No one ever imagined that one day Victoria would be the queen. Her father, after all, was not the first son of a king. He was the fourth. This honour was thrust upon her by a succession of unfortunate coincidences including the deaths of family members, two obese uncles with no legitimate children and somehow her father managing to avoid being murdered by mutinous troops when he was stationed in Gibraltar. He had been lucky enough to persuade her mother to marry him, despite being a middle-aged bankrupt prince. All of these incidents ultimately left her as the only suitable legitimate candidate to assume the throne and she assumed it incompetently, and at first, reluctantly.
The circumstances of Queen Victoria's birth is one of the huge 'what if's' in history and an amazing story. What if Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of Prince George, the future King of England after his father King George III, had not died during childbirth along with her baby? What if at least one of the other six feisty brothers had married instead of living with mistresses and having children out of wedlock? There would have been no need for George's brothers to make a panicked rush to the altar.
Another child from Charlotte’s father was out of the question since he had long been estranged from his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, before Charlotte was even born. His 55-year-old brother, Frederick Duke of York was estranged from his wife as well and deeply involved with a middle-aged mistress, whom he had no intention of giving up. His German wife, Princess Frederica of Prussia, had long since been sent away to the English countryside to live permanently and that’s where he intended her to stay. The next in line was 53-year-old William Duke of Clarence who had no difficulty in producing offspring. But these ten children were by a mistress, so of course that meant none of them were legitimate or eligible. Edward Duke of Kent, aged 51, had been living happily with his French-Canadian mistress for the past 24 years and even if she became his lawful wife, she was too old to have legitimate children. Next was 47-year-old Ernest Duke of Cumberland, currently the King of Hanover, who had married twice-widowed Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, much to the disapproval of his mother who stubbornly refused to acknowledge her. Despite the odds, it was proving to be a happy marriage and at Charlotte’s death, Ernest was the only son who was married and not estranged from his wife. But still there were no children. Then there was 45-year-old Augustus Duke of Sussex, who had twice defied the Royal Marriages Act by taking wives without his father’s consent, and 44-year-old Adolphus Duke of Cambridge who had neither a wife, nor legitimate successors, at Charlotte’s death. Out of seven spirited young men, there was not one legitimate child who could be regarded as the heir to the throne. How could such an enormous family become extinct? It was a monumental disaster.
The baby race went into full swing with George III’s sons lining up at the starting gate. William was eyeing off an heiress in Brighton. Ernest’s wife, who had lost her first baby minutes after his birth, was pregnant again and Adolphus was on the point of marrying Princess Augusta of Helle-Cassell. As for Edward, his eldest brother George, who was acting as Regent for his mentally ill father, gave him permission to marry Marie Luise, known as Victoire, and luckily for him, Parliament increased his income to £6,000 to help eradicate his huge gambling debts.
Victoire was a plump, cheerful, pretty widow with apple-red cheeks and brown ringlets. She came with two children of her own and together they lived in a country that had been impoverished since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. Napoleon’s army had left it desolate and by the time Victoire’s father died, Napoleon had formally brought the region to an end and her people were actually starving when she became their duchess. They had never seen more wretched times.
Victoire had known the hazards of being royal where the monarchy could be reduced to ruins, or killed, at the whims of fate. She lived in a state of abject insecurity and poverty and she had a profound sympathy for anyone else who lived the same horror. At 32 years of age, when she met Edward Duke of Kent, she was penniless with no prospects outside the chance of marriageand unfortunately for Edward, he was not that far in front of her. In fact, she was swapping an impoverished country to marry a virtual pauper. Still, taking all of this into account, she believed she’d landed on her feet in clover. There was renewed hope that if she could just produce a child before anyone else in the family did, then her life would be turned around.
Edward and Victoire settled into a fond companionship, quietly thrilled with each other, and left Britain for her native Coburg. The wedding took place in a beautiful baroque Schloss, which her brother Leopold, Princess Charlotte's widower, had only just finished refurbishing and with that out of the way, they turned around and headed back to England where they went through another marriage ceremony according to the rites of the Church of England. Beside Edward and Victoire at the altar, stood his older brother William who was marrying Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in a double ceremony. After the ceremony, the two brothers parted ways.
