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.
A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.