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Queen Victoria’s presents to her grandchildren

As the ‘Grandmother of Europe’, as Queen Victoria was popularly termed, her very numerous grandchildren could, of course, expect to receive a variety of charming presents for their birthdays, just as we might treasure things sent to us by our grandmothers. These presents are in themselves interesting because they lend insight into the kind of gifts the Queen considered would give pleasure to these children, the first grandson of which was the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, born on 27 January 1859.

The Queen was capable of much higher tolerance when it came to the behaviour of her grandchildren, in marked contrast to the strict attitudes she could demonstrate when matters had concerned her children. A granddaughter to whom she was especially close, was Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, who remembered later: ‘She herself, though very gracious to her grandchildren, expected perfect manners and immediate obedience from them and would look and speak severely to any offender… if with the older grandchildren Grandmama had been somewhat strict, with the youngest who were, in age, a generation younger, she showed the proverbial grandmother’s leniency…’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 270). Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg numbered amongst the older grandchildren, born at Windsor Castle in 1863, as the first child of the Queen’s daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse. The Queen wrote of her grandchildren in time: ‘Dear little things… I like to see them so at home with me’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 414).

The Queen’s presents to her grandchildren were chosen with care and are revealing of the Queen’s personality and taste, perhaps reflecting on the gifts she had once enjoyed receiving in her childhood. This was reflected in the kind of activities she arranged for them when they came to visit her, on occasion bringing Punch and Judy puppet shows for their pleasure, to both Windsor and Osborne (Ibid, 418). Conventional gifts included the grey pony sent from Windsor for Princess Alice’s second daughter, Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ of Hesse, which occasioned a thank you-letter from Darmstadt. ‘Ella’ received for her tenth birthday among her presents from the Queen, a pearl, paint box, a saddle and bride and ‘shells and other lovely things’ (cit., Christopher Warwick, Ella: Princess, Saint & Martyr, 40).

Princess Victoria of Hesse, later Princess Louis of Battenberg, received gifts which are detailed to us in the published selection of letters from the Queen to her, edited and printed with commentary in 1975 by the author Richard Hough. Victoria was born at Windsor Castle on 5 April 1863. We can see from the letters that this favourite granddaughter received for her birthday in 1871, pearls and a paint box, as her younger sister ‘Ella’ would, when she was ten.

The tenth birthday was significant and allegedly became the subject of a charming tradition in the Queen’s family for her grandchildren. On this birthday, it was the Queen’s custom to give the grandchild in question, a gold watch (Hibbert, 418). For instances of this, we have to look at the published letters of her grandchildren or of the Queen, or the memoirs that these grandchildren wrote. Also, we are limited to those grandchildren who would have become ten during the Queen’s lifetime – the future Edward VIII, who wrote his memoirs, as The Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story, published in London in 1951 – was born in 1894 and so became ten in 1904, two years after the Queen’s death.

Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, mentions the gold watch tradition in her celebrated memoirs, My Memories of Six Reigns (Princess Marie Louise, My Memories of Six Reigns, 19).

We cannot tell if the Queen received a gold watch for her tenth birthday, as she only began her journal in 1832, her thirteenth year. Most fascinatingly, however, I discovered through research in the Royal Collection, that at least one of Queen Victoria’s gold watches survives. On its own chain and purchased by Queen Victoria on 17 July 1838 for £170 and made by Breguet, ca. 1838, it is a remarkable survivor.

Writing from Buckingham Palace to Princess Victoria of Hesse, the Queen sent her pearls and a workbox (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 2) for her tenth birthday, writing the following year in 1874, hoping she had liked the further pearls and also the watch which had belonged to her as a child, which had a ‘V’ on it (Ibid, 3). This is either a separate watch in addition to a gold watch the granddaughter may have received the previous year, or Princess Marie Louise’s memory of the watches being given on the tenth birthday was not a strictly held tradition. Victoria’s younger sister, Princess Alix of Hesse, later Tsarina of Russia, certainly received a watch for her tenth birthday, because her thank you letter to the Queen is preserved at Windsor. Dated four days after her birthday, the ten-year-old Princess Alix wrote to her grandmother, to thank her for the watch she was so pleased with: ‘Dear Grandmama, I thank you very much for my nice watch, I like it so much.’ (Elisabeth Heresch, Alexandra, Tragik und Ende der letzten Zarin, 28).

The future Tsarina continued to receive, of course, presents from her grandmother, for her birthday. Whilst taking a cure in Harrogate, she received a charming tea-basket from Queen Victoria as a gift, which survives in the State Museum of Ethnography in St Petersburg and was exhibited in the Dutch exhibition Romanovs and the Revolution, at the Hermitage, Amsterdam in 2017 (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s Visit to Harrogate, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2018/1, 41). Princess Alix wrote to Queen Victoria her thanks for the tea-basket, which she used almost immediately, on an excursion (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 71).

Other examples of the kind of presents the Queen would send to a beloved granddaughter, can be seen in further letters to Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg. Carefully, the Queen described what she was sending, which included in 1877, more pearls and a locket for the hair of her paternal grandfather, Prince Charles of Hesse, who had recently died (ed. Hough, 6) and two years later, more pearls, a book and touchingly, a bust of ‘dear Mama’ [Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, who died in 1878] (Ibid, 12).

In 1880, the Princess received again more pearls, a box from where the Queen was staying [Baden Baden] and also a print (Ibid, 23). Pearls and a picture were the Queen’s presents to her in 1883 (Ibid, 45), so perhaps the Queen intended her granddaughter to make a necklace from all the pearls she had sent over the years. The latter was contained in a short letter, the Queen touchingly apologising because she was too distressed still, over the recent death of her Highland servant, John Brown.

Endearingly, the Queen’s gifts were full of love, on Victoria’s birthday in 1885. These were a locket for the hair of her new-born baby [Victoria’s baby daughter, Princess Alice of Battenberg, later Princess Andrew of Greece, born in 1885 in the same room at Windsor Castle, where Princess Victoria herself was born in 1863] and a picture of her younger sister, Ella, now Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, to remind her of their visits to Scotland and England (Ibid, 72). The last gift Victoria received from her grandmother was for her birthday, in 1900. Touchingly, the Queen wrote that she was sending her beloved granddaughter a cloak, which she had gathered she wanted. She added, she would also get something for her as a souvenir from Dublin, part of her 1900 visit to Ireland (Ibid, 146).

Queen Victoria remembered birthdays religiously, something not surprising, given her obsessive observance of dates and anniversaries. The husbands of her granddaughters were also recognised. For example, she wrote a birthday-letter to the Tsarina’s husband, Tsar Nicholas II in 1900, prompting the Tsar to reply with pleasure, how delighted he was that she had remembered.

Nor were gifts limited to birthdays or important occasions, but could commemorate the smallest detail, even as a reward. Her grandson, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, recalled: ‘It was unbelievable, how she troubled herself over everything. As a boy, I bit my nails. Then she promised me a little golden medal, if I stopped it. The whole time that I was with her, she checked my hands over nearly every day. Finally, I got the medal (cit., Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, Erinnertes, 83, Author’s translation).

The personal value of watches continued. After Prince Albert’s death on 14 December 1861, the phantom ritual that the Queen instituted for a husband that was not there, included the ghostly notion of having his clothes laid out, brushed and ready for him to wear. His watches were wound up. We know this because Lord Clarendon visited Osborne in March 1862 and was astonished to observe that ‘everything was set out on his table and the pen and his blotting-book… his watch going’ (cit., Ibid, 287). In all of the Queen’s bedrooms, one of the Prince’s watches were hung over her bed. An example of this can be seen in the only accessible bedroom of Queen Victoria (as Queen) as Osborne, where a pocket for the Prince Consort’s watch is affixed to the headboard (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 18).

Watches given to her grandchildren may have awoken memories of the Queen’s childhood. We have some evidence for this because of some passages the Queen wrote shortly before the death of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, as she sat in Frogmore House in mid-March 1861. The Queen wrote of returning to the bedroom of her dying mother, with feeling language: ‘All still – nothing to be heard but the heavy breathing, and the striking, at every quarter, of the old repeater, a large watch in a tortoiseshell case, which had belonged to my poor father, the sound of which brought back all the recollections of my childhood…’ (cit., Hibbert, 266).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019