A Queen At Eighteen
During the years from 1833 to Victoria's eighteenth birthday, on May
24, 1837, her life was sometimes that of a child, sometimes that of a
young woman. Much of the time she lived quietly at Kensington. She
studied, rode, walked, sketched, and played with her various pets. When
her fourteenth birthday came, she was--for a few hours--treated like a
"grown-up," for at a juvenile ball given in her honor King William led
into the room, and at supper her health was drunk by the whole
During the following summer there was more of the educational traveling
in which the Duchess believed so firmly and which gave so much pleasure
to the people of the country. This summer the Princess and her mother
visited chiefly forts, arsenals, lighthouses, and men-of-war. On
shipboard they delighted the men by tasting their dinner, and the
sailors in return amused them by dancing a hornpipe. Addresses were
made; the Princess presented new colors to a regiment; a procession of
young girls with flowers and a crown met the royal guests; at one town,
whose trade was chiefly in straw, the Princess was presented with a
straw bonnet. Wherever she went, her charming grace and cordiality and
readiness to be pleased won her lasting friendships.
Throughout the land there was talk about the quiet young girl at
Kensington. King William was growing feeble. For half a century England
had been ruled by elderly men; how would it fare in the hands of a
young girl? Victoria was not as well as she had been, and there were
rumors that she would not be equal to the labors of sovereignty.
Baroness Lehzen was indignant at the least criticism. "The Princess is
not too delicate and she is not too young," declared the lady with her
wonted emphasis. "I know all about her, and she will make a greater
queen than Elizabeth herself."
An interesting man visited the Princess at this time, Baron Stockmar,
who had long been a trusted friend of King Leopold's. "He was the only
honest man I ever saw," said a statesman who knew him well, and King
William was eager to hear Stockmar's opinion of the young Princess. The
Baron had no hesitation in expressing it. "If she were a nobody," he
said, "I should say she is gifted with an intelligence beyond her
years; but being destined to rule over this great empire, I say that
England will grow great and famous under her rule."
"Do you say that?" exclaimed the King. "Then I shall no longer regret
that I have no children to hand the crown down to." And yet, some
months after this speech was made, the young woman who was to make
England great and famous was sent to bed after dancing just one dance
at a grand ball given in her honor. The health of the girl was too
precious in the eyes of the Duchess to be wasted in late hours.
Soon after her sixteenth birthday the Princess was confirmed. The
ceremony was performed in the chapel of St. James', and none were
present except members of the royal family. Even as a child Victoria
had often shown great self-control, but when the Archbishop of
Canterbury spoke to her, tenderly indeed, but with deep solemnity, of
the responsibilities of the life that lay before her, of what good or
what harm a single word or deed of hers might cause, then the earnest,
conscientious young girl could not remain unmoved. She laid her head on
her mother's shoulder and sobbed like a little child.
The wisdom of the watchful mother's care was made manifest in the
increasing health and strength of the Princess. She was seen in public
far more frequently. The little girl had become a young lady. The plain
little white dresses were laid aside, and she now appeared in garments
as rich and handsome as were permitted to her youth. One costume that
she wore, a pink satin gown and a large pink bonnet, was the special
delight of those of her future subjects who had the good fortune to see
her in it. This was what she wore when a young American author gazed
upon her admiringly and then went away to moralize over the sad fate of
royalty. "She will be sold," he said, "bartered away, by those great
dealers in royal hearts."
It was true that "dealers in royal hearts" had long before this laid
their plans for the disposal of the Princess' affections. King William
had proposed five suitors, one after another, but his polite and
exasperating sister-in-law had courteously waived all his suggestions.
Another scheme had been formed across the water by the Coburg
grandmother nearly seventeen years earlier. There was a baby
granddaughter in England and a baby grandson in Coburg. If they would
only be as fond of each other as the grandmother was of them! Not a
word was said to the little English girl, but there is a tradition that
when the grandson was but three years old his nurse used to say: "Be a
good boy now, Prince Albert, and some day you shall go to England and
marry the Queen." However the truth of this story may be, it is certain
that not only the grandmother but King Leopold earnestly hoped that
some day the Prince might marry the Princess.
When the cousins were seventeen years old, King Leopold thought that
the time had come for them to meet; but the wise sovereign had no idea
of exposing his warm-hearted little niece to the fascinations of a
young man who might not be worthy of her, and he sent the faithful
Baron Stockmar to learn all that he could about the character of the
Prince. The report was as favorable as the devoted uncle could have
wished, and he at once persuaded the Duchess to invite Prince Albert
and his brother to spend a month at Kensington.
The two young men arrived and were most royally entertained. Such a
round of parties, balls, receptions, dinners, all sorts of festivities,
they had never seen. Prince Albert was just a little bored by so much
gayety, and acknowledged in his home letters that he had "many hard
battles to fight against sleepiness." He seems to have found more
pleasure in the quiet hours of walking, sketching, and playing piano
duets with the little blue-eyed cousin.
After the brothers had taken their departure, King Leopold wrote his
niece, telling her very frankly of his hopes. She replied at once and
with equal frankness. One cannot help seeing that the two cousins had
become deeply interested in each other, for the letter of the Princess
begs her uncle to take special care of one "now so dear to me," and
closes with the words, "I hope and trust that all will go on
prosperously and well on this subject now of so much importance to me."
There were subjects, however, concerning which all did not go on
"prosperously and well." The Princess loved her devoted mother with all
her warm heart, and she also loved "Uncle William," who was always good
to her. She was now so old that the friction between them could no
longer be concealed from her. The King's special grievance was that she
was not allowed to visit him save at rare intervals. The "Sailor King"
was a favorite among his people, because he was bluff and cheery and
witty; but his wit was often coarse, and his good nature not
infrequently turned into a "swearing rage" when his humor changed.
There were certainly good reasons why the young girl should have been
kept from his court; and he was keen enough to see that the Duchess had
other grounds than care of her daughter's health for refusing to allow
her to visit him. His gentle, stately sister-in-law had outwitted him
in every encounter, and at last his wrath burst forth.
The time was a state dinner which he gave in honor of his seventy-first
birthday. In his speech to the guests he lost all control of himself
and declared, "I hope that my life may be spared nine months longer,
after which period, in event of my death, no regency will take place. I
shall then have the satisfaction of leaving the royal authority to the
personal exercise of that young lady"--here the King looked at the
Princess Victoria, then, glaring at the Duchess, he roared--"and not in
the hands of a person now near to me." He went on like a madman,
heaping every kind of abuse upon the Duchess and declaring that she had
insulted him by keeping the Princess from his presence.
The Duchess sat like marble, but her daughter burst into tears. At last
the dinner came to an end, and the Duchess ordered her carriage that
she and the Princess might leave at once instead of spending the night.
But Queen Adelaide interposed. "Stay," she said, "stay, I beg of you.
The King is ill, he is not himself;" and she whispered, "You have borne
so much, bear a little more." The Duchess yielded and remained at the
palace until morning.
The nine months passed rapidly, and the morning of May 24, 1837,
arrived. The Princess was now eighteen, and the whole land celebrated
her coming of age. The day began with a serenade under her window by a
band of thirty-seven musicians. One of the songs commenced:
"Spring renews its golden dreams,
Sweet birds carol 'neath each spray;
Shed, O sun! thy milder beams
On the fairest flower of May."
The Princess was delighted with this serenade, but the only song that
she asked to have repeated was one that was full of compliments to her
The Union Jack had already been hoisted on the church in Kensington,
and its greeting was responded to from the palace by a banner of white
silk whereon was "Victoria" in letters of blue. Almost every house had
its flag or its bit of decoration of some sort. The King sent a
birthday gift of a handsome piano, and that was only the beginning, for
all day long costly presents were arriving. Addresses of congratulation
were sent by numerous cities and by many public bodies, and the house
was thronged with callers. The greatest nobles of the kingdom, the
people of most wealth, and the greatest statesmen hastened to
Kensington to give their best wishes to the young girl. In the evening
a state ball, the most splendid affair of the kind that had been known,
was given for her at the Palace of St. James', but the illness of the
King kept both him and Queen Adelaide away from the festivities.
Between the dances the Princess was escorted to the chair of state.
Before this the Duchess had always stood first, but now the young girl
who was to rule England took precedence of even her mother.
The way of the Princess to the throne seemed very clear, but there was
one man in England who was determined that she should never reach it.
He was the Duke of Cumberland, Victoria's uncle. He was the next
younger brother of the Duke of Kent, and had it not been for the birth
of his niece, the throne of England would have been his own. At that
time the sovereign of England was also ruler of Hanover, but Hanover
had a law called the Salic law, which forbade any woman to be its
monarch. Two or three years earlier the Duke of Cumberland had confided
to an English officer his desire to gain the crown.
"The Salic law prevents the Princess Victoria from ruling Hanover," he
said, "and therefore she has no right to rule England. If I should be
proclaimed king, would you and your troop follow me through London?"
"Yes, and to the Tower the next day!" the officer answered indignantly.
"What will the Princess do for you?" demanded the Duke. "If I were
king, I could make you a great man. But this is nothing. I only asked
to see what you would say."
The Duke was in earnest, however--so much in earnest that he even
ventured to allow his wishes to become known to King William. One day
when the two brothers were dining together, the Duke proposed the
toast, "The King's health, God save the King!" This was drunk, and then
the Duke proposed a second toast, "The King's heir, God bless him!"
Both the brothers had drunk too much, but King William was equal to the
occasion. He called out, "Drink to the King's heir, God bless her!"
and the toast was drunk by all except the Duke.
Nevertheless, the Duke of Cumberland did not give up his wild scheme.
He knew that he himself was by no means a favorite in England, and that
he had no friends whose devotion would place him upon the throne; but
he fancied that he could arouse opposition to the Princess and so open
a way for himself to become sovereign. There was nothing to be said
against her, but he did his best to arouse dislike to her family. "The
Coburgs are the people who have influence with her," he said. "King
Leopold has just married a Roman Catholic princess, and the cousin of
Victoria has married Queen Maria of Portugal, who is also a Roman
Catholic. King William cannot live long, and England will have on its
throne not only a child but a child who will be no Protestant."
Now for a century and a half England had had a law that as a Protestant
country it must be ruled by a Protestant, and that the husband or wife
of the sovereign must also be a Protestant. If Victoria had become a
Roman Catholic, she would have forfeited the throne at once. This
argument of the Duke of Cumberland was, therefore, almost too absurd to
notice; but England was too loyal to the young girl at Kensington not
to be in a storm of indignation.
Even then the Duke of Cumberland fancied that he might still have a
chance, and he was so insane as to go to that sternly loyal old
soldier, the Duke of Wellington, and ask what he thought was the best
thing to do.
"To do?" cried the "Iron Duke." "Get out of this country as fast as you
can, and take care you don't get pelted as you go."
In less than a month after the eighteenth birthday of the Princess came
the night of June nineteenth. The country knew that King William was
dying. The Royal Life Guards were at their barracks, but not to sleep.
The sentries were doubled. Every horse was saddled, and by it stood its
master, ready to race to Windsor to guard the lifeless body of the
King, or to gallop to Kensington to escort the girl Queen to her
All that night the officers sat in the messroom and talked of the
"I saw her on horseback," said one. "She rides superbly, but she looks
like a child."
"The Duke of Sussex says the little ones have the brains," remarked
"She's a queen, every inch of her," one declared, "and I tell you that
England is going to be greater than it ever was before. She's a
soldier's daughter, too. King William was a sailor. He could not have
held a review to save his--What's that?" The young man broke off
abruptly, for the gallop of a horse was heard in the courtyard. There
was dead silence in the messroom. In a few minutes the Colonel entered.
He held up his hand for attention, but he did not need to do this, for
every ear was strained.
"Gentlemen," he said, "King William is dead. Let us drink to the health
of the Queen. God save the Queen!"
Early in the morning the Life Guards were ordered to go, part of them
to Windsor to do honor to the dead King, part of them to Kensington to
do honor to the young Queen.
Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham, the Lord
Chamberlain, had been driving at full speed from Windsor to Kensington.
Not a person was stirring about the palace, and the only sound heard
was the singing of birds. The two men rang, but there was no response.
They knocked, they thumped, and they pounded. Finally a very sleepy
porter opened the gate and let them into one of the lower rooms of the
palace. No one came to them, and at last they rang for a servant.
"Tell the attendant of the Princess Victoria," said the Lord
Chamberlain, "that we have come to see her on business of the utmost
The servant withdrew, but no one appeared. They rang again, and at last
the attendant of the Princess came to them.
"The Princess Victoria is sleeping," she said, "and she must not be
Then said the Lord Chamberlain: "We are come on business of state to
the Queen, and even her sleep must give way to that."
There was no more delay. The Duchess was called, and she awoke her
daughter, who still slept in a bed beside her own. "The King is dead,"
she said. "Lord Conyngham is here, and he wishes to see you. You must
not keep him waiting."
The Princess threw on a long white dressing gown and stopped at the
door for her mother to accompany her.
"No," said the Duchess. "He wishes to see the Queen alone."
For the first time the young girl was required to stand by herself, and
as she stepped over the threshold she left all her free, girlish life
behind her. She went down the stairs in her long white dressing gown,
with her fair hair falling over her shoulders. As she entered the room,
Lord Conyngham knelt before her, kissed her hand, and presented a
paper, the formal certificate of the King's death.
Then the Archbishop said: "Your Royal Highness, Queen Adelaide wished
me to accompany Lord Conyngham, for she thought that you would be glad
to hear how peaceful and quiet the King was at the last."
To the young Queen the sight of the Archbishop brought no thought of
the glories of the throne, but rather of those solemn words that he had
spoken to her in the chapel of St. James' two years before. With tears
in her eyes she said to him, "I beg your Grace to pray for me."
Messengers had been sent to the members of the Privy Council to summon
them to immediate attendance at Kensington. When they arrived, they
were shown into the ante-chamber in which were the Duke of Sussex,
uncle of the Queen; the Duke of Wellington, Lord Melbourne, the Prime
Minister, and a few others. The doors were closed and an address of
loyalty was read aloud and then signed by all present.
In the great saloon adjoining were the Queen and her mother. The
Duchess withdrew, and when the doors were opened, there stood near the
threshold the slender figure of the girl Queen, looking even slighter
and younger than she was in her close-fitting dress of black silk. It
was perfectly plain; her hair was parted and drawn back smoothly from
her forehead; and she wore not a single ornament. The Duke of Sussex
stepped forward to meet her, put his arm around her and kissed her. The
others kissed her hand. The address was given to the usher, and the
doors between the two rooms were closed. Not a word had been spoken.
A little later in the day came the famous First Council. Lord Melbourne
had told the Queen just what was to be done and what her part would be.
The Council assembled, and the Lord President read the formal
announcement of the death of King William. Then he requested the Prime
Minister and several others to go to the Queen and inform her also of
the King's death. This was done with as much ceremony as if she had
known nothing of it before. When they returned, the proclamation of her
accession was read. Then the doors into the adjoining saloon were
thrown open, and the Queen stepped forward, wearing a plain, simple
mourning dress. Her two uncles, the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of
Sussex, went forward to meet her and led her into the room.
At the end of a long table a platform had been placed, and on the
platform was the chair of state. The Queen bowed to the Councilors and
took her seat in this chair. She read her speech at once, clearly and
with as much calmness and dignity as her mother could have shown. It
closed, "I shall steadily protect the rights and promote to the utmost
of my power the happiness and welfare of all classes of my subjects."
She signed the usual oath insuring the liberty of the Church of
Scotland, and then came the solemn swearing of each Councilor to be
faithful to her. Her two uncles were sworn first, and as the Duke of
Cumberland kissed her hand, she blushed as any other young girl might
have done to have an elderly man, her own uncle, kneel at her feet. She
kissed him and also the Duke of Sussex. This second uncle was too
feeble to make his way to her easily, and she rose from her seat and
stepped toward him. After the swearing of the Dukes, the oath was taken
by the other members of the Council. When this had been done, she rose
and left the room, led by her two uncles.
Never were men more surprised than these experienced Councilors, who
thought that they understood all kinds of people and knew what sort of
behavior to expect from them.
"I am amazed," said Sir Robert Peel. "She is as modest as a child, but
she is firm and self-possessed, and she understands her position
Greville, the Clerk of the Council, said: "William IV. came to the
throne at sixty-five, and he was so excited that he nearly went mad.
The young Queen is neither dazzled nor confounded, but she behaves with
all the sedateness and dignity the want of which was so conspicuous in
The Duke of Wellington was never weary of praising her behavior. "Lord
Melbourne was far more nervous than she," said the Duke. "He did not
dare to take his eyes off her for fear she might say or do the wrong
thing. He need not have been afraid. She is born to rule, and if she
had been ten years younger she would have done it equally well; such a
bit of a girl as she is," he added; and he finished by saying
emphatically, "If she had been my own daughter, I could not have wished
that she should do better."
And the good Baroness Lehzen said with tears in her honest blue eyes,
"I knew it, I knew my Princess."
There were yet Cabinet Ministers for the Queen to meet, there were
matters little and matters great to think of, and the next morning
there was to be another Council meeting and the observance of the
ancient custom of proclaiming a new sovereign to the public; but the
young girl found time in this first day of her dominion to write a
letter of sympathy to her "Aunt Adelaide." She addressed it as usual to
"Her Majesty the Queen." When she was reminded that the widow of King
William was no longer "Queen," but "Queen Dowager," she replied, "I
know that her position is altered, but I will not be the first to
remind her of the change."