Happy (200th) Birthday Your Majesty

Happy (200th) Birthday Your Majesty

Ruth A Symes celebrates Queen Victoria's bicentenary

Ruth A. Symes, Teacher with freelance writer

Ruth A. Symes

Teacher with freelance writer

This month it will be 200 years since the birth of perhaps our most revered and deeply loved monarch – Queen Victoria. So used are we to seeing this undoubtedly great monarch as an elderly and rather dumpy matriarch and widow that it is very difficult to imagine her in her youth, let alone as a new-born infant. Even the recent ITV television series, Victoria, started when the princess was a young girl of 18, about to inherit the throne. The story of the Queen’s first days has been somewhat kept under wraps; but in fact, there are many points of interest surrounding the birth that might help us understand the extraordinary position that Victoria later came to occupy.

The infant who would become Queen Victoria arrived in this world at a quarter past four in the morning on a cold day in the late spring of 1819. Vigilant observers noted with pleasure that she had been born on 24 May, which, allowing for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, was the same date of birth as her grandfather, the then current King George III (b. June 4th, 1738).

By 1831, when this drawing was sketched, only her Uncle William IV stood between the 12-year-old Princess Victoria and the British throne
By 1831, when this drawing was sketched, only her Uncle William IV stood between the 12-year-old Princess Victoria and the British throne

The veteran royal parents
Victoria’s parents were not youthful lovers. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, was 50 at the time of her birth and had been, until very shortly beforehand, in an unrecognised relationship (of over 28 years) with a French mistress, Madame de St Laurent. He is believed to have fathered at least one illegitimate child in his youth. Victoria’s mother was the 31-year-old widowed Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, a woman who had already had two children – Victoria’s

half brother and sister Carl (b. 12 September, 1804) and Feodora (b. 7 December 1807). Given the fact that the Duke of Kent would die before Princess Victoria was eight months old, her conception just weeks after the unexpected marriage seems to have been a real stroke of luck.

A birth on British soil
The newlyweds had been living in the German principality of Coburg since their marriage in May 1818, and, in fact, only arrived in England a month before Victoria’s birth – a deliberate measure to establish Victoria’s identity as a British subject. As was fitting for the birth of a member of the royal family, a number of medical people were in attendance at the confinement; but, most exceptionally for the times, there was among them, a professional woman – a ‘female accoucheur’ – Doctor Charlotte von Siebold, ‘who had unusually been able to attend the medical lectures at Gottingen University and to obtain the degree of Doctor.’ (The Suffolk Chronicle or Weekly General Advertiser and County Express, 29 May, 1819)

Although Victoria’s eventual accession to the throne was not a foregone conclusion on the day she was born, she was still that very precious entity at the time – a legitimate grandchild of George III. The public were necessarily highly interested in her survival. In 1817, the death in childbirth of Victoria’s cousin Princess Charlotte (then second in line to the throne) and her child, had been a national tragedy (amongst more obvious horrors, it had brought about the suicide of the doctor who had been responsible for the delivery). And just two months before Victoria’s birth, another cousin and potential queen, Princess Charlotte Augusta Louisa of Clarence – daughter of Prince William, Duke of Clarence, had died a few hours after her birth and baptism in Hanover. All these events were still very raw in the public mind – and every effort was, therefore, made to ensure that they were not repeated at the birth of this new royal baby.

It was hardly surprising then that frequent bulletins on the health of Victoria’s mother and of Victoria herself were posted up outside Buckingham Palace and then reported in the press, for many mornings immediately after the birth. The fact that Victoire was relatively young, but had already given birth twice before, perhaps contributed to the straightforwardness of the birth. On 26 May, the press reported that ‘Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, and her infant continue in a favourable state.’

The following day, however, the news was not so good. The Morning Chronicle of 27 May 1819 reported that ‘Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent had a slight attack of fever yesterday evening but, has, however, had a tolerably good night, and is, this morning, as well as can be expected.’ This statement continued with the more reassuring news that, ‘The Royal Infant continues to do well.’ By 4 June, the Kentish Weekly Post was able to report that ‘The Duchess of Kent is going on so extremely well that Her Royal Highness sat up for some time on Tuesday and Wednesday.’ By 10 June, she was better still with the Palace announcing that ‘[The Duchess] is already so advanced in her convalescence, that no further Bulletin will be issued after this day.’

A key feature of the postpartum Palace bulletins was the fact that surprisingly, the Duchess – in this her first summer maternity convalescence – was ‘to suckle the young child herself.’ This was something that women of high status tended not to do at the time, preferring to hire wet nurses for that purpose (as Victoria herself would do when her time for motherhood came). On 29 June, the Duchess was publicly ‘churched’ in the Church of Westminster by the Bishop of Salisbury and, at the end of the month, she was able to return to her public engagements with a trip to meet actors at the Haymarket Theatre.

As for the baby herself, Victoria (or more correctly Princess Alexandrina Victoria – or ‘Drina’ as she would become known) was apparently in rude health from day one, with her father describing her as being ‘as plump as a partridge’ and ‘a pocket Hercules’. Victoria started as she meant to continue. Her robust constitution was commented upon throughout her life; she had a very good appetite and a high toleration for alcohol, for example, and she would be a fertile young bride (giving birth to nine children within 17 years). She would also to live to the ripe old age of 81, valiantly leading Britain through all the many changes of the 19th century and into the 20th.

