“Kate Williams has perfected the art of historical biography. Her pacy writing is underpinned by the most impeccable scholarship.”—Alison Weir
In 1819, a girl was born to the fourth son of King George III. No one could have expected such an unassuming, overprotected girl to be an effective ruler—yet Queen Victoria would become one of the most powerful monarchs in history.
Writing with novelistic flair and historical precision, Kate Williams reveals a vibrant woman in the prime of her life, while chronicling the byzantine machinations that continued even after the crown was placed on her head. Upon hearing that she had inherited the throne, eighteen-year-old Victoria banished her overambitious mother from the room, a simple yet resolute move that would set the tone for her reign. The queen clashed constantly not only with her mother and her mother’s adviser, the Irish adventurer John Conroy, but with her ministers and even her beloved Prince Albert—all of whom attempted to seize control from her.
Williams lays bare the passions that swirled around the throne—the court secrets, the sexual repression, and the endless intrigue. The result is a grand tale of a woman whose destiny began long before she was born and whose legacy lives on.
Praise for Becoming Queen Victoria
“An informative, entertaining, gossipy tale.”—Publishers Weekly
“A great read . . . With lively writing, Ms. Williams [makes] the story fresh and appealing.”—The Washington Times
“Sparkling, engaging.”—Open Letters Monthly
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Read an Excerpt
“The Most Distressing Feelings of My Heart”
The Prince of Wales was drunk. It was his wedding day, he was disgusted by his bride, and he was the most inebriated he had ever been outside of a brothel. He was in debt to the tune of over £500,000, and the only way to settle his obligations was to marry. But he was shocked by the ugliness of his wife-to-be, Caroline of Brunswick, and thought she smelled like a peasant. In the over-heated, overdecorated Chapel Royal, dressed sumptuously in his customary high-fashion garb, the prince gritted his teeth, took another swig of porter, and tried to focus his mind on the showers of money he would receive.
The marriage of the thirty-two-year-old Prince of Wales had been a subject of debate for years. By 1794, ministers and courtiers were desperate for cheering news. Great Britain was mired in despond and recession. War with France had strained the country’s finances and increased the price of imports, and the gentry lived in fear of the English mob setting off another French Revolution in England. “Never was there seen so gloomy a Birth-Day in this country as that of yesterday,” bleated the Morning Post in January, referring to the queen’s birthday. “Care and despondency seemed to sit on every brow, the affected smiles of Ministers shewed that disappointment and despondency resided in their hearts, and instead of being a day of joyous gratulations, a settled melancholy and dread apprehension for the safety of the Nation pervaded the Assembly.”
The English needed a national event to lift their spirits, and the ideal solution was a royal wedding. But George was a demanding suitor. After nearly seventeen years of chasing the most beautiful women in London, he was easily bored, made unhappier by unlimited choice. Few, if any, of Europe’s shy, bug-eyed princesses could have satisfied him. And yet, despite his own exacting standards, he was not the handsome young charmer he had once been. Perched on top of his flabby body was a round, rather saturnine face, and his once fine complexion had turned florid. Still, he had striking gray eyes, a mass of light brown hair, superb if flamboyant dress sense, and great charisma. When the heir to the throne was in the mood, no one could fail to be charmed by his exquisite manners and intensely flattering conversation.
The prince had always been hungry for affectionate sympathy. At the tender age of sixteen, he had fallen hopelessly in love with his sisters’ twenty-three-year-old assistant governess, Mary Hamilton, besieging her with letters. Seven years later, in 1785, he staged an elaborate charade by pretending he was on his deathbed in order to persuade the devout Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert to marry him. Blonde, bosomy, and beaky, she was the only woman who had resisted him sexually, but once he had married her and conquered her in bed, he lost interest. Relegated to the status of morganatic, unofficial wife, since George III had not sanctioned the union, Mrs. Fitzherbert was soon made miserable by her husband’s philandering and spendthrift nature. As the diarist Thomas Raikes recorded, the prince was “young and impetuous and boisterous in his character, and very much addicted to the pleasures of the table.” He courted other women and borrowed money from Mrs. Fitzherbert. And then, in 1793, the clever, unprincipled, and fascinating Lady Jersey began to exert her charms.
