Born in 1819, Victoria was the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent. Left fatherless at the age of eight months, her early years were difficult, brought up by her German mother in an atmosphere of family feuds and jealousy. Succeeding to the throne at 18, however, she began a triumphant reign.
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Alison Plowden (19312007) is the author of Lady Jane Grey, Tudor Women, and Two Queens in One Isle.
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The Young Victoria
By Alison Plowden
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
Hymen's War Terrific
The great and general question which everyone asked himself and asked his neighbour was how will this event operate on the succession to the Crown?
Even before the coffins of Princess Charlotte and her baby had been ceremoniously lowered into the family vault at Windsor, and while the nation was still indulging in its funeral orgy, thoughtful persons were reflecting gloomily on the political and dynastic implications of the tragedy at Claremont which, as Lady Charlotte Bury observed, could scarcely have happened at a more unfortunate moment.
After twenty-two strenuous years of armed struggle against Napoleon, the victors of Trafalgar and Waterloo were suffering the customary pangs of post-war disillusion. Economic recession had brought acute economic distress. In the manufacturing districts the unemployed were starving. The ruined harvest of 1816 had sent food prices rocketing. Banks and businesses were failing at an alarming rate, and there was a spirit of revolution abroad menacing enough to agitate stronger nerves than Lady Charlotte's.
A dignified and popular monarch would have provided an important stabilizing force, so the death of the only member of the royal family whose 'amiable and sensible deportment' had endeared her to the nation, and who alone had seemed to offer hope for the future, could reasonably be considered a calamity. Certainly not even the most committed royalist could now regard the future of the English monarchy with anything but the deepest despondency and the succession, as the Reverend Mr Newton remarked, had become 'a matter of no interest if not of regret'.
In 1817 King George III was seventy-nine years old and irreversibly insane – an old, mad, blind ghost with a long unkempt white beard immured with his keepers at Windsor Castle. But blame for the present regrettable state of the succession could hardly be laid at his door, for he and his ugly, indomitable little German wife had filled the royal nurseries to overflowing, raising a family of no fewer than fifteen children of whom twelve were still living. The uncomfortable (and rather astonishing) fact remained that, with the removal of Princess Charlotte, George III did not possess a single legitimate grandchild. His five surviving daughters were either spinsters or childless, and since the youngest was over forty there could be little to hope for from that direction. Nor did his sons, at first glance, look much more promising.
The Prince Regent was fifty-five and long since estranged from his wife. Years of self-indulgence had transformed the beautiful young man of Hoppner's portrait into a bloated, brandy-soaked disaster, 'a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of demi-reps'. In the circumstances, it did not seem at all likely that Prinny would ever father another heir to the throne.
His remaining brothers, unkindly described by the poet Shelley as 'the dregs of their dull race', were chiefly remarkable for debts, mistresses and scandals, and all were middle-aged. Nevertheless, it was on their shoulders that responsibility for the continuance of the House of Hanover now rested. Two were already married. Frederick, Duke of York, was fifty-four and best remembered for his alleged connivance in the corrupt traffic in army commissions conducted by his mistress Mary Ann Clarke; although, according to his friend, the diarist Charles Greville, he was the only one of the princes who possessed the feelings of an English gentleman. He had for twenty-five years been the unfaithful husband of a Prussian princess, an eccentric lady who seldom went to bed and lived surrounded by an unmanageable number of pet dogs, monkeys and parrots. They were childless. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, the ogre of the family, a rabid reactionary popularly credited with a startling variety of crimes and vices, was forty-six and had recently married the widowed Princess of Solms-Braunfels, whose own reputation was none too fragrant. The Cumberlands had no living children, although a daughter had been born dead.
Augustus, Duke of Sussex, now forty-four, had had two unofficial wives, the first of whom had borne him a son and a daughter. But as neither union had been blessed by the King's consent, they were, under the provisions of the Royal Marriages Act, pronounced legally void and the children not in the line of succession.
Of the three bachelor princes, William, Duke of Clarence, was the eldest at fifty-two. Clarence had served in the navy in his youth (he had been a friend of Nelson's and was best man at his wedding), but had subsequently settled down to a life of irregular domestic bliss with the actress Dorothea Jordan who, in the intervals of fulfilling her theatrical engagements, had given birth to ten little FitzClarences. Edward, Duke of Kent, was fifty. He had made the army his career and also kept a mistress with whom he had lived contentedly for the past twenty-seven years. Last came Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, at forty-three. Apart from being the youngest, he could claim to be the most eligible parti, since he was not in debt and had acquired no extra-marital encumbrances. He spent a good deal of his time practising the violin, wore a blond wig and talked too much, but was otherwise harmless.
The duty of these three brothers now lay plain before them. 'It will be the earnest prayer of the nation', declared the Morning Chronicle, 'that an early alliance of one of the unmarried Princes may forthwith be settled', and one after the other the unmarried Princes hastened to answer the call.
Agog are all, both old and young
Warm'd with desire to be prolific
And prompt with resolution strong
To fight in Hymen's war terrific,
jeered the satirist Peter Pindar, and the nation sniggered ungratefully at the spectacle of a queue of stout, balding royals jostling one another to the altar in the race to beget an heir.
The Duke of Cambridge was first off the mark, proposing to and being accepted by Augusta of Hesse-Cassel within a fortnight of his niece's death, but Clarence and Kent were not far behind. Clarence and Kent had, in fact, both been contemplating matrimony for quite some time, though as the result of financial rather than dynastic pressures. Both suffered from the family complaint of insolvency in an acute form, and marriage had always offered the best hope of persuading a skinflint Parliament to loosen the purse-strings.
The Duke of Clarence had parted from Mrs Jordan as long ago as 1811. 'Could you believe or the world believe that we never had for twenty years the semblance of a quarrel?' she wrote sadly to a friend. But 'money, money ... or the want of it' had broken up the idyllic menage at Bushey Park and, to the unconcealed amusement of the polite world, the Duke proceeded optimistically to pursue a string of English heiresses. Princess Anne of Denmark was suggested as a possible bride and so was the Tsar's sister, but neither lady could be tempted by the bluff, excitable William. Rebuffed, he returned to Bushey and the tribe of sons and daughters to whom he was deeply attached. Then, in the summer of 1818, it was announced that 'the Duke of Clarence is to be married after all' to yet another German princess, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, and, if his past record was anything to go by, some addition to the royal house could surely be expected before long.
Meanwhile, his younger brother had also been giving serious thought to the future. Edward, Duke of Kent, had never been satisfied by the way the world had treated him. A humourless man, with inflated ideas of his own importance and no tact, he contrived to exude an air of righteous self-pity which infuriated the Prince Regent, who called him Simon Pure, and led his sisters to dub him Joseph Surface, after the arch-hypocrite in The School for Scandal. Charles Greville, who loathed him, described him as 'the greatest rascal that ever went unhung' and 'far the worst of the family', while the harsh tyranny of his discipline made him the most hated man in the army.
His military career had come to an abrupt end in 1803, when his brutal severity, his obsessive preoccupation with parades and 'bull', and – worst of all – his closure of the wine-shops, provoked a mutiny in the garrison at Gibraltar. The Duke was recalled to England under a cloud – an injustice which only increased his perennial sense of grievance – and for the next fourteen years was obliged to find an outlet for his restless energies by devoting himself to good works (he supported no fewer than fifty-three charitable bodies) and dabbling in radical politics, which did not endear him to his Tory brothers. A tireless busybody, he maintained 'an active and very extensive correspondence, which three or four private secretaries were scarcely able to master', with the unsurprising result that 'his name was never uttered without a sigh by the functionaries of every public office.'
But in spite of his unerring eye for the trivial, the Duke of Kent was not without intelligence, indeed some of his opinions were unexpectedly advanced. Generously endowed with the family gift of the gab, he was a fluent and graceful speaker, and in private life the Genghis Khan of the parade ground was capable of inspiring genuine affection. He got on particularly well with young people, and could be a charming host and an agreeable friend. His personal habits, too, compared favourably with those of the Regent and the Duke of York. He rose early, ate sparingly, disapproved of gambling and drunkenness, and took a complacent pride in his fine soldierly physique. But unhappily he followed the family tradition in having absolutely no conception of the value of money.
On his return from Gibraltar he had installed his mistress in a luxurious house at Knightsbridge, and bought himself a country retreat in the then rustic village of Ealing. At Castle Hill Lodge, a pleasant, rambling domain surrounded by forty acres of parkland, the Duke proceeded to indulge his mania for ordered perfection, going to endless pains to ensure that 'in this complicated machine of souls and bodies, the genius of attention, of cleanliness, and of smart appearance is the order of the day'. A system of bells in the porter's lodge brought six immaculately accoutred footmen (a resident hairdresser was employed to dress and powder their hair) drawn up at the front door to receive callers. Another servant was required to sit up all night ready to light the bedroom fires punctually at five a.m. and the household included a thirty-piece band which entertained the company at meal times. In the grounds a regiment of gardeners was poised to advance purposefully on the first fallen leaf, and the stables looked as if the occupants were permanently on the point of conveying their master to church in full state. The house itself had been equipped with an interesting selection of mechanical contrivances. There were coloured illuminations, musical clocks and cages of artificial singing birds, not to mention such eccentricities of plumbing as fountains and running streams concealed in the closets – a novelty which moved one startled guest to wonder if he had been transported to 'the fields Elysian'.
Housekeeping on this scale – and there was also the maintenance of a London headquarters at Kensington Palace to be considered – might be gratifying to the ego, but it was costing its optimistic chatelain a staggering amount of money. By 1807 the Duke of Kent's debts had passed the £200,000 mark, and by 1815 his creditors were closing in. An appeal to the Regent met with a cold response, as did various ingenious schemes for raising more cash to pay off the most pressing of his obligations, and it became unpleasantly clear that drastic measures would be necessary to avoid the ignominy of public bankruptcy. The Duke therefore handed over three-quarters of his income to a committee of trustees and prepared rather sadly to economize.
Since it was obviously impossible for a prince and a gentleman to manage in England on a mere £10,000 or so, he had to resign himself to a sojourn abroad and in the summer of 1816 departed for Brussels, where the cost of living was among the lowest in Europe. The Duke was probably quite sincere in his belief that he was carrying out 'the full spirit of my plan of economy and retrenchment'; but as his notions of economy included leasing a large mansion in the Place Royale, which he at once started to renovate and improve out of recognition and at considerable expense, his chances of becoming solvent again by his target date of 1821 did not look very bright.
Loyally sharing his Belgian exile was the comfortable middle-aged woman known in the family as 'Edward's French lady', and officially described as Madame de St Laurent. A certain aura of romantic mystery used to be attached to the Duke of Kent's mistress. It was said that she was a widow, a French-Canadian (the Duke had spent some of his army service in Canada), and that she came from an aristocratic Catholic background. It was also said that the Duke had married her and that they had several children, whose descendants were the rightful occupants of the English throne. Recent research, however, has revealed the more prosaic facts that Mademoiselle Julie de St Laurent, as she then called herself, was the daughter of a civil engineer from Besançon in eastern France and had been engaged or, perhaps more accurately, procured back in 1790 by a M. Fontiny to act as Prince Edward's hostess, to sing for him, to ornament his household and to share his bed. Julie proved to be good-tempered, pretty and clever, and what began as a purely business arrangement had ripened over the years into a tender and mutually rewarding domestic felicity.
They never married. If they had, it would not have been recognized under English law, nor is there any evidence to suggest that they had children. Certainly there seems no valid reason why the Duke should have concealed his progeny – George III's sons were never in the least coy about their bastards – but what he was currently doing his best to conceal from Madame de St Laurent was the fact that he had begun to look seriously for a wife as the only sure way out of his financial imbroglio, and that two possible candidates were already under consideration. One was the well-connected but plain Princess Katherine Amelia of Baden; the other, Marie Louise Victoire, the recently widowed Princess of Leiningen and a sister of Princess Charlotte's husband, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.
Charlotte had always been fond of her uncle Edward, who had supported her sympathetically during the difficult days preceding her marriage, and she and Leopold were now busy matchmaking on his behalf. So, in the autumn of 1816, taking advantage of Madame's absence on a visit to Paris, the Duke crossed into Germany for a quick tour of inspection, having first had to borrow the money for his journey. Princess Amelia turned out to be an old maid of over forty and altogether 'odious', but at Amorbach, a pleasant little place nestling in a deep, wooded valley, where he arrived armed with a letter of recommendation from Princess Charlotte, things looked very much more promising. The Duke of Kent, in short, took an immediate fancy to the plump, personable Victoire and her two handsome children, and wasted no time in making his declaration.
But although he seems to have made quite a good impression, the Princess of Leiningen refused to commit herself. Her life so far had not been an easy one. Born in 1786, she had grown up in a Germany ravaged by Napoleon's armies and where many of the princely families, including her own and her late husband's, had been impoverished and dispossessed. (Ironically enough, Victoire had had far more first-hand experience of the unpleasant realities of war than the martial Duke.) Her previous marriage at the age of seventeen to a morose, embittered man twenty-three years her senior and 'entirely devoted to the amusements of the chase' had been lonely and depressing. Now, still a comparatively young woman, she was free to please herself and naturally hesitated to give up her home, her friends and her emancipation. At her elbow, too, stood the slightly enigmatic figure of Captain Schindler, Master of the Household and the Dowager Princess's closest adviser, who had his own reasons for urging the unwisdom of relinquishing an income of £5,000 a year and her 'enviable independence' all for the sake of another middle-aged husband whom she hardly knew by sight. There was another more serious obstacle. Victoire loved her children, especially her son Charles, and was afraid that if she married an Englishman and left Amorbach for any length of time she might lose their guardianship and perhaps be permanently separated from them.
On the other hand, and in spite of his debts, the Duke of Kent would undeniably be a splendid match, offering her the entry into a wider, more exciting world as well as the glamorous, if remote, prospect of becoming a Queen Consort, perhaps even a Queen Mother. Victoire was horribly torn in two but the Duke, jolting back to Belgium in his 'travelling baroutsch', did not despair of the outcome. He knew he could rely on Prince Leopold and Charlotte (who had struck up an enthusiastic pen-friendship with her sister-in-law) to use their influence, and felt that time and reflection must surely work in his favour. Meanwhile, he was not ungrateful for an excuse to postpone the moment of decision and the inevitable upsetting interview with Madame de St Laurent.
Excerpted from The Young Victoria by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: A Nation Bleeds,
1 Hymen's War Terrific,
2 The Little Mayflower,
3 Le Roi George in Petticoats,
4 The Kensington System,
5 I Will be Good,
6 I was Very Much Amused,
7 Albert Is Much Handsomer,
8 Little Vic,
9 Queen of Such a Nation,
10 Grand Scompiglio,
11 I and Albert Alone,
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