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Queen Victoria and the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Queen Victoria’s love of Scotland and the Scottish Highlands is of course, legendary – immortalised in a wealth of artworks, souvenir albums, including the Queen’s own watercolours and not least of course, the Queen’s Highland journals. She praised Scotland with both her paintbrush and her pen. Queen Victoria was entirely devoted to the romance of the country, as seen through the poetic eyes of Sir Walter Scott, whose work the Queen deeply admired and whose Peveril of the Peak she read aloud to the Prince Consort as he lay dying at Windsor. Something of Scotland was with her right up until the end of her life, with her Scottish doctor, Sir James Reid, knelt on one side of her, as she died at Osborne, forty years after Prince Albert. Her association with the Palace of Holyroodhouse is less celebrated and therefore, is less known. This should not surprise however, because Balmoral was acquired as a private royal residence and Edinburgh would become a useful stopping-point in due time, to reach it.

The Queen and Prince Albert first visited Edinburgh together in September 1842 and the city clearly impressed them, as the Queen wrote in the first volume of her published Highland journals of their first glimpse of Holyrood: ‘We passed by Holyrood Chapel, which is very old and full of interest, and Holyrood Palace, a royal-looking old place’ (cit., Queen Victoria, Leaves from the journal of our life in the Highlands, 25). Afterwards, the Queen confirmed this feeling, as she wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians: ‘How much pleased we were with Edinburgh, which is a unique town in its way…’ (cit., A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol I, 537). Significantly, as Queen Victoria herself wrote to Baron Stockmar, her and the Prince’s landing at Granton Pier on 1 September 1842 made this royal visit the first ‘where no Sovereign of England has been, since the Union, & none perhaps before, excepting Charles II.‘ (cit., Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, 19).

A statue of Queen Victoria was erected in the forecourt at Holyroodhouse in 1851, where the fountain now stands in our present day. The year before, Lord John Russell had written to Queen Victoria that he thought it appropriate Her Majesty should stay at Holyrood (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol II, 317).

For Queen Victoria, the Palace of Holyroodhouse was a convenient place to stop en route to Balmoral after the freehold was purchased, and the foundation stone for the new castle was laid on 28 September 1853. Similarly, she used the palace as a stopping point on her return journeys south, as she did, for example, in October 1854 on her way back to Windsor. She wrote to King Leopold from Hull that they had spent the night at Holyrood (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol III, 63).

Under Victoria, the Palace of Holyroodhouse became once again, a royal residence. The old royal apartments on the first floor were refurbished, and the water supply renewed. The Queen used the Privy Chamber of Charles II – whom she told Dean Stanley she regarded as one of the most attractive of her predecessors, despite his perceived moral failings (Antonia Fraser, King Charles II, xiii) – for her private Morning Drawing Room; it was expressly renovated for her personal use.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used Holyroodhouse briefly in the autumn time generally, from 1850 until 1861 (Millar, 132). The artist George M. Greig made a series of paintings of the royal rooms at the Palace between 1862 and 1863, for which he was commissioned by Queen Victoria, who ordered the places refurnished for that purpose. Greig also painted Queen Victoria’s bedroom at Holyroodhouse, today known as the King’s Ante-chamber or Privy Chamber. As the Queen’s bedroom, it contained a four-poster bed with green hangings, a draped dressing-table and beautiful tapestries. Similarly, the Prince Consort’s Sitting Room and Dressing Room is known today as the King’s Bedchamber; its Delft tiles survive.

Significantly, these paintings were made after the death of Prince Albert. At the royal couple’s retreat of Balmoral in their beloved Scottish Highlands, the Prince Consort’s dressing room was kept as he had last used it, according to the Duchess of Teck: ‘The little turret-room poor Albert used as a dressing-room & his bath-room, both left as tho’ he were about to use them...’ (cit., Millar, 68). This was of course, a mere Highland equivalent of the Blue Room at Windsor, but without its sacred overtones. When the Duchess of Teck was shown this room at Balmoral in 1868 by the Queen, she saw placed around the curved walls of the room, twenty-two cartes-de-visite of the Prince Consort, in frames, as if the Prince’s missing presence was being multi-replicated, in his absence. By contrast, the Dressing Room at Holyroodhouse was less personal and therefore, treated as less of a private shrine after the death of the Prince.

