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Queen Victoria’s mourning: how death became her

by
23 July 2021

Michael Ledger Lomas considers the monarch’s ‘promiscuous’ grief

Alamy

Queen Victoria in mourning, 1862

Queen Victoria in mourning, 1862

IN JANUARY 1897, Victoria began a new religious tradition: the holding of anniversary memorial services for her son-in-law Henry of Battenberg. Having died at Madeira of fever contracted in West Africa while serving as a volunteer on Francis Scott’s expedition to Asante, Henry had been repatriated and buried in St Mildred’s, Whippingham, which accordingly became a “beautiful hallowed spot” to Victoria.

Courtiers who had hoped that his rites would end with his funeral found her persistence in anniversary services “morbid”, a “mistake”, and “very trying”, while conceding that “the Queen enjoys them; at any rate they are the only lodestones that draw her within the precincts of a church.” They were right to perceive that, as Victoria aged, she came to live for death.

How rulers express and wield power depends on their sense of time, which is in turn moulded by holding power. The ageing Victoria’s chronoscape shelved into the past, as the commemoration of the dead blotted out thoughts for the future. Death hollowed out her subjective experience of power, whittling away her family and household even as her Empire expanded.

“It is a sad and solemn feeling that there is no one above us any longer,” Victoria wrote to the Duke of Cambridge after they had attended his mother’s funeral in 1889. “We are now the only old ones left.”

Her journal bore out her impression that “soon every day will be an anniversary”, becoming a mausoleum book in which she recorded the loss of relatives, friends, and servants, and gloomed over newspaper reports of accidents and disasters. The Frogmore anniversary services for Albert became just the most important node in a constellation of sad recollections.

Historians have argued that the “crêpe pall” which descended on Victoria’s court after deaths such as Henry’s was countercultural. By this time, the Victorian “celebration of death” had dwindled among the upper and middle classes. Funerals became less costly, mourning attire was quickly sloughed off, and overt discussion of death waned.

Her courtiers were less polite, damning her absorption in funerals as a psychological defect — “the dim shade of inherited melancholy from George III”.

Contemporary critiques of her morbidity were not just psychological, but theological. In a sermon occasioned by the death of her half-sister Feodore, John Tulloch bluntly informed her that “a sorrow which either refuses to accept facts, or to cease from anxieties and regrets which are no longer practicable, is an unchristian sorrow — for this reason, amongst others, that the duties of life await those who have suffered most”.

Tulloch presented flamboyant mourning as an impediment to duty, but . . . mourning had become the widowed Victoria’s duty. Like her Habsburg and Romanov contemporaries, who were humanised and sanctified by repeated bereavements, her grief extended her power over the imagination of her subjects.

Late-Victorian people still felt that royal deaths could provoke reflection on the religious ideals of the nation, and looked to preachers to provide that reflection.

 

EACH death that Victoria faced compounded the impact of all the others. The death of Alice’s husband, Ludwig, just two months after Clarence’s, left Victoria “quite crushed & broken hearted”.

Courtiers felt that Victoria’s mourning was promiscuous and indiscriminate: they regarded her absorption in the funerals and graves of Scottish villagers and household servants with disdain, and were horrified by her determination to speak publicly of her anguish at John Brown’s death.

What Victoria’s reaction does clearly reveal, however, is that her lavish mourning was not just a personal tic, but aligned the monarchy with important changes in religious culture. The most significant of these changes was the refitting of Christian manliness to suit the needs of Empire.

Self-sacrifice was not only the ultimate Christian virtue, but increasingly allowed Christians to imagine empire as a gigantic act of self-abnegation, a theatre of noble suffering rather than a field of unbridled power.

Many of the men who became Christian heroes in the later decades of Victoria’s reign — from David Livingstone to General Gordon — were remarkable for their endurance of great suffering, or for the fearless way in which they had confronted defeat or death.

Later Victorian culture venerated “warriors of God” — as Tennyson once styled Gordon — lavishing the sorrow and pity that more properly belonged to the victims of imperialism on to its agents.

