Princess Feodora: the little-known sister of Queen Victoria

In popular imagination Victoria often stands alone, her childhood portrayed as lonely and bereft of companions. But did you know that Victoria grew up at Kensington Palace alongside her older half-sister? Carolyn Harris introduces Princess Feodora and the warm relationship she shared with Victoria…

Princess Feodora (left), half-sister of Queen Victoria (right)

As a young child, the future Queen Victoria often walked in Kensington Gardens, wishing onlookers a cheerful “Good morning!” The little princess was never permitted to be alone for an instant. During these walks, her mother Victoire, the Duchess of Kent, held one of her hands. Victoria’s older half-sister, Princess Feodora held the other hand. The trio became a familiar sight near Kensington Palace and were described by one observer as “a group of exquisite loveliness”. While Victoria had a difficult relationship with her mother, she remained close to Feodora throughout her life. Victoria and Feodora corresponded with one another for decades and provided each other with advice and emotional support. Feodora faded into obscurity after her death, but has attracted renewed interest in recent years because of her portrayals in historical novels and television series.

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Princess Anna Feodora Augusta Charlotte Wilhelmine of Leiningen was born in Amorbach in Bavaria, Germany in 1807, the second child of Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Emich Carl, Prince of Leiningen. Feodora and her older brother, also named Carl, spent their early childhood with their mother and maternal grandmother, the Dowager Duchess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg, while their father fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Augusta wrote that “Feodora is a charming little clown, who already shows grace in every movement of her small body”.

Emich Carl died in 1814. Four years later Victoire remarried, to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of King George III. While her son Carl remained in Leiningen to complete his education, Feodora accompanied her mother and new stepfather to Britain.

Queen Victoria as a child
As a child the future Queen Victoria (above) often walked in Kensington Gardens with her half-sister, Princess Feodora. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Duke of Kent enjoyed the company of children and treated Carl and Feodora as his own. Feodora later wrote to Victoria, “I loved our father… I loved him dearly” and mourned his death in 1820. Like Victoria, Feodora resented being isolated at Kensington Palace during her youth by the widowed Duchess of Kent and her financial advisor John Conroy. She wrote to Victoria decades later:

“When I look back upon those years, which ought to have been the happiest in my life, from fourteen to twenty, I cannot help pitying myself. Not to have enjoyed the pleasure of youth is nothing, but to have been deprived of all intercourse, and not one cheerful thought in that dismal existence of ours, was very hard… I escaped some years of imprisonment, which you my poor darling sister, had to endure after I was married.”

Feodora shared Victoria’s dislike of Conroy and encouraged Victoria’s efforts to assume greater independence from their mother’s control as she grew older; in contrast with their brother Carl, who favoured an extended regency by the Duchess of Kent.

  • Did Queen Victoria have an unhappy childhood? Read more about the future monarch’s life under the ‘Kensington System’
Princess Feodora, half sister to Queen Victoria
Princess Feodora was eager to be married and leave Kensington Palace. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

As the half-sister of the heiress presumptive to the British throne, Feodora’s marriage prospects were a subject of popular interest and there were even rumours that Victoria’s uncle, the ageing King George IV, was interested in marrying her in the hope of fathering a direct heir of his own. Feodora’s marriage was ultimately arranged with the assistance of Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence, who was herself consort to another one of Victoria’s uncles, the future King William IV. Adelaide’s cousin was Prince Ernst I of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Although Ernst and Feodora only met twice before their engagement, and Ernst had little income as his principality had been absorbed into the kingdom of Württemberg in 1806, Feodora was eager to be married and leave Kensington Palace.

Feodora and Ernst had six children: Carl Ludwig II, who briefly succeeded his father as Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg in 1860 then abdicated to marry a commoner; Elise, who died at the age of 19; Hermann, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg from 1860 to his death in 1913; Victor, Count Gleichen, who settled in Britain, married into the British aristocracy, and became a naval officer and sculptor; Adelheid, who married Frederick VIII, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and became the mother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; and Feodora, who married George II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Feodora and Ernst’s present-day descendants include King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and King Felipe VI of Spain. As Marlene A Eilers Koenig discusses in The Gleichens: The Unknown Royal Cousins, Victor and his children remained close to Queen Victoria’s children and grandchildren, and frequently attended British royal events into the 20th century.

Feodora, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg with her daughter Princess Adelaide
Feodora, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg with her daughter Princess Adelaide. (Image by Alamy)

Victoria and Feodora: what was their relationship like?

Victoria and Feodora corresponded regularly throughout their lives, turning to one another for advice and support. As Feodora’s biographer Harold A Albert observed, “She reasoned with Victoria, argued with her, persuaded her and occasionally quarrelled with her”. As Feodora was based in Germany, she could keep Victoria informed about events in continental Europe. On 3 April 1848, Feodora wrote from Stuttgart about the political upheaval during the ‘Year of Revolutions’ surrounding the debate concerning the election of National Assembly for Württemberg (which Ernst attended).

“Never was such a state of lawless ‘vagabondage’ as there is now all over Germany more or less,” Feodora wrote. “At all hours of the day, young men are walking about in the streets doing nothing. The work people have nothing to do, the merchants can sell nothing, the factories have nothing to occupy their work people with and are obliged to dismiss them.” Victoria and Feodora also corresponded with one another about the books they read, and shared an admiration for the works of Charles Dickens.

The two sisters frequently discussed marriage and motherhood in their correspondence as well. Both Feodora and Victoria valued the marriages over their children. Feodora wrote on 12 December 1841, “I do most fully participate in your opinion that, with all the love for one’s children, it is not to be compared with that for a husband.” Of Victoria’s marriage, she wrote, “How much more happy your felicity with dearest Albert makes me, I cannot tell you.”

As the mother of six, Feodora frequently advised Victoria on parenting and reassured about those times when “children are very difficult to manage.” In contrast to Victoria, however, Feodora did not expect exemplary behaviour from children at all times. When Victoria complained that her son, the future Edward VII, was playing pranks on his younger siblings, and expressed concern that he was particularly badly behaved, Feodora wrote on 16 March 1844: “Believe me, dearest Victoria, all children are nearly the same at that age… They are always at some mischief with the little ones, without being really ill natured, some more, some less. I think the best way is to speak kindly to them about it in the moment, and not always punish them for every trick.”

Queen Victoria with her youngest child, Princess Beatrice,
Queen Victoria with her youngest child, Princess Beatrice, c1860. Feodora frequently advised Victoria on parenting. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Feodora visited Britain on numerous occasions during Victoria’s reign, attending the queen’s coronation in 1838 and spending an extended period at the British court in 1848 following the political upheaval in Europe. Victoria and Albert named their youngest daughter Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore in Feodora’s honour.

Victoria and Feodora were widowed around the same time, as Ernst died in 1860 and Albert died in 1861. Victoria hoped they might live together as widows in Britain. Although she was sympathetic to Victoria’s circumstances, Feodora valued her autonomy and decided to remain in Germany, writing on 16 September 1862: “I cannot give up my house nor my independence at my age.”

In 1872, Feodora’s youngest daughter died of scarlet fever. Feodora was devastated, writing, “I wish that my Lord would be pleased to let me soon depart”, and in fact her own health declined quickly. She died on 23 September, the cause of death believed by the attending physician to be cancer. Queen Victoria, whose own son (the future Edward VII) had just recovered from typhoid fever, was saddened by the news, writing in her journal: “My own darling, only sister, my dear excellent, noble Feodora is no more! … I stand so alone now, no near and dear one near my own age, or older, to whom I could look up, left! All, all gone! She was my last near relative on an equality with me, the last link with my childhood and youth.”

After Feodora’s death, Victoria commissioned a volume of her letters for private circulation within the royal family. Feodora faded into obscurity in popular memory, however, because the editors of Queen Victoria’s correspondence had little interest in letters that she received from other women, including Feodora and Queen Maria II of Portugal. As Yvonne M Ward explains in her book, Censoring Queen Victoria, excerpts from four of Feodore’s letters “were published, but there survive hundreds more, written weekly over a forty-four year period, in the Royal Archives at Windsor and at the Hohenlohe-Zentral Archive in Germany.” A full biography of Feodora was eventually published in 1967; Queen Victoria’s Sister: The Life and Letters of Princess Feodora by Harold A Albert drew upon the commemorative volume of Feodora’s letters for the royal family and papers from two of Feodora’s great-grandsons, Prince Franz of Weikersheim and Roger Machell.

Princess Feodora, half-sister of Queen Victoria
After her half-sister Feodora’s death, Queen Victoria commissioned a volume of her letters for private circulation within the royal family. (Image by RF/Getty Images)

Feodora in fiction

Despite her low profile in histories of Queen Victoria’s reign, Feodora and her children have been depicted in numerous historical novels and television series. In Jean Plaidy’s 1985 biographical novel, Victoria Victorious, the young Princess Victoria is delighted to receive a visit from her half-sister Feodora and her young children in 1834 and observes, “Feodore was of a gentle peace-loving nature; she accepted life more readily than I did.” Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Canadian novelist best known for writing Anne of Green Gables, may have been inspired by stories about Feodora’s son Victor’s time in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a naval officer. In her 1929 novel, Magic of Marigold, she depicts a fictional nephew of Queen Victoria, ‘The Duke of Cavendish’, who serves as Governor General.

In season three of the ITV/PBS series Victoria, a jealous and manipulative Feodora arrives at Queen Victoria’s court, having fled her husband and children in Germany. The relationship between the two sisters is presented as a resentful one, with Victoria feeling as though she had been abandoned at Kensington Palace when her sister married. This portrayal is entirely fictional as the correspondence between Victoria and Feodora demonstrates that they enjoyed a warm relationship throughout their lives.

Feodora’s comparative obscurity as a historical figure has allowed novelists and screenwriters to adapt her character to suit the storylines of fictional works. The real Feodora deserves to be better known. The decades-longcorrespondence between the two sisters demonstrates that Victoria was not only the queen, the wife of Prince Albert and the mother of nine children, but part of a network of female relatives and friends who provided valuable advice and support over the course of her life and reign.

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Dr Carolyn Harris is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada; Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting