In the Days of Queen Victoria - E. M. Tappan

The Coming of the Prince

The coronation ceremonies in Westminster Abbey were, indeed, magnificent, but it must not be supposed that England was satisfied with no further celebration of so joyful an event. Throughout the realm there were for several days fairs, balls, and entertainments of all kinds. London was illuminated, and the theaters were made free to all who chose to attend them. People's hearts and purses were opened. The rich were not satisfied with having a good time themselves; they wanted the children of the land and the poor to have a good time also. In many places feasts were given, and one of the most famous of these was held in a great open field in Cambridge, where more than fourteen thousand persons were entertained.

In the center of the field was a space for the band, and around it a platform. Much money had been subscribed for the feast, but the committee felt sure that large numbers of people would be ready to pay from seventy-five cents to one dollar and a half for the privilege of walking about on this platform and seeing what was to be seen. They were right, for there was "a most fashionable and select company," who promenaded around the circular platform and watched the feasters.

Sixty tables, each two hundred and thirty feet long, stretched out from the central platform like the rays of a star; and when the signal was given, the fourteen thousand persons, poor people and children of all ages, marched to their places. It must have been an amusing procession, for each one was obliged to bring his own plate, knife, fork, and mug for beer. There was roast beef, and there were various other good things; but the member of the committee who wrote the account of the dinner seems to have been especially interested in the puddings. "Beautiful puddings," he says they were, and he tells just where each one was boiled. He states, too, that 2475 pounds of raisins were put into them.

At the end of the dinner, pipes, tobacco, and snuff were passed to the grown folk. There was a salute of nineteen guns in honor of the Queen's nineteen years. A balloon, which the enthusiastic committeeman calls a "stupendous machine," was sent up, and the health of the Queen was drunk. The Sunday-school children sang a song of better intention than rhyme, which began:

"Victoria! Victoria!

We hail thy gentle rule;

Victoria! the Patroness

Of every Sunday school."

After the singing, came various games and contests. Men tried to climb a well-soaped pole to get a leg of mutton which was fastened to the top. Others were tied into sacks and jumped as far as possible in the attempt to win a pair of boots. There was a wheelbarrow race run by ten blindfolded men. A pig was offered to the man who could catch the animal and swing it over his shoulder by the well-greased tail. Men grinned through horse-collars to see who could make the ugliest face and so win a pair of new trousers. Six boys with their hands tied behind their backs were given penny loaves and molasses, and a new hat was waiting for the one who ate his loaf first. Other boys with their hands tied were "bobbing for apples"—that is, trying to lift apples with their teeth from a tub of water—and another group of boys were struggling to see who could first swallow a penny-worth of dry biscuit, and so win a new waistcoat. There were foot races and donkey races and hurdle races, and races among men each with one leg tied up. At last the day came to an end with fireworks, and all the happy, tired people went home, fully convinced that under this new sovereign their country would be more prosperous than ever.

It seems very strange that this Queen who was worshiped by her people in the summer of 1838 should in the course of a few months have become exceedingly unpopular with some of her subjects, but so it was. There were in England two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories. Queen Victoria's sympathies were with the Whigs. They were in power when she came to the throne, but in the spring of 1839 the Cabinet proposed an important bill which Parliament refused to make a law. Under such circumstances it is the custom for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to resign, because such a refusal is supposed to signify that the people, whom Parliament represents, do not approve of their acts.

When Lord Melbourne told the Queen that he must resign, she felt very badly. She must stand at the head of a great nation, and the one in whose advice she had trusted could advise her no longer. The leaders of the Tories were "the Duke," as the Duke of Wellington was called, and Sir Robert Peel; and Lord Melbourne told her that her wisest course would be to ask the Duke to become her Prime Minister and select a Cabinet of Tories. The Duke had declared before this that he did not know what the Tories would do for a Prime Minister if they should come into power. "I have no small talk," he said, "and Peel has no manners;" but when the Queen sent for him, of course he obeyed. She asked him to be her Prime Minister, and said to him honestly: "I cannot help being very sorry to make a change and give up my Ministers, especially Lord Melbourne, for he has been almost a father to me."

The straightforward old soldier was delighted with her frankness, but he said: "I am somewhat deaf, and I am too old a man to undertake this work and serve you properly. Moreover, it would be much better for one who can lead the House of Commons to be your Majesty's Prime Minister. I advise you to send for Sir Robert Peel."

Now, this girl of nineteen did not like the man who had "no manners," but she was a lady as well as a Queen, and when Sir Robert appeared—in full dress, as was required—she received him so courteously that he went away much pleased, having promised to obey her command and form a Cabinet. This was easily done, and the next morning he brought her a list of names.

"But you must not expect me to give up the society of Lord Melbourne," she said.

"Certainly not," was Peel's reply. "Moreover, Lord Melbourne is too honorable a man to attempt to influence your Majesty in any way against the existing government." Sir Robert then suggested several men whom he knew that she liked for various positions of honor in the royal household. Finally he said, perhaps a little bluntly, "It will be desirable to make some changes in the ladies of your Majesty's household." Then a storm arose.

"I shall not part with any of my ladies," declared the Queen.

"But, your Majesty," said Sir Robert, "most of these ladies are closely related to the former Cabinet Ministers." The Queen would not yield, but she was willing to discuss the subject later with him and the Duke. When they appeared before her, they said: "Your Majesty, the ladies of the household are on the same footing as the lords."

"No," declared the Queen, "I have lords besides, and I have let you do with them as you chose. If you had just been put out of office and Lord Melbourne had come in, I am sure that he would not have asked me to give up my ladies."

"There are more Whigs than Tories in the House of Commons," said Peel, "and if these ladies who are closely related to prominent Whigs are retained, all Europe will look upon England as the country that is governed by a party which the sovereign dislikes and in which she has no confidence."

"I give you my lords," replied the Queen steadfastly, "but I keep my ladies." The two nobles were in a dilemma. According to the British constitution, "The Queen can do no wrong"—that is, not she, but the Prime Minister is held responsible for every public act. Sir Robert could not remain Prime Minister if the Queen positively refused to yield to a course which he thought necessary.

While the Tory leaders were trying to plan some way out of the difficulty, the Queen sent a letter to Lord Melbourne which was written in much the same way that an indignant young girl would write to her father. "Do not fear," she said, "that I was not calm and composed. They wanted to deprive me of my ladies, and I suppose they would deprive me next of my dressers and housemaids; they wished to treat me like a girl, but I will show them that I am Queen of England."

Lord Melbourne called his Cabinet together in such haste that one member had to be brought from the opera and another from a dinner party. He read them the Queen's letter, and asked, "What shall we advise?"

"Advise her to give up two or three of her principal ladies," suggested one, "and perhaps that will satisfy Peel."

"Does anyone know exactly what Peel wants," queried another, "and how many ladies he demands shall be removed?" This was an exceedingly sensible question, and if it had been taken to Peel for an answer, the trouble might have been brought to an end. He would probably have been satisfied with the resignation of two or three of the strongest partisans and principal talkers among the ladies; and, although the Queen was insisting upon what she believed was her right, yet much of her indignation arose from her belief that Peel meant to deprive her of all who were then her attendants, perhaps even the Baroness Lehzen. The question was not taken to Peel, however, and the discussion in the Cabinet went on.

"Let us write a letter for the Queen to copy and send to Peel," was the next suggestion, "saying that she will not consent to a course which she believes to be contrary to custom and which is repugnant to her feelings." This suggestion was adopted. The letter was written, and the Queen copied it to send; but before it reached Sir Robert, he resigned his position, and Lord Melbourne was again Prime Minister.

This was the famous "Bedchamber Plot," and it aroused all England. Lord Melbourne and the Whigs said:

"It is a small matter that the Queen should be allowed to retain her favorite attendants."

Sir Robert and the Tories replied:

"The Prime Minister is responsible for the acts of the Queen, and it is a large matter if she refuses to follow his advice when he believes that the good of the realm demands a certain course. She is not the Queen of the whole country, she is only the Queen of the Whigs, and the whole thing is a plot to keep the Whigs in power."

"We  are loyal to our sovereign," declared the Whigs.

"We  stand by the constitution of Great Britain, not by the whims of a girl of nineteen," retorted the Tories. The amusing part of the struggle was that the Whigs had always prided themselves on standing by the constitution and the rights of the people, while the Tories had favored increasing the power of the sovereign; but in those days the question was too serious to strike anyone as amusing.

As the weeks of the summer and the early autumn passed, matters only grew worse. Victoria was spoken of most contemptuously, and was even hissed in a public assembly. Mr. Greville wrote in his journal: "The Tories seem not to care one straw for the crown, its dignity or its authority, because the head on which it is placed does not nod with benignity to them." Peel was, of course, above such behavior as that of some of his violent partisans, but he must have been somewhat surprised at developments. He had been afraid that the Queen's opinions and judgment were so weak that she would be influenced by the talk of a few ladies in attendance, and would be unable to judge questions fairly and without prejudice; but he had found that, whatever might be the faults of the young lady on the throne, she could never be accused of having no will of her own.

During the first two years of her reign, the friends of the Queen were watching her with much anxiety. She was an unusual girl, with an unusual training, but, after all, she was only a girl, and she had responsibilities to meet from which, as Carlyle said, "an archangel might have shrunk." Her position was all the more dangerous because she was too young to realize her difficulties; and when trouble arose, there was no one in the land of whom she could ask counsel without arousing the enmity of someone else. Everyone who was capable of advising her was prominent in one political party or the other. If she had discussed any of her hard questions with even her own mother, and it had become evident that suggestions had come from the Duchess of Kent, there would have been talk at once of "foreign influence."

Meanwhile, "foreign influence" in the person of the wise King Leopold was busily at work. The young Queen had reigned for more than two years, and the first novelty of her position had passed. At first it had been delightful to her to feel that she was "the Queen," and that she could do precisely as she chose. Even the Bedchamber Plot had resulted in her having her own way, in keeping her ladies and the Whig Cabinet; but so clear-minded a woman as Queen Victoria must have seen—as, indeed, she declared some years later—that she had not behaved like a constitutional monarch, and she knew that thousands of her subjects were indignant with her.

Never was a loving uncle more shrewd in his affection than this "wisest sovereign in Europe;" for just at this time, when his niece was feeling far less self-sufficient than she had felt some months earlier, he proposed that Prince Albert and his brother Ernest should pay her a visit. The young men came, bringing with them a letter from the King which spoke of them in most matter-of-fact terms as "good, honest creatures, really sensible and trustworthy." The point of the letter was in its closing sentence, "I am sure that if you have anything to recommend to them, they will be most happy to hear it from you."

The Queen knew very well what this sentence signified, and she was more ready to "recommend" than she would have been some months before. She had seen her cousins only once, and that was more than three years earlier. Prince Albert was then a lovable boy, and the Princess was willing that her relatives should understand that she would marry him some day. When nearly two years had passed and she had become Queen, she felt much older and more mature; but she thought of her cousin as still a boy. She expected to marry him some time in the future, but she was not willing to permit even any formal engagement at that time. King Leopold wrote urging her to make some "decisive arrangement" for the following year. The Queen replied: "Albert and I are both too young to think of marriage at present. He does not know English well enough, and there are other studies which he needs to pursue."

King Leopold saw that it was of no use to press the question further at that time, and he told the Prince that the marriage would have to be postponed for a few years. The Prince saw the truth in Victoria's objections. He knew that his position in England would demand all the skill and knowledge that he could acquire, and he admitted that her arguments were strong.

"You understand, and you will wait?" asked his uncle.

