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Sons, Servants & Statesmen
The Men in Queen Victoria's Life
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
'The daughter of a soldier'
King George III and Queen Charlotte had seven sons who survived to maturity. The fourth is one of the least remembered. Had it not been for marriage late in life, and for the daughter born to him and his wife eight months before he died, Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent, might have been all but forgotten. Yet, though she would say little about her father during her long life, Queen Victoria occasionally referred to herself with pride as the daughter of a soldier. Discussing the armed forces with her ministers in November 1893, she remarked that she 'was brought up so to speak with the feeling for the Army – being a soldier's daughter – and not caring about being on the sea I have always had a special feeling for the Army.'
Prince Edward Augustus was born at Buckingham House on 2 November 1767 and given his first name in memory of his uncle Edward, Duke of York, a dissolute young man who had died at the age of twenty-eight that same week. The circumstances of his birth, he would say self-pityingly, 'were ominous of the life of gloom and struggle which awaited me'. In 1799 he was raised to the peerage, becoming Duke of Kent and Strathearn and Earl of Dublin.
Brought up with his brothers and sisters mostly at Kew Palace, Edward's early life was not so cheerless as he might have wished others to believe, notwithstanding the harsh regime and discipline at home to which he and his brothers were subjected as small boys. However, like his elder brothers he was quick to react against the frugality of his parents once he reached manhood, and soon found himself deep in debt, a state of affairs which would remain constant to the end of his days. According to one writer of a later generation, he considered that the Royal Mint existed solely for the benefit of royalty, though he was not the only member of his family to do so. Wherever he was stationed on military service, be it North America, Gibraltar or Europe, he considered that as a king's son he had to live in comfort and maintain a certain sense of style. Any house in which he lived, and the gardens which surrounded it, had to be refurbished to the highest standards, with no expense spared. The bills from builders, carpenters, glaziers and gardeners soon rapidly exceeded his parliamentary income and military pay.
In the Army he rose to the rank of field-marshal, but even by the standards of the day he was regarded as a merciless martinet. He thought nothing of sentencing a man to one hundred lashes for a basic offence like leaving a button undone. In 1802 he was appointed Governor of Gibraltar and considered he had been sent to restore order in what had become a rather undisciplined garrison. His conscientious efforts to do so, in particular to curb the drunkenness of the men, soon provoked mutiny, secretly encouraged if not instigated by the second-in-command, who was keen to get rid of him. Within a year he had been recalled to England.
Despite his reputation as a harsh disciplinarian, away from the parade ground some people found him one of the most likeable of the family. With the exception of the Prince Regent, he was probably the most intelligent of the brothers. The Duke of Wellington once said that he never knew any man with more natural eloquence in conversation than the Duke of Kent, 'always choosing the best topics for each particular person, and expressing them in the happiest language', and the only one of the royal Dukes who could deliver a successful after-dinner speech. This favourable opinion was not shared by his siblings. The Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and King George IV, so resented his air of righteous self-pity that he called him Simon Pure, and his sisters considered him so hypocritical that they named him Joseph Surface after a character in Sheridan's The School for Scandal.
Austere where creature comforts were concerned, he rose early in the morning, ate and drank little, and abhorred drunkenness and gambling. He was a close friend of the pioneer socialist Robert Owen, and it has been suggested that the Duke of Kent could claim to be the first patron of socialism, at least in the annals of British royalty. He took a keen interest in Owen's workers' cooperatives, and in improving education for the working classes, in order that they might be able to better themselves. No slavish adherent to the Church of England, he sometimes attended dissenting services, much to the irritation of Manners Sutton, Archbishop of Canterbury. He actively supported over fifty charities, including a 'literary fund for distressed authors' and the Westminster Infirmary.
Despite enjoying a comfortable liaison for twenty-seven years with his mistress, Madame Julie de St Laurent, he was well aware of his royal obligations. Foremost among these was the promise of a generous parliamentary allowance on condition he contracted a suitable marriage in order to provide an heir to the throne. For the spendthrift sons of George III, such financial provision was an absolute necessity. The unexpected death in childbirth of Edward's niece, Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent and only legitimate grandchild of King George III, in November 1817, meant that he and his bachelor brothers – or brothers with mistresses, but without brides recognised by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 – had to rectify the situation.
Naturally he made it known that he was willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for the sake of his country, subject to adequate remuneration. In May 1818 he married Victoire, Dowager Duchess of Leiningen, a widow of thirty-one with a son, Charles, aged fourteen, and a daughter, Feodora, aged eleven. The Duke and Duchess made their home at Kensington Palace where, on 24 May 1819, she gave birth to a daughter who was christened Alexandrina Victoria.
Because of his radical opinions, the Duke was disliked and feared by the Tories. A member of the Bathurst family, whose nephew Henry Ponsonby later became private secretary to Queen Victoria, dreaded the possibility of his eventually ascending the throne. Though he was no republican, he felt it did not matter 'much to us Englishmen what sort of men our Kings are, but I should be sorry if the Crown went to that odious and pompous Duke of Kent'.
The Duke and Duchess planned to spend the winter of 1819–20 in Devon, ostensibly so the Duchess could benefit from the bracing sea air, but in fact to avoid the expense of living in London. He and his suite made arrangements to rent a modest house at Sidmouth on the Devon coast, where they arrived on Christmas Day 1819. It was an exceptionally severe winter, and after catching a heavy cold while out walking a few days later, Edward took to his bed with pneumonia. He had always been one of the healthiest members of the family, boasting that he would surely outlive his brothers, but he had spoken too soon.
Various friends came to Sidmouth to see him and condole with him on his illness, and the Duchess of Kent's younger brother, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, brought his doctor, Baron Stockmar. The latter examined the Duke but sadly admitted that he was beyond salvation. Early on the morning of 23 January 1820 he passed away, his wife kneeling beside him holding his hand. Within six days, his father, the blind and deranged King George III, had died as well, and in a nation which mourned its King, the death of the Duke of Kent went almost unnoticed.
As she was only eight months old at the time of his death, Princess Victoria could never remember her father. Brought up to obey the fifth commandment, she paid lip-service to the principle of honouring her parents and would occasionally speak of her 'beloved father'. Yet when people who had known him commented on how much she resembled him, she said pointedly that she had inherited far more from her mother. She and her father had certain characteristics in common, among them courage, truthfulness, strong powers of observation, and a love of order and punctuality. However, as these virtues were shared by many other members of the family, it might be unwise to credit him unduly with passing them on to his daughter.
Some detected other distinct physical resemblances, such as the 'same frank eyes' and a 'proud curve of nostril'. In her later life, comparisons were drawn between their pride of race, sense of dignity, their uncompromising attitude when a certain course of action was decided on, their simple notion of right and wrong and their sharp definition of black and white, with no shading in between. In their private lives, it was considered that they had the same indifference to love and affection if the needs of state demanded any sacrifice. Above all, they were autocrats at heart, but with a genuine sympathy towards the poor.
In at least three ways, Victoria was the exact opposite of her father. He was a spendthrift who ate but little, while she was as thrifty as her grandfather George III, and in later years she loved her food so much that whatever figure she had had as a young woman paid the price. Moreover, he was a six-foot giant of a man, while she was barely five feet tall.
Widowed a second time at only thirty-three years of age, the Duchess of Kent was very much a stranger in a strange land. It was less than two years since she had come to England, and she could barely speak English. The household was bilingual, and her infant daughter did not begin to speak English until she was three years old. The Duchess could hardly be blamed for contemplating a return to the safety and security of her old German home, Amorbach. But the Duke had left a wish that their daughter, whom he had told his friends to 'look at' well, as 'she will be Queen of England', should be brought up in the country of her birth. Thanks to Prince Leopold, who came to her financial rescue, this was scrupulously observed.
Left fatherless at eight months, with no reassuring male presence in the household at Kensington Palace, the Princess destined to become Queen Victoria would spend much of her life looking for one father-figure after another. Her 'wicked uncles', King George IV and his brothers, were considered unsuitable mentors. Most of them had once been notorious womanisers or adulterers, even bigamists, excessive spendthrifts, gluttons or drinkers, but now they had little energy for most of these vices. Even so, to the Duchess of Kent they were dissolute old men with whom she did not wish her daughter to be associated. Nevertheless, they took a friendly interest in her welfare, offering her rides in their carriages and sending her presents. However, the Duchess of Kent hated and feared them, convinced that they all regarded her small daughter as something of an interloper, or at best a reminder that her 'Drina' was the sovereign of the future whom her in-laws had conspicuously failed to provide. At the back of her mind was the fear that they would not hesitate to kidnap her or have her abducted, or at least attempt some subterfuge which would prevent her from coming to the throne.
* * *
The first genuine, or substitute, father-figure was her uncle, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld. Born in December 1790, he was four years younger than his sister, the Duchess of Kent. A nonetoo-affluent German prince, he had distinguished himself during his military career in the Napoleonic wars, rising to the rank of lieutenant-general. In May 1816 he had married Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, and experienced eighteen months of married bliss which were suddenly, tragically, ended when she died in childbirth in November 1817. Having been granted an annuity of £50,000 on his marriage, he could easily afford to be generous to others.
