“Victoria’s unusual childhood was the making of her reign”: Lucy Worsley on the queen’s youth

On the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth, Lucy Worsley explores the monarch’s youth at Kensington Palace – and finds that it might not have been as unhappy as Victoria herself would have had us believe | Accompanies Lucy Worsley's 10-part series Encounters with Victoria on Radio 4

The coronation of Queen Victoria in June 1838. Despite the many challenges of her childhood, she emerged as a fresh start for the monarchy after the unpopular regime of her uncles, Kings George and William IV. (Image by Bridgeman)

On 24 May 1819, a baby girl was born at Kensington Palace. It was then the least fashionable of the royal palaces, hidden away behind the lime trees of its wide green gardens to the west of London.

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The arrival of Alexandrina Victoria, as she was christened, did cause some excitement. A long line of carriages calling for news about the health of the mother, the Duchess of Kent, reached all the way to Hyde Park Corner. But at that point the new baby, King George III’s latest granddaughter, was fairly low down the royal pecking order.

As the years of her childhood passed, however, and as her elder cousins failed to thrive and died, Alexandrina Victoria grew in importance. It gradually emerged that the little girl growing up quietly behind closed doors at Kensington Palace would one day reign over the whole of the British Isles, including Ireland. And, in due course, a quarter of the globe’s landmass.

Just as Queen Victoria’s path to the throne was not obvious at the time of her birth, her education and training for the position seem at first sight to have been quite shockingly inadequate. One of the problems was the early loss of her father, the Duke of Kent.

He had terrible debts, caused partly by an expensive refurbishment of his apartment at Kensington. In the winter of 1819–20, he tried to save money by taking his beloved wife and baby daughter to live cheaply in a rented holiday house, out-of-season, at Sidmouth in Devon. There he caught pneumonia and passed away.

This left his widowed duchess, whose name was Victoire, in a difficult position. German, and only recently married to her duke, she spoke no English and felt ostracised by the rest of the royal family. She had few resources, either financial or intellectual, on which to fall back for the care of her daughter.

Living under the ‘System’

One person who knew Victoire, Duchess of Kent, described her as “very delightful, in spite of want of brains”. If she was scatty and disorganised, she was also warm and loving. Her late husband’s will now placed Victoire in an unusual situation. Normally, a child in the line of succession would be handed over to the reigning monarch for education and guardianship. But the Duke of Kent had loved and trusted his wife, and made her guardian of their daughter instead. This was a duty Victoire intended to carry through. The rest of the royal family would perhaps have preferred it if she’d slipped back off to her native Germany – but Victoire remained. The daunting implication was that, if her daughter came to the throne before she was 18, Victoire herself would become regent of Britain. She would effectively be reigning over a country of which she could not even speak the language.

She wasn’t allowed to sleep alone, play with other girls or even walk downstairs without someone holding her hand

Unfortunately, Victoire lacked confidence in herself. “I am not fit for my place, no, I am not,” she would say. “I am just an old stupid goose.” No wonder that she now fell into the outstretched hands of a man on whom she would come greatly to rely: her late husband’s adjutant from his army days, John Conroy.

Conroy was a 6ft, black-haired, good-looking chancer from an Irish background. It’s easy to see how Victoire was forced by necessity, loneliness and incapacity to depend on the man who became her advisor and factotum (an employee who takes on several types of work). Her husband’s death had left her both distraught and penniless. Her brother Leopold came down to Sidmouth to help out, but failed to bring her any ready money. “Gut, gut Leopold,” as Victoire called him, in her German accent, was nevertheless “rather slow in the uptake and in making decisions”. It was Conroy, with his “activity and capability”, who arranged a loan for her at Coutts bank.

And Conroy could see, as the duchess’s chief advisor, that he might one day become the power behind the throne. He encouraged Victoire and the little Victoria to go back to live at Kensington Palace, and there devised something called the ‘System’, a set of strict rules under which the princess would live.

It sounds rather sinister, and on some levels it was. At its most basic, the System (as Conroy himself called it, with capital S) was for the young Victoria’s personal safety. It demanded she be kept in semi-seclusion at Kensington Palace. Behind the garden walls, she’d be isolated from both disease and assassination attempts. Secondly, the fact that she was rarely seen at court distanced her, in people’s minds, from the unpopular regime of her uncles, Kings George and then William IV. As a possible future queen, she’d remain untainted by association with them. She would be a fresh start – or, as Conroy put it, “the Nation’s Hope”.

But thirdly – and sinisterly – the System also seems to have been about breaking Victoria’s spirit, and getting her to submit. It contained an element of surveillance: she wasn’t allowed to sleep alone, play with other girls or even walk downstairs without having someone holding her hand. And each day she had to write in her ‘Behaviour Book’ how well – or badly – she’d behaved.

Accounts of Queen Victoria’s childhood usually take at face value her adult recollections of this period in her life, in which she complained of trauma and loneliness. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that she did have a natural tendency to make a drama out of her own life. And perhaps there were some elements of the System that helped to make her reign a success.

There is no doubt that Conroy was indeed a manipulative bully, but there is also something more to his poor reputation among historians than just Victoria’s well-recorded dislike. The snobbish court establishment looked down on his lack of an aristocratic background. Born in Wales to Anglo-Irish parents – his father was a barrister – Conroy had reached his position of influence entirely by his own efforts, which contemporaries found troubling.

Secondly, if the System Conroy had devised had three components, the first two were wildly successful. He did keep Victoria safe. And, through a carefully stage-managed series of public appearances in her teenage years, he did manage to create an enormous groundswell of warmth for her when, eventually, she became queen.

Publicity tours

One of the items on display in a new exhibition at Kensington Palace, opening on 24 May (see page 79 for more information), is the small wooden travelling bed that Victoria used for another strand of Conroy’s System: the country-wide ‘publicity tours’ that he organised for her. Taking her on closely choreographed visits to provincial towns and nobleman’s houses around Britain gave her future subjects an intriguing glimpse of their future monarch. It was a strategy that paid off entirely. When, in the early hours of 20 June 1837, the 18-year-old Victoria was woken up at Kensington Palace with news that her uncle had died in the night, she was able to emerge – as Conroy had planned – as a fresh start for the monarchy.

The home-loving Victoria would become the perfect pin-up for a country tired of the debauchery and excesses of previous kings

But once Victoria was queen, she would not long remain at Kensington Palace. She removed herself as quickly as she could to the relative freedom of Buckingham Palace instead. There’s a well-known and compelling narrative that sees Victoria, on her accession day, cutting free of the System to the extent, even, of changing her name.

When called on to sign her name, the new queen put just plain “Victoria” – not the “Alexandrina Victoria” of her christening. It’s widely believed that she was called “Drina” in childhood, rather than Victoria, and that the change symbolised a break from the past. But her mother had some time earlier agreed that the “Alexandrina” should be dropped quietly, and her toys are marked with a “V”. The duchess had, in any case, also called her daughter by the pet name of “Vickelchen”.

A life in the spotlight

So the System was not entirely a black-and-white affair. Even the most unpleasant aspect of it, that of surveillance, perhaps had an unintended benefit. It toughened Victoria up. She would have to face a lifetime of being watched and judged. The Behaviour Books were just the start. As her mother explained to her: “You cannot escape… from the situation you are born in.” Victoria might as well be given the chance to get used to living under watch and under pressure.

This was far from normal for a 19th-century girl, who was expected by society to shrink away from attention. But even Victoria’s Uncle Leopold, an enemy of Conroy’s, likewise coached his niece about the element of performance that would be so central to her role as a constitutional monarch. “High personages are a little like stage actors,” he explained. “They must always make efforts to please their public.”

Harsh judgement has sometimes been heaped upon the Duchess of Kent for not standing up to Conroy when he bullied her. But while Victoire lacked moral fibre, that did not make her a bad person, and this too is something that Victoria herself in later life came to appreciate. As Victoire explained, she’d simply done her best for her daughter. “My greatest of fears was that I loved her too much,” she said.

And what Victoire did bequeath to her daughter was a huge capacity for love. Most royals of the early 19th century could not afford to look for love in their marriages, which were pragmatic affairs undertaken for blood or politics. Yet Victoire, creature of an age in which romantic novels were beginning to provide a new template for living, had sought and found a soulmate in her husband. She brought up her daughter to desire the same thing.

Victoria came in later life to realise the love her mother had felt for her – despite the System – and she also spent her childhood watching her mother defer so much to the advice of a man. The result of this was that she herself, in due course, would cling all the more closely to her own family.

And in doing so, Queen Victoria would model for the media and the nation a domestic life that was more than acceptable to the age in which she lived.

The dutiful queen

The industrial revolution had allowed a man, working in industry or business, to earn enough money to keep his wife at home, untroubled by the outside world. In her own family life, Victoria would become a kind of super-Victorian: submissive to her husband, apparently devoted to her children – the perfect pin-up for a populace tired of the debauchery, the mistresses and the general excesses of previous kings.

But while the young Victoria was loved to the extent of being spoilt, there were still terrible gaps in her more formal education.

The System had given her nothing more than the standard education for a genteel young lady being prepared for marriage. The majority of her time was spent on music, drawing (at which she excelled), dancing, religion, French and German. Her tutors reported her as “indifferent” at spelling, but “good” at most other subjects. “The rest of her education,” one of Victoria’s prime ministers later noted, “she owes to her own natural shrewdness and quickness.”

While the young Victoria was loved to the extent of being spoilt, there were still terrible gaps in her more formal education

But there was also a curious advantage to having a queen who relied on her “natural shrewdness”. It made her an instinctive, populist politician in a way that her classically educated male court and cabinet could never really appreciate. When she did ultimately come to write a book, for example, it was far from a learned tome. She published an account of holidays she’d taken in Scotland, which became a huge success and a runaway bestseller. Its rather banal content appealed directly to the people among her subjects who mattered, the people who held the balance of political power in the 19th century: the middle class.

While other monarchies across Europe were being threatened by revolution, the British monarchy survived the 19th century unscathed. This was not least because the middle classes thought that their undereducated, dutiful, home-loving queen simply wasn’t worth overthrowing.

It was not the result that Conroy’s strange ‘System’ was intended to achieve. Victoria would look back on her Kensington childhood with horror and regret. But far from being the breaking of her, you could argue that Victoria’s unusual childhood was in fact the making of her reign.

You’ll find a wealth of content on Queen Victoria, from features to podcasts, at historyextra.com/queenvictoria. Lucy Worsley’s latest book is Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018). She will be speaking at our forthcoming Winchester History Weekend event. She is also presenting the 10-part series Encounters with Victoria, airing on BBC Radio 4 in May

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This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine