It’s the bicentenary year of Queen Victoria’s birth, so what better way to find out more about one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs and her connections to Yorkshire, than getting the low down from historian, TV presenter and writer Lucy Worsley.
By the time of her death, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, ruled over nearly a quarter of the population of the globe. But not least among them were her subjects in Yorkshire, a county she particularly admired.
Two hundred years on from Victoria’s birth on 24 May 1819 it’s almost as if the queen still makes royal progresses to the county, in the form of actress Jenna Coleman. Coleman plays Victoria as a captivating, complex character in the ITV drama series Victoria, much of which is filmed in a huge set of Buckingham Palace erected in an aircraft hangar at Leeds East Airport. But how often did the real Queen Victoria visit Yorkshire and what did she think of it? Her life is wonderfully rewarding for a historian to study because of her immensely detailed diary, which she kept up to date each and every day. These journals were a key source for my new biography, Queen Victoria, Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, and they also reveal happy - and sometimes stressful - times she spent visiting God’s Own County.
‘The streets are very narrow and the crowd was immense,’ wrote the sixteen-year-old future queen in September 1835, ‘but very good-humoured and extremely friendly.’ The Princess Victoria was visiting York for the first time, beginning a succession of stays in Yorkshire that would continue until a final goodbye to the county in 1897 when she was aged 77.
During this first visit, she stayed with the Archbishop of York in his palace and each day went with her mother to the Minster to hear the concerts of the York Music Festival. What a fine church, she wrote in her diary, ‘much finer than Westminster Abbey’ and she was thrilled to hear the opera stars she admired so much, soprano Giulia Grisi and bass Luigi Lablache.
York was just the first stop on a tour that the young princess was making of the area’s great houses. This was a kind of publicity circuit carefully organised by her guardians to present their future queen to the county’s aristocrats, in order to build anticipation for her coming reign and she commented upon the fine, hilly park of her host the Earl, at Harewood.
But just as any teenager would, she grew restless with the requirement to be ‘on duty,’ with having to meet and greet her loyal subjects. Her diary also records the difficulty she found in facing up to the challenges of her role: a dinner for 300, the people crowding round her carriage, the tour’s accumulated ‘fatigues which were not slight and which I begin to feel.’ Nevertheless, she paid a sad ‘final adieu to Yorkshire’ upon leaving. She’d decided that this part of her future kingdom was ‘a very pleasant county’.
In 1835, she’d journeyed to Yorkshire by carriage, with frequent stops for the changing of horses, yet many of her subsequent visits were stops for ‘luncheon’ at York while whistling through on the new railway up to or down from Scotland. It’s striking how much Britain seems to shrink during the course of the queen’s long reign. When she visited Leeds in 1858, for example, for the opening of its Town Hall, she started out from her holiday home at Osborne on the Isle of Wight in the morning. A carriage, a steamer and a couple of fast trains got her to Yorkshire by half past six the same day.
An estimated half-a-million people turned out to see Victoria in Leeds and her time in Yorkshire was usually spent in pursuit of official duties. Indeed, as she became queen, then married and then became the mother of nine children, she couldn’t keep them all up. She handed over some of her responsibilities to her husband, Prince Albert, who became known as the ‘Prince of Trowels’ for the vast collection of tools with which he had ceremonially laid the first stone of ever so many public buildings. It was the Prince, not the Queen, who travelled to York in 1848, to visit the ‘Show of Implements’ at the county show and to eat his dinner with 1,400 farmers.
Two years later, they were both back in Yorkshire for more of a pleasure visit, staying at Castle Howard. Here the scholarly Prince Albert was ‘enchanted’ by the house’s collection of art and antiques. But it was not all fun: after lunch, the family had to show themselves on the steps of the house, to the delight of ‘an immense crowd’ that had gathered for the purpose, cheering ‘vehemently’. It was particularly important that the ‘children should be seen,’ said their host, Lord Carlisle. So her young ones, like royal children through the ages, must have stood awkwardly on the steps getting used to being stared at.
Little did Victoria suspect it, as she visited Castle Howard in 1850 aged just 31, that her happy family life was not to last much longer. She and her husband employed substantial medical staff and had the problem of too much rather than too little food. They could have expected to long outlive the average 40-year lifespan of their subjects, but Albert died at just 42 and the second half of Victoria’s life, the forty long years she lived without him, began. For that period she dressed in everlasting mourning black, of a cut and inky colour she described to her daughter as the dress ‘for ever, for mine.’
And here, once again, Yorkshire helped her out. The ornaments and jewellery favoured by widows in Victorian mourning included items in the jet that was a staple product of Whitby on the coast. There, at the high point of the fashion for jet in the 1870s, a thousand men and boys were employed in searching the local beaches for washed-up chunks of the petrified wood and crafting it into saleable form.
The Victorians to us today seem extreme in their devotion to mourning, but theirs was a commercial society and they were always looking for opportunities to buy and to sell each other new clothes. Having to acquire a new outfit of black clothes and ornaments for the first year, followed by half-mourning of grey, lilac or white thereafter, was very good for the economy. Jet jewellery worn upon a dress of black also had the advantage of signalling, visually, when a person was bereaved. In a modern age when we treat grief as a sickness, something to be disguised or overcome, you can see a certain amount of logic in making it clearer who should be entitled to special consideration.
In the queen’s case, it was also what would be today called terrific visual branding. Everyone knows exactly what Victoria looked like, because she always looked the same. As the nation’s most prominent widow, pitied by many for the loss she never allowed them to forget, she seemed to march on indomitably through the decades.
Even though by then many of her subjects could not remember a time before Victoria queen, she could not of course live forever. When visiting Castle Howard in 1850, she’d admired the family’s beautiful, circular mausoleum, standing on its lonely hill a little distance from the house. ‘It is just the sort of thing,’ she wrote in her journal that night, ‘I wish one day to build for ourselves.’
And that’s exactly what she did do. Her corpse now rests next to Albert’s, in a similar mausoleum in the great park at Windsor, inspired by the one she’d encountered as a happy young wife and mother, long ago in Yorkshire.
This article was taken from This is Y 2019.