The final days of Queen Victoria

When Queen Victoria died at the age of 81 on 22 January 1901, it took her family, court and subjects by surprise – very few had been able to contemplate the mortality of the monarch who had ruled over Britain and its empire for almost 64 years. Her death marked the end of the Victorian era. Here, Stewart Richards considers Queen Victoria’s final moments, the chaotic preparations for her state funeral on 2 February 1901, and the secret items placed inside her coffin…

As Queen Victoria ended the 19th century, she was not her usual self. She was visibly fading: her voracious appetite had disappeared and she had lost almost half her body weight. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

1900 had been Queen Victoria’s annus horribilis: “a horrible year, nothing but sadness and horrors of one kind & another,” she wrote.

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The Boer War (1899–1902, fought between Great Britain and two Afrikaner republics) weighed heavily on her mind, and the lifting of the sieges against Mafeking and Ladysmith in early 1900 had done little to relieve her anxiety. In April, her eldest son the Prince of Wales had been shot at as he travelled through Belgium, by a young boy protesting against the war.

Her eldest daughter –Vicky, the Dowager Empress of Germany – had been diagnosed with incurable breast cancer that had spread to her spine, and the empress was languishing in great pain in her castle in Kronberg. In August 1900, a telegram had arrived announcing that her favourite son – the chain-smoking, heavy drinking Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh – had died from throat cancer. “Oh! God! my poor darling Affie gone too! My 3rd Grown up child. It is hard at 81!” she wrote.

A few weeks later she received the news that her much-loved grandson, Prince Christian Victor, eldest son of her daughter Princess Helena, had succumbed to enteric fever while serving with the British Army in South Africa. On Christmas day, Jane, Lady Churchill, the queen’s oldest and most trusted friend, was found dead in her bed while staying with the queen at Osborne House. “I am sending for my mourning trappings” observed Marie Mallet, maid of honour to the queen, “we never escape jet for long”.

circa 1862:  Queen Victoria (1819 - 1901) during her period of mourning after the death of her husband Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As Queen Victoria ended the 19th century, she was not her usual self. She was visibly fading: her voracious appetite had disappeared and she had lost almost half her body weight. She was confined to a wheelchair, almost blind and had lapses of memory and moments of confusion. Yet no one could contemplate the mortality of the little old lady who had sat on the throne for almost 64 years. Her children were in denial, her government was unprepared, and the public knew nothing at all. Victoria’s own view of the future was bleak: “Another year begun, I am feeling so weak and unwell, that I enter upon it sadly.”

Twenty-two days later, shortly after 6.30pm on Tuesday 22 January 1901, Superintendent Fraser ordered the household police to surround the queen’s Isle of Wight residence Osborne House. All telephone and telegraph wires were to be suspended, and any servant or messenger to be prevented from leaving. A short while later he walked down the long gravel drive to the entrance gate where a large crowd was waiting, and pinned a small notice on to the bulletin board.

“Osborne House, January 22, 6.45pm

Her Majesty the Queen breathed her last at 6.30pm, surrounded by her children and grand-children.”

And so the news of the queen’s passing was announced to the world. Her death stunned the nation. What followed was chaos and confusion. There was no one alive who could remember how to bury a monarch and this queen had asked for a full military state funeral.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria spent her final days. The queen died at the residence on 22 January 1901. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria spent her final days. The queen died at the residence on 22 January 1901. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The death of Queen Victoria

The queen’s terminal decline had been rapid and had taken the family by surprise. Her children squabbled, her doctors quarrelled, and the public were misled and kept in the dark.

Sir James Reid, the queen’s personal physician for more than 20 years, had known the end was nigh but had great difficulty convincing the royal family of the inevitable, even in the final days when they saw the queen was drifting between delirium and lucidity. Princess Helena and Princess Beatrice, the queen’s daughters and constant companions, could not accept that their mother could actually die and tried to maintain business as usual. The Prince of Wales was reluctant to cancel his weekend jaunts to the country; the Duke of Connaught [the seventh child of Victoria and Albert] was on his way to Berlin to celebrate 200 years of the Prussian monarchy; while other members of the royal family enjoyed a performance of Little Nell in London’s West End. In desperation, Reid secretly telegraphed the queen’s grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

Queen Victoria with her children and grandchildren

On receipt of the telegram, the kaiser immediately cancelled the celebrations and left Berlin with the Duke of Connaught and set sail for England, throwing the squabbling family into turmoil and forcing them to make public news of the queen’s illness. This unexpected announcement took the nation completely by surprise and rumours began to abound. “Queen Unconscious, Sinking Fast” read one headline, “Queen Rallying: Has Eaten and Slept. Official” read another.

The queen had been as reluctant to accept her mortality as those around her and had appeared to rally. “Am I better?” she asked Sir James, “I should like to live a little longer, as I have still a few things to settle.” As if her trusted doctor could make her live, Sir James kindly reassured her: “Yes, Your Majesty has been very ill but you are now better.” Meanwhile the Prince of Wales and his sisters (known as ‘the petticoats’) tried to prevent the kaiser reaching Osborne.

Events took a dramatic turn for the worse from 17 January as the queen suffered a series of strokes and the entire royal family was suddenly summoned to the Isle of Wight. The government ground to a halt as the queen was no longer able to carry out her constitutional duties. There were talks of a regency, while Osborne House – already overflowing with guests – was bombarded with anxious telegrams and telephone calls, and journalists gathered excitedly outside the gates.

British monarch Queen Victoria seated at her writing desk, c1897. In January 1901, as illness left the queen was no longer able to carry out her constitutional duties, the government ground to a halt. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
British monarch Queen Victoria seated at her writing desk, c1897. In January 1901, as illness left the queen unable to carry out her constitutional duties, the government ground to a halt. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The queen began to sink as the family crowded into her small bedroom where the Bishop of Winchester and the Rector of St Mildred’s Church chanted prayers and hymns. The kaiser sat motionless at her left side for more than two hours, propping her up with his one good arm, while Sir James Reid sat on her right holding her hand. The queen, conscious but unable to see, lamented repeatedly: “Sir James, I’m very ill.” Each time Reid replied: “Your Majesty will soon be better.” A young nurse knelt on the back of the bed, supporting the queen’s head.

As the room filled with the sound of sobbing and weeping mingled with the chanting of the clerics, each son, daughter and grandchild was summoned by name to kiss the queen’s hand and say farewell.

News of Victoria’s death

When the end came, Osborne House was surrounded by police to prevent the news leaking out before the new king Edward VII had concluded the formalities. A short while later, the small notice of announcement was pinned on the bulletin board where a large crowd of journalists were waiting.

A crowd of carriages set off at gallop. Bicycles careered down the hill. And men ran along bawling at the top of their voices “Queen dead”. All of this could be seen and heard as the press rushed down to the harbour to break the news to the world.

An early 20th-century illustration depicts the announcement of Queen Victoria's death. (Photo by Alamy)
An early 20th-century illustration depicts the announcement of Queen Victoria’s death. (Photo by Alamy)

The London Evening News had a black-bordered special edition out on the street within the hour. Theatre performances were interrupted as audiences poured out into the streets. The ‘Great Tom’ bell of St Paul’s tolled across the city of London.

Across the nation, people gathered in small groups to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ and by eight o’clock, shop windows were dressed in black mourning; Whiteleys department store in London had queues ten deep as customers lined up to purchase their black mourning outfits.

Meanwhile, panic broke out in the royal household as they realised that all precedents were 64 years out of date, and nobody knew what to do. “The ignorance of historical precedent in men whose business it is to know is wonderful,” wrote Reginal Brett, Viscount Esher. “I cannot describe to you the historical ignorance, of everyone from top to bottom — who should know something of procedure. You would think that the English Monarchy had [not] been buried since the time of Alfred.”

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria posing for photographer Roger Fenton, 30 June 1854. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Panic also gripped the government when the queen’s personal instructions for her funeral were revealed. Previous royal funerals had been private candlelit affairs, taking place at night, but this queen had requested a full military state funeral. No embalming, no lying-in-state, no mourning black; she wanted a white funeral, purple and white, with white ponies and a gun carriage, and the first burial of a monarch outside the confines of Westminster Abbey and St George’s Chapel since George I.

Preparations fit for a queen?

The Earl Marshal [the royal officer in charge of organising royal ceremonies and processions] and Lord Chamberlain [in charge of the royal household] were at loggerheads as to who should take charge, while the new king’s household refused to take over responsibility until the queen was buried – yet the old queen’s household no longer had any authority. The Accession council was hastily convened, where the Lord Mayor had to be forcibly ejected, and to the consternation of those present the king extemporised his accession speech.

Queen Victoria's son, King Edward VII, rides in Queen Victoria's funeral procession, February 1901. (Photo by Reinhold Thiele/Thiele/Getty Images)
Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, rides in Queen Victoria’s funeral procession, February 1901. (Photo by Reinhold Thiele/Thiele/Getty Images)

The casting of a death mask was ordered by the kaiser, causing uproar among the royal family as it was known the queen had disliked the use of such masks. The Duke of York was suddenly struck down with a dangerous illness and the royal undertaker arrived from London but forgot to bring the coffin. The Lord Chamberlain refused to cooperate with the Earl Marshal, and the kaiser turned on the Bishop of Winchester, who had been the queen’s favourite cleric, saying that if he were his cleric he would have him hauled out into the courtyard by the neck and shot.

Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the queen’s assistant private secretary, travelled to London to discover the Earl Marshal’s office in total chaos with nothing arranged. In desperation, he called on Lord Roberts, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the British Army, who gave Ponsonby carte blanche to organise the military as he saw fit. There were only a few days left to organise the ceremonial.

A February 1901 drawing from <em>L'Illustration</em>, showing Queen Victoria on her death bed. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
A February 1901 drawing from L’Illustration, showing Queen Victoria on her death bed. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The royal coffin was built by a local carpenter and delivered to Osborne House. The doctor Reid, with the help of Mrs Tuck, the queen’s devoted dresser, prepared the queen for her coffin. The queen had refused to be embalmed, so they scattered charcoal on the floor of the coffin to combat the smell and absorb the moisture. They cut off her hair, dressed her in a white silk dressing gown with garter ribbon and star and placed her wedding veil over her face. They summoned the royal dukes, the kaiser and the new king to lift her body into the coffin.

The family then retired, leaving Reid and Mrs Tuck to carry out the queen’s secret instructions – never to be revealed to her children. The wedding ring of the mother of her personal servant, John Brown, was placed on her finger; a photograph of Brown and a lock of his hair were laid beside her, along with Brown’s pocket handkerchief, all carefully hidden from view. The queen was now ready for her final journey.

Lucy Worsley.

Queen Victoria’s funeral

As the date of the funeral approached, the processional route was prepared. Around 33,000 soldiers entered London and had to be fed and billeted. Advertisements appeared offering seats in windows and balconies overlooking the route for 25 guineas (£3,000). In a fit of pique the Pope, “unwilling to be represented at the funeral of a Protestant Queen”, refused to send a representative or to allow an official mass to be said for the queen, while businesses demanded that the year of mourning be reduced, fearful of its effect on trade. Meanwhile, information reached Gustav Steinhauer, a personal bodyguard to the kaiser, of an assassination plot by three notorious anarchists. They intended to kill the kaiser and Leopold II, King of the Belgians, during the funeral procession. Scotland Yard was informed.

On 1 February 1901, the cortege crossed the Solent, flanked by 11 miles of battleships and cruisers, each booming out their ‘minute’ guns as the tiny yacht Alberta passed by, bearing the queen’s coffin. The cortege remained in the harbour overnight and proceeded by train to London’s Victoria station in the early hours of 2 February. This was followed by the largest military procession since the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, through Hyde Park to Paddington. The procession lasted two hours, with the queen’s coffin standing high on the gun carriage drawn by eight white and cream ponies through the crowded – yet eerily silent – streets.

"Queen Victoria was more than just a token ruler of India. Passionately interested in its people and culture, she intervened frequently in Indian politics," says Miles Taylor. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Then came the final train journey to Windsor, where the procession waited as the coffin was placed on the gun carriage. More complications followed when the horses, having stood motionless in the freezing weather, suddenly kicked and broke away from their traces, almost toppling the coffin to the ground. The front of the procession had already marched off and reached the end of Windsor Street before it could be stopped and turned around. The Royal Horse Artillery were unable to re-harness the horses and disaster loomed. Prince Louis Battenberg (grandfather of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh) rescued the day, suggesting: “If it is impossible to mend the traces you can always get the naval guard of honour to drag the gun carriage.” Accordingly, 138 bluejackets piled their arms [propped up their weapons], attached ropes to the carriage where the harnesses had been, and dragged the gun carriage to St George’s Chapel by hand, giving birth to a new royal tradition.

Crowds line the streets to watch the funeral cortege of Queen Victoria in February 1901. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Crowds line the streets to watch the funeral cortege of Queen Victoria in February 1901. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The service in St George’s Chapel was also chaotic. The clerical procession, led by two Archbishops, arrived an hour too early and had to stand patiently in the nave, which was half-empty owing to a major blunder by the Earl Marshal. The earl’s officials were seen dragging guests from their seats to spread them out in order to hide the mistake, while the uncooperative Lord Chamberlain tried to explain why he had requested that the women guests should come “in trousers”.

The official service was followed by a moving ceremony for the family on 4 February, in the mausoleum the queen had built for her husband at Frogmore, adjoining Windsor Castle. King Edward VII and his grandson, the six-year-old future Edward VIII, knelt with the kaiser as the queen was slowly lowered in to the crypt to be laid to rest beside her beloved Prince Albert.

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The funeral had cost £35,500 (£4.5 million).

As the Westminster Gazette reported after the funeral, the queen had outlived all the members of her Privy Council who were alive in 1837; all the peers who had held their titles in 1837 (except Earl Nelson, who was 14 in that year) and all the members who had sat in the House of Commons at the time of her accession.

She saw 10 prime ministers; five Archbishops of Canterbury and six commanders-in-chief; 18 presidents of the United States; 11 Viceroys of Canada; 16 Viceroys of India and France successively ruled by one king; one emperor and seven presidents of a Republic. She had also outlived all nine of her bridesmaids.

“In a funeral at sea the ship is slowed down when the body is committed to the deep but once that has taken place there can be no waiting — the order is ‘Full Steam Ahead’,” the Gazette reported. “It is so with national affairs. Everything has been slowed down to do honour to our Queen, but the ship of state cannot tarry long. Full steam ahead is today’s order — just because it can be nothing else.”

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Stewart Richards is the author of Curtain Down at Her Majesty’s: The Death of Queen Victoria (The History Press, January 2019). The book has recently been made into a series broadcast on Radio 4. You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here.