 

THIS use of great deaths to consecrate imperial manliness is familiar enough to historians, but this chapter shows that it received just as much support from the throne as the altar. Victoria was a warrior Queen who had never felt religious compunction about soldiering.

She was in younger days frustrated not to take to it herself. Her aunt Louise of Belgium had sympathised with the “warm, and manlike feelings” aroused by her first military review. “When I regretted not being a man, and I regretted it most deeply for many years, I used to entertain such feelings, particularly on horseback.”

Victoria sacralised the pain and danger to which they were exposed. If the Crimean War began the conversion of many Evangelical Protestants to military values, then encounters with its survivors had a formative impact on Victoria. When decorating veterans or visiting military hospitals, she could not get over the sight of “fine, powerful frames laid low & prostrate with wounds & sickness on beds of sufferings, or maimed in the prime of life”.

It was “indescribably touching to us women, who are born to suffer, & can bear pain more easily, so different to men, & soldiers, accustomed to activity & hardships, whom it is particularly sad & pitiable to see in such a condition”.

Victoria’s gendered spirituality, in which women were born to admire the sacrifices that men made on their behalf, began to look old-fashioned at a time when many élite women were exploiting Christian theology to frame new rights and responsibilities.

 

WHILE Victoria’s losses brought her family into line with other élite families, who dreaded telegrams with bad news from distant battlefields, her mourning strengthened and deepened perceptions of the Queen in other ways, too. The funerals were not just militarised but also aestheticised events, which used music and flowers to cast death as a gentle transition to another world continuous with this one.

They reflect how sentiment was coming to replace eschatology in thinking about the dead, and as such they fastened the public’s attention on Victoria as the mourner-in-chief. The preachers who explained the meaning of these great deaths to their congregations took them as an occasion to strengthen their emotional community with Victoria.

Her advisers encouraged her, meanwhile, to think of her grief as a blessing and a political asset, allowing her to solicit the Christian sympathy of the nation. Victoria may, as Tennyson once told her, have felt “so alone on that terrible height”, but her august loneliness made her a figurehead for the human costs of empire.

“Whatever touches the heart of the Sovereign touches the hearts of the nation,” asserted her Presbyterian favourite James MacGregor, in a sermon on the death of her first cousin Mary of Teck. “Every soldier lying stark and stiff under an Indian sun is somebody’s boy.”

When Albert Edward’s eldest son Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, died of influenza on the eve of his marriage in January 1892, his obsequies marked a new advance in the militarisation of male spirituality and the spiritualisation of militarism.

“Shall we know each other in another world? Intense question!” mused James Fleming in a sermon preached before Clarence’s parents, before answering with a thunderous “Yes.”

“Their separation from their gentle Prince-boy is but temporary, their reunion with him shall be eternal before the throne of God.” Swathed in scent and melody rather than funereal gloom, Clarence’s obsequies caressed the feelings of the mourners.

In a telegram, Clarence’s parents stated that the participation of “all classes” in their grief had soothed their “sorrowing hearts”. Victoria followed with a letter in the London Gazette, blending “tragic” pathos with resignation to the “inscrutable decrees of Providence”.

Staggering under the “heavy” weight of 30 years of bereavement, Victoria felt strengthened by God and the “sympathy of millions”. Once of doubtful propriety, such a letter now seemed to Boyd Carpenter a “witness of that simple and true national feeling which binds together the affections of a people at moments of great sorrow”. Monarchists rallied.

The congenitally pessimistic Archbishop Benson could not “help hoping that out of that Tomb there is yet more to spring”. A Welsh contact told him that even radical Glamorganshire had been touched. “I don’t think Monarchy is near its career’s end.”

By the end of her life, Victoria’s sorrows established her as the lynchpin of an imperial religion of sacrifice: a role which her successors would play adeptly in the world wars to come.

 

This is an edited extract from Queen Victoria: This Thorny Crown © Michael Ledger-Lomas, published by Oxford University Press at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £27).

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