Born in 1753, the daughter of the Irish bishop of Raphoe, Frances Twysden was seventeen when she was married to the thirty-five-year?-old Earl of Jersey. The prince first fell in love with her when she was twenty-nine and he twenty, but she batted him away. Twelve years later, however, once he was presiding over his own gilded court in St. James’s, she was eager to charm him. At forty-one, she was nearly ten years his senior and already a grandmother, but she possessed, according to the diarist Nathaniel Wraxall, “irresistible seduction and fascination.” The prince was soon captivated by her brittle, aloof glamour.
In the spring of 1794, the Court of Privileges decreed null and void the marriage of the prince’s younger brother Augustus to Lady Augusta Murray. To the Prince of Wales, the court’s decision seemed to give him permission to discard his wife in order to indulge himself with Lady Jersey. Catholic commoner Maria was even less suitable than the Protestant, aristocratic Lady Augusta. In June, when Mrs. Fitzherbert was dining with the Duke of Clarence and his mistress, Dora Jordan, she received an urgent letter. She opened it to find her lover informing her that their relationship was at an end. Her grief was only intensified by another letter, delivered a fortnight later, in which the prince justified his actions like a spoiled schoolboy. He, by contrast, thought he had acted very properly toward his unofficial wife. As he fussed to Captain Jack Willet Payne, friend and member of his household:
To tell you what it has cost me to write, and to rip up every and the most distressing feelings of my heart . . . which have so long lodged there is impossible to express. God bless you my friend; whichever way this unpleasant affair now ends I have nothing to reproach myself with.
Opinion was sympathetic to Mrs. Fitzherbert, even though it was a time when Catholics were often reviled. The caricaturist Isaac Cruikshank produced an amusing cartoon of her fleeing in tears with her £6,000 annuity, as the prince fondles a skinny, wrinkly Lady Jersey. Still, the aristocracy did not waste too much time feeling sorry for the abandoned wife and hurried to flatter the new royal mistress.
Lady Jersey did not want her emotional prince falling in love with another Mrs. Fitzherbert or becoming dependent on the lady herself once more. She decided to secure her own position by encouraging her lover to enter into an arranged marriage. The prince was amenable to her persuasions, excited by the prospect of an expanded income on marriage, and payment of his horrific debts. In 1787, Parliament had been induced to pay off the most onerous sums and increase his allowance, but he had continued to spend wildly and his debts had shot up once more. By the time he fell in love with Lady Jersey, tradesmen were refusing to deal with him and creditors harassed him in the street. Finally realizing that Parliament would not bail him out again, the prince decided to marry and informed the king of his decision. He then promptly cast himself in the role of noble self-sacrificer, boasting how he had relinquished happiness and a love match to produce a royal heir. As he exclaimed when shown the list of possible candidates, “One damned German frau is as good as another.”
Princesses across Europe were practicing their English, but sly Lady Jersey had her eye on one particular German frau. She encouraged her lover to think favorably of his first cousin, Princess Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Six years younger than the prince at twenty-six, she was immature and, gossip had it, fat, tactless, and vulgar. She had been an indulged child in Brunswick, a small but licentious court where the duke’s mistress was openly acknowledged. Then, as a teenager, she had been strictly disciplined, hardly ever allowed to dine with her mother, ordered upstairs if there were guests, and kept apart from her brothers. Thanks to such an upbringing, she was high-spirited, rebellious, attention seeking, and rude. She had thick blonde hair, fair skin, and lively blue eyes, but her boisterous, abrupt manner had put off potential suitors. When George’s mother, Queen Charlotte, heard some years previously that her brother Charles, Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was considering marriage with Princess Caroline, she had written him a bluntly dissuading letter:
They say her passions are so strong that the Duke himself said that she was not to be allowed even to go from one room to another without her Governess, and that when she dances, this Lady is obliged to follow her for the whole of the dance to prevent her making an exhibition of herself by indecent conversations with men.
Now the queen kept her reservations to herself, for she knew how fond the king was of Caroline’s mother, his sister, the Duchess of Brunswick.
The Duke of Wellington speculated that Lady Jersey had chosen clumsy Caroline, a woman of “indelicate manners, indifferent character, and not very inviting appearance from the hope that disgust for the wife would secure constancy to the mistress.” Still, the prince had perhaps little choice: Few royal princesses in Germany were great beauties or had managed to grow up untainted by inbred madness or the sheer claustrophobia of tiny courts. On August 29, 1794, George wrote to his younger brother the Duke of York that all was over with Mrs. Fitzherbert and he was to marry Princess Caroline. He wrote to the Duke and Duchess of Brunswick asking for Caroline’s hand, and they sent an eager reply, delighted to betroth their daughter to the heir to the richest throne in Europe when she had seemed lost to matrimony at twenty-six. The king suggested waiting until spring, but the prince was typically impatient. “We are all working and moving Heaven and earth to immediately send for her over,” he pronounced. As soon as the engagement was confirmed, the newspapers began to praise the young lady’s great beauty and impeccable virtue. The government agreed to increase the prince’s Civil List income from £60,000 to £100,000 a year and gave him £20,000 toward his wedding. He immediately devoted £5,000 of this to redecorating and furnishing Caroline’s apartments in Carlton House.
The prince’s envoy, James Harris, Lord Malmesbury, a discreet, experienced diplomat, had gained George’s confidence when he had been British minister at the Hague. He set off to meet Caroline and escort her to London. When he arrived in Brunswick at the end of November, he was cautiously impressed by the future Princess of Wales:
Pretty face—not expressive of softness—her figure not graceful—fine eyes—good hands—tolerable teeth, but going—fair hair and light eyebrows, good bust—short, with what the French call “des épaules impertinentes.” Vastly happy with her future expectations. The Duchess full of nothing else—talks incessantly.
Malmesbury was also gratified by the princess’s eagerness to please and her habit of asking for advice. “Her conversation was very right, she entreats me also to guide and direct her.” He was, however, not much of a guide. “I recommend perfect silence on all subjects for six months after her arrival,” he told her early on. The princess was soon infuriated by Malmesbury’s diffident, somewhat impractical advice and cool demeanor. As she grew rowdier and more aggressive, intent on catching his attention, his diary turned into a litany of criticism. The princess, he complained, insulted or praised without thinking and spoke wildly or excessively to impress, particularly when she was nervous. He worried over her “light and flighty mind” and reported: “My eternal theme to her is to think before she speaks, to recollect herself.” Her impulsive character was most unsuited to that of the prince. “With a steady man she would do vastly well, but with one of a different description, there are great risks.” Caroline’s father was also concerned. “She is not stupid,” the duke sighed, “but she has no judgement.” She should be made aware that her role in England “would not be simply one of amusement and enjoyment; that it had its duties, and those perhaps difficult and hard to fulfil.” Free from illusions about the prince’s character, he urged the diplomat to instruct his daughter not to show jealousy at her husband’s infidelities. Malmesbury did so, and told Caroline insistently that “those of a very high rank have a high price to pay for it.”
The problem was that the fastidious prince liked stylish, grown-up women a few years his senior. Bouncy, boisterous Princess Caroline looked and behaved like a child and had scant interest in fashion. The dressmakers at Brunswick could hardly compete with those in London, the style capital of Europe, but still, the princess seemed to have not the vaguest interest in her appearance. Malmesbury quaked that his grubby, unfashionable charge was to be married to one of the most immaculate dandies of the age, whose debts to his tailor once hit more than £30,000. Indeed, Caroline later declared that George “would make an excellent tailor, shoemaker or hairdresser but nothing else.” Another man might have loved her for her open demeanor, honesty, and genuinely kind heart. But the prince only valued women who were exquisitely dressed and possessed of a perfect knowledge of etiquette. Jolly, girlish behavior held no appeal for him.
