The Beat of Her Own Drum: Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll

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Louise has always been my second-favorite of Queen Victoria’s daughter (the first being Vicky) and all of her daughters hold a special place in my heart since they’re some of the first figures in British history in which I became interested. I still distinctly remember reading Jerrold M. Packard’s book on all of them for first time when I was about 10 and it’s been re-read many times since. The length of their mother’s reign and the unprecedented change that Western Europe went through over the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century put them at the epicenter of the dramatically changing role that Europe’s Royal Families held (if they made it through without being abolished). Indeed, many of Queen Victoria’s daughters would make dynastically significant marriages, their own children ruling or taking places of prominence at courts around the globe.

Louise wouldn’t be one of them, but her uniqueness in shying away from that fate, frankly, makes her interesting.

Princess Louise was born on March 18, 1848 at Buckingham Palace in the middle of the 1848 revolutions that began in Sicily and eventually swept through the Austrian Empire, France, Germany and the rest of Italy. Even the UK wasn’t protected from the strife when the Chartists, a few weeks after Louise’s birth, announced they would be presenting a petition outlining their demands to Parliament, and then marching from Westminster to Kennington Common. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, were advised to leave London for the safety of their young family.

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Louise and Helena

On April 8, Victoria, Albert and their children decamped to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, the Queen beside herself. Though not diagnosed with it at the time, it’s now believed that Victoria likely suffered from postpartum depression following Louise’s birth, and given her stated distaste for pregnancy and babies, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she suffered depressive episodes before and after giving birth throughout her childbearing years. The Queen’s thoughts and feelings towards the revolution itself are best summed up in her own words:

“I maintain that Revolutions are always bad for the country and cause untold misery to the people […] Obedience to the laws & to the Sovereign is obedience to a higher Power.”

A slightly biased position, perhaps, but there it is. They would be back in London within a few weeks when Louise was christened in BP’s private chapel, the Dowager Queen Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen standing proxy for one of her godmothers.

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A portrait of Louise painted by Queen Victoria

Louise’s birth also signified a break in a certain family pattern to which her father had become used. Prior to her, her mother had reliably given birth to a girl and then a boy; her elder siblings were Vicky, Bertie (the future Edward VII), Alice, Alfred and Helena. Reportedly, Albert was expecting a boy and was slightly dismayed with the arrival of Louise, more for the order having been thrown off than for an actual gender preference.

Beyond that, Louise’s upbringing took the same shape as the rest of her siblings. The family split their time between Buckingham, Osborne and Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and the children were put through the paces of a rigorous course of studies overseen by their father. In addition to traditional subjects, they were taught pratical skills like cooking, farming and carpentry. Where Louise shone, however, was on the artistic front, in particular she was a notably gifted painter and would remain devoted to the arts her entire life. When she was 10, her mother described her in a letter to the recently-married Vicky with, “Louise is very naughty and backward, though improved and very pretty and affectionate.”

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Louise and Alice with Queen Victoria

But childhood came to an abrupt end on December 14, 1861 with the death of Albert from Typhoid Fever, an event from which her mother never recovered. The idyllic domestic atmosphere of the Queen’s court became one plunged into mourning, and while the political ramifications of a sovereign who had little interest in partaking in her public duties was the most significant fallout from the event, its effect on her unmarried children, particularly her daughters, was enormous. Vicky, though Albert’s favorite, was buffered to a certain extent, having already married Prince Frederick of Prussia and living in Prussia, while the older boys had left the house to begin their military careers. The same could not be said for Alice, Helena, Louise and, later on, Beatrice, who bore the brunt of caring for their mother.

For the initial months after Albert’s death, Alice took on the task of waiting on the Queen, but when she married in the summer of 1862 and also moved to Germany, the job fell to Helena. The oppressiveness of the atmosphere can’t be overstated: Not only did Victoria wear all black until her death, but revelry, merriment, celebration and any outward show of enjoyment were completely intolerable to her in the first years of her widowhood. Of all her children, it was Louise who chafed the most in this new environment. When she turned 17 in 1865, she requested a debutante ball in the Palace, which hadn’t been held since Albert’s death, and was roundly refused and rebuked for asking in the first place.

It was around this time that Louise began suffering from severe headaches, possibly migraines, which seemed to become worse under stress or placed in emotionally taxing environments, according to her biographer, Lucinda Hawksley.

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Louise and Helena

In 1866, what was perhaps Louise’s worst fear was realized when Helena finally married Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. The match itself was controversial within the family given the struggle between Prussia (where Vicky was) and Denmark (whose princess had married Bertie three years before) over the territory, but for Louise what it meant was finally taking her place as the eldest unmarried daughter and becoming Victoria’s chief caretaker. While before she had had a companion within the Palace, Helena’s marriage freed her up to socialize in London with husband, while Louise was allowed to do very little, being forced to adhere to strict mourning protocol except on special occasions. From letters it can be gleaned that she fell into a depression after Helena’s wedding and spent a considerable amount of time shut up in her bedroom, likely the only place she could truly relax.

