Descending the hill at Windsor Castle down towards St George’s Chapel, today’s visitor passes the Deanery at St George’s. The upper level of this building, however, has a hidden secret within its sacred architecture. Over the leads of the Deanery was a constructed covered walkway, used by Queen Victoria to enable her to have private access to the Queen’s Closet or Royal Closet, sometimes known alternatively by its popular name ‘Catherine of Aragon’s Closet’, because Henry VIII’s Spanish queen once watched Garter ceremonies from it. It still notably bears her pomegranate badge.
Henry VIII ordered the construction of this so-called oaken ‘oriel window’ in the Edward IV chantry at the chapel and it was from this same window that his sixth queen, Katherine Parr, watched his body being placed in the vault in the Quire, in which his beloved third wife, Queen Jane Seymour had been interred in 1537. This most ‘entirely beloved’ of Henry’s queens and mother of his longed-for son and heir, Prince Edward, was the only one of his wives to receive a conventional, royal burial according to her status, during his lifetime.
Queen Victoria later regularly used this closet when attending services at St George’s Chapel. Queen Victoria watched from this closet the wedding ceremony of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark on 10 March 1863, a moment immortalised in the large painting by William Powell Frith, showing the Queen witnessing the wedding, whilst she sat immersed in the widow’s mourning garb that she later made legendary. For Queen Victoria, it was still 1861. Queen Victoria went to the Deanery on the wedding day of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, waited there and then used the covered walkway to enter the chapel, full with guests.
This closet enabled the Queen to observe the ceremony from high up above the altar and so take minimal part in the proceedings, thereby maintaining a false privacy, because the congregation in the Quire could see her, however much she was trying to be almost invisible. Benjamin Disraeli for one, held up his eyeglass in her direction, at which he was rewarded with an icy royal stare for his pains.
It is easy however, to understand the Queen’s wish to be little seen, because such an important an event as the wedding of the Prince of Wales, meant it was an occasion to be stared at. We must also suppose that the nature of the ceremony was painful for the Queen, who had lost her beloved husband. Not for nothing did the Queen join the hands of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark in the Royal Mausoleum and declare that ‘he’ [Prince Albert] bestowed upon them his blessing.
The first wedding in the Queen’s family since the death of Prince Albert had been that of her second daughter, Princess Alice, to Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse at Osborne in 1862, a ceremony which she noted truthfully (though not without a shade of morbid approval) was ‘more like a funeral’, as she told Alice’s eldest sister, the Princess Royal, now Crown Princess of Prussia. On such a public occasion as the weddings of her children, she was still unable to master her private grief. Queen Victoria naturally wanted a ‘veil’ of some kind, having now figuratively lost the wedding veil which she carefully preserved and was the symbol of her identity as a bride. Her face, therefore, looked down on the Quire at St George’s Chapel from the relatively removed height of the closet, partly obscured by the oriel window itself.
The Queen wore a gown of crepe, a veil and one of her widow’s caps – in Lord Clarendon’s cruel opinion, a widow’s cap ‘more hideous than any I have yet seen’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 275) – together with the Order of Victoria and Albert and her blue sash ribbon star and badge of the Garter which the ‘beloved one had worn’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 304); a fitting choice where once Queen Catherine of Aragon had watched those Tudor ceremonies that enshrined the Garter Order and the College of St George.
Queen Victoria describes the walk as being a covered one which stretched over the leads of the Deanery. The walkway had been so constructed that it led directly into the closet, enabling the Queen, therefore, to enter the Deanery in total privacy and thus enter the crowded St George’s Chapel unobserved (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 343).
The closet enabled the Queen to attend that wedding whilst she, cold with stony grief, could be as ‘absent’ as possible. This time, there was no large copy of the Winterhalter family portrait of 1846, as had hung in the Dining Room at Osborne for Princess Alice’s wedding, the Prince Consort’s painted hand stretching out as if in blessing, from the beyond. ‘Transfixed’ (Hibbert, 304), the Queen stared across at the East window in the chapel, erected in memory of the Prince Consort and listened to the chorale, which the Prince had composed – a musical way of including him and at the same time, acknowledging his absence.
To pass this constructed walkway hidden behind the roof leads of the Deanery, is to recall momentarily a grieving Queen Victoria at Windsor – swathed in black and still in the early rawness of those first years of widowhood, as she herself attempted to attend a wedding.