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Childhood at Court 1819â"1914
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
'No scope for my very violent feelings of affection'
Not to have enjoyed the pleasures of youth is nothing,' Princess Feodora of Hohenlohe-Langenburg wrote to her half-sister, Queen Victoria (17 March 1843), 'but to have been deprived of all intercourse, and not one cheerful thought in that dismal existence of ours, was very hard.'
'Our childhood was a happy, carefree one,' Princess Marie of Edinburgh, later Queen Marie of Roumania, wrote in contrast some ninety years later, 'the childhood of rich, healthy children protected from the buffets and hard realities of life.'
Princess Victoria of Kent, who succeeded to the throne as Queen Victoria less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, had a comparatively deprived childhood. Most of her grandchildren, including Queen Marie of Roumania, grew up as one child of several in a large nursery. So did many of her subjects, among them Molly Hughes: 'A girl with four brothers older than herself is born under a lucky star. To be brought up in London, in the eighteen-seventies, by parents who knew how to laugh at both jokes and disasters, was to be under the influence of Jupiter.'
Queen Victoria was never under the influence of Jupiter. Her father married for reasons of state, to a widow nearly nineteen years younger than himself; only a long journey by her parents when her mother was seven months pregnant ensured that she was born on British soil; her christening was the scene of a family quarrel which had her mother in tears; and she was a mere eight months old when her father died.
On 6 November 1817 Princess Charlotte, wife of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld and daughter of George, Prince Regent, died in childbirth after producing a stillborn son. The prospects for the British line of succession were ominous. None of the thirteen sons and daughters of King George III and Queen Charlotte who survived to maturity had produced a single legitimate child among them, with the exception of the hapless Princess Charlotte. It was vital for the King's bachelor sons to contract officially recognized marriages and ensure the succession – with the bait of generous marriage grants. Since most of them were better at spending money than saving it, such offers were irresistible.
On 30 May 1818 the King's fourth son Edward, Duke of Kent, married the widowed Princess Victoire of Leiningen at the Ehrenburg Palace, Coburg. Aged thirty-one, she had two children by her marriage to Emich Charles, Prince of Leiningen, Prince Charles and Princess Feodora. In order to prevent doubts as to the validity of the marriage, and succession problems in either country – as the King of Great Britain was also King of Hanover – a second ceremony was held at Kew Palace on 11 July. The latter was a double wedding, the union between William, Duke of Clarence and Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen being solemnized at the same time.
Marriage, and a parliamentary grant, did not put an end to the Duke of Kent's financial problems. On the contrary, it intensified them. He had increased his debts by borrowing to pay for presents to his wife, including a splendid wedding dress. The Prince Regent, no novice at the art of spending lavishly himself and no friend of his radically minded brother, refused to help him. The rest of the family urged the Kents to leave the country, since living abroad was cheaper, and in September they returned to Amorbach.
Within weeks, the Duchess knew that she was with child. Like his newly married brothers, the Duke had lost no time in obeying the call of duty. Convinced that the irregular lives of his brothers would ensure that his children would rule over England one day, the Duke realized how vital it was for his first-born child to be born in England. That the Clarences, who were higher in the succession than the Kents, were preparing for their confinement in Hanover, carried no weight with him. A few friends lent him sufficient money to return to England, and in March 1819 they set out on their journey.
The Duchess of Kent was seven months pregnant as they began their 427-mile odyssey, the Duke driving her and his stepdaughter Feodora in a cane phaeton over rough roads, in order to save the expense of hiring a coachman. The motley procession also comprising a landau, a barouche, two large postchaises, a cabriolet and a caravan, reached Calais and had to wait a week for favourable conditions at sea. On 24 April they crossed the Channel; the Duchess was very sick on the journey, but according to Madame Siebold, an obstetrician in the suite, there were no harmful symptoms. They settled at Kensington Palace, and after a labour of more than six hours, at 4.15 on the morning of 24 May the Duchess gave birth to a daughter. The father had remained at her side throughout, while the Duke of Wellington, Archbishop Manners Sutton, and other privy councillors, waited in an adjoining room. It was their duty to ensure that no suppositious infant could be smuggled into the bed.
Madame Siebold was responsible for helping to bring the Princess into the world. Also in attendance at the birth was a Welsh doctor, Dr David Daniel Davis. Legend has it that the labour was so difficult that Madame Siebold gave up hope of saving either mother or child, and Dr Davis had to intervene. This was untrue. Madame Siebold was a foreigner and a German, and the Duke of Kent had been advised that it would bode better for his popularity if a well-known British obstetrician was on hand at the same time, just in case anything should go wrong.
The Duke was overjoyed, writing that evening to his mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg, that her new grandchild was 'truly a model of strength and beauty combined. ... Thank God the dear mother and the child are doing marvellously well.'
For the first three weeks, their existence seemed blissfully happy. The Duke had been only momentarily disappointed that his firstborn child had not been a son, declaring that 'the decrees of Providence are at all times wisest and best'. The Duchess was determined not to engage a wet-nurse, but breast-fed the child herself. The Duke, who took an intense interest in all details of nursery management, observed 'the process of maternal nutriment' with fascination.
The constant shadow that spoilt the proud father's state of happiness was not slow to appear. As he knew only too well, the Prince Regent was determined to make life uncomfortable for the family. He had never forgiven the Duke of Kent for the sympathy he had shown to his estranged wife Caroline, the Princess of Wales, who had since retired abroad. That the Wales's only child Charlotte had died prematurely while the Kents' daughter appeared healthy enough was a further source of bitterness and resentment on the part of the Prince Regent. The Duchess of Clarence had also given birth to a daughter in March, a sickly baby who only lived for seven hours. To the Prince Regent, his detested brother Edward had evidently been born under a lucky star.
As acting head of the family, in lieu of the blind, insane King George III, the Prince Regent decided when the christening of the Princess should take place. On 21 June the Duke of Kent was abruptly notified by the Prince's private secretary and privy seal, Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, of the arrangements. The ceremony would be three days later, on 24 June, at 3.00 p.m. It would be held privately, with only the Duke and Duchess of York, Princess Augusta, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Prince Leopold and Princess Sophia invited as family guests. There would be no chance of the Duke of Kent being allowed to make a grand occasion of the ceremony. No foreign dignitaries would be invited to add pomp and splendour to the occasion. The Prince Regent would stand as godparent in person, Tsar Alexander I of Russia would be represented by the Duke of York, then second in succession to the throne, and the remaining godparents by other members of the royal family. The parents were not even permitted to choose the names themselves, which the Prince Regent 'will explain himself to your Royal Highness, previous to the Ceremony'.
No more was heard from the Prince Regent until the evening before the christening. A list of names had been submitted to him, and it was assumed that he would raise no objection, but on Sunday evening he sent a message to the Duke of Kent that the name Georgina was not to be used, as the Regent did not wish to place his name before that of the Tsar of Russia, and he could not allow it to come afterwards. With regard to the other names, he would speak to the Duke of Kent at the ceremony. Unknown to the parents, he had already approached Prince Leopold, asking him to prevent the name Charlotte from being given.
When the modest company assembled in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace the next day the Regent, determined to be as cold as possible, did not exchange a single word with the Duke of Kent. As the Archbishop of Canterbury held the Princess in his arms, waiting for the Regent to pronounce the first name, he announced gruffly, 'Alexandrina'. He then stopped, and the Archbishop waited. The Duke of Kent suggested Charlotte, Augusta, and Elizabeth. All these met with fierce disapproval from his brother, who coldly said she could be baptized with her mother's name, 'but it cannot precede that of the Emperor'. By the time Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent had been christened, the Duchess of Kent was sobbing.
That evening the Duke and Duchess gave a dinner party at Kensington Palace. Not surprisingly, the Prince Regent was not invited.
The Princess was regularly known among the family as 'Drina', though she and her mother preferred the name Victoria. As a baby, her mother called her 'Vickelchen', and lulled her to sleep each night with German cradle songs.
On 2 August 1819 she became the first royal baby to be vaccinated against smallpox. The six-week-old child of Colonel Eliot, MP, was brought to Kensington Palace. Vaccine lymph was taken from the vesicle, the cavity filled with pus resulting from the insertion of the vaccine on the arm of Colonel Eliot's child, and inserted into two places on the Princess's left arm and one on her right. By the twenty-sixth day after vaccination, the scabs had dropped off, leaving 'a small radiated and rather depressed cicatrix'. The vaccination had been successful, and the Princess suffered no side-effects.
Although bitterly resented by the brother who was King in all but name, the Duke of Kent, his wife and child were leading an apparently contented life. Their cosy domesticity was the subject of some gentle mockery on the part of Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, who noted that on a visit to Windsor in September they retired to bed at the almost unheard-of-hour of 9 p.m.
Yet financial troubles continued to dog the family, and pursue the father to his grave – if not indirectly lead him to it. The Duke of Kent could not afford to live in London; to economize, it was necessary to live somewhere in the country. Returning to Germany, which would at least take them out of sight of resentful relatives, would be too expensive, and as he was determined that his daughter (and perhaps he himself before her) would one day ascend the throne, it would not do for them to go back into self-imposed exile.
A suggestion was made that they should visit, perhaps stay in, Devonshire. This would be a good way of preserving appearances, as the Duke had announced his intention of taking the Duchess to benefit from sea air after her confinement. He and his equerry, Captain John Conroy, went to look at houses in Dawlish, Torquay, Teignmouth and Sidmouth. Between them they decided that Sidmouth would be most satisfactory, and they rented Woolbrook Cottage, close to the seafront.
