The 200th anniversary of her birth
By Trisha Hughes
I wonder if Victoria had any idea of the legacy she would leave the world as she first sat on the throne beneath the soaring arches of Westminster Abbey under the gaze of thousands of people. It seemed most of London had thronged the streets well before sunrise on her coronation 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, 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 neck would have been aching under the heavy crown perched on her head.
When some of us think of Queen Victoria, her amazing heritage may be the first thing we remember. Some may remember the complicated German connection that ran through her veins. Others the tragic failure for her grandchildren to understand one another that destined two great nations to explode on the battlefields during the First World War as the biggest family squabble of all time. And then there’s Albert. So much happened during her complicated reign, it’s hard to pick one issue that didn’t have an impact on society.
What we all agree on is that 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 and 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.
Victoria’s tangled connections with the kings, queens and lesser royals of Europe create a strong impression in our minds. It was a somewhat dysfunctional family, one held together largely by arranged marriages between close relatives, some of which turned out to be reasonably happy and many of which certainly did not. With all this interbreeding, ‘difficulties’ inevitably arose.
A hundred years before, Victoria’s Hanoverian ancestors had been offered the throne in the last year of Queen Anne’s life with high hopes of achieving a stable monarchy. What England received was the exact opposite. The family that arrived, and the subsequent descendants, proved to be a fiery, feisty, dysfunctional bunch.
After a relatively short labour of six hours, a roaring, plump baby daughter was born at 4.15 in the morning of May 24th 1819. Within moments, the room was crowded with politicians, clergymen and chancellors, all pressing their ruddy faces close to the bawling baby girl to attest that the child was in fact Victoire and Prince Edward’s. No one wanted the same scandal that James II and his second wife Mary of Modena had suffered. She had delivered a thriving baby boy without the necessary witnesses being present at the birth so the majority of the public (mainly Protestants who disliked Catholic James) believed that she had in fact miscarried yet again and that a live baby had been smuggled into her room in a warming pan to replace the dead child. At that stage, James had been desperate for a male child to succeed him since Mary and Anne were his only surviving children from his first marriage. It was one of the factors that led to the revolution that knocked James II of his throne, so Victoria’s father was very particular that history wasn’t about to repeat itself with his child.
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 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 before it reached her lips.
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 full of pride to be the first brother to put a legitimate child in the royal nursery. Despite the unromantic beginnings, they had succeeded when others around them had failed.
Although there was a brief moment when Edward was 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 grow miraculously.
Victoria blossomed without the use of the wonder drug laudanum, soothed with German lullabies and her father boasted that his chubby daughter with her enormously fat legs was “a pocket Hercules”. While Edward crowed with happiness, his brothers were not so happy. His eldest brother George, who was still grieving for the loss of his only child Charlotte and grandchild on the same day, hated Edward with a passion.
But if Edward thought the hard part was over, it was in for a sad shock. Fate had other ideas.
Victoria’s father had been accumulating enormous debts again, overspending, gambling and living the good life, much like in his bachelor days. So with little money available, he decided to winter modestly away from society beside the seaside in Devon. As an added bonus, doctors had discovered the healing powers of the sea and saltwater baths were highly recommended for nursing mothers. Once again, he borrowed money and the family set off in early December, staying for a short time in Salisbury before arriving on Christmas Eve at Woolbrook Cottage in Devon. Time passed quietly with lazy days idly playing with his daughter, until a rather disconcerting and ominous incident made Edward stop in his tracks. A fortune-teller told him that two members of the Royal Family would die soon and of course Edward was unnerved. It’s not that he took the words of the gypsy too seriously, but with the child mortality rate so high, he was unwilling to take any chances when it came to his precious daughter. Precautions were taken and Victoria was bundled up warmly and cossetted even more than usual. By then Victoria was eight months old but was the size of a 1-year-old with two teeth that had cut through her gums without her even flinching.
As it turned out, it was Edward who caught the cold and in the weeks after Christmas, it worsened. After a fall of heavy snow, Edward and John Conroy took a long walk on the cliffs for some fresh air and Edward returned complaining that the cold made his bones ache. But still there was no cause for alarm.
By 18th January however, his condition had worsened and on the 20th, he took to his bed. Fever and delirium had set in and of course the doctors took over with their gruesome medical treatments. Blistering, bleeding and leeches were administered but not surprisingly, everything failed. During a short respite on 22nd, Edward made a hurried will, making sure that his beloved daughter Drina would be entrusted to the care of her mother.
