The Letters of Queen Victoria/Volume 1/Chapter 3

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The Letters of Queen Victoria, Volume I edited by Arthur Christopher Benson
Chapter III: Queen Victoria’s relations and friends

CHAPTER III

QUEEN VICTORIA’S RELATIONS AND FRIENDS

It may be held to have been one of the chief blessings of Queen Victoria’s girlhood that she was brought closely under the influence of an enlightened and large-minded Prince, Leopold, her maternal uncle, afterwards King of the Belgians. He was born in 1790, being the youngest son of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and his youth was spent in the Russian military service. He had shown talent and courage in the field, and had commanded a battalion at Lützen and Leipsic. He had married, in 1816, the Princess Charlotte, only child of George IV. For many years his home was at Claremont, where the Princess Charlotte had died; there the Princess Victoria spent many happy holidays, and grew to regard her uncle with the most devoted affection, almost, indeed, in the light of a father. It is said that Prince Leopold had hoped to be named Regent, if a Regency should be necessary.[1] He was offered, and accepted, the throne of Greece in 1830, but shrank from the difficulties of the position, and withdrew his acceptance upon the plea that Lord Aberdeen, who was then Foreign Secretary, was not prepared to make such financial arrangements as he considered satisfactory.[2]

It is interesting to observe from the correspondence that King Leopold seems for many years to have continued to regret his decision; it was not that he did not devote himself, heart and soul, to the country of his adoption, but there seems to have been a romantic element in his composition, which did not find its full satisfaction in presiding over the destinies of a peaceful commercial nation.

In 1831, when Louis Philippe, under pressure from Lord Palmerston, declined the throne of Belgium for his son the Duc de Nemours, Prince Leopold received and accepted an offer of the Crown. A Dutch invasion followed, and the new King showed great courage and gallantry in an engagement near Louvain, in which his army was hopelessly outnumbered. But, though a sensitive man, the King’s high courage and hopefulness never deserted him. He ruled his country with diligence, ability, and wisdom, and devoted himself to encouraging manufactures and commerce. The result of his firm and liberal rule was manifested in 1848, when, on his offering to resign the Crown if it was thought to be for the best interests of the country, he was entreated, with universal acclamation, to retain the sovereignty. Belgium passed through the troubled years of revolution in comparative tranquillity. King Leopold was a model ruler; his deportment was grave and serious; he was conspicuous for honesty and integrity; he was laborious and upright, and at the same time conciliatory and tactful.

He kept up a close correspondence with Queen Victoria, and paid her several visits in England, where he was on intimate terms with many leading Englishmen. It would be difficult to over-estimate the importance of his close relations with the Queen; by example and precept he inspired her with a high sense of duty, and from the first instilled into her mind the necessity of acquainting herself closely with the details of political administration. His wisdom, good sense, and tenderness, as well as the close tie of blood that existed between him and the Queen, placed him in a unique position with regard to her, and it is plain that he was fully aware of the high responsibility thus imposed upon him, which he accepted with a noble generosity. It is true that there were occasions when, as the correspondence reveals, the Queen was disposed to think that King Leopold endeavoured to exercise too minute a control over her in matters of detail, and even to attempt to modify the foreign policy of England rather for the benefit of Belgium than in the best interests of Great Britain; but the Queen was equal to these emergencies; she expressed her dissent from the King’s suggestions in considerate and affectionate terms, with her gratitude for his advice, but made no pretence of following it.

For her aunt, Queen Adelaide, the Princess Victoria had always felt a strong affection; and though it can hardly be said that this gentle and benevolent lady exercised any great influence over her more vigorous and impetuous niece, yet the letters will testify to the closeness of the tie which united them.

Queen Adelaide was the eldest child of George, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen; her mother was a princess of HohenloheLangenburg. At the age of twenty-six she was married to the Duke of Clarence, then in his fifty-third year, without any preliminary courtship. They lived for a year in Hanover, and then principally at Bushey Park. Two daughters were born to them, the elder of whom lived only a few hours; the younger, Princess Elizabeth, died in the first year of her age. Their married life was a happy one, in spite of the disparity of age. Queen Adelaide was a woman of a deeply affectionate disposition, sensible, sympathetic, and religious. She had a very definite ideal of the duties of a wife and a Queen; she made it her pleasure to meet and anticipate, as far as possible, her husband’s wishes; and her husband, hasty and choleric though he was, repaid her with tender affection. To such an extent did the Queen merge her views in those of her husband, that she passed at one time through a period of general unpopularity. It was believed that she was adverse to Reform, and used her influence against it. She was mobbed in the streets at the time when the Reform agitation was at its height; and it is said that when the Melbourne Ministry of 1834 was dismissed, London was (owing to an unjustifiable communication of Lord Brougham to the Times) placarded with posters bearing the words, “The Queen has done it all!”

It is a pathetic instance of the irony of fate that Queen Adelaide should have thus been supposed to desire to take an active part in politics. It is obvious, from her letters, that she had practically no political views at all, except a gentle distrust of all proposed changes, social or political. Her one idea of her position as Queen was to agree with any expression of opinion that fell from the King. She was fond of music, and took a deep interest in her religious duties and in all that concerned the welfare of the Protestant communion. But apart from this, her interests were entirely domestic and personal, and her letters reveal her character in the most amiable light. Her devotion to the King, and the tender and respectful diffidence with which she welcomed her niece to the Throne, show a very sweet nature.

