The last baby princess at Kensington Palace: the new Princess Charlotte’s predecessor…
My article written for t’paper, reproduced here for you…
It’s very nearly two hundred years since the last time Kensington Palace was home to a baby princess. The future Queen Victoriawas born there at 4 o’clock in the morning of 24th May 1819.
But the circumstances into which the new royal baby has been born couldn’t have been more different than those of 1819. The new princess is Her Majesty the Queen’s seventeenth direct descendent, and now fourth in line to the throne. Rarely in history has the succession looked more secure.
Victoria, though, was entering a Royal Family in crisis.
In 1819, king George III, suffering from blindness and mental disturbance, had retreated into a private world. The public face of the monarchy was provided by the king’s eldest son, the Prince Regent, the future George IV: better known to the television-watching-public as the idiotic Hugh Laurie character in Blackadder goes Forth.
The Prince Regent and his brothers, sometimes known as Victoria’s ‘Wicked Uncles’, had brought the monarchy into some disrepute. Right from the start, some people hoped that this new baby girl would in due course save the throne from the revolutionary mob. ‘The English,’ wrote Victoria’s German grandmother, ‘like queens’.
And the baby who would become the indomitable Queen Victoria gave early indications of her character. After a labour of six hours, she was born fit and feisty, ‘as plump as a partridge’. Even her infant ways were imperious: she was described as more of a ‘pocket Hercules, than a pocket Venus’.
Unlike the frenzy of interest surrounding the arrival of the Cambridge babies today, Victoria’s birth was a low-key affair. Her German mother, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, and her father, the Duke of Kent, were not only penniless, but also fairly minor members of a multitudinous Royal Family.
Tradition claims that Victoria entered the world in the North Drawing Room of Kensington Palace. WHY THIS ROOM? WAS IT PART OF THEIR LIVING QUARTERS which was then part of the apartment occupied by the Kents. The room today forms part of the intimate Victoria Revealed exhibition at Kensington Palace, which tells the story of the queen’s birth and life.
Although she was born in a palace drawing room, Victoria’s early life was not luxurious. Kensington Palace at the time was rather a run-down, ramshackle retirement home for superfluous members of the Royal Family. Because of their huge debts, Victoria’s parents had been unable to make their apartment clean and comfortable.
Even so, their baby was well looked after. Fraulein Siebold, a qualified female doctor from Germany, supervised the delivery. The newborn Victoria was vaccinated against smallpox, which was advanced medical practice, and she was breast-fed, her own mother providing ‘maternal nutriment’ (in the somewhat prudish words of Victoria’s father).
This was unusual because royal women were expected to hand their babies over to wet-nurses, so that they could more quickly return to their husbands’ beds and get on with the business of providing further members of the royal line. But the Kents failed to follow convention, and Victoria’s mother said she would have been ‘desperate’ to see another woman feeding her beloved baby.
Up until this point, Victoria’s parents had been living quietly abroad to avoid the Duke’s creditors. They had only made a mad last-minute dash home to London so that their child would be born on English soil, therefore avoiding any future questions about her eligibility to become queen.
But questions of eligibility seemed far from relevant in 1819, as it was by no means obvious that Victoria would inherit the throne.
She was the result of a curious phenomenon called ‘The Baby Race’. Its starting pistol was fired in 1817 with the sudden and horrible death, in childbirth, of the young and beautiful Princess Charlotte, the Prince Regent’s only child, and next in line behind him for the throne. Charlotte’s death was so deeply significant because she had been the only legitimate grandchild of King George III. His twelve living descendants had reproduced themselves with vigour: it’s estimated that George III had nearly forty grandchildren.
But all of them, bar Charlotte, were born outside wedlock. Even Charlotte’s own parents had quarrelled and parted, so no further children were to be expected from the Prince Regent or his estranged wife.
At Charlotte’s death, then, the crisis in the Royal Family forced the Prince Regent’s younger brothers, including the Duke of Kent, to leave their various mistresses, and get married to proper German princesses, in order to try to produce a legitimate heir to the throne.
It was an unedifying spectacle. As one contemporary satirist put it: ‘Hot and hard each royal pair, are at it hunting for the heir’.
Victoria was just one of four of these Royal babies to be born, as a result of the race, in the bumper year of 1819. Gradually, though, those older than her had the misfortune to die young, and it eventually became apparent that Victoria would be the next queen. She finally achieved this at the age of 18.
After a birth heralded with so little fanfare, scant attention was also paid to Victoria’s christening. It took place in the Cupola Room, one of the grand, if dusty, state apartments at Kensington Palace, and there had been no agreement beforehand on what her names were to be. The Prince Regent arrived at the ceremony only to reject the baby’s proposed names of Charlotte and Augusta. These were English royal names, and he didn’t feel they were suitable names for such an insignificant-looking little girl.
So she was baptised Alexandrina Victoria, and actually spent her early years as ‘Drina’.
In later life, Queen Victoria claimed that she’d lacked love as a child, enduring a poor relationship with her mother. Her rather self-pitying memoirs describe a childhood at gloomy Kensington Palace, with only bewigged, elderly clergymen for companions, and having to be quiet so as not to disturb her pernickety uncles.
But I believe that this was written with hindsight by a woman with a melodramatic view of her life.
In truth, the surviving letters between Victoria’s parents, and in due course, the early letters between Victoria and her mother, breathe affection. Like the Cambridges, the Kents were a tight, loving and rather modern-sounding family unit, living as they did in a low-key manner, with nannies and nurses but without the hangers-on of an extensive court.
And the family was destined to become smaller and tighter still, for when Victoria was only nine months old, her father the Duke died.
The Duke’s last illness took place in Sidmouth, Devon. He’d taken his young family away from Kensington Palace to live on the coast, because outside London his prestige was still just about great enough to raise credit from the local shopkeepers.
Now Victoria’s mother – a foreigner – was left alone to bring up her baby daughter, with neglectful in-laws and without much money.
It was a bad beginning. But it was in this childhood adversity that the steely character of a future queen was forged.
And even before his death, the unhappy Duke had maintained enormous faith that his baby daughter’s lot in life would improve.
‘Look on her well,’ he used to say to his friends, ‘for she will be Queen of England.’
He was right.’