Click the button for the latest news on the coronavirus pandemic and how it is impacting the royals

History

The last will of Queen Victoria


Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 25 October 1897, Queen Victoria drafted her last will, the manuscript of which is preserved at Windsor. Typically for the Queen, such a document existed outside of her journal and in her entry for that day – written up at Balmoral – there is no mention of her making it, although admittedly, this is the journal entry which survives in the copies made by her beloved daughter, Princess Beatrice. The Queen’s journal for that day shows that little happened at Balmoral which was noteworthy and yet importantly, Queen Victoria made her final will, perhaps in the Sitting Room, or at least in one of the places where the Queen would have felt private enough to write such a personal document.

It was not the first will which the Queen had made but it was the final draft she composed. Perhaps interestingly, I discovered that the private orders she made for her burial, contained in an envelope on which were written the words Instructions for my Dressers to be opened directly after my death and to be always taken about and kept by the one who may be travelling with me, was dated 9 December 1897, less than two months since the Queen had written up her last will at Balmoral. Similarly, there is no breath of this in the Queen’s journal for this day, this time written up at Windsor, again in Princess Beatrice’s copies. Given the intensely personal nature of these private instructions, there was nothing in the journal entry that might explain why they were made on this date. It is possible to suppose that the Queen’s last will made only weeks before was still on her mind, more probably that it was the approaching ‘terrible’ 14th, as the Queen often referred to the anniversary of the death of the Prince Consort at Windsor, in 1861.

On closer inspection, there are similarities between these documents, as they follow on from the same topic and mention many of the same people. In these Instructions, Queen Victoria set down on paper a list, written out by the Hon. Harriet Phipps, who occupied a position in the Household equivalent to a secretary-in-chief, having been a maid-of-honour at twenty-one and a woman of the bedchamber in 1889 (Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, 334). Tellingly, Harriet had once written: ‘We are sheets of paper on which H.M writes words as less trouble than using her pens and we have to convey her words as a letter would do’. (cit., Hubbard, 335). If Phipps wrote out this list of instructions, how much then had she had to be a sheet of paper, to ‘convey’ these private words intended for her trusted doctor, Sir James Reid and her discreet dressers, because they should be orders, ‘some of which none of the family were to see’.  

These private Instructions included the deeply personal items which would follow the Queen into her coffin, the most important things to her which she would take, Pharaoh-like, into the beyond. It was like a miniature equivalent of her desk at Osborne for example, filled with photographs and personal pieces, the Queen’s luggage into eternity. Not for nothing had her later holidays in the south of France entailed ‘much unpacking’. (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 35). Her sitting room at Grasse could almost be a replica of her desk at Osborne, full of the now permanent mourning stationery and family pictures. In this case, she was packing for the next world and as such, what accompanied her was what she chose, intended only for the very select of eyes. These items included a cast of the hand of Prince Albert ‘my beloved Husband’s hand’, one of his cloaks, photographs of Prince Albert and a handkerchief that had belonged to the Prince Consort. (Hubbard, 359).

Along with the lockets and bracelets, like memorial charms, the Queen also wore a variety of rings, including the wedding ring she had received from Prince Albert in 1840 and – as an extraordinary illustration of the fascinating split in her character, the ornate versus the very plain – the Queen-Empress also wore the simple wedding band which had belonged to the mother of John Brown, her faithful Highland servant. Together with this was a photograph of John Brown and a lock of his hair wrapped in tissue. Movingly, a sprig of Balmoral heather also went in with her. Like the Princess-and-the-Pea, with all this, the Queen in her eternal sleep would not have been able to notice the layer of charcoal that covered the base of her ‘bed’.

These Instructions included references to her beloved servant Annie MacDonald and John Brown; a silken case which Annie had embroidered was put into Queen Victoria’s left hand, which contained the lock of hair and picture of John Brown in tissue (Hubbard, 360). This would fulfil the Queen’s request that she have ‘some souvenir of my faithful wardrobe maid Annie MacDonald’. (Ibid, 359). When the Prince Consort had died at Windsor in 1861, Queen Victoria had been stunned in frozen grief, writing that she had been ‘gazing wildly & as hard as a stone on my Maids’. (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 326). Annie MacDonald had been the one who had put the Queen to bed that excruciating night at Windsor (Ibid, 350).

Movingly, in her last will of 1897, she also remembered Annie and John Brown by name, both of whom clearly had such personal importance to her that a memento of each went with her into the beyond. The Queen wrote that they numbered amongst those who had shown her such faithful service, similar to the wordings on many of the memorials that the Queen erected to those who served her, from servants down to her dogs: ‘especially good John Brown and good Annie MacDonald who I trusted would help to lay my remains in my coffin & to see me placed next to my dearly loved Husband in the mausoleum at Frogmore’. (cit., Longford, 363).

This was how the will read, although the Queen would not die until 1901. In it, she hoped to be ‘reunited to my beloved Husband, my dearest Mother, my loved Children and 3 dear sons-in-law’. (cit., Ibid, 363).

Symbolically, this was the wish she expressed in the words which were engraved over the door of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, in pious Latin, to be reunited with Prince Albert. This inscription is an apt summing-up of the Queen’s sentiments in this regard: ‘Vale desideratissime. Farewell most beloved. Here at length I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again.’

She got her wish – in 1901.

©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.