Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Queen Victoria, Part V: "She Must be Coerced!"

By the time she was in her mid-teens, Victoria was still tiny in stature (barely five feet), but the endless summer "progresses" she was forced to make all over England visiting hospitals and opening new railway stations and making little speeches at mayoral dinners had given her a self-possession and confidence that few of today's teen celebrities ever achieve. These were to stand her in good stead over the next three years of her life.

As the 1830s wore on, it became more evident that the kindly but goofy King William and his quiet and equally kindly Queen Adelaide were not going to produce an heir to the throne...which meant that our Vic was going to be it. Sir John Conroy knew this too...and along with Victoria's mama and aunt Sophie put increasing pressure on Victoria to declare him as her future private secretary. But even he realized that he'd miscalculated by not ingratiating himself to her, and changed tactics. He started a whispering campaign that Victoria was extremely immature for her age, of weak intellect and easily swayed by bad companions, and possibly even imbalanced, like her grandpapa George III. Since the Duchess of Kent rarely let Victoria go out in public without her to speak for her, the rumors didn't seem all that wild and unfounded. He then followed up with a second campaign...to make the Duchess regent for Victoria even if she were to become queen after coming of legal age (18). And since there was no legal precedent for this, he began to dog Victoria, demanding that she sign documents declaring herself unfit to rule and requesting a regent (her mother) and a private secretary (Sir John) to run the country for her until she was at least 21...or more.

Victoria, of course, would have nothing to do with ANY of this. But Sir John would not give up. When Victoria was 16 and fell dangerously ill (possibly with typhoid, which would someday kill her husband and one of her children) he actually stormed her bedroom and tried to force her hand around a pen to sign while she was semi-delirious...but with the help of her devoted governess Lehzen, she resisted.

After this, it was all-out war. While the slowly failing King William publicly tangled with the Duchess of Kent over her appropriation of chunks of Kensington Palace that he'd forbidden her to take and over her keeping Victoria from visiting him (declaring in front of a hundred guests at his own birthday party that he was going to do his best to stay alive until Victoria was 18, just to make sure the Duchess never became regent), Sir John desperately scuttled behind the scenes egging the Duchess on in her efforts to browbeat Victoria. The affair took on international proportions as Victoria's beloved uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, sent his physician and advisor, Baron Stockmar, to try to mediate the situation, and Victoria's half-brother Charles, the Duke of Leiningen, also came over from Germany. Victoria'a 18th birthday came and went on May 24, effectively destroying any thoughts of a regency, but Sir John did not give up, telling Charles and the Duchess in mid-June that if Victoria would not accept him on her own as her secretary then "she must be coerced."


But two days later, the ailing and asthmatic William IV slipped away, happy that he had indeed survived past his niece's birthday, and Victoria became queen...on her own terms.

So what happened to the reprehensible Sir John and the easily manipulated Duchess?

Sir John tried to demand that for his years of dedication to the Queen he deserved to be made at least a viscount, to get other honors, and a pension of 3000 pounds per year...if he got those, he would be happy to withdraw from public life. In the end he made do with the title of baronet. He stayed on as the Duchess's comptroller for a few more years, making trouble where he could for Victoria before retiring to Italy in 1839. In time it was found that he had mismanaged the Duchess's money, and especially the money of Victoria's Aunt Sophia (daughter of George III) to a criminal degree, buying his family houses and property with it and leaving the old woman with a fraction of her once large fortune. Victoria saw him only once or twice again after ascending the throne, and remained estranged from her mother for a number of years. They were finally reconciled after Victoria's marriage in 1841 and eventually became close as Victoria's many children were born over the 1840s and 1850s. She (the Duchess, not Vic) died in 1861. Sir John died in 1854.

Now, how was that for a weird history saga? Don't worry...there are plenty more!


Gillian Layne said...

Truly, real life is every bit as twisted and interesting as fiction.

Keep the history coming!

Sarah Prineas said...

Wow, he was really, really persistent. I'm so glad Victoria resisted Sir John's attempts to undermine her. I only wish his ending had involved some kind of dungeon or snakepit. Grrr!

Prince Albert died of typhus, not typhoid. Why do I know this? No idea. Random neuron.