"Yes," answered the Prince, "I will wait, if I have only some certain assurance to go on; but I do not want to be left in the ridiculous position of Queen Elizabeth's suitors. I do not want all Europe talking for years about my marriage, and then laughing at the announcement that Victoria never meant to marry me."

Another year passed. Then came the Bedchamber trouble. King Leopold watched every item of news from England. "Now is the time," said the sagacious King to himself, and he proposed the visit.

There had been little correspondence between the cousins. Prince Albert had sent the Princess sketches of the places that he had visited in his travels, and when she became Queen, he wrote her a somewhat formal little letter, reminding her that the happiness of millions lay in her hands, and closing rather primly, "I will not be indiscreet and abuse your time." Victoria must have had in her mind a picture of her cousin that was a strange combination of a serious young man somewhat given to sermonizing, and the stout, merry boy of seventeen who had slipped down to the floor of his carriage and pushed his dog's head up to the window when people pressed around to see the Prince.

With these two conflicting notions in her thoughts, the Queen went to the head of the staircase in Windsor Palace to welcome her "two dear cousins." The stout boy had vanished, but in his place stood a tall, manly, handsome young man, with a cheery, thoughtful face. Two days later a letter went from the Queen to "Uncle Leopold," which said, "My dear Uncle, Albert is fascinating." Then she remembered that she had two cousinly guests and added, "The young men are very amiable, delightful companions, and I am very glad to have them here."

King Leopold wrote at once, "I am sure you will like the cousins the more, the longer you see them." Then he talked about the Prince. "Albert is full of talent and fun and draws cleverly. May he be able to strew roses without thorns on the pathway of life of our good Victoria! He is well qualified to do so."

While the hopeful uncle was writing this letter, Victoria was talking with Lord Melbourne.

"My lord," she said, "I have made up my mind at last, and I am ready to marry Prince Albert whenever he wants me."

"I am very glad of it," replied her fatherly friend. "You will be much more comfortable; for a woman cannot stand alone for any time, in whatever position she may be."

"Do you think that my people will be pleased?" she asked.

"I believe that they will," he replied, for he knew very well how eager they were for her marriage. No one liked the Duke of Cumberland, who was now King Ernest of Hanover, but if the Queen died without children, he would come over to England and wear the English crown as well as that of Hanover. The feeling against him was so strong that it had even been proposed in Parliament to make a law forbidding him ever to occupy the throne.

On the fourth morning of their visit, the two Princes went hunting. It was a long forenoon to the Queen, for she had what she afterwards called a "nervous" thing to do. They came back at noon, but they had hardly time to change their hunting clothes before a message was brought to Prince Albert that the Queen wished to see him.

Now, royal etiquette forbade that this Prince of a little German duchy should ask the sovereign of Great Britain for her hand; so when Albert reached the Queen's apartments, he was obliged to wait until she had spoken.

"I think you must know why I wished you to come," she said shyly. The Prince had still to keep silent; he could only bow, but his bow must have expressed a great deal, for she went on bravely: "It will make me very happy if you will consent to what I wish."

In just what form the Prince made his reply the Queen did not reveal, but it was evidently satisfactory, for she wrote, "He is perfection in every way." That very day she sent a letter to King Leopold in which she said: "I am so much bewildered by it all that I hardly know how to write. But I do feel very happy."

A few weeks before this time she had written Baron Stockmar that she could not think of marrying for three or four years, but that very day she wrote him: "I do  feel so guilty, I know not how to begin my letter, but I think the news it will contain will be sufficient to insure your forgiveness. Albert has completely won my heart, and all was settled between us this morning. I feel certain that he will make me very happy. I wish I could say," continued the modest little sovereign of Great Britain, "that I felt as certain of making him happy, but I shall do my best."

Prince Albert, too, had some letters to write; and as Victoria had written to King Leopold, his first was to Baron Stockmar. After telling of his happiness and of his love for the Queen, he wrote: "I cannot write more, I am too much bewildered." It certainly was bewildering. He had been told not long before that the Queen was determined not to marry for three or four years at any rate, and that she would not consent to any formal engagement. He had come to England with a determination to insist either that she should recognize the informal engagement between them or that it should be broken off.

