Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life

Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life

by Lucy Worsley


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The story of the queen who defied convention and defined an era

A passionate princess, an astute and clever queen, and a cunning widow, Victoria played many roles throughout her life. In Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, Lucy Worsley introduces her as a woman leading a truly extraordinary life in a unique time period. Queen Victoria simultaneously managed to define a socially conservative vision of Victorian womanhood, while also defying its conventions. Beneath her exterior image of traditional daughter, wife, and widow, she was a strong-willed and masterful politician.

Drawing from the vast collection of Victoria’s correspondence and the rich documentation of her life, Worsley recreates twenty-four of the most important days in Victoria's life. Each day gives a glimpse into the identity of this powerful, difficult queen and the contradictions that defined her. Queen Victoria is an intimate introduction to one of Britain’s most iconic rulers as a wife and widow, mother and matriarch, and above all, a woman of her time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250201423
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/08/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 189,689
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

LUCY WORSLEY is a historian, author, curator and television presenter. Lucy read Ancient and Modern History at New College, Oxford and worked for English Heritage before becoming Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She also presents history programs for the BBC and is the author of several bestselling books, including Courtiers: the Secret History of the Georgian Court, Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, and more. She lives in London, England.

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Double Wedding: Kew Palace, 11 July 1818

Kew Palace, a little brick building peeping out from among the trees in west London's Kew Gardens, is an unlikely-looking royal palace. You might mistake it for a giant doll's house. But it has in fact been notorious since the late-Georgian period as both the asylum and prison of George III, who retreated here during his episodes of critical illness. If he were alive today, it's likely that George III would be treated for bipolar disorder. In his own lifetime, though, people thought him 'mad'. The king's 'madness' would cast a long shadow over the life of his best-known granddaughter, Queen Victoria.

In his healthier, happier youth, George III, Victoria's grandmother Queen Charlotte and their fifteen children had loved visiting their pocket-sized palace in the gardens. 'Dear little Kew', Charlotte called it. Their home was a seventeenth-century merchant's dwelling with curved gables, repurposed as a royal hideaway. It was ideally situated for enjoying the botanical wonderland of Kew, which extended from right outside the building's front door.

On Saturday 11 July 1818, however, the mood inside Kew Palace was sombre. A curious double wedding was to take place there that afternoon. Two of George III and Queen Charlotte's sons were simultaneously to marry two German princesses, but in an atmosphere of duty rather than joy.

Charlotte, the mother of the grooms, was now seventy-four years old. Her fifteen offspring had once played contentedly in the gardens at Kew, but the family once known as 'the joyous band' had since been atomised by misfortune. Charlotte's three final children had died horribly young. Her formerly loving husband became estranged, and was sometimes even crude and cruel towards her as he lost control of his speech and descended into his own incoherent hell. Today he was absent from his sons' weddings, living as he was under medical supervision at Windsor Castle. There he was said to be 'perfectly happy, conversing with the Dead'.

As well as twelve surviving children, Charlotte also had a significant number of grandchildren, totalling at least fourteen. Yet the wedding party now gathering did so in response to a crisis in the royal line of succession. The problem with George III and Charlotte's living grandchildren, and the reason for the doubt about their number, was that in 1818 every single one of them was illegitimate, born outside the sanctity of wedlock.

This extraordinary situation had arisen because George III, a strict father, had been anxious to prevent his children from making inappropriate matches. His Royal Marriages Act of 1772 made it illegal for his progeny to marry without his personal permission. But the unintended consequence had been to discourage his sons – the Royal Dukes – from getting married at all. By the end of the eighteenth century, only three of the seven had taken the plunge. The union of the eldest, the Prince of Wales, had produced just a single daughter – a second Charlotte – before ending in separation. Another brother's marriage had been undertaken in secret, without royal permission, and was therefore not recognised by law.

Two of the remaining unmarried Royal Dukes, William, Duke of Clarence, and Edward, Duke of Kent, were now making their way to their mother's house at Kew in order, at 4 p.m., to attend their own weddings. This double ducal marriage ceremony had been triggered by the recent death, in childbirth, of their niece Princess Charlotte. As the one legitimate royal grandchild, the late princess had been her generation's only possible monarch.