Malmesbury told himself that he could do nothing. He was in Brunswick only to collect the princess and not to report on her. In England, plans for the wedding were moving ahead, the country was growing excited, and the prince was eager to see his bride. One wonders, however, whether Malmesbury’s diary was revised slightly with the benefit of hindsight and a desire to justify his opinion, for he would have looked very foolish had he filled his pages with praise. The old tale of the terrible incompatibility of the prince and princess needs some tempering. It is unlikely that any other princess would have made a more appropriate wife. The prince would have been better matched to a confident widow in her late thirties, but as heir to the throne he was supposed to marry a young virgin.
In late December, the princess finally set off for her new life, accompanied by her mother and Lord Malmesbury. She drove away radiant with anticipation and hope, watching the crowds waving wildly and listening to their cheers. Her enthusiasm was soon dampened. Malmesbury learned that troops were advancing across Europe. Holland was too dangerous to enter, and so he decreed that they would have to turn back and wait at Hanover. There they were forced to remain for two long, cold months while war raged. The Duchess of Brunswick complained and begged to return home, while Malmesbury, nervous about his reception in England, carped at the princess. He asked her female attendants to make it clear to her that her fiancé “was very delicate” and expected a long and very careful toilette de propriété.” He fretted that she had a trousseau full of rudimentary nightdresses and drawers. The prince liked ladies who wore delicate undergarments edged with Brussels lace.
Caroline laughed off his complaints about her inadequate lingerie and ignored his recommendations of regular baths. Malmesbury was beginning to understand that his mission was hopeless.
Reading Group Guide
1. Some of Britain’s most successful monarchs have been female–including Victoria. Could being born into a position in which society suggests you are inferior actually be a helpful prelude to being a monarch?
2. By the time Princess Charlotte was born, the seven sons and six daughters of George III had between them fifty-six illegitimate children and no legitimate offspring. Her uncles tended to the spendthrift and debauched. Can you suggest why they turned out this way?
3. Charlotte had a miserable childhood, torn between two warring parents. Her story–and that of her aunts and her mother–suggests that life as a princess was restricted and suffocating. Even though history gives us more unhappy princesses than happy, our society celebrates “princess culture,” especially for little girls. Why are we ever more enthusiastic about princesses in the twenty-first century?
4. Do you think it is possible to have a happy royal marriage?
5. Charlotte’s death prompted the greatest outpouring of national grief in British history, equaled only by the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Why do so many of us grieve so deeply for people we don’t even know, and why for these two young women in particular?
6. When she was born, Victoria’s father said, “My brothers are not so strong as I am . . . The crown will come to me and my children.” Gaining royal power always entails the death of one’s parent or siblings. Do you think this must poison family relationships?
7. Victoria’s name was completely invented, and given to her to signify that she would never be queen. Was having a unique name a hindrance or a help? Does the same apply to the possessors of unique names in ordinary life?
8. The British royal family is historically German: George I was German, Victoria’s mother was German, and her husband as well. The family changed its name to Windsor in 1917, at the height of World War I. Was the German heritage an advantage in any way, or only something to be hidden?
9. Why did Victoria’s mother and John Conroy watch Victoria so obsessively? Can the “Kensington System” be justified?
10. We can charge Victoria with inventing one of modern life’s most overwhelming events: big, white weddings. Before Victoria, weddings were quiet events and brides wore any color. Victoria, gowned in white for her huge royal wedding, was driven through the streets to be fêted by her people. What political purpose do public royal weddings serve, and why have we increasingly adopted this custom?
11. How did Victoria walk the fine line of being head of state without upsetting society’s perception of the female role?
12. Elizabeth I said she had the “body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king.” Could Victoria have made a similar speech?
13. In 2013, British law was finally changed so that the firstborn child was the heir to the throne, no matter whether boy or girl. Why did it take British lawmakers so long to change previous practices?
14. Women gained the chance to stand for the British parliament in 1918, while in the United States the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916 and Senate in 1922, but British government has had very few women in positions of power. Why, in an age of female equality, is the top job in a country still so often taken by a man?
15. Should Britain still have a monarchy in the twenty-first century?