by Susan Flantzer
The mother of Queen Victoria, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (Marie Louise Victoire), was born on August 17, 1786 in Coburg. She was the fourth daughter and seventh child of the ten children of Franz Frederick, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf. Among Victoria’s siblings were Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; Juliane, Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia, who married Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia; and Leopold, the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales and who became King Leopold of the Belgians in 1831.
At age 17, on 21 December 21, 1803, Victoria became the second wife of Emich Carl, 2nd Prince of Leiningen, who was 23 years her senior. The couple had two children: Carl, 3rd Prince of Leiningen (1804 – 1856) and Princess Feodora of Leiningen (1807 – 1872). Emich Carl died of pneumonia in 1814 and was succeeded by his 10-year-old son Carl.
In November of 1817, the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only legitimate grandchild of King George III, necessitated the marriages of the unmarried sons of King George III to provide an heir to the throne. On May 29, 1818, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (fourth son of King George III) married the 32-year-old widow Victoria at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg. Edward had never married, but had lived for 28 years with his mistress Julie de Montgenêt de Saint-Laurent. Upon the couple’s return to England, they had a second marriage ceremony on July 13, 1818 at Kew Palace in the presence of Edward’s ailing mother Queen Charlotte.
In September of 1818, Edward and Victoria set out for Leiningen, where the Duchess of Kent’s young son was the Sovereign Prince. However, when the Duchess became pregnant, they were determined to return to England so that the possible heir to the throne would be born there. They took up residence in an apartment at Kensington Palace and it was there that their only child, the future Queen Victoria, was born on May 24, 1819.
Toward the end of 1819, Edward leased Woolbrook Cottage in Sidmouth, a town on the English Channel, due to the need to economize and the benefits the sea air would have for the Duchess’ health. In early January, Edward caught a cold, but insisted on taking a walk out in the chilly weather. Within days, the cold worsened, he became feverish and delirious, and developed pneumonia. His condition was aggravated by the bleeding and cupping of the physician sent from London to treat him. Edward became increasingly weaker and died on January 23, 1820, just six days before his father, King George III died.
After King George III’s death, the infant Victoria was third in the line of succession after her uncles, Frederick, Duke of York and William, Duke of Clarence. Neither the new king, George IV, nor his brothers Frederick and William had any heirs, and the Duchess of Kent decided she would take a chance on Victoria’s accession to the throne. The Duchess decided to stay in England rather than return to her homeland.
The Duchess of Kent and her daughter Victoria were given little financial support from Parliament. The Duchess’ brother Leopold (the future King Leopold I of the Belgians) was the widower of Princess Charlotte and had received a very generous 50,000 pounds per year income from Parliament upon his marriage to Charlotte which was continued after her death. Leopold provided much needed financial and emotional support to his sister and niece. In 1831, with King George IV dead for a year and his younger brother and heir King William IV still without legitimate issue, Victoria’s status as heir presumptive and her mother’s prospective place as regent led to major increases in income. Uncle Leopold became King of the Belgians in 1831, so an additional consideration was the impropriety of a foreign monarch supporting the heir to the British throne. Leopold had surrendered his British income upon his accession to the Belgian throne.
The Duchess developed a very close relationship with John Conroy, her household comptroller, who wanted to use his position with the mother of the future queen to obtain power and influence. Conroy and the Duchess tried to control and influence Victoria with their Kensington System, a strict and elaborate set of rules. The Duchess’ relationship with her daughter Victoria suffered greatly and did not normalize until Victoria herself had children.
There was no love lost between King William IV and his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Kent. Despite the Regency Act 1830 making the Duchess of Kent regent in case William died while Victoria was still a minor, the king distrusted the duchess’s capacity to be regent. William had been denied access to his young niece as much as the Duchess dared. The Duchess had offended the King by taking rooms in Kensington Palace that the King had reserved for himself. Both before and during William’s reign, the Duchess had snubbed his illegitimate children, the FitzClarences. All of this led to a scene at a dinner in 1836 where King William IV declared in the Duchess’ presence that he wanted to live until Victoria’s 18th birthday, so that a regency could be avoided.
On May 24, 1837, Victoria turned 18 years old and it would not be necessary for the Duchess of Kent to serve as regent, much to the relief of Victoria’s uncle King William IV. Less than a month later, on June 20, 1837, King William IV died and Victoria acceded to the British throne. On the day Victoria became queen, she demonstrated her determination to free herself from her mother’s influence by ordering her bed be removed from the room she and her mother had always shared.
In 1840, Queen Victoria married her first cousin and her mother’s nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. After the birth of Victoria and Albert’s first child Victoria, Princess Royal, the Duchess was reconciled with Victoria probably due to Albert’s persuasion. Thereafter, the Duchess became a doting grandmother and her relationship with her daughter became closer than it had ever been.
In March of 1861, after the Duchess had surgery on her arm to remove an ulcer, a severe infection developed. On March 15, 1861, Queen Victoria was notified that her mother was not expected to survive for more than a few hours. Victoria, Albert, and their daughter Alice immediately traveled from London to Windsor where the Duchess resided at Frogmore House near Windsor Castle. The Queen found her mother in a semi-coma and breathing with great difficulty. At 9:30 on the morning of March 16, 1861, the Duchess of Kent died at the age of 74 without regaining consciousness. Victoria did not deal well with losing her mother and dealt even worse with a death that was to come at the end of 1861, that of her beloved husband Albert.
The Duchess of Kent’s final resting place is a mausoleum near Victoria and Albert’s mausoleum at Frogmore in Windsor Home Park.