Remembering Vicky, the Queen Britain never had

Elizabeth Norton looks back to another highly-anticipated royal birth - that of Queen Victoria's eldest child.

Part of the excitement over the royal birth was that, for the first time, boy or girl, the child would become a future monarch. Primogeniture – the succession of sons before daughters – has long been established, with Henry VIII and George III both succeeding ahead of their elder sisters. The Succession to the Crown Act, which received royal assent on 25 April 2013, changes this. When it is brought into force it will ensure that princesses born after 28 October 2011 will succeed before their younger brothers. As it turns out, haste was unnecessary and the baby born yesterday afternoon was a boy, but for his own daughters or granddaughters, the change will be significant.

Just under 172 years ago, there was a birth as highly anticipated as the current royal baby. Queen Victoria’s eldest child was born three weeks early on 21 November 1840, after a twelve hour labour, at which her husband, Prince Albert, was present. The baby, a girl named Victoria, was known as Vicky to her family.

The baby’s delicate health caused friction between her parents, who disagreed over her care. After one furious row, Albert pushed a note under Victoria’s door, declaring that "Doctor Clark has mismanaged the child and poisoned her with calomel and you have starved her. I shall have nothing more to do with it, take the child away and do as you like and if she dies you will have it on your conscience." He won the battle and Vicky became the favourite of his nine children. Albert undertook her early education himself, ensuring that she was fluent in English, French and German by the age of three. She far outstripped her brother, Bertie (the future Edward VII), who supplanted her as heir to the throne with his birth on 9 November 1841.

It was never suggested that primogeniture should be abandoned in order to allow Vicky to succeed. In fact, Victoria was disappointed after the birth, declaring "never mind, the next will be a Prince". If she had known the character of her eldest son, whom she disliked, would she have changed her mind? Vicky was certainly popular and considered to be "England’s daughter" by the people.

British monarchs notoriously often despised their heirs and Queen Victoria was no exception. She unfairly blamed Bertie for Albert’s death in December 1861 and thought him stupid and incapable of governing. Victoria and Vicky had a complicated relationship thanks to Albert’s favouritism, with the queen jealous of having to share her husband’s affections. Victoria did admit that her eldest daughter was "so clever (I may say wonderfully so), and so sensible" – an indication that she might have found her a more fitting heir.

If she had been Princess of Wales, Vicky would not have enjoyed the personal happiness that she found in her life when, at fifteen, she fell in love with Frederick ‘Fritz’, Crown Prince of Prussia. As heir to the throne, Vicky would never have been permitted to wed Fritz, with her marriage, in January 1858, requiring her to live in Germany. In 1888 she became Empress of Germany, although her husband, who was already ill with throat cancer, survived his accession by only 99 days. It was the thought that Vicky would become an empress and outrank her which prompted Victoria to seek her own Imperial title – that of Empress of India.

Victoria was not an easy mother to have. After Albert’s death she always wore black and relied heavily on her youngest daughter, Beatrice, refusing to allow her to marry until she had promised to continue to live with her. Vicky’s relationship with her mother improved with separation. In particular, the queen urged her daughter to avoid the frequent pregnancies that she had endured in her marriage. In spite of this, Vicky bore eight children, with her eldest, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, born on 27 January 1859. Whether mother and daughter would have been quite so close if Vicky had remained in England is questionable.

Queen Victoria II would have had a brief reign. She was already suffering from breast cancer when her mother died on 22 January 1901, after a reign of more than 63 years. For Vicky, the queen Britain never had, the ending of primogeniture would not have been welcome. Unable to marry the man she loved, she would have spent her life forced into uncomfortably close proximity to her mother. Vicky died on 5 August 1901 "alive and alert" until the end, less than seven months after her mother.

With increasing longevity, future monarchs will be elderly when they succeed to the throne. The ending of primogeniture would have meant a lifetime of waiting for Vicky. Will it be the same for this new royal prince or will he be permitted to make his own way in the world – something that would have been unthinkable to a mother as controlling as Queen Victoria?

"Windsor Castle in Modern Times" by Sir Edwin Landseer, depicting Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and a young Princess Vicky.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue