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Queen Victoria's Childhood

The plump toddler watering the flowers in the garden of her home at Kensington Palace was to overcome her early difficulties to become Britian’s great Queen-Empress.

by M. Foster Farley

The name “Queen Victoria” conjures up a picture of a small, plump old lady in a black gown and lace cap, querulous and exacting, “not amused” at the antics of the younger generation, yearning always to be reunited by death with her dear departed Albert. It is hard to visualise her as a child. Yet, of course, she was once young and not always the formidable matriarch and magnificent Queen-Empress of popular legend. In fact, her childhood did not really end until she was 18 years old, when she succeeded to the throne.

Victoria was born on a bright spring day, 24th May 1819, at Kensington Palace, in the then quiet suburb of London. “Plumb as a partridge” was her father’s description of the baby, and she certainly bore a marked resemblance to her sturdy and robust Hanoverian ancestors who had ruled Great Britain for little more than a century at the time of her birth.

By 1798 Victoria’s grandfather, King George III, had reigned for nearly sixty years, but he was now old and ailing. The symptoms of his terrible illness, porphyria, seemed to his doctors to be those of madness, and for years the King had be confined in Windsor Castle while his eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, ruled in his stead. Victoria’s father, Edward, Duke of Kent, was the old King’s fourth son, but since his three elder brothers were without heirs, there seemed a good chance that he might one day himself become King. He had married late in life, when he was over 50, to supply an heir to the throne in the younger generation. Between the seven princes and five princesses of the royal family, not one of them had a legitimate child to carry on the succession, until 1819 saw three royal births within two months.

The Prince of Wales had one child, the Princess Charlotte, who in time would have become Queen, but she died in childbirth in the autumn of 1817. It was her death which drove her uncles into marriage, to beget heirs to replace her in the line of succession. Indirectly, Charlotte herself had found her uncle Edward his bride: the Princess had married a minor German princeling, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and, deeply in love with him, suggested to the Duke of Kent that he would find an amiable wife in Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. In fact, Edward and Victoire met in 1816, but then there seemed no urgency in the matter of their marriage, and there were too many difficulties in the way at the time for the Duke of Kent to urge his suit — not the least of them being that he was perfectly happy with his French mistress of some quarter of a century’s standing. But soon after Charlotte’s death, Edward proposed to Victoire, and the couple were married the following summer.

Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was 31 years old when she married the English Duke, a pretty woman with dark hair and sparking eyes, with a fine figure and lively ways. A German Princess of ancient lineage but little fortune, she had been first married at the age of 17 to Prince Emich Charles of Leiningren, a widower in his late thirties. Together they had weathered the storms of the Napoleonic invasions of Germany, their tiny principality impoverished by the wars. Emich Charles died only a few months after the first defeat of Napoleon, in 1814, leaving his widow with two small children and the manifold demands of noblesse oblige to tax her wits and strength. Her marriage with the Duke of Kent seemed to promise Victoire a brighter future, taking her away from her narrow existence in the village of Amorbach, with its careful economies and restricted social life, into one of the leading Courts of Europe, with the chance of one day becoming a queen.

In the summer of 1818 Edward brought his bride to England, but then, after a few heady months in London “society”, it was back to Amorbach and the familiar daily round, for the Duke was so burdened with debts that he could not afford to keep up appearances as a royal personage in England. But he was determined that his child should be born in his native land, and by dint of borrowing from his long-suffering friends, he managed to bring his wife back to England in time for the baby’s birth.

Edward was not disappointed that the baby was a girl and not the long-hoped-for male heir: “I am decidedly of the opinion that the decrees of Providence are at all times the wisest and the best,” he wrote to a friend.

A month after her birth, the Kent baby was baptised. After much debate in the royal family — in which not a little ill-feeling was aroused, she was named “Alexandrina Victoria”, after her chief godfather, the Russian Tsar Alexander, and her mother. The name “Victoria: was then completely unknown in England, though it had long been in use in the forms “Victoire” and “Victoria” on the Continent. For the first few years the child was known as “Drina”, but in one of her first copy-books is limned the name “Victoria” by which she came to be known in later childhood.

Despite the fact that the Kents had married “for convenience” their union proved remarkably happy. Edward had never known the comforts of a settled home in England, nor had he ever enjoyed so much approval from his family as this new domesticity brought. For Victoire, the change in her circumstances was delightful: with her new baby, and with a husband who doted on her, she was well content.

Unfortunately, however, this happy state of affairs did not last long. The family moved down to Sidmouth in Devon in December 1819, and there, on 23rd January 1820, Edward, Duke of Kent, suddenly died. He, who had no serious illness in his life, caught a cold and took no special care of himself, so that it turned to pneumonia.

In abject grief and almost penniless, the widowed Duchess allowed her brother Leopold to make all the arrangements for her return to London. For months she remained in seclusion, at Kensington or at Leopold’s house at Claremont in Surrey. It was a testing-time for too, in that she had to decide whether to return to the familiar German countryside which had been her home for any or to remain in England, where she was still a comparative stranger. But the fact that her baby was now third in line to the throne (for George III had died only days after his son Edward) steeled her to her duty: for the sake of the baby’s future inheritance, she would stay in England and bring up her child as an Englishwoman, ready to succeed to the throne.

The new King George IV had had very little affection for his late brother, so unlike him in character and principles, and he was not enamoured of the idea of having to contribute to the support of his widowed sister-in-law. Fortunately for Victoire, she had her own brother Leopold at hand, for he had decided to make his home in England after the death of his wife Charlotte, and out of his own allowance he provided most of the Duchess’s income.

Many years later, Queen Victoria gathered together her earliest memories. Her infancy was people with kind faces: her mother, always anxious and prudent for the child’s health; her half-sister Feodora, ten years her senior but her constant companion; old Baroness Spath, the Duchess’s German lady-in-waiting; the adoring nurse Mrs. Brock, replaced when Victoria was 4 years old by Fraulein Lehzen, Feodora’s governess. There were numerous aunts and uncles of the Royal family: her favourites were kind Aunt Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence, and her bluff husband William, struggling to hold back, in polite company, those rough seamen’s oath which he had learned in his roistering youth, as well as the devoted Uncle Leopold from Germany. On the other hand, there was “Uncle Sussex” who lived next door and who, it was always threatened, would be angry if his niece’s raised voice reached his ears; and the sinister “Uncle Cumberland”, next in line to the throne after the little Victoria, who, it was rumoured, was not incapable of “removing” so irritating a small rival to his aspirations to the crown.

“We lived in a very plain manner”, reminisced the Queen later, “breakfast was at half past eight, luncheon at half past one, dinner at seven – to which I came generally (when it was not regular large dinner-party) — eating my bread and milk out of a small silver basin. Tea was only allowed as a great treat in my later years.” A few pen-pictures of the young Victoria were written by contemporaries: the plump toddler attempting to water the flowers in the Palace gardens but pouring most of the contents of her watering-can over her shoes; a straight backed infant atop an ambling donkey, with a sweet-faced elder sister to guide her; a solemn little girl at church at Esher, so wrapped in her own thoughts that she failed to notice the threatening bumble-bee buzzing inside the rim of her bonnet.

Victoria was no model child. She had her fair share of the royal temper, screaming and stamping when she was crossed, throwing a pair of scissors at Lehzen in a right royal rage. “When you are naughty, you make me and yourself very unhappy,” her mother rebuked her on one occasion. “No, Mamma,” corrected the child, “not me, mot myself, but you!” All her life the future Queen would be stubborn and obstinate, but when she became calm after an uncontrolled fit of temper, she would always be contrite and wheedling for forgiveness. She was bright enough, quick at her lessons and shrewd in personal relationships: when her uncle George IV whisked her off to hear the band at Windsor one day, and gave her choice of a “number”, the artful child requested “God Save the King”.

But Queen Victoria’s childhood was not idyllic by any means. As she grew up, she came to realise how narrow the circle admitted to Kensington Palace; she agreed with her half-sister that only at Claremont, on their holiday, had she been completely happy. The darkest shadow over her young life was one John Conroy, the Comptroller of the Duchess’s household at Kensington and the virtual controller of all the Duchess’s attitudes and aspirations. Conroy had been the Duke of Kent’s aid-de-camp, a military man who made more success of his social studies than he ever had of active service. He was a flamboyantly good-looking Irishman, possessed of an ample measure of charm and an overweening ambition.

The Duchess of Kent was no simpleton, but she was used to having her life ruled by men and could not accustom herself to having to make independent decisions. A better guide would have been her brother Leopold but, he, after a few years of carefully supervision of his sister’s affairs, took a mistress of whom she could not approve, which drove a wedge between them; then, as he tired of inactivity in England, he began to travel abroad more frequently. Finally, in 1831, he departed permanently to take up the crown of the newly-created kingdom of Belgium. Left alone in England, daunted by her responsibility as mother of a future Queen, Victoire of Kent relied increasingly on the soothing blandishments of her Comptroller.