By evening, a small group had gathered around his bed. He looked at his wife and said, ‘Do not forget me’ and sank once more into delirium. By then, Victoire was anxiously pacing the room and had not changed her clothes or slept much for several days. She would not sleep at all for the next twenty-four hours. At ten o’clock in the morning of 23rd January, Victoria’s father died.
As her uncle King William had hoped, he lived long enough to witness Victoria’s 18th birthday. But only by a whisker. By 4th June, two weeks after her birthday, William’s lungs contained blood, a valve in his heart was closed and his liver and spleen were swollen to twice their size. Barely one month after Victoria’s birthday, William died on 20th June and Victoria moved out of her mother’s bedroom and into the still unfinished Buckingham Palace, far away from her mother with whom she was barely on speaking terms. The presence of John Conroy had become a huge problem for her.
Being incredibly protected by her mother all her life did not leave Victoria shy. On the contrary. She had always known she was meant for the throne of England - there wasn’t anyone else - and knowing that piece of information gave her a certain awareness of her entitlement. It made her self-reliant, impulsive, volatile and it gave her a steely conviction in her own judgement. And of course, she had a Hanoverian temper to go with it that no one had ever thought to teach her to control. As a result, she never learned to accept other authority figures because she was the supreme authority.
The day of her coronation did not go off without incident. 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 drunk on 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, the ring would have to be removed with ice.
Around her she would have noticed her many advisors and none of them would have appeared confident that she could rule a nation as strong and powerful as England. But her composure was impeccable nonetheless. 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 incredibly unpopular for decades and Britain was still very far from being a democracy.
At a time when the lower class of England needed a diversion desperately from their everyday poverty and hardship, they softened when watching their tiny queen glow with love for Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It was the beginning of one of the greatest romances in history.
Despite torrents of rain, violent gusts of wind and extreme cold, people pushed and shoved each other to get a good view of the five-foot bride, dressed beautifully in white satin and lace, a diamond necklace around her neck and glittering diamond earrings in each ear as well as a magnificent sapphire brooch that Albert had given her to adorn her wedding dress. Behind her were twelve trainbearers wearing white dresses adorned with white roses watched on by 300 aristocrats. Beside her walked her cranky old uncle Augustus Duke of Sussex, who gave her away, smiling for once on her wedding day.
Like most marriages, there was a settling in period and there were times when the relationship gears didn’t quite mesh. She loved to stay up late and dance until early in the morning, but Albert had not been raised that way. He wanted to be in bed by ten. More so than in most marriages, there was a thunderous clash of personalities full of terrible rows, slamming doors and fits of shouting echoing through the halls of Buckingham Palace. But after every bitter argument were the heart-felt makeups and in Victoria’s case, her love was almost palpably impassioned.
There was no disputing their intense feelings towards each other but the start to the marriage was tempestuous and passionate with neither wanting to surrender their own personal independence and personality. If she was difficult to live with, I think Albert was actually a bit difficult in his own way as well. He could be rather school-masterly, treating Victoria rather like an errant child, which of course she was, and that was like adding fuel to the fire.
But above all else, Albert and Victoria truly and genuinely loved each other and when they were functioning well, they were an amazing pair to behold. Albert came with a lot of emotional baggage because of his family’s dysfunctional history and all he wanted was to be the model husband that his own father wasn’t. To achieve that, they needed to create a fresh image of family values to the expanding middle class. But it came at a price. Albert was more than a little daunted by his role as Consort to his feisty queen and from the very first day, even though she was besotted with her handsome husband, she would not concede any political power to him.
For Victoria, the unfortunate by-product of her obsession with Albert was the arrival of children. And she proved to be a healthy fertile woman. Within weeks of the marriage, she was pregnant. Almost nine months to the day, their first daughter was born and named Victoria, (nicknamed Vicky after her mother) and only months after giving birth, she was annoyed to discover she was pregnant with a second child because pregnancy meant enforced abstinence from nights of married bliss with her ‘angel’ Albert. Because of their vigorous sex life, Albert, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise and Arthur soon followed over the space of seven years. Leopold and Beatrice would both be born later in the coming years and with each addition to the growing family, Britain’s memory of her notorious philandering uncles was being purged. But as much as Britain loved Victoria, they saw it as a little odd that she was not the ideal model of motherhood, overheard saying that children were smelly and awkward, with a ‘terrible frog-like action’ and not fit to handle until they were at least six months old. You see, for Victoria, her total attention was focused on Albert.