During Prince Albert’s final days of illness, he lay in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, the same room in which both George IV and William IV had died, in 1830 and 1837 respectively. Possibly this underlines the Prince Consort’s sense of fatalism – having famously once remarked that he did not cling to life – as we can see from the Queen’s journal that he was pleased at the change of rooms. The Prince’s mind evidently began to wonder, as he murmured his anxieties in French over the Orleanist princes (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 254) and a week before his death had imagined himself back in Coburg, the land of his childhood, where he longed to hear the twittering birds once more. (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 281). He was obviously confused (Ibid, 279), despite the fact that he sat up in his bed on 11 December, the first day that official bulletins were issued concerning his health. The shadows in the Blue Room on one occasion appear to have upset him, because he could see the room’s reflection in a mirror and seems to have imagined himself back in the gloom of the Palace at Holyroodhouse (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 323). For this reason, the Queen had the Prince’s pillows lowered, so that he could not see what was reflected in the mirrors. As he was at this point, still being wheeled between bed and sofa, his favourite picture by the door to the Blue Room, a Madonna by his beloved Raphael, clearly comforted him by contrast: ‘It helps me through half the day’. (cit., Ibid, 323).

A letter from Princess Alice, second daughter of Queen Victoria to her mother, confirms that the Queen used the Palace of Holyroodhouse less after the death of the Prince Consort. Writing to the Queen in 1872, she asked: ‘I hope your Edinburgh visit will go off well. You have never lived in Holyrood since 1861, have you?’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 280).

In Queen Victoria’s second Highland journal, written in her widowhood, More Leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands, from 1862 to 1882, the Queen describes a visit of 13 August 1872: ‘Visit to Holyrood and Edinburgh’. The Queen wrote: ‘We drove up to the door of the old, gloomy, but historical Palace of Holyrood, where a guard of honour with a band of the 93rd Highlanders was stationed in the quadrangle of the court. We got out, walked up the usual stairs, and passed through two of the large gloomy rooms we used to occupy…’ (cit., Queen Victoria, More Leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands, from 1862 to 1882, 166).

It seems that the Queen had been given a different suite of rooms called the ‘Argyll rooms’, with ‘pretty light paper, chintz, and carpets (chosen by [Princess] Louise’. The chintzes had ‘red geraniums on a white ground’. (cit., Ibid, 166).

An undertone of bereavement fills these secret passages, astonishing to read in published content: ‘Our rooms are above the old rooms, and have the same look-out… our old rooms… looked sadly deserted: all open and some few things removed from them; the gloomy bedroom with its faded tapestry and green silk bed, and the wretched little dark box-room in which I undressed at night, all full of many recollections…’ (cit., Ibid, 167).

This part of the Palace of Holyroodhouse was painful for the Queen. Her historical interest immediately changed the tone, as she wrote about her visit to the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots: ‘Beatrice and I with Brown… visited the rooms of Queen Mary, beginning with the Hamilton apartments (which were Lord Darnley’s rooms) and going up the old staircase to Queen Mary’s chamber. In Lord Darnley’s rooms, there are some fine old tapestry and interesting portraits of the Royal family…’ (cit., Ibid, 168).

Writing much later, on her visit to Glencoe, the Queen felt her own ancestry stirring in her blood, sharing perhaps, her uncle George IV’s sentimental fascination with the Stuarts. It was the deep tie of Scottish consanguinity, much older blood that still ran in her veins, much further back than Hanover, to her direct ancestor, James I and his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, via Elizabeth of Bohemia: ‘For Stuart blood is in my veins & I am now, their representative…’ (cit., Millar, 19).

It was Queen Mary’s rooms that fascinated Queen Victoria most: ‘We saw the small secret staircase which led up in the turret to Queen Mary’s bedroom, and we went up another dark old winding staircase at the top of which poor Rizzio was so horribly murdered – whose blood is still supposed to stain the floor…’ (cit., Ibid, 168). She notes ‘all hung with old tapestry, and the two little turret rooms; the one where she was supping when poor Rizzio was murdered, the other her dressing-room. Bits of the old tapestry which covered the walls at the time are hung up in frames in the rooms…’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 168-169).

Thanks to Queen Victoria, we have a unique (royal) record of how Queen Mary’s bedroom then appeared (1872): ‘Thence we were shown into poor Queen Mary’s bedroom, where are the faded old bed she used, the baby-basket sent her by Queen Elizabeth when King James I was born, and her work-box…’ (cit., Ibid, 168).

Interestingly, Queen Victoria notes that the Presence Chamber then contained: ‘the bed provided for Charles I when he came to Holyrood to be crowned King of Scotland….’

The old apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots – who lived at Holyrood between 1561 and 1567 – had already begun at the close of the eighteenth century, to exert a particular fascination in the popular imagination. Queen Victoria was, of course, directly descended from the legendary Scottish queen, through the Stuarts via James I’s daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia. Elizabeth’s daughter Sophie, Hanover’s quite remarkable Electress, was the mother of Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover and also Britain’s first Georgian king. Today, the museum of Stuart ‘relics’ displayed at the end of the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots is a veritable cabinet of royal curiosities of varying claims, including examples of Mary, Queen of Scots’ needlework, a silver pomander and chain, a crucifix and rosary of Mary, Queen of Scots, two embroidered purses worked by her and a length of hair: ‘of Mary Queen of Scots, presented to Queen Victoria in 1868’, as seen by the present author.

On 5 July 1871, the Waverley Ball was held at Willis’s Rooms, King Street in London’s district of St James’s, to mark both the anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott and to act as a fundraiser for the completion of the Scott memorial in Edinburgh. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, later Duchess of Argyll attended the ball, together with her sister-in-law, Alexandra, the Princess of Wales. Princess Louise made an enchanting watercolour for Queen Victoria of what Alexandr wore that night. She was dressed in sixteenth-century-style, as Mary, Queen of Scots.

Typical of the Queen’s profound reverence for both Scottish heritage as well her lineage is the story concerning Queen Victoria and the Scottish royal vault in the Romanesque arcaded Abbey Church at Holyroodhouse. The roof had fallen in 1758 and thereafter took on the kind of picturesque romanticism which the great English abbeys that had been looted during the Dissolution of the Monasteries conjure up in the present day. Precisely because of this romanticism, the ruined Abbey became a popular place for walking, particularly by moonlight. The Abbey, like the English monasteries – was no accidental ruin.

The artistic sensibilities of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert could not fail to be inspired by the ruins of the Abbey; Prince Albert made a watercolour of the Abbey from one of the palace windows ‘Albert del Aug: 28 1850’, whilst the Queen likewise made a watercolour two days later and signed it ‘VR del Aug: 30. 1850’. Probably, Albert had shown her his watercolour. The Queen stayed at Holyrood with Prince Albert and the Royal Family in 1850, whilst Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the National Gallery of Fine Art in Edinburgh. She made a pen and ink sketch of her watercolour and labelled it: ‘Holyrood Abbey from my windows at Holyrood VR del Aug: 30 – 1850’.

A vault was constructed at the eastern end of the Abbey Church in the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, to contain the royal tombs. It was destroyed by the English army under Lord Hertford in 1544 as part of the policy later aptly termed Henry VIII’s ‘Rough Wooing’ in a perverse attempt to win the fealty of the Scots. The devastation was unsparing in its savagery – Edinburgh was burned for two days and the 12th-century Abbey and Palace of Holyroodhouse destroyed (Antonia Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots, 29).