It was Conroy who insisted that Victoria should be strictly guarded, playing on her mother’s fear of a fatal “accident” at the hands of the Duke of Cumberland. It was Conroy who urged a suitable match for Feodora with a German prince, when it seemed likely that the widower King George IV himself might offer for her hand (thus snatching the little Victoria’s chance of a crown by begetting heirs of his own). Conroy could see himself as the chief adviser to the future Queen Victoria, the father-figure who would be the girls éminence grise, the “power behind the throne” of her reign, and he did all he could to prepare his glorious future. Having made himself indispensable to the Duchess by his administration of her household and his advice to her as to the care of her child was not averse to a little more personal interest too: Conroy, a married man, never became the Duchess’s lover — she was far to circumspect and he was far too fearful of scandal for such a situation to develop, but he knew hot to make himself agreeable to a lonely widow. The child Victoria once witnessed “some familiarities” between her mother and Conroy and prattled of them to lady-in-waiting Spath. When the horrified Baroness rebuked her mistress, she received short shrift and was sent packing by Conroy, of course, to the safe distance of Feodora’s new home in Germany. Sir John could not risk malicious gossip: if it were ever thought that the Duchess of Kent was an unfit moral influence on her daughter, the child might be swept off to other guardians.

In 1827, the heir to the throne, the Duke of York, died, followed in 1830 by his brother King George IV. Now only the frail life of King William IV, already in his sixties, stood between the Princess Victoria and the Throne. By 1830 the Duchess of Kent — or rather, Conroy — had plans already in train in case the princess should succeed while still a minor. By proving to an invited committee of prelates that her child was well grounded in her education and religion, the Duchess of Kent won wide approval; it was a short step to gaining recognition, a few months later that she, Victoire, should be her daughter’s regent should Victoria come to the throne before she reached the age of eighteen.

In fact, by the modern standards of royal training, Victoria’s education was somewhat deficient. Lehzen, and the visiting tutors who were brought in, gave the child a good grounding in English, French and German (though her Latin, which she began at 8 years old, never progressed very far). More interesting to the Princess were her music and dancing lessons, and she actually chose to learn Italian from her passion for the Italian opera. Her reading in history, however, was prodigious: at 15 she was immersed in Clarendon’s dry History of the Rebellion and Sully’s Memoirs, so that though she was taught no political theory or philosophy, Victoria came to have a good appreciation of the mistakes and achievements of past rulers.

Apart from her tutors, Victoria’s contacts with the outside world were few in her early years. Conroy induced the Duchess of Kent to discourage visits from the royal family, who might, he feared, either woo Victoria’s affections away from her mother or enquire too closely of his own influence. Occasionally, the Princess might be allowed to attend a children’s ball or a little girl might be brought in to play with her (“You must not touch those, they are mine,” declared the Princess to a child who wanted to play with the royal toys, “and I may call you Jane, but you must not call me Victoria!”) but usually she had only the company of the Conroy girls, Jane and Victoire, and so much had she come to hate their father that they never became her friends.

How soon Victoria realised how baneful was the influence of Sir John Conroy in her life is hard to say. But certainly, once she had come to realise her own significance and her destiny, it would not be too difficult for even a child to see through his wiles. It has often been affirmed that she never knew for years that she would one day be Queen, and did not understand why men stared at her in the Park, sweeping off their hats and bowing. If so, there could well be a good deal of truth in the oft-told story of Lehzen’s slipping a family tree of the royal dynasty into the child’s history book in 1830: when Victoria realised the significance of her own place in the royal family, she pondered “I am nearer to the throne than I thought.” Then she said the memorable words, “I will be good.”

As presumptive heir to William IV from 1830, Victoria became an important personage in the Kingdom. Her mother (that is, Conroy) was careful to keep the Princess’s name totally disassociated from that of the King; while William IV was reviled throughout the nation for his opposition to the Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832, the Duchess, via Conroy, courted the Radical and Whig politicians of the Opposition. While stones were thrown at the royal carriage in London streets, Victoire and Victoria were everywhere cheered as they made a summer “progress” through the provinces. As these journeys continued, every summer, the King became increasingly resentful. In petty spite, he forbade the firing of gun salutes at the appearances of his niece and her mother.