But for all their sexual harmony, they were locked in a struggle for dominance. Albert had married a queen and Victoria was not shy about reminding him who was in charge. She clung to her power but due to the pregnancies, she was uneasily aware of her inadequacy. As for Albert, he knew exactly what he wanted. He had a desperate need to put his own stamp on British history instead of meekly fitting in with the traditions of the English Royal House and living in the palaces of his wife’s quarrelsome predecessors. He not only wanted control of the royal family but also the royal household and if he was being honest, even the monarchy itself. In his male-dominated childhood, he had little faith in a woman’s ability to rule.
Morally upright in the extreme, Albert was everything his amoral father hadn’t been. He was totally loyal to his wife and he was a ‘hands on’ father, scolding them when he felt it was necessary and punishing them at times rather severely. As a result, the children were in awe of their father and just a little scared of their mother and her fierce tempers. Even Albert was deeply troubled by Victoria’s fierce temper. Always in the back of his mind was the reminder of a particular royal legacy: insanity. And in particular, her grandfather George III. Where most men might confront his wife about her temper, Albert chose the safe ground and walked on eggshells around her, especially during her pregnancies, although sometimes this just made things worse.
Victoria’s terrible rages was not the only problem in the family. Behind the façade of a model family was a hornet’s nest of hostilities with Victoria feeling trapped in her perpetual cycle of pregnancy and children arriving with monotonous regularity. With each new pregnancy, she was forced to relinquish more and more of her political duties to Albert and of course, since he was also trying to be the role-model husband and father, he struggled to balance work and family. He loved his children but he was on his self-created treadmill of work, work, work and duties. And the more Albert worked, the more he was absent, not only from his children, but also from his needy wife. Which created more tension and more rows. Instead of the chocolate box of gorgeousness that everybody was led to believe existed, behind closed doors it was a place riddled with conflict and a cauldron of simmering tension and huge resentments.
Albert was finding his enormous workload exhausting which in turn was affecting his health. He was plagued with neuralgia, fits of shivering, toothache and insomnia. But despite Victoria’s proclaimed adoration for her husband, she had very little sympathy for him. Having given birth to nine children, she thought Albert was just being weak with the inability to endure pain. What she needed was someone she could depend on, not the other way around. And she wasn’t shy about telling him.
And then, disaster struck. On 14th December 1861, Albert died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle after a short illness and Victoria descended into a crippling state of unrelenting grief.
Usually Windsor Castle came into its own at Christmas. The silence of the Grand Corridor, where noise was muffled by the red carpets and damask curtains, was broken by the happy laughter of children’s voices. Games of hide and seek in the towers and staircases ensued and fires blazed with beech logs in all the reception rooms.
Albert had never been happier than having his family around him. And the year before there was a lot to celebrate. Despite his favourite child, Vicky, resigned to spending Christmas in Germany, isolated from her family, his eldest son Bertie had just returned from an official tour where he had acquitted himself well, thankfully. Alice had met her future husband and all the children were delirious with excitement at the festive season. It was the last Christmas any of them would remember with happiness.
In her intense grief, Victoria withdrew from the public eye and lost interest in all political matters. She could barely function as a human being let alone as a monarch. Where once her palaces were places of laughter and happiness, they had turned into mausoleums.
Victoria grieved for over 40 years until her death in 1901 and everyone knew that her passing meant the end of an era. The grandmother of Europe, who held the extended royal family together, was dead and no one believed her son Bertie could possibly fill her shoes. For hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, Queen Victoria had become something more than simply a caustic, selfish old lady in a bonnet. Sure they knew she could be dismissive, obstinate and prone to self-pity. And yes, millions died of starvation and disease during her reign and she seemed blind to their plight. She could be demanding, rude and frequently fled public duties for the peace and solitude of Scotland. She even formed attachments to her servants that were so strong they were considered peculiar and even suspect.
But she had loved fiercely, despised racial and religious prejudice and had survived six assignation attempts. She had surpassed autocracy and had become the role model for all future successful constitutional monarchs, as well as a beloved figurehead. Under her reign, England had achieved a greatness it had never known before. This queen with the stern profile, clothed in her reams of black mourning cloth, would forever be associated with growth, might and democracy. Her legacy was enormous: an empire, nine children, forty-two grandchildren and the longest-reigning monarch in English history to date. Our Queen Elizabeth has surpassed her in this regard.
Victoria safeguarded the British people as they took steps towards democracy in a century full of unrest. She may have done it as a mother, who followed her husband from room to room while they fought, storming, yelling and crying, and she may have done it while she tried to resolve her depression and overwhelming prolonged grief. But she had done it. Her story was one of a tiny, strong woman at the heart of an empire and without her, a chilly uncertain new century was dawning.
Two days after her death, Kaiser Wilhelm rode side by side with his old sailing rival, now King Edward VII, behind Victoria’s coffin: uncle and nephew united in grief.
In Germany, there were howls of fury.
Victoria to Vikings
The Circle of Blood
At the heart of our present are the stories of our past. In ages gone by, many monarchs died while they were still young. There were battles and diseases and many were simply overthrown. But the days of regal engagement in hand-to-hand combat are over and the line of succession has a good ageing prospect these days.
One of the most famous monarchs in history is Queen Victoria and her passing brought an end to an amazing era. She could be demanding, rude and she frequently fled public duties for the solitude of Scotland. But she loved fiercely and her people loved her fiercely in return. Under her reign, England achieved a greatness it had never known before.
Victoria to Vikings: The Circle of Blood spans from this great queen to another one: Queen Elizabeth II. Ours is the era of the longest living monarch in history and her ancestry is incredible. But walking two steps behind her, stalwart and loyal, stands Prince Philip, the strawberry to her champagne, and with him comes his own amazing Viking heritage.
Pre-order up your copy of
Victoria to Vikings
The Circle of Blood
Released May 28th, 2019
Vikings to Virgin:
The Hazards of Being King
In Vikings to Virgin - The Hazards of Being King Trisha Hughes provides the reader with a pacey introduction to the many pitfalls faced by the ambitious as they climbed the dangerous ladders of royalty. It is easy to think that monarchs are all powerful, but throughout the Dark and Middle Ages it was surprisingly easy to unseat one and assume the crown yourself. But if it was easy to gain ... it was just as easy to lose.From the dawn of the Vikings through to Elizabeth I, Trisha Hughes follows the violent struggles for power and the many brutal methods employed to wrest it and keep hold of it. Murder, deceit, treachery, lust and betrayal were just a few of the methods used to try and win the crown. Vikings to Virgin - The Hazards of Being King spans fifteen hundred years and is a highly accessible and enjoyable ride through the dark side of early British monarchy.
Virgin to Victoria
Virgin to Victoria is a powerful retelling of the history of the British monarchy, beginning with Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, as she comes to the throne. Charting Elizabeth's incredible journey, Virgin to Victoria travels in time through the confusion of the Stuart dynasty, the devastation of a Civil War led by Oliver Cromwell, horrific battles for the throne and the turbulent Hanover dynasty with its intricate family squabbles. Despite her amazing legacy, Elizabeth failed England in one vital area. She never married, nor did she leave an heir to the Tudor family. In making this one fateful decision, the Virgin Queen left the path open for a take-over and life would never be the same. Victoria did not ask to be Queen. It was thrust upon her by a series of events that removed all others who stood in line for the throne. She assumed it reluctantly and, at first, incompetently. Parliament was sure that the 18-year-old could be relied upon to leave the job of running the country to the professionals. Couldn't she?
I was born in a little outback town called Blackall in Central Queensland, Australia. From there my parents moved to the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley where I grew up to be a tiny, self-reliant little girl.
My first book, ‘Daughters of Nazareth’ is my story, written eighteen years ago, fuelled on by the discovery of a family I never knew I had. It’s full of family secrets, tremendous heartache but proves the human spirit’s amazing ability to triumph over adversity. Nineteen years ago, after just one phone call, my life changed abruptly. With that change came a passion for writing and I have been writing ever since.
I love writing crime novels but my passion is with the history of the British Monarchy. The first in my‘V2V’ trilogy is ‘Vikings to Virgin – The Hazards of being King’ published in 2017. The second in the series is due for release on 28th April this year and is called ‘Virgin to Victoria – The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.’ The final book, ‘Victoria to Vikings – The Circle of Blood’ will be released early 2019.