At first, the bereaved Leopold had been unable even to look at his baby niece, who inadvertently brought back bitter memories of his dead wife and the little son who had never lived. It took all his sister's powers of persuasion before he would set eyes on her, and after one reluctant look he shrank from doing so again for a time. Even to attend her christening required no mean effort on his part, and only when the baby's father died did he relent. From then on, he became in effect a second father to her. Having heard the sad news he hurried to Sidmouth, and three days after the Duke of Kent's death he accompanied the bereaved family on their return to Kensington.
Though denied the chance of being the husband of England's future Queen, Leopold realised that he was the uncle of a likely future one. After the ailing King George IV, the heirs to the throne were Frederick, Duke of York and William, Duke of Clarence. All three were in their fifties, the first two were childless and the Duchess of Clarence seemed sadly unable to bear any children who would live for more than a few months. Barring miracles, it was highly probable that within twenty years or so Victoria would succeed them to the throne.
Leopold became very attached to her, and for the next few years of his life he paid her weekly visits at Kensington. Disliked and distrusted by most of his in-laws in England as a crafty schemer, he had to behave with circumspection, lest he was seen to be playing too influential a part in the little girl's life. At one stage during this time, he imagined and hoped that he might become regent to her, in the event of her succeeding to the throne before she attained her majority.
The Duke of York died in January 1827, aged sixty-three. Few people expected either King George IV or his new heir, the Duke of Clarence, to outlive Victoria's eighteenth birthday, and Leopold thought it safe to assume that the government and ministers would prefer him as regent to any other of his niece's surviving Hanoverian uncles. In particular, the next in line of succession after Clarence and Victoria herself was Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, one of the most hated men in the kingdom. While the scandalous rumours about his private life, among them incest with a sister, murder of a valet and seduction of a friend's wife, were almost certainly nonsense, his reputation as a reactionary of the deepest dye was enough to put him beyond the pale as far as most members of the Houses of Parliament were concerned.
However, Leopold was aware that it would not do for him to make his case as prospective regent too assertively. Though George IV was Leopold's father-in-law, the King had never liked the conscientious, yet sanctimonious and avaricious young Coburg prince who had won the hand of his beloved late daughter. The Duke of Clarence, who succeeded his brother George as King William IV in June 1830, cared for Leopold and his Coburg kinsmen even less. They were devoted to Princess Victoria, a feeling which they did not extend to her mother.
It was fortunate for Leopold and his sense of ambition that a greater destiny beckoned. In 1831 he was chosen as king of the newly independent state of Belgium, but he continued to maintain a regular correspondence with his niece. Far-sighted and astute, he had a thorough understanding of the concept of constitutional monarchy, and he was more than ready to impart his knowledge of the subject to his young niece. Each year he wrote her a long birthday letter imparting much affection as well as sound advice.
Her letters to him were very appreciative and similarly affectionate. These were a sorely needed safety valve for her, as she found it easier to be more frank and confiding with him than with anybody at home whom she saw regularly. When King Leopold and his second wife, Queen Louise, came to visit her in September 1835 and she met them at Ramsgate, her delight knew no bounds.
'He is so clever, so mild, and so prudent;' she wrote in her journal after one of their conversations; 'he alone can give me good advice on every thing. His advice is perfect. He is indeed "il mio secondo padre" or rather "solo padre"! for he is indeed like my real father, as I have none, and he is so kind and so good to me, he has ever been so to me.'
Within three weeks of writing this entry, the bonds between uncle and fatherless daughter had strengthened. 'He gave me very valuable and important advice,' she recorded after another talk. 'I look up to him as a Father, with complete confidence, love and affection. He is the best and kindest adviser I have. He has always treated me as his child and I love him most dearly for it.'
Leopold's advice, though Victoria was too young to appreciate it, was even more 'valuable and important' than she might have ever thought possible. His liberal attitudes and the fact that he was king of a state that had come into existence as part of a liberal nationalist movement which was spreading through nineteenth-century Europe were in themselves significant. Therefore his liberal outlook and her own adolescent political inclinations, such as they were, helped to make the future Queen Victoria more acceptable to a broader section of public opinion in Britain than would have been the case had she been schooled by her cousins and uncles.
Excerpted from Sons, Servants & Statesmen by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
PART I FATHER FIGURES,
One 'The daughter of a soldier',
Two 'My father, my protector, my guide and adviser',
PART II PRIME MINISTERS,
Three 'I know how to value and appreciate real worth',
Four 'Such a good man',
Five 'The kindest of Mistresses',
Six 'A deluded excited man',
PART III SERVANTS,
seven 'He is very dependable',
Eight 'Absolutely fair and lucid',
Nine 'A sort of pet',
PART IV SONS AND SONS-IN-LAW,
Ten 'One feels so pinned down',
Eleven 'We are a very strong family',
Twelve 'A great three-decker ship sinking',