Lucy Worsley on Queen Victoria: your questions answered

We recently visited Kensington Palace in London, once home to the young Victoria, to discuss the queen's life with the author, historian and broadcaster Lucy Worsley. Here, she answers your questions on the diminutive monarch, from the queen's role in the terrible Irish famine of 1845-9 to Victoria's childhood nicknames…

Left: Historian Lucy Worsley at Kensington Palace, the childhood home of Queen Victoria, ahead of her interview for the History Extra podcast. Right: Queen Victoria sits for a portrait photograph. (Photo by W&D Downey via Getty Images)

Q: Did Queen Victoria order her doctors to give her chloroform during childbirth for her seventh or eighth child? How did she hear about it as a pain relief method for childbirth, if doctors were reluctant to use it and she was the first known user in labour?

Asked by Kaz Cooke on Twitter

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Lucy Worsley: It’s true that Victoria used chloroform during childbirth. I’m not sure if it was her idea – or how she came to hear about it – but she did appoint the doctor John Snow who had become known for his pioneering use of the drug.

Listen to the full interview with Lucy Worsley on the History Extra podcast, available now

Lucy Worsley.

It was an interesting decision because there was resistance from Victoria’s medical team, who were concerned that chloroform would make birth last longer. Research into Victoria’s costumes does suggest that the birth of Leopold – number seven – did cause her some kind of physical trauma. She seemed to recover from it more slowly than her previous births.

Q: What role did Queen Victoria play in foreign military affairs for the British Empire during her rule?

Asked by Ian Anderson on Twitter

LW: The one part of Victoria’s job that would get her excited was foreign affairs. She was very socially conservative – she wasn’t particularly interested in social conditions or anything like that, and she didn’t even understand democracy that well (she once said she couldn’t see why a government ought to fall simply on account of the number of votes). But what she loved doing was getting involved in wars. Sometimes she would act completely unconstitutionally; so for example, if she felt that the tsar of Russia ought to be more aggressive – that Russia ought to be more aggressive – she’d just write to him! She could do that, because they had been dancing partners in ballrooms of their youth. She wasn’t supposed to do it, though; she was supposed to use the foreign office.

Q: I’d like to know more about her preferences. It’s well-known that she loved sweets and was cold a lot…

Asked by Kenza Salem on Twitter

LW: The business of Victoria liking the cold goes back to the influence of her long-standing doctor, Dr Clarke. The reason he was so important to her is that he helped her when she was caught in the trauma of the Kensington system [a strict set of rules designed by Victoria’s mother and British army officer John Conroy concerning Victoria’s upbringing]. There was one famous occasion where Victoria was very ill. Conroy was in denial about her condition and wouldn’t let her see a doctor. Eventually Dr Clarke was permitted to see Victoria and he gave her a massive psychological boost. From that point on, Victoria always trusted him.

Clarke, who was known for introducing the stethoscope into medical practice, had a particular interest in diseases of the chest. He believed that it was very important that everyone received lots of fresh air. This isn’t actually medically sound; diseases are generally caused by bacteria rather than ‘bad’ air. But Clarke believed in bad air, and he passed on this belief to Victoria.

Portrait of Victoria I , Queen of England (1819-1901). Painting by Xavier Winterhalter (1806-1873) 1842. 1,32 x 0,97. Castle Museum, Versailles, France (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Q: Did Queen Victoria have any nicknames?

Asked by David John on Twitter

LW: Her German-speaking mother used to call her Vickelchen. I understand that it means ‘little Vicky’, which is really cute! Knowing about this nickname helps to counteract the view that Victoria was called ‘Drina’ (from her second name, Alexandrina) consistently throughout her childhood.

It is sometimes argued that her choice to be known as ‘Victoria’ was a way for her to turn away from the Kensington system. This makes sense if you assume that Victoria was always called ‘Drina’ during her childhood at Kensington Palace. However this is not the case – there is a bit more continuity than it seems. Both ‘Victoria’ and ‘Vicky’ were important names that she was known as from the start.

Q: How much of the responsibility for the Irish famine of 1845–9 lies with Victoria?

Asked by David Dowdall on Facebook

LW: Big question! Well in Ireland, Victoria was known as the ‘famine queen’. I truly believe this was a result of her government’s shameful, pitiful, inadequate response to Ireland. Victoria’s lack of interest and attention to Ireland really is a big black mark against her.

But, in a way, there is quite a satisfying argument that Ireland got its revenge on her. It’s quite far-fetched – but bear with me! – and it’s to do with Prince Albert’s death.

So what caused Albert’s death? It was partly a result of the stress caused by Bertie – Albert and Victoria’s eldest son – losing his virginity.

The traditional story goes that Bertie lost his virginity to a London actress who was imported into Ireland specifically for the purpose. However, Irish historians have recently found another candidate for the role of the ‘deflowerer’ of the Prince of Wales: a girl called Ellen Clifden, who was born in Country Waterford and would have been the right age to do it. It is possible that Ellen was orphaned by the famine and had turned to sex work as a result. Isn’t that an intriguing thought? That a woman who was a victim of the famine caused the death of Victoria’s husband!

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Listen to the full interview with Lucy Worsley on the History Extra podcast, available now. Worsley is the author of a new biography on the queen, Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow (Hodder and Staughton), available now.