On January 23, 1820 Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, died prematurely at the age of 52. He was followed to the grave just six days later by his father, George III, who had been mentally incapacitated for years. At just seven months old, the then-Princess Victoria of Kent became third-in-line to the throne following her uncles, King George IV and Princes Frederick, Duke of York and William, the Duke of Clarence. All three were childless.
Her mother, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, found herself at the age of 34 twice-widowed and the mother of three children, one of whom she was responsible for molding into a future British monarch. She herself was German – indeed, at the time of her second husband’s death she had not yet fully mastered the English language.
Her son from her first husband, Charles, left home soon after to attend school in Germany and never returned. Her daughter, Feodora, was just 12 and remained in her mother’s household – she was one of the few companions her little half-sister was allowed for the next several years.
The Duke of Kent had not been a wealthy man and he left his widow with a mountain of debt, forcing her financial dependence on her younger brother, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who was in turn the widower of George IV’s daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales. Despite Charlotte having died in November 1817 Leopold continued to live in London and draw a sizable salary from Parliament. As such, he was one of the few in a position to help, and to be so inclined – from the £50,000 he drew, he allocated £3,000 for his sister and nieces.
At first, his generosity was enough that George IV, who didn’t much like his sister-in-law, felt little inclination to offer additional assistance. It wasn’t until later on that she was granted £6,000 a year from Parliament, the same figure also given to Princess Victoria’s first cousin, Prince George of Cambridge.
The Duchess of Kent was a divisive figure within the Royal Family, though she at first had the support of her sister-in-law, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, Duchess of Clarence. Adelaide, married to the third brother, outranked the Duchess, however her attempts to produce children failed and she wrote soon after one of their early deaths that she saw her niece as her own daughter. Even so, the Duchess felt friendless in a foreign country and came to rely heavily on her husband’s former equerry, John Conroy, a man of limited ability and boundless ambition.
It was he who first saw the opportunity that Princess Victoria signified for her mother and thus for himself as the heir of three aging men. He implemented what became known as the “Kensington System” which was meant to ensure that the Princess was wholly dependent on her mother and uncorrupted by outside forces. The goal was that George IV, York and Clarence would all die before Victoria reached 18, resulting in a regency that Conroy hoped would be led solely by the Duchess and puppeteered by him.
His plan worked on the Duchess, who trusted him entirely and fed into his paranoid outlook on the rest of the RF, including the possibility that one of the uncles behind Victoria in the succession might look to have her assassinated. As such, Victoria’s food was tested, she was not allowed to walk up or down the stairs without holding someone’s hand and she slept each night in her mother’s bedroom – all well into her adolescence. She later recounted:
“I never had a room to myself. I never had a sofa, nor an easy chair, and there was not a single carpet that was not threadbare.”
Food was plain, clothes were simple and schedules were regimented. It’s no surprise, then, that when she did ascend the throne Victoria was insistent on doing as she pleased.
What he couldn’t account for was that Victoria was a formidable personality in her own right, even as a child. She found his manners grating and his overfamiliarity insulting. Indeed, from very early on she had a strong sense of her own status, even before she knew exactly what it meant. When one young girl was brought over to KP to play, Victoria instructed her that she was not allowed to play with any of her dolls and while she might call her by her Christian name, the girl was not to call her Victoria.
Her willfulness – and insistence on honesty before tact – could be trying. She once threw a pair of scissors at her governess and when her mother was asked if Victoria had been good one morning and the Duchess responded yes, but there had been a “little storm” the day before, Victoria corrected her with, “Two storms. One at dressing and one at washing.” When the Duchess scolded her for her temper, saying that it caused them both unhappiness, the child responded, “No, Mama, not me, not myself, but you.”
The Duchess wrote to a friend:
“I must confess that I am over anxious in a childish way with the little one, as if she were my first child…She drives me at times into real desperation…Today the little mouse […] was no unmanageable that I nearly cried.”
