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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition