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Queen Victoria's Children
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
A Family of Eleven 1840–61
Queen Victoria was delighted that her first child was a daughter. As she would write rather tactlessly to this same princess after she had given birth to her eldest son some eighteen years later, 'Boys cause so much suffering, and sometimes one buys experience with one's first child and therefore a girl is sometimes better.' Prince Albert had initially wanted a son, but his feelings turned to sheer delight when the midwife brought him the baby girl for the first time. Even by the standards of the average closely-knit family, this father-daughter relationship was destined to be remarkably close.
The Queen recovered so rapidly from her confinement that the court was able to spend Christmas at Windsor – a sparkling, festive occasion in the German tradition, with fir trees, candles, present-tables and log fires, like those Albert had enjoyed at Rosenau. They returned to Buckingham Palace early in the new year, and it was in the palace throne room that the princess was christened with the names Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa – the second after the Queen Dowager, the third and fourth in honour of the Duchess of Kent, both of whom were among the godparents. The others were King Leopold, the Duke of Sussex, the Duchess of Gloucester, and the Duke of Coburg (represented by the Duke of Wellington). Albert was quick to sing his daughter's praises: 'She was awake, but did not cry at all, and seemed to crow with immense satisfaction at the sights and brilliant uniforms, for she is very intelligent and observing.' A few weeks earlier, on 19 January, the hereditary 'style and distinction' of Princess Royal had been conferred on her. The last Princess Royal, Charlotte, later Queen of Württemberg, had died in 1828.
The boudoir and the breakfast room at Buckingham Palace became the royal nursery, and the little princess saw her mother twice a day. Her father was much less restrained, so much that his continual visits to see her and get down on his hands and knees to play did not pass without comment – not always favourable – from the household. He was rewarded by catching his daughter's first smile, and hearing her first word, which was naturally 'Papa'.
Vicky, or Pussy, as she was known in the family till the age of seven, was indeed the delight of both her parents. The Queen had an aversion to babies; she thought them 'frightful when undressed' until about four months old, and the idea of feeding her children herself was quite repugnant to her. Yet she was most enthusiastic in her letters to King Leopold, telling him how his great-niece gained daily in strength, health and beauty, and how she would be very like her dearest father – no small compliment. She had the child in her dressing-room every evening while she changed for dinner, and so lively did Pussy become while being bounced up and down on the nurse's knee that she could not get to sleep at night. It was very foolish, the Queen admitted, 'but one is very foolish with one's first child.'
The public were so unaccustomed to the birth of a royal heir that rumours were quick to circulate concerning the baby's ill-health, that she was either blind or deformed. One journalist suggested that the Princess Royal should be put on public display in a glass case. Yet somebody did find a way to see her. When she was less than a fortnight old, a youth was discovered under a sofa at the palace. He was recognised as 'the boy Jones' (soon called 'In-I-Go Jones' by the press), seventeen-year-old son of a tailor, who had found his way into the building before. He claimed with pride that he had lived off scraps from the royal larders, 'that he had sat upon the throne, that he saw the Queen and heard the Princess Royal squall.' He was sent to a house of correction, and the nursery was thereafter fitted with new locks, Albert keeping the key under his pillow at night.
Pussy's exclusive reign as heir to her mother's throne did not last long. The Queen was furious to find that she was 'in for it' again so soon for the second time, barely before the first was christened. She had not intended to fulfil her promise of a prince so quickly. On 9 November 1841 Albert Edward, prince of Wales, 'Bertie' in the family, was born. He was described by his mother as 'wonderfully strong, with a very large nose and pretty little mouth.' Devoutly she hoped he would grow up to be just like his father.
The tranquillity that followed Vicky's birth did not recur on the second occasion. Queen Victoria's post-natal depression coincided with a long-overdue climax to a power struggle inside the royal household.
Albert had been deeply saddened by the ill feeling between his wife and her mother, and as he gradually learnt more about the state of affairs for himself, his concern turned to resentment against Lehzen. Victoria, he felt, was 'naturally a fine character but warped in many respects by wrong upbringing,' while the baroness was 'a crazy, common, stupid intriguer, obsessed with lust of power, who regards herself as a demi-god.' Her possessive nature had secretly resented the marriage between Victoria and Albert, yet still she interfered in the household administration as if nothing had changed since the Queen's accession. After the birth of the prince of Wales, she proposed that the duchy of Cornwall revenues should be handed over to her for nursery expenses. The way in which Lehzen was becoming a barrier between husband and wife was alarming. What, Albert wondered, were the implications of this for the upbringing and character of their children?
Albert's possessive instinct as a father added another dimension to the nursery problem. Queen Adelaide had told him that her children had not survived infancy because they had never been healthy, chiefly through lack of interest in food and inability to gain weight. As a result, he watched the progress of his daughter with almost obsessive interest, and when her health deteriorated after a promising start, he became worried. His resolve to see the last of Lehzen was strengthened.
In January 1842 the Queen and Albert returned to Windsor from a visit to the Duchess of Kent at Claremont. On their departure, household relations had been uneasy. Pussy was teething and 'not at all pleased with her little brother,' the Queen was tired and irritable, and Lehzen was suffering from jaundice. They went straight to the nursery on arriving home to find their daughter looking very thin and white. An altercation between Albert and the nurse made the Queen lose her temper. She accused him of wanting to drive the nurse away while he as good as murdered their child. He crept away in stony silence, but later that evening they quarrelled again. While she wept with rage, he resorted to pen and paper: 'Doctor Clark has mismanaged the child and poisoned her with calomel and you have starved her. I shall have nothing more to do with it; take the child away and do as you like and if she dies you will have it on your conscience.'
In desperation she turned to Stockmar for advice. After tempers had cooled and the views of Melbourne and others had been sought, a compromise was reached. Lehzen was asked to retire with a generous annual pension, and a new governess should be appointed.
The rest of 1842 passed more happily. With Lehzen back in Germany, relations between the young couple, and between the Duchess of Kent and the Queen, improved rapidly. A respite from childbearing gave the Queen an opportunity to enjoy watching the progress of her children as well as undertaking some travelling with Albert around the country houses of England. By the end of the year she was accepting her third pregnancy less grudgingly.
On 25 April 1843 she gave birth to a second daughter, Alice. Alfred ('Affie') followed on 6 August 1844, and after an interval of nearly two years they were joined by Helena ('Lenchen') on 25 May 1846, one day after the Queen's twenty-seventh birthday.
The children were a lively, high-spirited crowd. It was fortunate for them that their upbringing was not carried out strictly according to the plans of their parents. Within a few months of their marriage, they had composed a joint memorandum on the education and development of princes, full of lofty phrases about the 'moral and intellectual faculties of man,' and strict instructions on hours of work, exercise and relaxation. Stockmar read it and declared gravely that any child subjected to such a regime would surely succumb to brain fever. He insisted on two things. Firstly, their children must be educated in England. Although he was German himself, he realised that the unpopularity of most of King George Ill's sons had been on account of their foreign education. Secondly, a lady of rank, 'well-educated and of irreproachable character,' must be placed in charge of the nursery as governess.
In Lady Lyttelton, soon nicknamed 'Laddle' by the children, they could hardly have chosen better. Her conscientious attitude to her duties exemplified in the daily report on her charges' diet, health and mental progress, was thoroughly approved of by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. At the same time, her views on discipline sounded remarkably liberal for the time. Punishments, she maintained, 'wear out so soon and one is never sure they are understood by the child as belonging to the naughtiness.' References to the children receiving a 'good whipping' for bad behaviour meant perhaps no more than a sharp smack. Physical chastisement had no place under her supervision. The most effective punishment was to be deprived of a treat. To be denied a ride with their Papa or a carriage drive with Mama meant much more to the youngsters than being sent to their room for the afternoon or a scolding.
Pussy was a precocious child, quick to learn and always chattering. At the age of four she was taught a poem by Lamartine, including the line: 'Voilà le tableau qui se déroule à mes pieds'. Not long afterwards, she was taken on a pony ride, and surveyed the view from a hill, repeating the line proudly with a theatrical flourish of her hand. She adored showing off, and the amusement her extrovert ways caused doubtless encouraged her. When a governess refused to stop on a carriage drive and pick her some heather from the roadside, the princess frowned, 'No, you can't,' she muttered indignantly, then glanced at two young ladies-in-waiting, 'but those girls might get out and fetch me some.' She was easily bored with routine, and often frustrated. The Queen found her 'difficult and rebellious' but Albert was delighted with her agile mind and winning ways.
If the Princess Royal could do no wrong, the prince of Wales could barely put a foot right. From the first day of his life, he was overshadowed by his mother's resentment. Her annoyance at having two pregnancies so quickly, and the severe labour at his birth, had given him a bad start in life. The weight of his eventual inheritance was another overwhelming burden. Though he had found fault with Albert's high-minded memorandum on education, Stockmar still concluded that it was in the monarchy's interests for Prince Albert Edward to be brought up according to the strictest moral principles. Because children were bound to imitate their elders, they should only be surrounded by those 'who will teach not only by precept but by living example.' Such philosophy found more favour at court than Melbourne's succinct belief that 'this damned morality will ruin everything.'
Bertie was as apathetic and backward as Vicky was precocious and eager to learn. She teased him for being slow-witted and mimicked his stammer. Their parents were too ready to contrast them both, to his detriment. His childish tantrums were a disruptive influence in the nursery. When opposed he would scream violently, stamp his feet and throw things around until he was exhausted. Unfortunately his faults were magnified, and Laddle was at first the only one to appreciate his positive qualities. When cheerful he could be charming, 'with a frequent very sweet smile,' and he was less given to lying than his sister. It was evident to Laddle that he preferred people to books, and in this he was most unlike his father. Although she had to admit that he was 'uncommonly averse to learning and requires much patience, from wilful inattention and constant interruptions,' and could be 'passionate and determined enough for an autocrat,' the fact that he spoke three languages by the age of six proves that he was by no means stupid. It was his misfortune that he was always compared to Vicky, who was exceptionally bright. Only an uncommonly clever boy could have come anything but a poor second to her.
None of the remaining children gave their parents as much trouble as the two eldest. Alice was a plump, easily-contented child, given to occasional bursts of temper but generally more placid than her sister. Bertie was always deeply attached to her, the relationship between both uncomplicated by the sense of inferiority he generally felt with Vicky. When Alice was sent to her room one day for being naughty, Bertie was caught paying her a clandestine visit. His excuse, he confessed wistfully, was that he only wanted to bring her 'a morsel of news.'
Affie showed signs of growing up more like his father. He was cheerful, placid and industrious. Utterly fearless, as soon as he could walk unaided he thought nothing of climbing out of windows and balancing on ledges thirty feet or more above ground, leaping across streams before he could swim, or sliding down banisters. Many was the time he had a narrow escape from serious injury and was scolded severely for taking risks, but he was not deterred from doing the same thing again. Though he got on very well with his brothers and sisters, he was equally happy left to his own devices, experimenting with toys and later building his own. A quick learner who showed particular aptitude for geography and the sciences, he was certainly his father's favourite son. Albert was inclined to regret that the boy would never inherit the crown, unless anything happened to 'poor Bertie'. Yet he consoled himself with the thought that Affie would succeed one day to the family's inheritance in Germany, the duchy of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, should Duke Ernest II and his wife, Alexandrine, remain childless.*
In January 1847 the Queen and her husband drew up another joint memorandum concerning the education of their present and future children. The princes and princesses were to be divided into classes. The first would be a nursery class, for all up to six years of age. Lady Lyttelton would be in charge of this, and the children would learn English, French, German and religious instruction. At the age of six, they would move into Class II. A new governess, Miss Hildyard, would then be in charge of them. She and two further governesses, one German and one Swiss, would still be responsible to Lady Lyttelton. Religious instruction would be given to the Princess Royal by the Queen, to the prince of Wales by both senior governesses. It was important that all the children should be able to converse in foreign languages as well as learning grammar. All problems, outings and punishments, should be referred to the Queen. The Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales would begin in Class II at the end of February 1847. One hour a day each would be devoted to French and German. The Princess Royal was to have her own maid, and would remain under the supervision of Miss Hildyard until she was nine or ten, when she would have a 'lady governess' to remain with her until marriage. The prince would enter a third class a year or two later, by which time he would have a tutor and a valet.
Sunday was to be free from lessons. Prince Albert loved to get on all fours and play in the nursery with the children. Always shy with adults, he was never more at ease than with his evergrowing brood, playing hide-and-seek, giving them rides on his back, and building houses with wooden bricks so tall he had to stand on a chair to complete them. The governess swore that none of the youngsters were as thrilled as he was when the houses toppled over and scattered around the floor. 'He is so kind to them,' wrote the Queen, a little enviously, 'and romps with them so delightfully, and manages them so beautifully and firmly.' She took less interest in them, attributing this to the fact that she had been brought up almost exclusively in adult company.
When they were older, Albert planned plays and tableaux for them, taking charge of rehearsals and designing their costumes. One of the most ambitious was a tableau they performed in February 1854, representing the four seasons. Alice was spring, Vicky was summer, Affie was Bacchus (representing autumn) in a leopard skin and crowned with grapes, Bertie was winter as an old man dressed for bitter weather, icicles hanging from his coat and hat. The younger children took smaller roles, but the short blue frock of Arthur (born in 1850) so startled his mother that she ordered him to be taken away and dressed, despite a nurse's reassurance that he was wearing 'flesh-coloured decencies'. He came back after putting on a pair of socks that barely came above his ankles.
Excerpted from Queen Victoria's Children by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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