The rest of her life, after King William’s death, was passed to a great extent under invalid conditions, though she was only forty-four at the time of her niece’s accession. She travelled a good deal in search of health, and lived a quiet life in England, surrounded by a small but devoted circle of friends and relations. Her personal popularity with the nation became very great, not only for the simple kindliness of her life, but for her splendid munificence; it is said that her public subscriptions often exceeded £20,000 a year. She died in December 1849. Queen Victoria was very much attached to her gentle, simpleminded, and tender-hearted aunt, and treated her with the utmost consideration and an almost daughterly affection.

Another person who had a large share in forming the Queen’s character was Louise Lehzen, the daughter of a Hanoverian clergyman, who came to England as governess to Princess Feodore of Leiningen, Queen Victoria’s half-sister, shortly before the Queen’s birth. In 1824 she became governess to the Princess Victoria. In 1827 George IV. conferred upon her the rank of a Hanoverian Baroness. When the Duchess of Northumberland, in 1830, was appointed the Princess’s official governess, she remained as lady in attendance. The Princess was devoted to her, but “greatly in awe of her.” She remained at Court after the accession till 1842, without holding an official position, and then returned to Germany, where she died in 1870.

Baron Stockmar was another of the interesting personalities who came into very close contact with the Queen in her early years. He was forty-nine at the time of the accession, but he had come to England more than twenty years before as private physician to Prince Leopold. He endeared himself to the Princess Charlotte, who died holding his hand. He afterwards became Prince Leopold’s private secretary, and took a prominent part as the Prince’s representative in the successive negotiations with regard to his candidature for the thrones of Greece and Belgium. Upon the accession of Queen Victoria, Stockmar joined the Court in a private capacity, and for fifteen months he held an unofficial position as her chief adviser. There was a general feeling of dislike in the minds of the English public to the. German influences that were supposed to be brought to bear on the Queen; and Lord Melbourne found it necessary to make a public and categorical denial of the statement that Stockmar was acting as the Queen’s private secretary. But the statement, if not technically, was virtually true. Stockmar lived at Court, had interviews with the Queen and her Ministers, and though he industriously endeavoured to efface himself, yet there is no doubt that he was consulted on most important questions. In 1838, he had been entrusted by King Leopold, with the Queen’s knowledge and consent, with a mission of great delicacy: he was asked to accompany Prince Albert on a tour in Italy, with the idea of completing his education, and in order to satisfy himself that the Prince would be a worthy Consort for the Queen. This task he discharged admirably, and became the most confidential and trusted of all the Prince’s friends. There are many letters of Stockmar’s to the Prince extant, which prove that Stockmar never shrank from speaking the plainest truth to the Prince on matters of duty and faults of temperament, without any courtier-like attempt to blink criticism that might have been unpalatable. The Prince had the generosity and humility to value this trait of Stockmar’s very highly, to such an extent that Stockmar’s influence possessed if anything too great a preponderance. Stockmar had jealously nursed two profound political ideals—the unity of Germany under Prussia, and the establishment of close relations between Germany and England. He induced Prince Albert, heavily burdened as he was with work, to devote almost too much time and thought to the former of these aims. Stockmar was a profound student of social and constitutional questions. He had made a close study of English political institutions; but though he grasped the constitutional theory of the English Throne, and saw that the first necessity for the Sovereign was to hold a position independent of party, he never clearly understood that the Monarch should keep as far as possible clear of political details. Stockmar’s view of the position was that the Sovereign should be practically Premier as well; and much of the jeaJousy that was felt, on various occasions, at the position which Prince Albert assumed with regard to political situations, is referable to Stockmar’s influence.

He was a very able man, with immense political knowledge, and without personal ambition ; Lord Palmerston, who was no friend to Stockmar’s theory of government, admitted that he was the most disinterested man he had ever encountered. Stockmar’s ambition was to achieve his own political ideals, and to modify the course of events in what he conceived to be beneficial directions ; he was entirely indifferent to the trappings of power, and this very disinterestedness made his influence more supreme.

He suffered all his life from feeble health and a hypochondriacal tendency, and was genuinely fond of retirement and quiet life. He certainly deserved the devoted confidence reposed in him by Prince Aibert and the Queen; it may perhaps be questioned whether his own doctrinaire bias did not make itself too strongly felt, in the minuteness with which Prince Albert dealt with English politics ; but the net result of his influence was that the danger, which lies in wait for strictly constitutional Sovereigns, was averted—the danger, that is, of leaving the administration of State affairs in the hands of specialists, and depriving it of the wise control and independent criticism which only the Crown can adequately supply.

  1. A practical proof of his interest in his niece may be found in the fact that for years he contributed between three and four thousand a year to the expenses of her education, and for necessary holidays by the sea, at a time when the Duchess of Kent’s Parliamentary Grant was unequal to the increasing expenses of her household.
  2. Greece after having obtained autonomy was in a practically bankrupt condition, and the Powers had guaranteed the financial credit of the country until it was able to develop its own resources.