On 2 November, back at Kensington Palace, the Duke celebrated his fifty-second birthday with what was rather grandly described as a 'family festival'. This consisted of the presentation of a letter written by the Duchess and presented to him by the Princess, now aged five months, dressed in a white frock with bows of red and green ribbon, and wearing a Scottish bonnet. Princess Feodora sang some verses composed for the occasion, and from his school in Geneva Prince Charles of Leiningen wrote a letter in English to 'please my dear father', sending 'filial congratulations'.
On 3 December 1819 one of the decisive influences on the Princess's early life arrived at Kensington Palace. Louise Lehzen, the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman in the village of Lagenhagen, Hanover, was engaged by the Duke of Kent to become governess to Princess Feodora. He intended that she should also become Princess Victoria's governess when her nurse, Mrs Brock, left. Thirty-five years old, Fraulein Lehzen had been governess to three daughters in the von Marenholtz family. Highly recommended, and described by diarist Charles Greville as 'a clever agreeable woman', her strength of personality would lead to some stormy scenes within the next couple of decades.
Later that month the entourage set out for Devon. Breaking their journey at Salisbury, they toured the Cathedral and the Duke caught a heavy cold. Although the winter of 1819 to 1820 proved unusually cold, with rain and gales adding to the rigours of exceptionally low temperatures, he refused to fuss, insisting that he would outlive all his brothers. They arrived at Sidmouth on the afternoon of Christmas Day in a fierce snowstorm.
The rest of the family also caught severe colds, and on 28 December while sitting in the drawing room with the infant Princess, the Duchess was terrified as a shot shattered the window. The culprit was a local apprentice boy named Hook, who had been shooting birds. Despite their alarm, the Duke and Duchess made light of the incident. Relieved that it was not some underhand assassination attempt, the Duke observed that his daughter had stood fire as befitted a soldier's daughter. Meanwhile they asked Conroy to write to the local magistrates, asking them to help ensure the prevention of such an occurrence, but requesting particularly that the boy should not be punished.
On 6 January 1820 the Duke wrote to Admiral Donnelly, whose house he had occupied in Brussels, enquiring about arrangements for returning to Amorbach in the spring. In the same letter he observed that 'our little Girl now between seven and eight months looks like a child of a year, and has cut her two first teeth without the slightest inconvenience'.
It was the last letter he ever wrote. Despite his cold, he insisted on going out walking in all weathers. Returning one evening chilled and soaked through, he refused to change his boots. Within a few days his chill had turned to high fever, delirium and vomiting. Medical attention could do little to alleviate his sufferings. On the morning of 23 January he passed away.
The disconsolate, fatherless family returned to Kensington Palace. On their journey the carriages were very bad, and, the Duchess wrote to her confidante, Polyxene von Tubeuf, 'poor little Vickelchen got very upset by the frightful jolting'. Returning to Kensington, they learned that King George III's phantom existence had come to an end. Outliving his fourth son by six days, he died on 29 January aged eighty-one.
Widowed for the second time, with daughters aged twelve years and eight months, living in a strange country whose language she could scarcely speak, the Duchess of Kent was sorely tempted to return to Germany. Only the insistence of her brother Prince Leopold persuaded her to settle permanently in England. For the next seventeen years she would oversee the childhood of the woman who would give her name to the age.
The childhood of Queen Victoria was anything but luxurious. Not only did she lack a father, but she had very few of the creature comforts which her uncles or aunts had known, or indeed which her children were to enjoy: 'I never had a room to myself; I never had a sofa, nor an easy chair; and there was not a single carpet that was not threadbare.'
Her education began, tentatively, when she was four years old. The Revd George Davys, who took services in Kensington Palace Chapel, was her first tutor. He started with a box of letters and some coloured cards, on which he wrote simple words, and placed them around the room. He then called out a word and the Princess had to find it with the aid of the letters.
'I was not fond of learning as a little child,' the Queen recalled in 1872, 'and baffled every attempt to teach me my letters up to 5 years old – when I consented to learn them by their being written down before me.'
So many legends have grown up about her education, with frequently conflicting stories about her childhood published within her lifetime, that one is grateful for her recollections, and the fact that she annotated several of the inaccurate accounts in her own hand. For example, it has often been accepted as fact that she heard only German spoken until the age of three, when she began to learn English. When presented with a copy of Miss Agnes Strickland's Victoria from Birth to Bridal, published in 1840, she found mention of the 'fact' that 'many caressing phrases were addressed by the little Princess to her Royal Mother in German'. In the margin, she wrote, 'Not true. Never spoke German until 1839, not allowed to. Not true her mother stimulated her to speak German.'
Excerpted from Childhood at Court 1819â"1914 by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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