Engraving of a portrait of Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Saxe-Coburg (later Queen Victoria) aged 14 in 1833
Engraving of a portrait of Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Saxe-Coburg (later Queen Victoria) aged 14 in 1833

Victoria’s Birthdays:
Journal Entries for 24 May

Queen Victoria’s celebrated many of her birthdays as monarch happily and lavishly. We are very fortunate to have the journal entries that she made throughout her life recounting what she did and how she felt on that auspicious day each year. These entries are a remarkable barometer of the preoccupations and emotional ups and downs of her extraordinary life at each stage.

24 May 1833
In 1833, the teenage Victoria awoke in anticipation of her birthday at 5.30am and got up at 7.30, writing in her diary, ‘Today is my birthday. I am today fourteen. How very old!’ The rest of the entry that day is a breathless record of the many visits she welcomed from family and friends. In the evening, a juvenile ball was given in her honour at which she ‘danced 8 quadrilles.’ Victoria reported that after her health was drunk, she went to bed that night ‘very much amused’. As well as the presents that she gave to others (a custom on birthdays at the time), Victoria gleefully recorded the plentitude of gifts she had received. These included:

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From Mamma: A lovely hyacinth brooch and a china pen tray, a beautiful bracelet, two love feronieres (headbands), one of pink topaz, the other turquoise, two dresses, some prints, some books, some handkerchiefs and an apron.

From her mother’s adviser Sir John (Conroy) ‘A very pretty picture of Dash [Victoria’s dog], very like, the size of life.’

Other presents from various members of the royal family and other aristocrats included: ‘a very pretty enamel watchchain’, ‘a pair of enamel earrings’, ‘a sweet-smelling box’, ‘a sandalwood pincushion’, ‘a needlecase’, ‘an ivory basket,’ ‘a china plate with fruit, ‘a beautiful album with a painting on it,’ a pretty night lamp, a tray of Staffordshire china, two china vases from Paris, a small cedar basket, a blue topaz watch hook, and a brooch in the shape of a lily of the valley!

24 May 1840
In 1840, the birthday record was not as concerned with well-wishers and their gifts. Just three months after her marriage, Victoria wrote with feeling that she had ‘never spent a happier birthday’. It was a beautiful bright day and she was awoken at Buckingham Palace by Prince Albert who greeted her ‘most lovingly’ and wished her ‘joy of the day’. She told him that she could wish for nothing more than to be as happy as she was with him. Albert’s presents that year were a beautiful brooch, a large single turquoise set in diamonds with earrings to correspond, and a very fine bronze-chased inkstand. But more important to Victoria this year were the ‘beautiful’ long carriage ride and walk she had undertaken with Albert, and the dinner at which she sat between him and her other favourite Lord Melbourne.

24 May 1862
In 1862, the royal birthday was, of course, a much more sombre occasion. Victoria wrote bitterly from Balmoral of ‘this terribly sad first birthday after my great misfortune’ – Prince Albert had died just six months before:

Can it be true that I awoke & realized my utter loneliness & desolation, after 22 years of such blessedness!! The 4 Daughters came to my bedside at ¼ to 9 with nosegays, all, much overcome. Poor Darlings, how they felt with me that silent terrible void!

The day became sadder still as Victoria found on her birthday table a picture which Albert had bought for her in Brussels and that he had meant to give her on her birthday. She wrote: ‘To receive that gift was comforting, though so intensely pathetic, & I was much overcome,’ and she went on that she was so ‘overwhelmed by the remembrance of the 22 happy birthdays’ that she completely ‘broke down’.

24 May 1900Victoria’s annual account of her birthday continued right up until the end of her life. In the late spring of 1900, the old lady cut a worldly-wise figure:

Again my old birthday returns, my 81st! God has been very merciful & supported me, but my trials & anxieties have been manifold & I feel tired & upset by all I have gone through this winter & spring.

That last birthday – the only one she was to celebrate in the 20th century – Victoria was awoken by her youngest daughter Beatrice who brought her a nosegay. She was given too many lovely presents to record in detail, but was more impressed with the many messages of support that she received from her subjects writing that the telegrams required six men to be sent for ‘to help the two telegraphists in the house,’ and that ‘the answering of them was an interminable task, but it was most gratifying to receive so many marks of loyalty & affection. Some of the telegrams were very touchingly worded, & they came from every part of the world’.

Queen Victoria’s birthday continued to be celebrated across the world even after her death. From 1902, ‘Empire Day’ (renamed ‘Commonwealth Day’ from 1958) was celebrated on 24 May in the British colonies. It was only in 1973 that the association with Queen Victoria’s birthday was dropped and the date was changed to the second Monday in March.

Were she to be able to come back this month – on the 200th anniversary of her birth – Victoria would, no doubt be astounded by the high regard in which she is still held, and the vast numbers of people who still pay her homage all over the world.

Books and websites

  • Julia Baird, Victoria the Queen: The Intimate Life of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, Blackfriar’s 2016.
  • Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, The History Press, 2009.
  • A.N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life, Atlantic Books, 2015.
  • Lucy Worsley, Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, Hodder and Stoughton, 2018.
  • Tina Cassidy, Birth: A History, Chatto and Windus, 2007.
  • Kate Williams, Becoming Queen Victoria: The Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch, Ballantine Books, 2016.
  • queenvictoriasjournals.org – Queen Victoria’s Journals Online.

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