The Duchess of Kent had loved Albert from the first, and she was very happy in the thought of the marriage. She and the Baroness Lehzen, together with Lord Melbourne and Prince Albert's brother, were the only ones in England who knew the secret until five or six weeks had passed. Then came a difficult five minutes for the young Queen. She had to meet her Council of eighty middle-aged men and tell them of her engagement. It is no wonder that she "hardly knew who was there." The picture of the Prince in her bracelet gave her courage, and though Lord Melbourne was far down the room, she caught a kind look from him and saw the tears of sympathy in his eyes. Her fingers trembled, but she soon controlled herself and read: "It is my intention to ally myself in marriage with the Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha." She went through the rest of the paper with her usual clear, sweet voice, and one of the Councilors wrote of the event: "Certainly she did look as interesting and as handsome as any young lady I ever saw."

When the reading of the paper was finished, the Lord President asked: "Have we your Majesty's permission to publish this declaration?" The Queen bowed and left the Council Chamber. About two months later she had something even harder to do; she had to open Parliament and ask that an income should be granted to the Prince. Another matter also had to be settled, and that was what position he should hold in England. Whether he should enter a room before or after dukes, earls, and members of the royal family was a question that gave rise to much discussion.

These two questions were not settled as the Queen wished, for the sum granted to the Prince was but three-fifths of what her Ministers had asked, and Parliament refused to pass a law giving him precedence next to herself. The Duke of Wellington said, "Let the Queen put the Prince just where she wishes him to be;" and this she did, as far as England was concerned, by issuing an order in Council that he should stand next to herself. Some of her royal relatives were indignant, and King Ernest declared positively that he would never give precedence to the younger brother of a German duke. "I won't give way to any paper royal highness," he declared. The Queen was both hurt and angry at these decisions; but Prince Albert's only fear was lest they indicated objection to the marriage on the part of the English, and he wrote: "While I possess your love, they cannot make me unhappy."

A little more than a week after this letter was written, the day of the wedding came. It had been the custom to celebrate royal weddings in the evening, though other weddings must by law take place before noon; but on this, as on most other subjects, the Queen had a very definite opinion. "I wish to be married as my subjects are married," she said, "and the ceremony must be at noon."

"Is it the will of your Majesty that the word 'obey' be omitted from the promise that you make to the Prince?" asked the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"No," she answered with decision. "I am not to be married as a queen, but as a woman."

Prince Albert

The Prince Consort.

The wedding day was stormy, but that made little difference to bride, groom, or any of the brilliant company assembled in the Chapel of St. James'. The Prince wore the uniform of a British field-marshal, with the collar of the Garter, and looked exceedingly handsome. As he came into the Chapel, the organ burst out into the strains of "See, the Conquering Hero Comes." He stood by the altar waiting for his bride, and in a short time she appeared, escorted by the Lord Chamberlain. She wore a dress of heavy white satin, woven in England. Her veil had made scores of poor women happy, for she had ordered it of the lace-makers of Honiton in Devon. She wore no crown, but only a wreath of orange blossoms. She had diamond earrings and necklace, and a few diamonds in her hair. Twelve bridesmaids in white tulle and white roses bore her train; and a hard time they had, for although it was six yards long, they found it too short for so many bearers. One of them wrote: "We were all huddled together, and scrambled rather than walked along, kicking each other's heels and treading on each other's gowns."

At the moment the ring was placed on the Queen's finger, the guns in the Park and at the Tower were fired, and the bells rang out their merriest peals. When the ceremony was over, the party returned to Buckingham Palace for a wedding breakfast. The bridesmaid who wrote the account of the wedding said that Prince Albert "seemed a little nervous about getting into the carriage with a lady with a tail six yards long," but they all reached the palace in safety. After the breakfast the sunshine at last beamed down upon them, and the young couple sped away for their honeymoon at Windsor Castle.