. We must remember though, that at the time of her birth, this all lay in the future. The next heir after the (now childless) Prince Regent, later George IV, was still the Duke’s elder brother, William, Duke of Clarence, later to succeed his eldest brother, as William IV. His marriage to Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, had been performed at Kew, a double ceremony, when the Duke of Kent’s own marriage had been repeated, in an English service. Princess Adelaide however, did not enjoy the same happiness as had the Duke of Clarence’s former mistress, the actress Dora Jordan, with whom he had some ten children, the Fitzclarences, whom he adored. Princess Adelaide did indeed conceive – as well as at least one miscarriage, she gave birth to two daughters in succession alongside, both of whom died; the little Princess Elizabeth of Clarence, in her third month of life. Devastated, Adelaide wrote to her sister-in-law (and fellow German) the Duchess of Kent: ‘My children are dead, but yours lives and She is mine too.’ (cit., Hibbert, 30).

As Princess Victoria gradually emerged as the probable heiress presumptive, it seemed no longer likely that the Duchess of Clarence would yet give birth to another child. Interestingly, the importance of the future Queen Victoria’s birth in England, so that (in the words of the Duke of Kent’s friends, Joseph Hume) her future right to reign might not be ‘challenged, and challenged with effect, from the circumstance of the birth taking place on foreign soil’ (cit., Ibid, 10), necessitated returning from Germany, if the Duke’s wish were to be realised, for the crown to indeed come to him and his children. This involved raising sufficient funds to do so because of the lack of support from the Prince Regent. Eventually, a sum of over £15,000 was collected, to enable the now legendary royal ark of the Duke and Duchess’s party, to cross Europe back to England, together with lap-dogs and swaying cages of the Duchess’s songbirds.

The future Queen Victoria’s possible place of conception has never really been properly discussed, but is surely of interest, when considering her future destiny. Most accounts concur with the theory that the Duke and Duchess of Kent left England soon after their second English ceremony at Kew on 11 July 1818. The closest I can find that leads to an approximate date is October 1818, according to the Queen’s biographer, Lady Longford. (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 21). The Duchess already was showing signs of pregnancy and must by calculating the timely birth in May, have been in her second month (Ibid, 21). This tells us that Queen Victoria was conceived in September 1818. The couple’s first marriage ceremony had been performed at Coburg on 29 May 1818 and this is obviously too early. They were in England for the second service, at Kew in July.

I conclude that this means, fascinatingly, that the future Queen Victoria was therefore, conceived in the country over which she was one day fated to rule. Queen Victoria was staunchly proud of her German heritage but whilst the Queen retained a strong feeling of German identity, it was in England she was conceived and in which on 24 May 1819, she was born.

The Duke and Duchess of Kent arrived back in England a month before the birth at Kensington Palace. The birth that would be so crucial to British history took place some four weeks later.

The Duchess of Kent would be assisted in the birth by the eminent female obstetrician, Madame Siebold. Most fascinatingly, I made a remarkable discovery when sifting through Queen Victoria’s later journals. At Windsor in 1867, the Queen mentions one Siebold, an interpreter and details that he was the great nephew of the same Siebold who assisted her mother at her birth in 1819. Her extraordinary memory for names and faces was something the Queen shared closely with her paternal grandfather, George III, and this concerned someone whom she didn’t even remember, at her birth. Madame Siebold would also deliver another royal child three months later in August 1819, back in Germany – Queen Victoria’s beloved future husband and consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

The future Queen Victoria was born at a quarter past four in morning of 24 May 1819. The morning was a cold one. According to Lady Longford, the dawn chorus had probably begun (Longford, 22) and we might suppose that the perfume of lilacs could have been in the air, at this May birth of the Kents’ ‘May blossom’. (cit., Ibid, 22). Touchingly, the Duke of Kent reflected on the birth of his baby girl: ‘The decrees of Providence are at all times wisest and best’. (cit., Ibid, 22). History, would no doubt, agree with him.

The memoirs of a German princess, Marie zu Erbach-Schönberg, of whom Queen Victoria would become extremely fond, stayed at Kensington Palace after the Queen’s death. She gives us an idea of what the palace might have been like to sleep in and so it might have seemed when Queen Victoria was born in the early hours of the morning of 24 May 1819. Princess Marie wrote: ‘My rooms in the interesting old palace looked out on the park, and though it is in the midst of London it was as quiet as though we had been in the country. At night I could hear the owls in the old trees’. (cit., Princess Marie of Battenberg, Reminiscences, 356).

Proudly, the Duke of Kent would show his baby girl later to his friends, urging them to ‘look at her well, for she will be Queen of England’. (cit., Hibbert, 12). With the endearing love of a father, whom she would never know – and whom we know, died before she was one years old – he named her with delight, his ‘pocket Hercules’, telling the Dowager Duchess of Coburg, in a letter preserved in the Royal Archives, that his strong, baby daughter was ‘a model of strength and beauty combined’ (cit., Ibid, 12); the Duchess wrote she was ‘a pretty little Princess, plump as a partridge’. (cit., A. N. Wilson, 36).

The Duke of Kent had been present at the birth, which lasted just over six hours. The Duke wrote to his mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg, with some admiration of his wife’s fortitude (being himself a seasoned soldier, a fact which Queen Victoria would remember with pride, as a soldier’s daughter): ‘The dear mother and child are doing marvellously well… It is absolutely impossible for me to do justice to the patience and sweetness with which [the mother] behaved’. (cit., Hibbert, 12). Thrilled, the Dowager Duchess wrote back hurriedly to London, addressing her daughter: ‘I cannot write much… dear mouse… for I am much too happy’. (cit., Ibid, 12). ‘Mouse’ incidentally seems to have been a popular name, as the Duchess of Kent used it to describe her new born daughter, to her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg, saying her ‘little mouse [was] so unmanageable I nearly cried’. (cit., Deirdre Murphy, The Young Victoria, 36).

The Duke of Kent adored his baby daughter. When she was three months old, he ordered the gardener at Kew to cut three bunches of flowers, for the Duchess of Kent’s birthday by six o’clock in the morning: ‘a very large posy for myself to give her, and 2 smaller ones’. (cit., Fraser, 318). One of these was ‘to be put into the hands of our little baby, [Princess Victoria], which, of course, must be so composed as to have nothing to prick her hands’. (cit., Ibid, 318).

The Duchess of Kent’s ‘bedroom’ was decorated in white and the bed laid with white cambric, with a mahogany cradle waiting in it (A. N. Wilson, 36), although this may either refer to the Duchess’s own bedroom in the private apartments, or to the actual room where the birth took place. The Duchess went into labour at between ten and ten-thirty, the previous evening, 23 May 1819. The rooms of the Kents were those (since vacated) from the Prince Regent’s detested wife, Caroline of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales. This palace was the place destined to feature in the first memories of Queen Victoria, written down much later in her private memoir of 1872, her crawling on a yellow carpet.

The baby Victoria was painted by the German artist Johann Georg Paul Fischer, in a miniature for the Duke of Kent’s birthday, 2 November 1819. Fischer later wrote: ‘I was favoured to paint the very first portrait of Her Majesty, when in her Cradle: a large miniature on ivory, which you will find among the Rarities of Windsor Castle’. A study for the above was prepared by Fischer, showing the six-month-old Princess Victoria in a Scotch bonnet and white frock with bows of red and green ribbon. Pieces of this have been preserved. (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 82). The Duchess sent a piece of the tartan fabric to the Duke of Kent with the words ‘Dein Vickelchen’ [Your Vickelchen’ and some words sung by the daughter from her first marriage, Princess Feodore, on pink paper. (Murphy, 43). Baby Victoria was painted in her first year, in a work entitled Queen Victoria as a Baby, with the Duchess of Kent, by the British School, c. 1820.

Much in connection with Queen Victoria’s birth was carefully preserved by her doting mother, the Duchess of Kent. The baby princess was the Duchess’s third child. We know much about these items that she preserved because Queen Victoria made a painful discovery of them, whilst sorting through the personal effects of her mother, after her death. To her sadness, must surely be added the deep posthumous regret of the lost years of her difficult relationship with her mother, as well the actual loss of her, in March 1861. The anguish of this revelation clearly redoubled the love (and grief) that Queen Victoria felt for her mother and mixed it with the guilt over her childhood and youth, despite the fact that the relationship had genuinely warmed into love in the later period of the Duchess’s life.

Grief-stricken, the Queen wrote to her beloved uncle (the Duchess’s brother), Leopold, King of the Belgians that she found so many things relating to her childhood, including little books documenting her babyhood, full of love and devotion (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, pp 558-560).

The Duchess of Kent did indeed, preserve everything. The Queen wrote to the King of the Belgians: ‘It is touching to find how she treasured up every little flower, every bit of hair’ (cit., Ibid, 560). Her mother had compiled an album between 1820 and 1825, which survives in the Royal Collection. Touchingly, the Duchess treasured up the cuttings of her little daughter’s hair, each brownish lock tied with pink ribbons and with the samples dated and inscribed in the Duchess’s own hand, in German. (Murphy, 204).

Amongst the earliest of these is a lock of little Victoria’s hair, taken at Claremont, where Princess Victoria spent much time in her childhood. I read the Duchess’s writing beneath it: ‘Hair of my beloved Victorichen, cut off, 14 November 1820, Claremont’. The next one reads full of affection: ‘Lieb Vickelchen, Haare den 8 August 1821, Palast Kensington’. [Dear little Vickel’s hair, 8 August 1821, Kensington Palace]’. Samples continue on the page of the Duchess’s album, carefully dated, 1822, 1823, 1824 and 1825. (Murphy, 205). Princess Victoria’s hair was cut from the age of five onwards, by the hairdresser and perfumier, Stephen Taylor. (Staniland, 86).

The Duchess gave a gift to her baby daughter – her first gold locket – in 1820. It is preserved in the Royal Collection. It was a present from the Duchess to her little Princess Victoria, containing a lock of the Duchess’s own 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’. (Murphy, 11).

Pink may be important to the Duchess, when it came to her beloved baby daughter. Amongst the earliest letters preserved in morocco-bound volumes in the Royal Archives of the Duchess’s letters to Queen Victoria, are little pink envelopes, which the Duchess put on little Victoria’s pillow. One such letter inside is on bright pink paper: ‘Before you shut your dear little eyes: In some hours this year is closed!…Believe me, my most beloved child, that nobody in this world can love you better than, your true and affectionate Mother. God bless you!!!’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, 45). But pink of course, quite simply traditionally symbolizes, a baby girl.

The Duchess even kept a tiny book, in which she faithfully recorded each tooth of Princess Victoria, as it appeared. (Murphy, 204). We even know, thanks to the Duchess’s devoted need to preserve and memorialize, where the future Queen Victoria stood up for the first time. It was at Claremont. The Duchess noted for 21 May 1821: ‘Heute Morgen ist meine geliebstes Kind Victoria allein gegangen’. [This morning my most beloved child Victoria walked on her own] (cit., A. N. Wilson, 43).

After her mother’s death, Queen Victoria was’ much upset’ by finding some of her old things at Clarence House, which the Duchess had painstakingly preserved, such as her old dollswhich brought back so many memories’. (cit., Murphy, pp. 204-206). Today, some of Queen Victoria’s wooden dolls, which she had made with her childhood governess Baroness Lehzen, are displayed in the room where she was born at Kensington Palace, together with her actual dolls’ house. Elsewhere in this extraordinary room, is the old Saxon gilt-cradle used for several of her own children and objects recalling her own babyhood and that of her and Prince Albert’s children.

Many years ago, I was afforded the unique privilege of visiting this birth-room at Kensington Palace, before it was opened to the public. In those days, it was almost empty but for a large table and contained next to no decoration. Evidently, it was used as a meeting room.

Kensington Palace obviously touched a deep nerve in Queen Victoria. It was in many ways, a living embodiment of her childhood and also a place that helped forge the steel that was so much a part of her adolescent and later, adult character. In 1867, she returned to visit the apartments at Kensington Palace that she had lived in on one occasion and wrote: ‘my dear old Home, how many memories it evoked walking through the well-known rooms!’ (cit., Murphy, 14).

In 1899, she paid a little-known (and last) visit to the Palace, shortly before it was opened to the public. During this visit, she went inside the room on the first floor, the north drawing room, which generality now accepts to be the room in which she was born, but declared that she had never once been inside it. (Murphy, 35). This is almost certainly untrue, but the Queen of course, would not have remembered her own birth. Instead, this birth-room was specially set out for the delivery of the Duchess’s child, because it was at a discreet distance from the private apartments, which had their own separate access route. (Ibid, 36). The Duke of Kent described the birth-room as having magnificent views out onto the park. (Ibid, 37). A pen and ink drawing on paper, Kensington Palace: the room in which Her Majesty was born was made in 1899 by the artist Percy Macquoid and survives in the Royal Collection.

Poignantly, Queen Victoria revisited Kensington Palace where she was born, just two years before she died. We might surmise that the child of Kensington Palace remained always somewhere within the elderly Queen. She evidently retained affection for it, whatever she decided her childhood had been like later. In two years, Queen Victoria would be sipping her last milk; at Kensington Palace she taken her bread and milk in a small silver basin.

Standing in this room today, there is that same sense of royal destiny that it is possible to feel throughout the rooms of Kensington Palace. The birth that took place here in 1819 eventually gave way to a historic June day in 1837 where, at six o’clock in the morning, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain arrived to tell Princess Victoria of the death of her uncle, William IV at Windsor. After three weeks, Victoria left Kensington Palace for Buckingham Palace.

On 26 May 1867, another future queen (consort), Princess Mary of Teck, was born at Kensington Palace. She would eventually marry Queen Victoria’s grandson, George, Duke of York in 1893. All of Queen Victoria’s children, with the exception of one, were born at Buckingham Palace.

At Kensington Palace, Victoria was born. And at Kensington Palace, she became Queen.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.