At first Victoria found these journeys enthralling, a wonderful escape from Kensington. When she first left London for a tour of Wales in 1982, she began a journal in a book which the Duchess had given her. So fascinating was the coach ride and so tempting the blank pages of the diary that for the first few days she would record the exact time of her arrival and departure at the stages along the route:

“Twenty minutes to nine. We have just changed horses at Barnet, a very pretty little town. Five minutes past half past nine. We have just changed horses at St. Albans. The situation is very pretty and there is a beautiful old abbey there. Five minutes past ten. The country is beautiful here: they have begun to cut the corn; it is so golden and fine that I think they will have a good harvest . . . A quarter to eleven. We have just changed horses at Dunstable . . .”

With these naive beginnings, the future Queen instituted the great disciplined life-work of her journals, in which, for the first time, a British monarch recorded conversations, impressions and feelings to the eternal benefit of her biographers.

But by 1835 the strenuous journeys had lost their appeal. Conroy had planned a series of visits to the great houses of the aristocrats very much to the advantage of the Duchess’s popularity. Victoria balked at the idea. So violent was the quarrel between the Princess and her mother over this issue that the Duchess had to resort to writing a letter to her daughter, for she could not control her anger in conversation. She demanded that Victoria recognise her responsibilities to show herself to “the people”: “I must tell you, dearest love, if your conversation with me could be know, that you had not the energy to undertake the journey, or that your views were not enlarged enough to grasp the benefits arising from it, then you would fall in the estimation of the people in this country.” Victoria conceded the victory, but throughout the “progress” she complained vehemently of head-ache and back-ache and other ailments.

Only a few weeks after the family settled at Ramsgate to recuperate from the journey, Victoria fell really ill, most probably of a severe case of tonsillitis. Having recovered from a fever, she was still very week for more than a month, losing a good deal of weight and continually complaining of cold, through bad circulation. Sir John Conroy was not the man to miss such a chance of taking advantage of the girl’s debility. The Princess’ antipathy to him was becoming ever more apparent, and he had by then given up the hope of obtaining future power through her affections. While Victoria was still weak from her illness, he put before her the demand that he should become her secretary when she succeeded to the throne. He actually produced a document for her to sign, binding her to the promise.

Victoria firmly resisted. Despite her physical frailty, she had the strength of her hatred of Sir John to give her resolution. At the same time, she had the encouragement of Baroness Lehzen, her governess, who was always her ally against Conroy. For years this woman had attempted to shield her charge from him and to open the Princess’s eyes to the scope of his enormities. Despite Lehzen’s power over Victoria, which was grounded on sincere affection and bulwarked on common cause against the enemy, Conroy dare not act against the governess, to oust her as he had the lady-in-waiting Spath. He knew only too well that Lehzen enjoyed the confidence of both King William IV and King Leopold of the Belgians, the Duchess’s brother. Infuriated by this impotence, he only made matters worst by continually sniping at Lehzen in Victoria’s presence.

Nevertheless, the girl’s life was not completely unhappy, and for quite long periods Kensington Palace could be free of raised voices and sudden bursts of tears. Victoria would spend many quiet hours with Lehzen, dressing her large collection of dolls as characters from history or fabricating tiny trinket boxes from odds and ends of silk and coloured beads. There was a stream of letters from Feodora to cheer Victoria, with news of her growing family, or the screeds of advice from her Uncle Leopold, who fancied himself as mentor to the future Queen. Although the Duchess had not encouraged visits from her own German family in the early years, she had made sure that Victoria learned a large measure of devotion to her unseen aunts and uncles to make up for her deprivation of closer ties. When the Princess was in her early teens, several of the German relations were invited to Kensington Palace, including, in the summer of 1836, her cousins Ernest and Albert, sons of Victoire’s eldest brother, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Victoria was open to teenage enthusiasms (for years she went into raptures of the singing of the young and beautiful Giulia Grisi, who sang her favourite Italian operas so well) and she threw herself whole-heartedly into entertaining her cousins and could not sufficiently praise their looks and accomplishments.

However, King William was not so rapturous. He had dark suspicions that the Duchess, or the King of the Belgians (whom he had never liked), was angling for a Coburg match for Victoria, which was certainly not to his tastes. His reception of the Prince of Orange and his eligible sons was timed to coincide with that of the Coburgs. For once, Victoria did not side with her English uncle against her mother, and she assured her Uncle Leopold that Ernest and Albert were perfectly to her taste while the Oranges were detestable.

By the middle of the 1836, relations between the King and his sister-in-law were at breaking point. Matters came to a head in August when William IV openly insulted the Duchess at a public dinner in honour of his birthday:

“I trust in God that my life may be spared for nine months longer [when Victoria would gain her majority], after which period, in the event of my death, no regency would take place. I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the royal authority to the personal exercise of that young lady . . . the heiress presumptive of the crown, and not in the hands of a person now near me [Victoire], who is surrounded by evil advisers and who is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the station in which she would be placed.”

It was a bombshell. From that moment Conroy became desperate — and Victoria more resolute.

Recognising that the future Queen would never willingly allow in him any power in her future government, Sir John began to make out a case for her unworthiness to govern and need for guardians. He was forever harping on her emotional instability and inciting her mother repeatedly to draw attention to her faults. But though the Princess was certainly unbalanced in her emotions after such years of strain at home, she was by no means unfit to rule. And above all, she had the will to do her duty, to “be good.”

On 24th May 1837 Victoria celebrated her 18th birthday. At last she was free of the impending regency. But she had had a narrow escape: by that date her Uncle William was already close to death.

Conroy panicked. In the last days of William IV’s life, he stepped up his campaign. He tried to convince Lords Liverpool and Melbourne, the leading politicians of the day, that Victoria was totally unfit to govern — but they were not taken in. He put pressure on the Duchess of Kent and her son Charles of Leiningren, Victoria’s half-brother, to force the Princess into signing away her independence. But already it was too late. King Leopold, realising now how precarious was his niece’s position, sent over his own trusted adviser, Baron Stockmar, both to report to him on the situation and to attempt to hold it in check.

At last Conroy ruined everything. He told the Duchess, “if Princess Victoria will not listen to reason, she must be coerced.” Victoire was already becoming apprehensive: realising that she had lost her daughter’s trust, she was now hesitant to take any more drastic measures. Even Charles Leiningen, formerly a pawn of Conroy’s by his reliance on financial loans, saw that Sir John had gone too far and advised his mother not to obey him. For the last few days of King William’s life, Kensington was in a state of uneasy truce.

At 6 o’clock on the morning of 20th June 1837 the Duchess of Kent woke her daughter with the news that William IV was dead.

All her life Victoria had been used to receiving visitors in the company of her mother; now, for the first time, she went alone into the room where the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain were waiting. All through that day of mixed grief and triumph, Victoria undertook her first duties alone, emphasising that word in her account of the day in her journal with immense relish. That night, for the first time, she did not sleep in her mother’s bedroom.

Victoria was no longer a child. She was now a woman and a Queen. All her accounts were paid in full: Lehzen became her closest attendant, remaining her confidante; her mother, though treated with deference in public, was shunned at home — often, in reply to the Duchess’s request to see her daughter, Victoria would send a note with the one word “Busy”; Conroy was forbidden access to the Queen’s private rooms at Buckingham Palace.

In the years to come, it was obvious to courtiers that Victoria had more regard for her former governess than for her mother, for the Duchess would complain of such treatment to all who would listen. Conroy stayed in her service and, in 1839, was involved in a scandal at Court which seriously threatened the Queen’s popularity in the country. It was suspected that he had made a young lady-in-waiting pregnant: Victoria hounded the unfortunate woman mercilessly — though in fact Lady Flora Hastings, an old enemy from Kensington days, was suffering from an incurable illness which merely gave her body the appearance of pregnancy. The ensuing furore gave Victoria’s advisers a chance to press for Conroy’s resignation.

It was to be many years, however, before the Duchess of Kent regained her daughter’s affection. When the Queen married her Coburg cousin Albert, in 1840, Victoire mourned that now she would never be “all in all” to her daughter. But gradually with her new emotional balance, Victoria would look more kindly on her mother and recognise the good intentions which had prompted her to such unwitting former unkindness. As a doting grandmother, the Duchess found her ideal role, and one which her daughter could grant without loss of dignity. By the time of her death in 1861, Victoire had Victoria’s complete devotion. The Queen mourned her mother in typically hysterical fashion, bitterly regretting the years of their estrangement.

Many Kings and Queens of England have had unhappier childhoods than Victoria; Elizabeth I, for example, when she was repudiated by her father and left to live in poverty, when she first learned to fear the headsman’s axe and the marriage-bed; or Charles II, amid war and political intrigues, with fears for his life at the hands of his father’s enemies. Perhaps it is a prerequisite of a great monarch to have a previous tempering in the fires of adversity. Victoria’s early misfortune certainly did not mar her suitability for the throne.