No one believed for a second that the weddings were anything but ones of convenience. What Edward did have was plans. On his first visit to Coburg for the initial wedding ceremony, Edward had seen the Schloss after the refurbishment but it was certainly not up to scratch. With ideas and £10,000 of borrowed money, ready to beautify the Schloss, the happy couple returned to Germany where her 15-year-old son Carl Friedrich had been ruling in her absence. With them, they brought English workmen to install stoves, plant gardens and build stables.
Months later, Edward was to hear two sets of news. Firstly, the sad news was that his mother had died. But the second news made him jubilant. Victoire was pregnant and he’d beaten his brothers to the royal nursery. He resolved that after a quiet winter in Germany, they would leave to return to England for the birth of his child, who would be the future monarch of Britain, since William’s wife had miscarried again.
You’d have thought that a six-month warning would have been sufficient to make travel arrangements. Still, they left it awfully close. They set out for England when Victoire was eight months pregnant, ready to travel over 430 miles at a time when there was no such thing as a tarmac road in Europe. Edward was desperately trying to get his heavily pregnant wife to Britain in time to give birth to a baby he hoped might one day sit on the throne. He wanted his child’s first bawl to be on English soil but when he looked down at his wife’s pale face, her hand rubbing her stomach where tiny feet kicked, he must have realised he’d left it awfully late.
If the journey weren’t so desperate, the entourage would have been comical. Since money was again tight and they had no money to pay a coachman, Edward himself drove the two-seated cart pulled by two horses with no covering top to shade Victoire sitting beside him in discomfort. Behind them came a carriage carrying Victoire’s favourite caged birds, cats and dogs. After them came English maids, two cooks, a retired naval surgeon, an obstetrician and a skilled midwife. As personal attendants, they not only brought maids and a valet but also Victoire’s lady-in-waiting whom she had kept after the death of her first husband. Following all of them was Edward’s personal officer, a handsome Irishman by the name of John Conroy, a staff officer in the Royal Horse Artillery, to attend to his horses.
Onwards the noisy caravan bumped, first through Frankfurt, rumbling over slippery cobblestones, until finally, they reached Calais on 18th April. With everything planned to the tiniest detail, it was the weather that let Edward down. The entourage arrived at the seaport right in the middle of the blustery weather. The wind was howling and the waves were breaking mercilessly on the shore and as the wind buffeted their clothes, Edward must have been feeling more than a little nervous. With the unpredictability of the English Channel, it was unthinkable for a heavily pregnant woman to cross the channel for any reason whatsoever. A week passed and the sea was still choppy but by then, the trip had become urgent. The three-hour sea journey must have been almost unbearable for Victoire.
When Edward and Victoire arrived, it was a beautiful spring day and the meadows were full of glorious colour as they headed straight to Kensington, a village detached from Westminster. Feeling in a benevolent mood, his brother George had offered Edward the use of the apartments in Kensington, which had once housed his now deceased wife, Caroline.
Kensington Palace was originally a two-storey Jacobean mansion purchased by 1st Earl of Nottingham in 1619 and called Nottingham House but it began life as a King’s playground a hundred years before that. The gardens were part of Hyde Park and hosted Henry VIII’s huge deer chase. When William and Mary came to the throne, they bought the mansion from 2nd Earl of Nottingham and instructed Sir Christopher Wren to begin immediate expansion of the palace in 1689 as well as creating a separate park. Mary commissioned a palace garden of formal flower beds and box hedges and Queen Anne had followed on and created an English-style garden making it the perfect venue for fashionable court entertaining away from the chaos of town. Even George I had spent lavishly on new royal apartments, creating new state rooms, the Cupola Room and the Withdrawing Room. The last reigning monarch to use Kensington Palace was George II who left the running of the palace to his wife Caroline. After her death, George neglected many of the rooms and the palace fell into disrepair. By the time their father George III took the throne in 1760, Kensington Palace was only used for minor royalty.
What George had forgotten was that in a rather vindictive moment, he had stripped the apartments of furniture to make it unbearable and impossible for Caroline to live there and never felt the need to replace them after her death. When Edward and Victoire arrived, the apartments were empty and had neither been aired nor heated. To top it off, the larder was unusable because water constantly dripped from the ceiling.
Luckily, Edward had a knack for home-improvements by then and he borrowed yet another £2,000 from somewhere to refurbish his new abode. In the coming two weeks, the rooms were repainted, furniture was purchased, a desk was placed in the library and the windows and bed in Victoire’s bedroom were decorated. A mahogany crib was waiting on new carpet and on 23rd May at 10.30 in the evening, Victoire went into labour. Even by today’s standards, it was tight.
This birth was her third one and the six-hour delivery had been relatively easy. By 4.15 in the morning, a roaring, plump baby daughter was born. Within moments, the room was crowded with politicians, clergymen and chancellors, all pressing their ruddy faces close to the baby girl to attest that the child was in fact the mother’s child. No one wanted the same scandal that James II and his wife Mary of Modena had suffered. She had given birth to a thriving boy but the majority of the public, mainly Protestants, believed that she had in fact miscarried yet again and that she’d had a live baby smuggled into her room in a warming pan. This was more than likely untrue but it was one of the factors that led to the revolution that knocked James II of his throne.
As they stared at the vocal child, no one in the room had any idea that in two decades, they would be bowing to this plump baby as Queen and that she would be commanding armies, appointing prime ministers and selecting archbishops. From the moment of her birth, because she was an important child fifth in line to the throne, she would never be alone and every morsel of food would be tested first.
As the sky lightened, her mother lay exhausted in her bed and the tiny child grizzled. The duchess had endured the presence of the men as they peered at the child before they shuffled out of the room murmuring their congratulations to the father and mother. Her father was full of pride at both producing a legitimate child when his brothers seemed to be struggling to do so and of his wife’s ‘patience and sweetness’ during labour. Despite the unromantic beginnings, they had succeeded when others were failing.
Although Edward was briefly disappointed at not having a son, the duchess was instantly smitten with her daughter, opting to breastfeed for the first six months while most aristocratic women employed wet nurses. Her peers raised eyebrows but she continued nursing and Edward watched his stout, pretty daughter growing miraculously.
I wonder if Queen Victoria had any idea of the legacy she would leave the world as she first sat on the throne eighteen years later beneath the soaring arches under the gaze of thousands of people in Westminster Abbey. It would have seemed like most of London had thronged the streets well before sunrise on the day hoping to catch a glimpse of their new queen, just eighteen years old and less than five feet tall.
As the tiny teenager sat on the throne, her feet not even touching the floor, her archbishop jumbled his lines, one of her lords tumbled down the steps when he approached to kiss her hand and she would have noticed her prime minister half-stoned on opium and brandy watching the ceremony in a fog. The ruby coronation ring had even been jammed on the wrong finger and her hand would have been throbbing. Later on, it would have to be removed with ice. She would have looked around her and seen the immense abbey filled with aristocrats, their clothing heavy with diamonds. She would have noticed the gold drapes and the exotic carpets and her head would have been aching under the heavy crown. Around her she would have noticed her many advisors and none of them would have looked confident that she could rule a nation as strong and powerful as England.
But her composure was impeccable, her voice steady and controlled, and if the thought of becoming a queen terrified her, she gave no sign of it. She never once let on that she was aware of the enormity of the task of becoming Queen at a time when her family had been unpopular for decades and Britain was still very far from being a democracy.
A hundred years before, her Hanoverian predecessors had been offered the throne with high hopes of achieving a stable monarchy after the death of William II. What England actually received was the exact opposite. For all the Stuarts’ misdemeanours and transgressions, they had shown enough sophistication for Britain to grant them at least some level of respect. More importantly, the Stuarts had shown respect for each other. In a time when Britain had hoped and prayed to obtain a secure steady monarchy, what they’d actually received was a feisty tangle of family members who openly brawled with each other and bickered savagely in public. Finding a role model for Victoria was going to prove difficult.