In the opening chapters of her popular book We Two, Gillian Gill recounts something of the Gothic drama that was Queen Victoria’s childhood. The setting was a “dull, dark and gloomy” Kensington Palace, infested with rats and black beetles. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, died in her infancy, leaving her a position in the royal succession behind her three eldest uncles. Her German mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield, feuded with the English royal family at Windsor and schemed to one day seize the throne in her daughter’s name.
Victoire and her trusted advisor, Sir John Conroy, are the principal villains in this story. Conroy was an opportunistic blackguard who attached himself to the widowed duchess and her money, carefully controlling the flow of information between Victoire and her family on the Continent. Together they raised Victoria under strict surveillance and isolation. She was never left alone in a room for any reason, nor allowed to walk down the stairs without someone holding her hand.
Conroy “built a wall between Victoria and everyone in the world except her mother, himself, and his family.” He convinced the duchess to dismiss her lady-in-waiting of twenty-five years, Baroness Späth, “on the specious grounds that the lady was too extravagant in adoration of the Princess Victoria.” Victoria’s rebellious older sister, Princess Feodora, was likewise married off to “fourth-rank prince with a postage stamp kingdom” in Germany for fear that her example would undermine their authority. Conroy “saw Victoria as a key to be turned, not a mind to be won…Day in and day out, he snubbed and sneered at her, aiming to destroy her spirit.” Meanwhile, Victoria “watched the mother who had loved and protected her as a young child metamorphose into a wicked stepmother, intent on wealth, status and power.”
The duchess and Conroy succeeded in sequestering Victoria from all those who would love and protect her, save one: a heroic governess named Louise Lehzen. Gill writes:
The Duchess of Kent confidently assumed that she could buy the governess’s gratitude and loyalty for a few pounds a year and the privilege of living in a palace. She expected Lehzen to give unselfish devotion to her temperamental child.
What she did not expect was that Lehzen would love Victoria as her own, care for her passionately and intelligently, and thereby win Victoria’s love in return. Louise Lehzen became Victoria’s mother in all but name, and by the time of the princess’s accession, Victoria had taken to calling Lehzen “Mother” in private. Whereas the Duchess of Kent became increasingly greedy for power, the governess was both principled and disinterested. Her ambitions were for Victoria, not for herself. Sensing this, the child gave respect, affection, and trust in return.
Lehzen took secret strength and satisfaction from the fact that she was educating a Queen of England. Her idea of what that queen should do and think was very different from her employer’s. Where the duchess and Conroy envisaged Victoria as a meek little maiden, obedient to their wishes, Lehzen wanted a strong, informed woman, a second Queen Elizabeth. Beneath her dowdy black clothes, Louise Lehzen was a fiery soul, nourished on the literary masterpieces of the Sturm und Drang movement…Lehzen once told a member of Conroy’s extended family that she “could pardon wickedness in a queen, but not weakness.”
When forced to choose between the interests of her employer and of her tutee, at first secretly, then overtly, and at last defiantly, Lehzen chose the child.
Lehzen was an enlightened educator who spared the rod and helped to fill the emotional vacuum that was imposed upon the lonely princesses. Gill relates this touching vignette:
Visitors allowed inside Kensington Palace were enchanted to see the princess at the far end of her mother’s sitting room, playing quietly with her large collection of dolls. These were small, plain, inexpensive creatures, 132 in all, for which Victoria and Lehzen created identities, composed dramas, and sewed costumes. The dolls were the friends Victoria was not allowed to have, and she played with them until she was fourteen.
Until she was nearly eleven, Victoria’s position in the line succession had been carefully kept from her. Thus, she did not grow up as a haughty and self-important princess, as princesses go. By this time, however, her eldest uncle, George IV, was dying, and her second eldest, the Duke of York, was already dead. The future William IV had only to die without a legitimate heir for her to become Queen, and so it was thought appropriate to show her an accurate genealogy of the royal family. “The conversation,” says Gill, “went as follows:”
VICTORIA: I never saw that before.
LEHZEN: It was not thought necessary that you should, Princess.
VICTORIA: I see that I am nearer to the throne than I thought.
LEHZEN: So it is, Madam.
VICTORIA (after some moments): Now, many a child would boast but they don’t know the difficulty; there is much splendour, but there is more responsibility! (Holding up the forefinger of her right hand and then putting her hand in Lehzen’s) I will be good!
