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The Young Victoria

Of the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Kent was born Victoria, the most popular of English Queens.

 

PART I: THE LITTLE PRINCESS

 

Young Victoria
Young Victoria at the Age of 18: Engraved by John Cochran after Sir George Hayter.

In the year 1819 the royal family of England was not in a happy or prosperous state. Seldom before or since has there been less comfort in the prospects of the house of Hanover. King George III was in seclusion, bowed down with an incurable disease; and of all his large family, fifteen sons and daughters, most of whom were still living, not one had a successor to come after him or her as a legitimate heir to the crown. For twenty years the sole hope of the royal house had been the Princess Charlotte, the only child of a most unhappy marriage, but in herself a sweet and promising young woman, with many claims upon the tenderness and sympathy of the nation.  So long as she lived, all national requirements were satisfied on the point of heir-ship. She married wisely and happily, not only making an admirable choice for herself, but bringing forward out of the obscurity of princely life in Germany, a family which has held a greater place since in the affairs of Christendom than perhaps any other— the family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

 
Prince Leopold, the chosen husband of Princess Charlotte, showed the family faculty of combining the quietest and most unostentatious private life with great devotion to public affairs, and that political level-headedness which makes a statesman. Everything bade fair for the happiest royal life that England perhaps had ever known. As Victoria and Albert were a generation later, so were Charlotte and Leopold in 1817 — good, true, honest, and noble-minded, setting up a pure household, a high standard of life within the midst of the careless England of those days.
 
But in that very year Princess Charlotte died, and the royal house found itself childless. Within a few months of her death, however, several marriages took place in the royal family, the most important of which was that of the Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, who married a sister of Prince Leopold, the Princess of Leiningen, a young widow with two children, in May 1818. The Duchess of Kent (1786-1861), Victoria Mary Louisa, was a daughter of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She was the widow of Emich Charles, Prince of Leiningen, whom she had married in 1803, and who had died in 1814, leaving a son and a daughter by her. Of the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Kent was born Victoria, the happiest and most popular of English Queens.  Alexandrina Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, was born on Monday, 24th May 1819, at Kensington Palace. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820), the fourth son of George III, was a man of decided character, kindly, pious, punctual, with a strict sense of duty and enlightened ideas. He was a devoted soldier, and, as Queen Victoria once said, "was proud of his profession, and I was always taught to consider myself a soldier's child."
 

Through her mother, the young Victoria was closely allied to the principal reigning families of Europe. The Duchess of Kent's eldest brother, Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg, was the father of Albert, Prince Consort. Her sister was the wife of Alexander, Duke of Würtemberg. The Duchess of Kent's nephew, Ferdinand (son of Ferdinand, the Duchess's brother), married Maria da Gloria, Queen of Portugal, and was father of Pedro V and Luis, both subsequently Kings of Portugal. The Duchess's third brother, Leopold (afterwards King of the Belgians), married first the Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, and afterwards the Princess Louise Marie, eldest daughter of King Louis Philippe. Prince Augustus (son of Ferdinand, the Duchess of Kent's brother) married another daughter of Louis Philippe, the Princess Clémentine, while Prince Augustus's sister, Victoria, married the Duc de Nemours, a son of Louis Philippe. Another nephew, Duke Friedrich Wilhelm Alexander, son of the Duchess of Würtemberg, married the Princess Marie, another daughter of Louis Philippe.  Thus Queen Victoria was closely allied with the royal families of France, Portugal, Belgium, Saxe-Coburg, and Würtemberg.

 
When she was only a few months old, Victoria’s father died, closely followed by his father, poor old King George. A paper preserved in the Windsor archives gives a touching account of the Duke's last hours. The Regent, on the 22nd of January, sent to him a message of solicitude and affection, expressing an anxious wish for his recovery. The Duke roused himself to enquire how the Prince was in health, and said, "If I could now shake hands with him, I should die in peace." A few hours before the end, one who stood by the curtain of his bed heard the Duke say with deep emotion, "May the Almighty protect my wife and child, and forgive all the sins I have committed." His last words — addressed to his wife — were, "Do not forget me." Before this, it is recorded that “the Regent was not kind to his brother,” and when the Duke of Kent died, it was found that “the poor Duke had left his family deprived of all means of existence.” Thus the position of the mother of the future sovereign, a young German princess, was soon left alone in this strange and not always very genial country.
 
The Duchess of Kent’s brother, Prince Leopold, hastened to her in her distress, and stood by his sister in all her future difficulties. Few women have had a severer piece of work to undertake. Though the mother of the future Queen, the Duchess of Kent was friendless in a home where she had as yet but little time to get acquainted. She was a foreigner, accustomed to different ways of living, and had not even the easy temperament of youth which accustoms itself to anything, for she was already over thirty when she married the Duke. While occupying so great a position, she was comparatively poor and could not withdraw with her child to her own country, to bring the little Princess up among her own people, cheaply and kindly, far away from the criticisms and extravagances, the late hours and bustle of English life.
 

But the Duchess of Kent had the temperate Coburg blood in her veins, and shared the sound sense and judgment of her race. She never forgot that her eight-month-old baby was the first Princess of the blood; English above all things, and imperatively requiring an English education. She wrote, “. . . by the death of her revered father when she was but eight months old, her  [Victoria’s] sole care and charge devolved to me. Stranger as I then was, I became deeply impressed with the absolute necessity of bringing her up entirely in this country, that every feeling should be that of Her native land, and proving thereby my devotion to duty by rejecting all those feelings of home and kindred that divided my heart. . . .  When the Princess approached her fifth year I considered it the proper time to begin in a moderate way her education — an education that was to fit Her to be either the Sovereign of these realms, or to fill a junior station in the Royal Family, until the Will of Providence should show at a later period what Her destiny was to be.” The Duchess of Kent was an affectionate, impulsive woman, with more emotional sympathy than practical wisdom in worldly matters; but her claim on the gratitude of the British nation is that she brought up her illustrious daughter in habits of simplicity, self-sacrifice, and obedience.

 

The Duchess of Kent and the young Victoria remained in England though far from her friends and everything that was most dear to her. The little family, bereaved, returned to the old palace at Kensington where the child had been born, and there the early days of the Princess were chiefly spent. The Princess was brought up with exemplary simplicity at Kensington Palace, where her mother had a set of apartments. She was often at Claremont, which belonged to her uncle, Prince Leopold; holidays were spent at Ramsgate, Tunbridge Wells, Broadstairs, and elsewhere. It may be held to have been one of the chief blessings of Queen Victoria's girlhood that she was brought closely under the influence of an enlightened and large-minded Prince Leopold, her maternal uncle, afterwards King of the Belgians. He was born in 1790, being the youngest son of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and his youth was spent in the Russian military service. He had shown talent and courage in the field, and had commanded a battalion at Lützen and Leipsic. He had married, in 1816, the Princess Charlotte, only child of George IV. For many years his home was at Claremont, where the Princess Charlotte had died; there the Princess Victoria spent many happy holidays, and grew to regard her uncle with the most devoted affection, almost, indeed, in the light of a father.

 

young victoria
Young Victoria
 

In 1872, Queen Victoria wrote, "My earliest recollections are connected with Kensington Palace, where I can remember crawling on a yellow carpet spread out for that purpose--and being told that if I cried and was naughty my 'Uncle Sussex' would hear me and punish me, for which reason I always screamed when I saw him! I had a great horror of Bishops on account of their wigs and aprons, but recollect this being partially got over in the case of the then Bishop of Salisbury (Dr Fisher, great-uncle to Mr. Fisher, Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales), by his kneeling down and letting me play with his badge of Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. With another Bishop, however, the persuasion of showing him my 'pretty shoes' was of no use.”

 
Happier than most children in her position, the little heiress of England had the society of an elder sister in a well-regulated household and was unconscious of her own greatness. This sister, Princess Feodora, afterward Princess Hohenlohe, was the kindest of friends and companions to the Queen during her whole life. They were brought up together in quiet old Kensington. They were there in the summer of 1824 when the little Princess was but five years old. Queen Victoria wrote, “Claremont remains as the brightest epoch of my otherwise rather melancholy childhood — where to be under the roof of that beloved Uncle — to listen to some music in the Hall when there were dinner-parties — and to go and see dear old Louis! — the former faithful and devoted Dresser and friend of Princess Charlotte — beloved and respected by all who knew her — and who doted on the little Princess who was too much an idol in the House. This dear old lady was visited by every one — and was the only really devoted Attendant of the poor Princess, whose governesses paid little real attention to her — and who never left her, and was with her when she died. I used to ride a donkey given me by my Uncle, the Duke of York, who was very kind to me. I remember him well — tall, rather large, very kind but extremely shy. He always gave me beautiful presents. The last time I saw him was at Mr. Greenwood's house, where D. Carlos lived at one time — when he was already very ill — and he had Punch and Judy in the garden for me.”
 

Young Victoria
Young Victoria
 

The most careful education was given to the young Princess as Prince Leopold watched over this training with all the interests of a statesman, and all the tenderness of a father. A practical proof of his interest in his niece may be found in the fact that for years he contributed between three and four thousand a year to the expenses of her education, and for necessary holidays by the sea, at a time when the Duchess of Kent's Parliamentary Grant was unequal to the increasing expenses of her household. Queen Victoria further reminisced, "I remember going to Carlton House, when George IV lived there, as quite a little child before a dinner the King gave. The Duchess of Cambridge and my 2 cousins, George and Augusta, were there. My Aunt, the Queen of Würtemberg (Princess Royal), came over, in the year '26, I think, and I recollect perfectly well seeing her drive through the Park in the King's carriage with red liveries and 4 horses, in a cap and evening dress — my Aunt, her sister Princess Augusta, sitting opposite to her, also in evening attire, having dined early with the Duke of Sussex at Kensington. She had adopted all the German fashions and spoke broken English--and had not been in England for many many years. She was very kind and good-humoured but very large and unwieldy. She lived at St James's and had a number of Germans with her. In the year '26 (I think) George IV asked my Mother, my Sister and me down to Windsor for the first time; he had been on bad terms with my poor father when he died — and took hardly any notice of the poor widow and little fatherless girl, who were so poor at the time of his (the Duke of Kent's) death, that they could not have traveled back to Kensington Palace had it not been for the kind assistance of my dear Uncle, Prince Leopold. We went to Cumberland Lodge, the King living at the Royal Lodge. Aunt Gloucester was there at the same time. When we arrived at the Royal Lodge the King took me by the hand, saying: 'Give me your little paw.' He was large and gouty but with a wonderful dignity and charm of manner. He wore the wig which was so much worn in those days. Then he said he would give me something for me to wear, and that was his picture set in diamonds, which was worn by the Princesses as an order to a blue ribbon on the left shoulder. I was very proud of this — and Lady Conyngham pinned it on my shoulder.” The strictness of the régime under which the young Victoria was brought up was significant; and it is possible that her later zest for simple social pleasures was partly accounted for by the somber routine of her early days.

 

Already, too, other visions of the future were dawning before the far-seeing eyes of Prince Leopold who, with the sincerest desire for the welfare of England, also at the same time had a natural wish to advance his own family. Another child, Albert, had been born just after Princess Victoria in the little ducal court at Saxe-Coburg. While the children were still in their cradles the families were in constant communication, the young mothers exchanging those pleasant experiences and bits of nursery news as mothers do. All the happenings of “the little May-flower,” as the young Victoria was called by the kind German kinsfolk, were recorded with fond simplicity for the pleasure of the old grandmother at home. Albert “he had great blue eyes, dimples on each cheek, three teeth, and at eight months old was already beginning to walk.

 

The young Victoria was brought up with the strictest economy and regularity, as children of much lower position rarely are, and was taught at an early age to restrain her expenditure within the limits of her income, even when that income was but a child’s pocket-money. Miss Martineau gives us, in her sketch of the Duchess of Kent, a story which illustrates the carefulness of the training better than it does the abstract statement which precedes it, that the Princess “was reared in as much honesty and care about money matters as any citizen’s child.” Very few citizens’ children, we believe, ever were or could be so rigidly guarded from the extra shilling of expenditure. “It became known at Tunbridge Wells that the Princess had been unable to buy a box at the bazaar because she had spent her money. At this bazaar she had bought presents for almost all her relations, and had laid out her last shilling, when she remembered one cousin more, and saw a box priced half a crown which would suit him. The shop people of course placed the box with the other purchases, but the little lady’s governess admonished them by saying, ‘No; you see the Princess has not got the money; therefore, of course, she can not buy the box.’ This being perceived, the next offer was to lay by the box till it could be purchased; and the answer was, ‘Oh, well, if you will be so good as to do that.’ On quarter-day, before seven in the morning, the Princess appeared on her donkey to claim her purchase.”

 
When the Princess was nine years old, Sir Walter Scott records in his diary that he had dined with the Duchess of Kent, and had been presented by Prince Leopold “to the little Princess Victoria— the heir-apparent to the house, as things now stand. This little lady, is educated with much care, and watched so closely that no busy maid has a moment to whisper, ‘You are heir of England!’ I suspect, if we could dissect the little heart, we should find that some pigeon or other bird of the air had carried the matter. She is fair, like the royal family.” Sir Walter’s idea, however, had no foundation. The little Princess neither at that time nor for years after knew anything of her preeminence.  Another story gives a description of the way in which her future rank was revealed to her. No one had been allowed, as is mentioned above, to breathe a word of this in the child’s ear. But events now began to happen which changed her position to a certain extent. King George IV died, which brought the Princess a step nearer to the throne, and there was no longer any reasonable prospect that King William could have children to succeed him. Thus the child of Kensington Palace became beyond all doubt the next in succession. Because the young Victoria was only twelve, a bill was brought into Parliament to make the Duchess of Kent Regent in case her daughter should be called upon to ascend the throne before she came of age. When these public precautions were taken, it was thought necessary to inform the little girl herself of her true position that she was not merely one of a band of Princes and Princesses, but the first among them, the future head of the race. She was in the midst of her daily lessons somewhat surprised, it would seem, at the grave work required from her, which was not expected from the other Princesses — when this great intimation was made to her. The story is told in a letter from her governess, the Baroness Selwyn, to the Queen, written in 1854, and apparently recalling to her the incidents of her youth:
 
“I ask your Majesty’s leave to cite some remarkable words of your Majesty’s when only twelve years old, while the Regency Bill was in progress. I then said to the Duchess of Kent that now, for the first time, your Majesty ought to know your place in the succession. Her Royal Highness agreed with me, and I put the genealogical table into the historical book. When Mr. Davys [the Queens instructor, after the Bishop of Peterborough] was gone, the Princess Victoria opened the book again as usual, and seeing the additional paper, said, ‘I never saw that before.’ ‘It was not thought necessary you should, Princess,’ I answered. ‘I see I am nearer the throne than I thought.’ ‘So it is, madam,’ I said. After some moments the Princess resumed: ‘Now many a child would boast, but they don’t know the difficulty. There is much splendor, but there is much responsibility.’ The Princess, having lifted up the forefinger of her right hand while she spoke, gave me that little hand, saying, ‘I will be good. I understand now why you urged me so much to learn even Latin. My cousins Augusta and Mary never did, but you told me Latin is the foundation of English grammar, and of all the elegant expressions, and I learned it as you wished it, but I understand all better now; and the little Princess gave me her hand, repeating, ‘I will be good.’”
 

[Continue to PART II: THE YOUNG QUEEN]

 

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