The coffin of Mary, Queen of Scots’ father, James V was placed in this burial vault in the Abbey Church; in fact, the controversy over the actual date of death of James V was only finally put to rest when it was discovered engraved on the lid, in the seventeenth century (Ibid, 15). Also buried in the royal vault was James V’s beautiful summer bride, Queen Madeleine, daughter of King Francis I of France, who had come to him with an impressive dowry of 100,000 livres on the wedding day but died a mere two months after her arrival, which meant that mourning veils were worn for the first time in Scotland (Ibid, 7). The coffin of Mary of Gueldres, Queen of James II of Scotland was moved to the vault from Edinburgh’s Trinity Church in 1848. Queen Mary founded the church in around 1460, in memory of her husband. The demolition of the church and its adjoining hospital was overseen by the Edinburgh architect David Bryce to make way for the construction of Waverley Station.

Also placed there were the infant sons of James V by his second wife – the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Mary of Guise – the prince of Scotland, who died at Holyrood and also their second son, Robert, Duke of Albany, who had been born at James V’s beloved palace of Falkland in April 1541. In a telling phrase that exactly echoes the words spoken to the English King Henry VII by Queen Elizabeth of York on the death of their eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, Queen Mary of Guise had ‘[told] the king that they were young enough to expect to have many more children’. (cit., Ibid, 11). They did indeed have another child, destined to become Mary, Queen of Scots; James V died in a state of anguish over the Battle of Solway Moss, on 14 December 1542, leaving the weight of his crown on the shoulders of his baby daughter, born a mere six days previously (Ibid, 4).

The royal vault at Holyroodhouse was plundered during the riots of James VII and II’s reign and left in mournful disarray. In 1898, Queen Victoria ordered that the royal vault in the Abbey Church be repaired, whereupon the remains that were left were interred together in one casket and the vault respectfully sealed. Her journal, however, would not appear to contain any reference to this, as I can find no reference in the Queen’s journals (Princess Beatrice’s copies) for Holyrood after the mid-1880s.

This perhaps recalls Queen Victoria’s similar action in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, which was restored in 1876. The Queen approved that the remains unearthed in the nave during the restoration were reburied in the crypt. Those remains in the chancel beneath the pavement, which included those then ‘identified’ as Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Katherine Howard, were re-interred before the altar, a mere four inches beneath its paving. Octagonal Victorian plaques in a mosaic design record Henry VIII’s two executed queens’ names, armorial crests and the dates in which they died, now mark the resting place of these royal women: ‘Queen Anne Boleyn MDXXXVI’ and ‘Queen Katherine Howard, MDXLII’ (Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 520).

The last entry that I can discover in Queen Victoria’s journal (Princess Beatrice’s copies) written from the Palace of Holyroodhouse is for 5 November 1886 (Guy Fawkes Day). The Queen describes leaving Holyrood in the evening and the next journal entry is dated from Windsor, so clearly, she took the Royal Train overnight. The Queen’s farewell to Balmoral was predictably, on a different emotional level, for had she known it, the Queen would be dead within three months of her last Scottish trip. Perhaps fittingly, she was carrying with her back to Windsor, a wreath to lay on the tomb of the Prince Consort in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. (Millar, 142). She took her last lunch at Balmoral appropriately, in Prince Albert’s room and drove away from Balmoral, noting that it was ‘wretchedly gloomy & dark‘. (cit., Millar, 142). On 6 November 1900, she took the train from Ballater, the nearest station for Balmoral, to Windsor. The journal entry does not mention Edinburgh, but instead, Aberdeen, Perth and Carstairs.

Had the Queen known it, the need for Holyrood en route was at an end.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She also specializes in Empress Elisabeth of Austria and has written a series of academic articles on her life based on original research in Vienna and Geneva and spoke about the Empress on the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). Elizabeth is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She is a former contributor to the European Royal History Journal and Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine. She joined the team of History of Royals magazine in 2016 and was History Writer at Royal Central (2015-20). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.