One light throughout what became five years of this dynamic was the presence of her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales. Close from the start, what would end up an equitable relationship between two women with a shared affection for Bertie, began as a bit of hero-worshipping from Louise. Alix was young, beautiful, social and fashionable, all the things Louise’s own blood relatives weren’t particularly known for, and her own eldest sisters were off in Germany by the time Louise hit adolescence. Notably, Bertie and Alix named their eldest daughter Louise, which was Alix’s own mother’s name, but also a sweet nod to a favorite sister.

However, Louise’s position in the family also meant all matchmaking eyes were turned on her, and the harshest stare belonged to Vicky, who wanted as many of her sisters to end up near her in Germany as possible. But Louise had little interest in the cast of German princes her mother and sister lined up for her, something she had in common with her older brother, Bertie, who had shown similar reluctance in matrimony in the years leading up to his wedding. It’s an interesting quality in her, though, given that marriage was a sure bet to get her out from under her mother’s roof.

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Louise and her brother, Arthur

One theory is that Louise fell in love in 1866. The possible target of her affection is one Walter Stirling, who was hired that year as a tutor for her younger brother, Leopold. Stirling joined the royal house on March 25th, the Queen writing in her journal that she was “pleased” by him, and 13-year-old Leopold formed an attachment to him immediately. And yet, less than four months later Stirling was abruptly dismissed from his post, the only official reason given that Victoria had decided it would be better to have someone caring for her son with a background in handling delicate health (Leopold had hemophilia).

References to him are frequent in Victoria’s diaries in spring of that year, and what follows is a noticeable gap until the summer when he was let go. And that may very well be a coincidence, but time jumps like that, particularly for a woman who recorded her life with as much detail and candor as Victoria did, is worth considering, as is the fact that the portions of her diary that became public after her death were heavily edited by her youngest daughter, Beatrice. Now, again, this may all very well be nothing, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out two things: 1) A faint whisper has existed since the 1860s that Louise gave birth to an illegitimate child and 2) Louise’s records are closed in the Royal Archives. To once more quote Hawksley:

“The decision to hide away her files indicates very strongly that there is something in them that the archivists, even in the twenty-first century, feel the need to conceal. Since the late 1860s rumours have persisted that Louise gave birth to an illegitimate child. The father, it is claimed, was her brother’s tutor.”

There are two other factors worth considering: 1) Other historians writing on Queen Victoria and her offspring have commented on the dearth of information on Louise, their research coming up short by a comparative lack of accessible material. Noted biographer Elizabeth Longford went so far as to comment that the only person Beatrice cut out of her mother’s diaries more than Louise was John Brown (#scandal). And 2) Upon hiring the next tutor, Victoria’s primary concern was that she wished he wasn’t so handsome.

Now, it should be noted that other princesses have been accused of bastard children before. Most notably, one of George III’s daughters was a century before. But that doesn’t necessarily rule it out, in fact there’s a pretty strong comparison between the two women to be made. Both were unmarried and living in oppressive, restrictive environments unlike their brothers and married sisters. Both were also relied upon heavily by their mothers as companions and treated like glorified ladies’ maids. It’s entirely possible that both rumors are completely unfounded, but if such an event had occurred then great pains would obviously have been taken to shield the Royal Family from embarrassment.

It would also help explain why Louise didn’t end up marrying until she was 23 years old, not a strikingly old age for the time period, but certainly slightly older than her sisters had been. (Thought not as old as Beatrice would be when she married, a special case given that Victoria had been counting on having at least one spinster daughter to keep her company in her old age.) And perhaps, too, Victoria’s insistence that Louise reminded her of Bertie, who had rather famously had an affair with an actress in 1861, an event which disgusted Victoria and helped blacken an already sour view of her eldest son.

Finally, it is possible, however remote the chances, that this event played a role in why Louise, out of all of her sisters, ended up marrying a commoner instead of a prince.

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This event, or the arrival of another man, came two years later. In 1868, after years of begging, Victoria finally gave in to her daughter’s wish that she be allowed to attend art school. While there, one of her tutors, Joseph Edgar Boehm, was in close contact with her. Hawksley again:

“I was surprised to discover how difficult it was to investigate Boehm, as an artist; remarkably little information is contained in the usual art gallery archives. I made an appointment at the National Portrait Gallery in London to look at the files concerning three of Louise’s art tutors: Edward Corboule, Mary Thornycroft and Joseph Edgar Boehm. The day before my appointment, I received a phone call from a bemused archivist. He had been attempting to find the relevant files before my visit, but had discovered that everything, for all three artists, had ‘been appropriated by the Royal Archives.’ His archives contained a single letter written by Boehm – it was two lines long and the archivist read it to me over the phone: it concerned the placement of one of Boehm’s statues during an exhibition […] Quite why the Royal Archives felt the need to appropriate all information on Broehm from other archives was intriguing.”