The Princess’s two great comforts were her dolls, of which she had 132, and her governess, Louise Lehzen. She was described as strict, but playful with Victoria and in 13 years of service before the child’s accession to the throne, she never once spent a day away from her. Her devotion was commendable, though complicated, for what she did sow was distrust in Victoria for her mother, a tactic she would try later with far less success with Prince Albert in the early 1840s.
Feodora was also a comfort to Victoria, but she understandably chafed within the confines of KP and was eager to escape. In 1828 she married Prince Ernest of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and moved to Germany. She went on to have six children with her husband and lived until 1872, maintaining a close correspondence with Victoria over the decades. She returned to England once before her sister’s accession for a visit that ended with Victoria sobbing for days over her departure.
Victoria became aware of her proximity to the throne in 1830, which was just in time for it was that year in which she became first in line for the throne. Her relationship with her uncles was spotty. The Duke of Sussex also lived in KP, but was a figure of fear, and the Duke of Cumberland was the uncle that her mother most feared would plot an assassination. The Duke of York was a remote figure, but when he passed away in 1827 he bumped his niece up one spot in the succession.
Victoria was fond of George IV, whom she referred to as “Uncle King.” In 1824 she charmed him during a visit in which she went riding with him, requested to hear “God Save the King” on the piano and then told him her favorite part of the day was her time in the park with him. For a five-year-old, it was a precocious display.
The reign of William IV (the Duke of Clarence) did not begin on an auspicious note for Victoria. She found out she was destined for the throne when a family tree was left out for her to find and she responded by bursting into tears, even as she was comforted that Queen Adelaide was still young enough to bear children. Then, there was a kerfuffle between her mother and the King other the procession during the coronation, with the Duchess maintaining Victoria should walk out of Westminster Abbey directly after William and William insisting she should follow her other uncles. In response, the Duchess declined to attend on her daughter’s behalf and instead began planning “progresses.”
These sojourns about the country – the brainchild of Conroy – were meant to show Victoria off to the public and allow them to get to know her. They were successful in that the Princess did in fact become a popular figure, but they irritated the King who felt that they were done to undermine his own reputation and authority. Instead, he and Queen Adelaide repeatedly invited Victoria to spend time at court as she grew older, however the Duchess refused on the grounds that it was full of William’s illegitimate children, the FitzClarences.
The height of the scandal came in August 1836, when Victoria was 17. William invited his sister-in-law and niece to join him at Windsor for his birthday, and though they attended, he was irritated by the Duchess’s rudeness in accepting the invitation half-heartedly and that she ignored a similar invite to attend the Queen’s early birthday festivities. When he stood at his dinner party to make a speech, he said:
“I trust in God that my life may be spared for nine months longer, 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 near me, who is surrounded by evil advisers and who is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the station in which She would be placed. I have no hesitation in saying that I have been insulted – grossly and continually insult – by that person, but I am determined to endure no longer a course of behavior so disrespectful to me. Amongst many other things I have particularly to complain of the manner in which that young Lady has been kept away from my Court; she has been repeatedly kept from my drawing-rooms, at which She ought always to have been present, but I am fully resolved that this shall not happen again. I would have her know that I am King, and that I am determined to make my authority respected, and for the future I shall insist and command that the Princess do upon all occasions appear at my Court, as it is her duty to do so.”
The Duchess responded by gathering her daughter and leaving in a huff.
William and Adelaide were obviously savvy to the game Conroy was playing and repeatedly tried to warn the Duchess about his influence over the years. When they realized she was a lost cause, they tried in vain to rescue their niece. Shortly before her 18th birthday, they proposed applying to Parliament for a grant of £10,000 a year and giving her the authority to set up of her own household. Conroy insisted that the letter outlining these terms only be given to Victoria in the Duchess’s presence, and once read he and the Duchess were appalled and forced her to reject them.
Knowingly, when William read Victoria’s clearly dictated response, he stated simply that they were not his niece’s words. But by then there were only weeks left. On May 24, 1837 Victoria turned 18, and on June 20, William passed away at Windsor Castle. The reign of Queen Victoria had officially begun. Her first act was to have her bed placed in its own room.