“For generations,” says Gill, “the image of the young princess, suddenly and solemnly appraised of her illustrious destiny, raising what is always called her tiny finger and saying twice over ‘I will be good,’ was kind of a folk legend.”
As Victoria came of age as the heir apparent to the throne of England, it became much harder for Victoire and Conroy to keep her quietly sequestered in Kensington Palace. Conroy became widely recognized for what he was. Victoria’s uncles, William IV and Leopold II of Belgium, began to take a renewed interest in her affairs. Together they were able to prevent Lehzen’s dismissal when Victoria was belatedly confirmed at age fifteen. However, the duchess prevailed in keeping the princess at Kensington until she was eighteen, in spite of William’s offer to set her up with an income and household of her own.
Here, the pressure upon Victoria intensified. In the fall of 1835, she took ill. Lehzen was “told by the duchess to shut her mouth” when she attempted to describe her condition to the physician James Clark. Instead, the duchess and Conroy, growing increasingly desperate to secure their position in the shadow of William IV’s failing health, took full advantage of Victoria’s weak state. Gill writes:
So, while the Princess Victoria was weak, feverish, and confined to bed, Conroy and the duchess tried to browbeat her into signing a document appointing Conroy as her personal secretary in the event of her accession to the throne. Supported by Lehzen, Victoria found the strength to refuse. As she later told Lord Melbourne, “They [Mama and Conroy] attempted (for I was still very ill) to make me promise beforehand, which I resisted in spite of my illness, my beloved Lehzen supporting me alone.”
After three days, when the princess was delirious with a very high fever and a racing pulse, it finally occurred to the duchess that Victoria might be in danger of dying. To risk killing the goose that laid the golden eggs was in no one’s interests, so a local doctor was called as discreetly as possible.
The position of confidential personal secretary would have permitted “Conroy to run the new queen’s domestic life, control her revenues, and conduct the affairs of state for three years.” As Victoria neared her eighteenth birthday and William IV’s health declined, they redoubled their efforts to pressure Victoria into agreeing to a regency, with Conroy as her secretary, but to no avail. By this time their treachery had been exposed, the battle lines had been drawn, and it was evident that theirs was the losing hand.
On June 20, 1837 the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain arrived at Kensington Palace to greet the new queen. Conroy was dismissed. Lehzen was appointed “lady attendant to the queen.” “When Victoria came to the throne,” says Gill, “she caused a sensation.” She had lived her life hidden away in Kensington Palace by Victoire and Conroy, who disparaged her intelligence and questioned her fitness to rule, “then overnight, without rehearsal, Victoria stepped into the starring role of queen, and amazed everyone by her mastery of script and blocking.” Gill writes:
Victoria’s coronation in June 1838 cost only seventy thousand pounds, a fraction of her uncle George IV’s, but it was greeted with general rejoicing. The unprecedented crowds of people massed all along her route to and from Westminster Abbey made the Queen feel both proud and humble. When the crown was placed on her head, the Queen looked up into the gallery where her dearest friend, Baroness Lehzen, was sitting, and the two exchanged a smile. Together they had come through, and victory was theirs.
Victoria had said “My dear Lehzen will always be with me as a friend,” but sadly this was not to be so. Lehzen was ultimately supplanted when she earned the enmity of Prince Albert. Gill says:
In September 1842 Baroness Lehzen set off for Germany in a new carriage presented to her by the Queen, valiantly claiming that she was no longer needed and so preferred to return to her native land. Victoria could not face saying good-bye in person, but she gave her former governess a handsome pension of eight hundred pounds a year. Over the next years, the two women kept up a regular correspondence and had two private meetings when the Queen was on visits to Germany. The last time Queen Victoria saw her “dearest Daisy,” Louise Lehzen was standing on a station platform near her German home watching the train bearing the Queen and the prince go by, and waving her handkerchief. The train did not stop. Louise Lehzen continued to write to Queen Victoria, but at some point her letters became unintelligible, and in 1870 she died.
Louise Lehzen is buried in the Jetenburg cemetery beneath a neo-gothic headstone erected by her former pupil. Though she was not given her full due during her own lifetime, history may remember her as the fiery governess who taught Queen Victoria how to be good.
Gill, Gillian. We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals. (2009)