Saturday, January 22, 2011

The crown hurt me

Today is the 110th anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, Britain’s longest serving monarch, and indeed the longest serving female monarch in world history. Astonishingly, she kept a detailed diary for most of her life starting at the age of 13. Although the diaries are available to researchers, only a small fraction of them have ever been published, notably her earliest diaries. Somehow, she found the time to write in her diary at length about the day she became Queen and the day of her Coronation.

The only child of Edward, Duke of Kent, and Victoria Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg, Victoria succeeded her uncle, William IV, to the throne when only 18 in 1837. Three years later, she married her first cousin, Albert. Together they had nine children, many of whom married into European monarchic families. Albert was somewhat moralistic but also progressive, and, with Victoria, initiated various reforms and innovations, such as the Great Exhibition of 1851, which helped re-establish the British monarchy’s popularity. The success of the Great Exhibition led to the opening of public museums, such as the Victoria and Albert.

Albert died of typhoid in 1861, and, it is said, Victoria never fully recovered from the loss. Nevertheless, she continued to reign for another 40 years. During her time as queen, the British Empire doubled in size, taking in India, Australia, Canada and parts of Africa and the South Pacific. Her governments faced a number of foreign trials, including the Irish uprising, the Boer Wars and an Indian rebellion. She was also the subject of at least seven assassination attempts between 1840 and 1882. Her golden and diamond jubilees in 1887 and 1897 led to national celebrations. She died on 22 January 1901. Her reign, at 63 years remains the longest in British history, and is the longest of any female monarch in history. The Official Site of the British Monarchy has much more biographical information.

Victoria kept a detailed near-daily diary from the age of 13, but few of the original volumes survive, since they were all carefully edited and transcribed by her daughter Beatrice who used more than 100 volumes for the task. The first journal, begun in August 1832 when Victoria was but 13, was a small octavo volume half bound in red morocco with the words ‘This book Mamma gave me, that I might write the journal of my journey to Wales in it.’

There have been various published collections of Queen Victoria’s diary entries. The first was Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1838 to 1861, edited by Arthur Helps, and published by Smith, Elder & Co in 1868. Arthur Ponsonby, author of English Diaries (Methuen, 1923), says she made £2,500 from its publication and used the money to set up university and school bursaries for the people of Balmoral. More Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1862 to 1882, edited by Arthur Helps, was published by Smith, Elder & Co in 1883. Of both volumes, Ponsonby opines: ‘the entries are so much cut and trimmed and edited for public consumption that the charm of personality is almost entirely eliminated’.

After her death, in 1908, John Murray published three volumes of The Letters of Queen Victoria - A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the Years 1837 and 1861. These volumes were edited by A C Benson and Viscount Esher, and the first contains extracts from Queen Victoria’s early diaries. Four years later, in 1912, the same publisher brought out two volumes of The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: a selection from Her Majesty’s diaries between the years 1832 and 1840 edited by Viscount Esher.

Here are two well-known passages from her diary, both very long (and considerably cut here) - how did she find the time? The first entry is from the day her uncle, King William, had died, thus making her queen; and the second from the day of her coronation. She was only 18 years old.

20 June 1837
‘I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here, and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing-gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham (the Lord Chamberlain) then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen. Lord Conyngham knelt down and kissed my hand, at the same time delivering to me the official announcement of the poor King’s demise. The Archbishop then told me that the Queen was desirous that he should come and tell me the details of the last moments of my poor good Uncle; he said that he had directed his mind to religion, and had died in a perfectly happy, quiet state of mind, and was quite prepared for his death. He added that the King’s sufferings at the last were not very great but that there was a good deal of uneasiness. Lord Conyngham, whom I charged to express my feelings of condolence and sorrow to the poor Queen, returned directly to Windsor. I then went to my room and dressed.

Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good-will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.

Breakfasted, during which time good, faithful Stockmar [a German nobleman and friend] came and talked to me. Wrote a letter to dear Uncle Leopold [Belgian king] and a few words to dear good Feodore [her stepsister]. Received a letter from Lord Melbourne [the Prime Minister] in which he said he would wait upon me at a little before 9.

At 9 came Lord Melbourne, whom I saw in my room, and of course quite alone, as I shall always do all my Ministers. He kissed my hand, and I then acquainted him that it had long been my intention to retain him and the rest of the present Ministry at the head of affairs, and that it could not be in better hands than his. He again then kissed my hand. He then read to me the Declaration which I was to read to the Council, which he wrote himself, and which is a very fine one. I then talked with him some little time longer, after which he left me. He was in full dress. I like him very much and feel confidence in him. He is a very straightforward, honest, clever and good man. I then wrote a letter to the Queen. At about 11 Lord Melbourne came again to me, and spoke to me upon various subjects. At about half-past 11 I went downstairs and held a Council in the red saloon.

I went in of course quite alone and remained seated the whole time. My two Uncles, the Dukes of Cumberland and Sussex, and Lord Melbourne conducted me. The Declaration, the various forms, the swearing in of the Privy Councillors of which there were a great number present, and the reception of some of the Lords of the Council, previous to the Council, in an adjacent room (likewise alone) I subjoin here. I was not at all nervous and had the satisfaction of hearing that people were satisfied with what I had done and how I had done it. . .

Wrote my journal. Took my dinner upstairs alone. Went downstairs. Saw Stockmar. At about twenty minutes to 9 came Lord Melbourne and remained till near 10. I had a very important and a very comfortable conversation with him. Each time I see him I feel more confidence in him; I find him very kind in his manner too. Saw Stockmar. Went down and said good-night to Mamma, etc. . .

28 June 1838
I was awoke at four o’clock by the guns in the Park, and could not get much sleep afterwards on account of the noise of the people, bands, etc., etc. Got up at seven, feeling strong and well; the Park presented a curious spectacle, crowds of people up to Constitution Hill, soldiers, bands, etc. I dressed, having taken a little breakfast before I dressed, and a little after. At half-past 9 I went into the next room, dressed exactly in my House of Lords costume; and met Uncle Ernest, Charles, and Feodore (who had come a few minutes before into my dressing-room), Lady Lansdowne, Lady Normanby, the Duchess of Sutherland, and Lady Barham, all in their robes.

At 10 I got into the State Coach with the Duchess of Sutherland and Lord Albemarle and we began our Progress. I subjoin a minute account of the whole Procession and of the whole Proceeding, the route, etc. It was a fine day, and the crowds of people exceeded what I have ever seen; many as there were the day I went to the City, it was nothing, nothing to the multitudes, the millions of my loyal subjects, who were assembled in every spot to witness the Procession. Their good humour and excessive loyalty was beyond everything, and I really cannot say how proud I feel to be the Queen of such a Nation. I was alarmed at times for fear that the people would be crushed and squeezed on account of the tremendous rush and pressure.

I reached the Abbey amid deafening cheers at a little after half-past eleven; I first went into a robing-room quite close to the entrance where I found my eight train-bearers: . . . all dressed alike and beautifully in white satin and silver tissue with wreaths of silver corn-ears in front, and a small one of pink roses round the plait behind, and pink roses in the trimming of the dresses.

After putting on my mantle, and the young ladies having properly got hold of it and Lord Conyngham holding the end of it, I left the robing-room and the Procession began as is described in the annexed account, and all that followed and took place. The sight was splendid; the bank of Peeresses quite beautiful all in their robes, and the Peers on the other side. My young train-bearers were always near me, and helped me whenever I wanted anything. The Bishop of Durham stood on the side near me, but he was, as Lord Melbourne told me, remarkably maladroit, and never could tell me what was to take place.

At the beginning of the Anthem, where I’ve made a mark, I retired to St Edward’s Chapel, a dark small place immediately behind the Altar, with my ladies and train-bearers, took off my crimson robe and kirtle, and put on the supertunica of cloth of gold, also in the shape of a kirtle, which was put over a singular sort of little gown of linen trimmed with lace; I also took off my circlet of diamonds and then proceeded bareheaded into the Abbey; I was then seated upon St Edward’s chair, where the Dalmatic robe was clasped round me by the Lord Great Chamberlain. Then followed all the various things; and last (of those things) the Crown being placed on my head which was, I must own, a most beautiful impressive moment; all the Peers and Peeresses put on their coronets at the same instant.

My excellent Lord Melbourne, who stood very close to me throughout the whole ceremony, was completely overcome at this moment, and very much affected; he gave me such a kind, and I may say fatherly look. The shouts, which were very great, the drums, the trumpets, the firing of the guns, all at the same instant, rendered the spectacle most imposing.

The Enthronisation and the Homage of, first, all the Bishops, and then my Uncles, and lastly of all the Peers, in their respective order was very fine. The Duke of Norfolk (holding for me the Sceptre with a Cross) with Lord Melbourne stood close to me on my right, and the Duke of Richmond with the other Sceptre on my left, etc., etc. All my train-bearers, etc., standing behind the Throne. Poor old Lord Rolle, who is 82, and dreadfully infirm, in attempting to ascend the steps fell and rolled quite down, but was not the least hurt; when he attempted to re-ascend them I got up and advanced to the end of the steps, in order to prevent another fall. When Lord Melbourne’s turn to do Homage came, there was loud cheering; they also cheered Lord Grey and the Duke of Wellington; it’s a pretty ceremony; they first all touch the Crown, and then kiss my hand. When my good Lord Melbourne knelt down and kissed my hand, he pressed my hand and I grasped his with all my heart, at which he looked up with his eyes filled with tears and seemed much touched, as he was, I observed, throughout the whole ceremony. After the Homage was concluded I left the Throne, took off my Crown and received the Sacrament; I then put on my Crown again, and re-ascended the Throne, leaning on Lord Melbourne’s arm. At the commencement of the Anthem I descended from the Throne, and went into St Edward’s Chapel with my Ladies, Train-bearers, and Lord Willoughby, where I took off the Dalmatic robe, supertunica, etc., and put on the Purple Velvet Kirtle and Mantle, and proceeded again to the Throne, which I ascended leaning on Lord Melbourne’s hand. . .

At eight we dined. Besides we thirteen - my Uncles, sister, brother, Spaeth, and the Duke’s gentlemen - my excellent Lord Melbourne and Lord Surrey dined here. Lord Melbourne came up to me and said: “I must congratulate you on this most brilliant day,” and that all had gone off so well. He said he was not tired, and was in high spirits. I sat between Uncle Ernest and Lord Melbourne; and Lord Melbourne between me and Feodore, whom he had led in. My kind Lord Melbourne was much affected in speaking of the whole ceremony. He asked kindly if I was tired; said the Sword he carried (the first, the Sword of State) was excessively heavy. I said that the Crown hurt me a good deal. . .

Stayed in the dining room till twenty minutes past eleven, but remained on Mamma’s balcony looking at the fireworks in Green Park, which were quite beautiful.

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