For the sake of the succession, then, Princess Charlotte's death forced her uncles to do their patriotic duty. They were now expected to stop tottering comfortably towards middle age with their mistresses, find themselves proper brides and perpetuate the royal line.

As Queen Charlotte watched for the arrival of her sons from the sash windows of her first-floor drawing room, her view embraced a bizarre landscape. The dinky toy palace in which she sat was positioned within a royal compound that included several other mansions, since destroyed, where princes had once dwelt. Nearby on the riverbank stood the unfinished turrets of the Castellated Palace, a bonkers construction begun but not completed by George III. It was aptly described as a building in which princesses might be 'detained by giants or enchanters – an image of distempered reason'. The leafy landscape, bordered by the Thames, was studded with the temples, follies and palaces of a royal family that liked to retreat to its fantastical garden world for refreshment and rehabilitation.

Anyone watching from below as Charlotte peered through the panes would have noticed her striking hair, teased high and powdered white. Contemporaries often commented on her 'true Mulatto' or mixed-race appearance, and the cast of her features in her portraits does seem to hint at the African heritage she possessed via her Portuguese ancestors. Her cheeks, though, were also deathly pale, and her health today was in a perilous state. She had paused here at Kew merely as a staging post on a journey to Windsor and her husband, before being taken too ill to continue. Today's events were unfolding after a postponement during which she had desperately tried to regain her strength.

One of the causes of Charlotte's malady was her heart, now beating 'most unequally & irregularly'. It had taken many 'exertions of the doctors' to make her ready for the 'rather lugubrious' ceremony, and to administer painkillers strong enough to get her out of bed and into her wheelchair. Her condition was physical, but also partly mental. 'My Mind & feelings,' she wrote, thinking of her husband's illness and her unsatisfactory children, 'have been very much harassed ... my Strength and Spirits are not equal to Trials.' She was served now by just a few long-standing, intimate members of her formerly vast staff, including her wardrobe maid and her 'Necessary Woman to the Private Apartments'. This last character was Charlotte's fellow German Mrs Papendick, whose job it was to empty the queen's 'necessary', or commode.

Charlotte's chair upon 'rollers' had been a gift from her eldest son, who now watched and waited by her side. The Prince of Wales, a 'very stout' man of fifty-five, had often been at odds with his parents in his youth. In more recent years, though, he had become a thoughtful, regretful son, frequently visiting his mother, and making contrivances for her comfort. He was now designated as the Prince Regent, his sick and absent father's official stand-in.

Despite having her plump, punctilious son to hand, Charlotte was lonely, and heartsick for her husband. 'I wish I was with the king,' she would say. Charlotte had married her George at seventeen, the very same night of her arrival in London from her native Mecklenburg in Germany. It was an arranged match, but nevertheless became notable for its fidelity and felicity. Charlotte understood that she was now dying. She'd wanted to get to 'dear, dear Windsor' not only to say goodbye to her husband, but also to destroy certain private papers. Instead, though, she was stuck here at Kew.

On the floor above the queen's suite, her daughters Princesses Augusta and Sophia were also preparing for the wedding. Like their brothers the grooms, they were also unmarried, middle-aged and disgruntled. At events like this, they were expected to dress in striped gowns of matching design to demonstrate their membership of the joyous band. Charlotte insisted that everyone at court still act according to the habits of earlier, luckier times.

In reality, Augusta and Sophia would rather have been almost anywhere else than Kew. Charlotte believed that it was improper for her daughters to take part in society while their father was ill. It would be the 'highest mark of indecency', she claimed, for them to appear in public. But the king's illness had by now lasted for years, placing the princesses in a terrible limbo. If they ever emerged from their seclusion, it would be taken as an admission that the king's family had lost hope that he would ever recover. And this Charlotte would not tolerate.

Trapped at Kew, Augusta and Sophia had grown to hate its quiet, and called it 'the nunnery'. This was a dangerous joke for princesses to make, as a 'nunnery' was also a contemporary word for a brothel. And indeed, Sophia had provided one of her mother's many illegitimate grandchildren, giving birth to a child out of wedlock. The father was one of the king's valets, a gentleman described as 'a hideous old Devil, old enough to be her father, and with a great claret mark on his face'. And so the princesses lived their lonely lives, 'secluded from the world, mixing with few people, their passions boiling over'. When warned that her life was nearing its end, Charlotte had wept, and said to Augusta: 'I had hoped to see you all happy, and now I fear I shall not arrive at that wish of my Heart'.

For Augusta and Sophia, their brothers' weddings were at least a diversion from the usual dull routine. There was an unfamiliar bustle within the building as the first-floor drawing room was furnished with an altar for the ceremony, and four red velvet cushions were brought in to receive eight royal knees. The 'ancient silver plate' from the Chapels Royal had been conveyed specially to Kew. The cramped drawing room of an invalid was a somewhat makeshift venue for a royal wedding, but the conventions would be observed as far as possible.

Just before four, the family began to assemble, the Prince Regent leading his mother to her seat near the altar. The smallish room, with its walls of pale panelling, wobbly floor and ancient fireplace, soon grew crowded. The guests were a select group including the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor, while the Archbishop of Canterbury was to officiate. The Prince Regent was ready to give away the brides, and the stage was set for the grooms.

The two couples were William, Duke of Clarence, who was to marry Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, and his younger brother Edward, Duke of Kent, whose spouse-to-be was Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg.

The names, the titles, sparkle like diamonds on a necklace, but behind them lay very different characters and hopes. William, the future King William IV, stepped up to the altar first. Aged fifty-two, he was widely known as 'Coconut Head' for his pointed skull. He was the unfortunate victim of the spurious 'science' of phrenology, which decreed that the shape of one's head determined one's character. His cranium was thought to indicate mental instability. 'What can you expect,' commented someone who knew him, 'from a man with a head like a pineapple?' Little, in fact, had been expected of William. By 1818, he had two careers behind him: one in the Royal Navy, the other as the lover of the actress Mrs Dorothy Jordan. As profligate as the rest of his Royal Duke brothers, William had lived off Mrs Jordan's earnings until reaching the conclusion that a wealthy heiress might suit him better. At that point he unceremoniously abandoned her.

William's bride-to-be was twenty-five, less than half his age. Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen must have fully understood that she'd been chosen in desperation. Even after marriage had been 'pressed upon' William 'as an act of public duty' in the light of the succession crisis, he'd struggled to find a bride who'd accept him. Adelaide was, in fact, the eleventh young lady he'd asked.

The Prince Regent now escorted Adelaide into the drawing room upon one arm, while Victoire clung to the other. Adelaide was of a perfectly average height, but because she never made a strong personal impression she has left behind her the idea that she was unusually small. 'A small, well-bred, excellent little woman', was a favourable judgement from a British courtier; 'a poor little bad-ish concern' was one that went the other way. Even today she looked far from impressive, despite her dress of silver tissue and the 'superb wreath of diamonds' upon her head. She'd arrived from Germany just a week earlier, and had been staying at Grillion's Hotel in Albemarle Street. As it would turn out, there were distinct advantages to Adelaide's lack of colour. She would become a calming presence in the royal family, conciliatory, loving and beloved. Knowing no English and having no intimates in this foreign country, Adelaide and Victoire had already become allies. They were at least able to 'talk the same mother tongue together, it makes them such real friends'.

At the altar, William watched Adelaide approach with serious misgivings. She was only just older than his own illegitimate daughters. His elder brother had made a terrible hash of his own marriage, and had separated from his wife. Feeling guilty about his similarly shabby treatment of his actress-mistress Mrs Jordan, William promised himself that he would now make a fresh start. 'I cannot, I will not, I must not ill use her,' he vowed. It wasn't an auspicious beginning.

The second couple, Edward Duke of Kent and Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, had already been married once, in May, using the Lutheran version of the ceremony. This had taken place in the Hall of Giants at Victoire's family's castle, Ehrenburg, in her native state of Coburg, Germany. They were now making a second marriage under the rules of the Church of England. When the royal succession might well flow through a match, it was just as well to make doubly sure it was legal.

Towering over his short, pointy-headed brother, Edward, Duke of Kent, was a tall man, of 'soldierlike bearing' despite his 'great corpulency'. He'd lost most of his hair. Despite the unconvincing dye job he'd had done upon the remaining tufts, he was physically impressive, and 'might still be considered' handsome.

Born in 1767, the man who would become Queen Victoria's father had been much the largest of Queen Charlotte's fifteen babies. He grew up to be calmer and quieter than his brothers, speaking 'slowly and deliberately' in a manner both 'kind and courteous'. Edward had spent his youth at a military academy in Hanover, before moving to Geneva. There he'd acquired debts, various actress lovers and then, more seriously, a mistress who was a musician named Adelaide Dubus.

This other Adelaide gave Edward a baby daughter, named Adelaide Victoire, an illegitimate shadowy half-sister to the future queen. But Adelaide Dubus died in childbirth, and little Adelaide Victoire did not survive much longer herself. Edward couldn't cope. Bereaved, indebted and distraught, he returned to London. Unfortunately, he did so without his father's permission. George III, angry at the breach in protocol, immediately shipped Edward off to Gibraltar, presumably in the hope that there he would cause less embarrassment.

Edward's job in Gibraltar was to lead the Royal Fusiliers, who were commonly called the 'Elegant Extracts' (after the popular anthology of prose) for their recruitment practice of poaching the best-looking men from other regiments. Their new colonel was well-intentioned but ineffective. He loved to interfere in everyone else's business, maintaining a correspondence so vast that 'his name was never uttered without a sigh by the functionaries of every public office'.

Edward and his brothers were once described by the Duke of Wellington as 'the damndest millstone around the necks of any government that can be imagined'. When Parliament failed to vote the Royal Dukes the financial allowances they believed that they deserved, Wellington had a ready explanation. The profligate and arrogant Royal Dukes, he explained, had 'insulted – personally insulted – two thirds of the gentlemen of England,' so 'how can it be wondered at that they take their revenge?'


Excerpted from "Queen Victoria"
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Copyright © 2018 Lucy Worsley.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 A Naughty Daughter

1 Double Wedding: Kew Palace, 11 July 1818 9

2 Birth: Kensington Palace, 24 May 1819 24

3 Wet Feet: Sidmouth, 23 January 1820 33

4 'I will be good': Kensington Palace, 11 March 1830 43

5 The Three Missing Weeks: Ramsgate, October 1835 57

6 Albert: Kensington Palace, 18 May 1836 70

7 Accession: Kensington Palace, 20 June 1837 81

8 Coronation: Buckingham Palace, 28 June 1838 92

9 In Lady Floras Bedchamber: Buckingham Palace, 27 June 1839 106

Part 2 The Good Wife

10 The Proposal: Windsor Castle, 10-15 October 1839 123

11 Wedding Day: three palaces, 10 February 1840 137

12 'Oh Madam it is a Princess': Buckingham Palace, 21 November 1840 150

13 Christmas at Windsor: 25 December 1850 164

14 A Maharaja on the Isle of Wight: 21-24 August 1854 182

15 Miss Nightingale at Balmoral: 21 September 1856 195

16 A Night with Nellie: 6 September 1861 210

17 The Blue Room: Windsor Castle, 14 December 1861 228

Part 3 The Widow of Windsor

18 'Sewer-poison': Saudringham, 13 December 1871 243

19 Lunch with Disraeli; Hnghenden Manor, 15 December 1877 261

20 John Browns Legs: 6 March 1884 272

21 Baby Gets Married: Osborne House, 23 July 1885 291

22 Munshi-Mania: Excelsior Hotel Regina, French Riviera, 4 April 1897 303

23 Apotheosis: London, 22 June 1897 317

24 Deathbed: Osborne, 22 January 1901 331

Acknowledgements 343

Sources 345

Notes 361

Index 405

Picture Acknowledgements 421

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