8 rules of the ‘Kensington System’ that governed Queen Victoria’s childhood

On the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth, Lucy Worsley shares eight facts about the monarch’s youth spent at Kensington Palace and the so-called ‘Kensington System’, a set of strict rules under which the young princess had to live…

Victoria's unusual childhood was the making of her reign, says Lucy Worsley in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

When a baby girl named Alexandrina Victoria was born on 24 May 1819, the latest granddaughter to King George III, she was fairly low down the royal pecking order. Yet as her childhood passed, her position changed and it became more likely that she would one day rule over the British empire.

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Before she came to the throne in 1837 at the age of 18, Princess Victoria was brought up very strictly behind closed doors at Kensington Palace. The rules for her strange and solitary life, set up by her mother, Victoire, Duchess of Kent, and her mother’s advisor John Conroy, became known as the ‘Kensington System’.

The point of the System (as Conroy called it, with a capital S) was to bolster Victoria’s mother’s influence and make her look responsible and trustworthy, so that if Victoria came to the throne before she was 18 years old, Victoire would become regent. Here are eight of the rules which governed the life of the young Princess Victoria…

The young Victoria with her mother, Victoire, Duchess of Kent, in an 1821 portrait by William Beechey. "My greatest of fears was that I loved her too much," said Victoire. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
The young Victoria with her mother, Victoire, Duchess of Kent, in an 1821 portrait by William Beechey. “My greatest of fears was that I loved her too much,” said Victoire. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
  1. Victoria was not allowed to spend time by herself and she always had to sleep in her mother’s room.
  2. Victoria could not walk downstairs without holding the hand of an adult in case she fell. (It sounds melodramatic, but Victoria did actually confirm in later life that this was a rule she had to abide by.)
  3. Victoria was not allowed to meet any strangers or third parties without her governess being present.
  4. The young Victoria had to write in a ‘Behaviour Book’ how well she’d behaved each day, so that her mother could assess her progress. Sometimes it was good, sometimes “VERY NAUGHTY”.
  5. Victoria could only appear in public on carefully stage-managed ‘publicity tours’. This was to distance her from the unpopular regime of her uncles, Kings George IV and William IV, and to present her as “the Nation’s Hope”.
  6. Victoria was not allowed to dance the scandalous and intimate new dance called the waltz, not even (as is often said) with other royal relations. She would never waltz until married to Prince Albert.
  7. Victoria had to build up her strength by exercising with her Indian clubs [a pair of bowling-pin shaped wooden clubs] and a machine with pulleys and weights, and was mandated to have plenty of fresh air. She would be a life-long devotee of open windows, to the extent that her courtiers would always be shivering.
  8. The young Victoria was not allowed to gorge on her food. She was allowed to eat bread with milk and plain roast mutton, and was restricted from eating her favourite things: sweetmeats and fruit.

You can read Lucy Worsley’s feature on Victoria’s childhood – “The making of her reign” – in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine here.

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Lucy Worsley’s latest book isQueen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018). She will be speaking at our forthcoming Winchester History Weekend event in November 2019. She presents the 10-part BBC Radio 4 series Encounters with Victoria, available on BBC iPlayer.