Further, Hawksley describes gossip about Louise that began to percolate towards the end of the decade, the source for which was a woman named Catherine Walters, who was one of Bertie’s mistresses. One of her former lovers, at her request, wrote down all of her stories, some of which he theorized came from a royal physician and Bertie himself. Walters told this man that Louise and Boehm had begun working on a statue together in 1869 and were regularly left unchaperoned during a three-month period at Balmoral. The files say that they “became intimate, though not to the extent of love making.”

The same report says that one day the Scottish servant, John Brown, came upon them, rebuked Louise sharply to her fury and told on her to the Queen, who was livid. Louise, in turn, told her mother she wouldn’t stand for being scolded by a servant, Victoria threatened to have her daughter locked up, and Louise said if she tried anything she would go public with the fact that the Queen was having an affair with Brown.

Yeesh. For the sake of length, we’ll have to save the John Brown issue for another time, but I find this narrative hard to believe. It’s a ‘he said what she said what he may have said about a thing she may have done.’

Is it based on a grain of truth? Perhaps. The lack of information we have on Louise makes it presumptuous to declare this story true or false one way or the other, and while I do find the information on files being withheld by the National Archives compelling, the sound of hoof beats is usually horses and not zebras. What is definitely true, however, was that Louise detested John Brown, but so did most of Victoria’s children, who believed that he was impertinent and inappropriate with their mother, though not necessarily sexually.

As for Boehm, he was kept within the royal fold and he continued his work with Louise, though the visits were chaperoned from that point onwards – the fact that these visits went from chaperoned to unchaperoned, and then back to chaperoned has never been explained.

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Lorne

Soon after this, engagement rumors for Louise went into overdrive. There is a great deal on the record as to how Louise ended up with John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne. Victoria vetoed another match with a German or a Dane, and she similarly struck down Prince William of Orange for flagrantly living with a mistress abroad. Publicly, it was also touted as both a love match and the desire of Victoria to spruce up the blood line, so to speak. But, again, that’s exactly how it would be presented, wouldn’t it?

Either way, there was something about life within an aristocratic family that would have appealed to Louise. It awarded her privilege without taking on additional public responsibilities and it meant she could remain in England near her brothers, Helena and Beatrice.

On October 3, 1870 Louise and Lorne were engaged, Queen Victoria writing in her diary:

“Lorne has spoken of his devotion to her and proposed to her and […] she had accepted him, knowing that I would approve. Though I was not unprepared for this result, I felt painfully the thought of losing her. But I naturally gave my consent and could only pray that she might be happy.”

But to the rest of court, Louise didn’t appear particularly happy, nor did she seem in love. Henry Ponsoby wrote that she seemed “moody” and “absent-minded” in the months leading up to her wedding, and it’s a safe bet that the Princess wasn’t nearly as in love as Victoria wanted people to believe, or as much as she wanted to believe herself.

And while the public received news of the engagement quite well, the family was decidedly less enthused. Bertie and Alix, never particularly egalitarian when it came to class structure, were particularly horrified. Bertie publicly snubbed Lorne’s father at a house party about a month after the engagement was announced, expressing his dissatisfaction. Interestingly, the Queen gave a full-throated rebuttle of all her children’s objections, writing to Bertie beforehand:

“Time have much changed; great foreign alliances are looked on as causes of trouble and anxiety […] You may not be aware, as I am, with what dislike the marriage of Princesses […] with small German Princes (‘German beggars’ as they most insultingly were called) were looked on […] As to position, I see *no* difficulty whatsoever. Louise remains what she is, and her husband keeps his rank […] only being treated in the family as a relation when we are together. It will strengthen the *hold* of the Royal Family, besides infusing new and healthy blood into it, whereas all the Princes abroad are related to each other […] I feel sure that new blood will strengthen the throne *morally* as well as *physically*.”

The wedding went ahead on March 21, 1870 at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle where such a large crowd convened that police had to form barriers to block the public from pressing further. Louise wore a lace wedding gown she designed herself and was escorted down the aisle by Bertie and Alfred.

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Immediately after the wedding, the Princess was mostly amused by the novelty of living as she pleased for the first time. Now in the position of being mistress of her own household, she had the freedom to move about, decorate, entertain and fill her days as she wished. The only restriction was a need to economize more so than she ever had when she lived under the Queen’s roof, and more so than any of her sisters would have to, married to foreign princes. After two years, the couple moved to Kensington Palace, which though the apartments granted more privacy, also added to their living expenses.

But Louise and Lorne were economical in at least one way, whether they liked it or not – the couple never conceived, while all of Louise’s brothers and sisters had welcomed a first child a year after their weddings. They were also so popular within London that newspapers regularly published speculation that the Princess was finally pregnant, and complete strangers wrote to her offering fertility advice.

Part of the issue likely stemmed from the fact that Lorne is believed to have been a homosexual, and not always particularly discreet about it, according to gossip that circulated since his days at Eton. Needless to say, the marriage wasn’t a particularly close one. While the couple had friends in common, they spent a considerable amount of time apart – a preference that became more difficult in 1878 when Lorne was appointed the Governor General of Canada.

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Louise in the wedding dress she designed

Louise became the first royal to live in Rideau Hall, the Queen’s official residence in Ottawa, and while at first it was believed this move would be a significant step is strengthening ties between the crown and Canada, the Canadian press was equally unsure about a princess descending upon them and what that said about their own identity. The other significant change was that, as Governor General, Lorne outranked his wife for the first time in their marriage. When he opened Parliament for the first time in February 1879, Louise had to stand with everyone else until Lorne bid them to sit.

While Louise took her position seriously, it was Lorne who fell in love with the country, traveling extensively and meeting with members of the First Nations tribes. She began splitting her time between Canada and London in 1881, and the couple moved back to Britain permanently in 1883 when Lorne stepped down from his post.

As the ’80s progressed, the couple spent more time apart to the consternation of the Queen, though Louise had the support of Bertie, who had never taken to Lorne. They would become further fractured as Lorne became increasingly aligned with William Gladstone (detested by Victoria) and the Liberal party – indeed, the extent to which Lorne publicly espoused one party over another put him at odds within the Royal Family. Even Victoria, who had shown clear favoritism to Whigs over Tories at various points during her reign, had always publicly walked a slightly more genteel line as sovereign, as opposed to that of politician, which Lorne did when he entered Parliament in 1885.

Unfortunately, too, Louise’s relationship with Helena and Beatrice, both in London, became strained as well. Louise was reportedly jealous when Beatrice, her younger, plainer sister, married the dashing Prince Henry Battenberg in 1885 and began to have children by him. Rumor has it that Louise may have developed feelings for him; in 1896 when he died, Louise wrote that, “He was almost the greatest friend I had – I, too, miss him more than I can say.” She went further, telling people that she had been closer to Henry than Beatrice and that he had never truly cared for her sister.

Nor was Boehm out of the picture. Louise continued a friendship with the artist until his death in 1890, which tellingly occurred in her presence at his London studio, which sparked even more gossip about the nature of their relationship and the state of the Princess’s marriage. Indeed, both men were just two out of several men romantically linked to Louise in the ’80s and 90’s, though none can credibly be proven to have been anything other than friends or acquaintances.

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When Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, Louise was granted even more freedom during the reign of Bertie, who ascended the throne as King Edward VII. At odds with her sisters and her husband, she and her brother spent considerable time together, having at least one thing in common, which had horrified their mother: smoking. By this time, too, Louise was finally Duchess of Argyll after having been known as the Marchioness of Lorne since her marriage, Lorne having inherited his father’s title in 1900.

The contentment, if that’s what it was, would be brief. Bertie died at Buckingham Palace on May 6, 1910 and was succeeded by Louise’s nephew, George V. The following year Lorne fell ill, prompting his wife to take on the position of nursemaid and leading to one of the happiest periods of their marriage. When Lorne died on May 2, 1914, Louise wrote to a friend shortly thereafter, “My loneliness without the Duke is quite terrible. I wonder what he does now!” Indeed it was, for the Princess reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after his death, which is perhaps understandable given that most of her immediate family had passed on.

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Louise in 1933

Well, save Beatrice that is, and given that both resided in Kensington Palace with country residences on the Osborne estate, they would eventually be reconciled, offering each other some comfort in their widowhoods. She lived through the Abdication Crisis of 1936, writing to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that December to express her sympathies, while the current Queen Elizabeth was known to affectionately refer to Kensington as the “Auntie Palace” due to the amalgam of aunts and great-aunts who resided there. Shortly after the accession of George VI following the abdication, Louise fell ill and she died in her home on December 3, 1939.

Louise lived a remarkable life, particularly given that it was not at all the one that her mother would have laid out for her. And it remains one that unfolded quite differently from that of her siblings, who ended up drawn into European politics via their own marriages or rule. That fact, combined with the lack of access we have to Louise’s records, makes her perhaps the least-known of Victoria’s children – certainly she is the one least referenced in history.

But her legacy is also one of the most visible: her sculpture of her mother in her coronation robes sits outside of Kensington Palace today and is one of best-known landmarks in London.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor

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Image via the Royal Parks

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