A Queen at Eighteen
D URING 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 her into the room, and at supper her health was drunk by the whole company.
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:
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 mother.
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 throne.
All that night the officers sat in the messroom and talked of the Princess.
"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 another.
"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 importance."
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 awakened."
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 perfectly."
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 her uncle."
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."