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.
Getty Images,
Show Hide image

John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.