Authors: Matthew Dennison
Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #Biography & Autobiography, #Royalty
It should not have happened, and never would have done had medical counsel prevailed. In February of the previous year, 1856, Sir James Clark – appointed Queen Victoria's physician on the first day of her reign – had confided to his diary, ‘I feel at times uneasy. Regarding the Queen's mind, unless she is kept quiet… the time will come when she will be in danger.’
It was Easter Monday, 1857. The Queen had been married to Prince Albert for eighteen years. She had given birth to eight children, ranging in age from seventeen to four. She was six weeks away from her thirty-eighth birthday, and twelve years short of the age at which her grandfather George III had collapsed on to the shoulder of one of his seven surviving sons and exclaimed, ‘I wish to God I may die, for I am going to be mad.’
The Queen was a woman of intense emotions and violent passions. She also inclined to feelings of deep unhappiness and unsettlement both during pregnancy and after the birth of her children, later confiding to a married daughter the result of many pregnancies in quick succession: ‘One becomes so worn out and one's nerves so miserable.’
Sir James had made known to Prince Albert his fears about the Queen's mental well-being: further post-natal disquiet, he believed, could provide the weight that tipped the scales. The only safeguard was for the Queen to have no more children. What's more, as the doctor also reported, his patient shared his fears: ‘The Queen felt sure that if she had another child she would sink under it.’
Sir James's appeal ought to have proved persuasive. For Prince Albert the spectre of Queen Victoria's Hanoverian inheritance – the family's chequered and all too recent history of madness and
badness – loomed ever large. Yet on 13 April, fourteen months after Sir James's expression of anxiety and a fortnight later than her doctors had predicted, Queen Victoria went into labour for the ninth and last time.
In the delivery room at Buckingham Palace, the Queen wore the shift she had worn at each of her eight previous confinements, being superstitious and sentimental about such things. Behind her now was the unhappiness of this last pregnancy: the indulgence of grief she had unleashed over the death in November from paralytic seizures of her troublesome half-brother Charles of Leiningen; her habitual irritation at the restrictions imposed by her condition – in this case, including being prevented from ‘showing off on the ice’ with Prince Albert on the skating pond at Windsor in December;
and the deep sense of degradation she had told the Prince her inflated physical condition caused her. Long forgotten were her reservations, once so forcibly expressed to her uncle Leopold of Belgium, about becoming
‘mamma d'une nombreuse famille’.
The Queen may not have felt, as she had seventeen years earlier, giving birth to her first child, the Princess Royal, ‘so strong and active’,
but she drew comfort from the presence at her bedside, as on that occasion, of her much-beloved husband, the accoucheur Dr Charles Locock, and Mrs Lilly, midwife and monthly nurse, who had attended the Queen at every delivery. In a room close by, helpless now despite his expressed misgivings, Sir James Clark was joined by Dr Robert Ferguson; in due course both would be co-signatories with Charles Locock of the official bulletin announcing the birth. Members of the Royal Household gathered alongside the Lord Chancellor, Lord Cranworth, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and the Bishop of London. Prayers were offered in English and in German. Also present was the physician to the Crown Prince of Prussia, Dr Wegner. On 25 January of the following year the Crown Prince would marry the Queen's eldest daughter. An heir would be expected of the union. ‘While German oculists and even surgeons are cleverer than ours, – there is not a doubt that in the particular line of childbirth and women's illnesses the English are the best in the World, more skilful and much more delicate,’
the Queen would write later.
For the Princess Royal's future comfort and safety Dr Wegner must observe and note how such things were managed in England.
Management on this occasion was slow. ‘The labour was lingering,’ recorded Dr John Snow in his casebook. It was also, up to a point, pioneering. Snow was a GP who acted intermittently as an obstetrician. He discovered the mode of spread of epidemic cholera and, significantly for Queen Victoria, became an early advocate of anaesthesia, publishing ‘On the Inhalation of the Vapour of Ether in Surgical Operations’ less than a year after the first recorded British use of an anaesthetic. In 1853, three months after easing with anaesthesia the extraction of a tooth for one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Snow had administered chloroform to Queen Victoria at the birth of Prince Leopold – to be precise, fifty-three minutes’ worth of what the Queen described as ‘that blessed Chloroform… soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure’.
The result, Snow noted with satisfaction, was that ‘the Queen appeared very cheerful and well, expressing herself much gratified with the effect of the chloroform’.
So gratified, in fact, that she did not consider enduring her final confinement without it.
Snow's task was a controversial one. His use of chloroform in 1853 had been roundly denounced by the leading medical journal
‘… Her Majesty during her last labour was placed under the influence of chloroform, an agent which has unquestionably caused instantaneous death in a considerable number of cases… In no case could it be justifiable to administer chloroform in perfectly ordinary labour.’
Not only the medical profession but the public, too, feared for the Queen's safety; and some disapproved on religious grounds of her championing apparently painless childbirth. Snow's presence in the delivery room represented for the rising doctor both an honour and a burden. During the birth of Prince Leopold, Dr Locock had complained that the use of chloroform, whatever its palliative effect, prolonged the intervals between contractions and retarded labour. Given the Queen's enthusiasm, and its wholehearted seconding by Prince Albert, Locock's reservations counted for
little. More worrying for Snow was that exactly a week before his summons to the palace he had experienced his first anaesthesia death.
Happily, neither the Queen nor her two-weeks-tardy child died. Early on Monday afternoon the familiar pains began. They continued, without sign of progress, into the evening. Doctors Locock and Snow were in attendance when, at around two o'clock the following morning, came the onset of labour proper. Throughout the early hours the Queen's contractions proceeded – but still with no indication of imminent birth. The Queen's suffering was considerable and it was Prince Albert, sitting beside his wife, who offered the first relief, ‘a very little chloroform on a handkerchief, about 9 and 10 o'clock’.
At the same time Dr Locock gave a dose of powdered ergot, eager, as during Leopold's birth, to keep things moving along; he would offer a second dose at noon with greater success. Despite her suffering Snow adhered to his usual practice and withheld administering chloroform in earnest until the onset of the second stage of labour. He then folded a handkerchief into a cone, poured on to it ten minims of chloroform and, with each contraction, placed the cone over the Queen's face – the ‘open-drop’ technique of anaesthetic application that Snow had by this stage of his career largely forsaken, even suggesting it might be dangerous. (In the Queen's case, however, this was the method he had used four years previously: its familiarity may have been intended to reassure her.)
The Queen was tired. She had not slept. Already it was nearly twenty-four hours since she had experienced first preliminary pains. The final weeks of her pregnancy had not relaxed her: feeling harried by political concerns, in March she had instructed Sir James Clark to inform the Prime Minister that she was in no condition to endure a change of ministry; at the same time, her anxiety about the inadequacy as heir of her eldest son Bertie, Prince of Wales, continued to grow. Listlessly she had moved between her bed and a sofa, carried by Prince Albert or, during his absences, a footman called Lockwood. Now she asked for more chloroform, complaining that it did not take away the pain.
Her complaints were probably justified: the dose the Queen
was receiving from Snow was only two-thirds of the strength he had administered during Leopold's birth. But Snow, sobered by his experience of the previous week, did not increase the measure. Between contractions the Queen dozed, slipping in and out of consciousness. When at last, nearing one o'clock, Dr Locock saw the baby's head resting on the perineum and asked the Queen ‘to make a bearing-down effort’, she replied that she could not. Snow withheld chloroform for three or four contractions, the Queen rallied, ‘and the royal patient made an effort which expelled the head, a little chloroform being given just as the head passed’.
There was, Dr Snow went on to report, ‘an interval of several minutes before the child was entirely born; it, however, cried in the meantime. The placenta was expelled about ten minutes afterwards.’
The time was quarter to two – as Prince Albert wrote to a correspondent the following day, some thirteen hours after labour began.
A fortnight later, Queen Victoria confided to her Journal, ‘I was amply rewarded and forgot all I had gone through when I heard dearest Albert say “It is a fine child, and a girl!”’
For the fifth and final time, the Queen had given birth to a daughter – Victoria and Albert's ‘Baby’, as she was to remain for all her mother's life, their last and for the Queen the ultimate child, the last princess.
Prince Albert's letter to the Princess Royal's soon-to-be mother-in-law, Princess Augusta of Prussia, was written from the Queen's bedside on 15 April: ‘Mother and baby are well. Baby practices her scales like a good
before a performance and has a good voice! Victoria counts the hours and minutes like a prisoner. The children want to know what their sister is to be called, and dispute which names will sound best.’
Laconically, Dr Snow had recorded the Queen's immediate physical reaction to the princess's birth and his administering of anaesthetic: ‘The Queen's recovery was very favourable.’
The Queen's own comment was characteristically more emphatic, its discernibly triumphant tone indicative of the degree of anxiety she had suffered during this ninth pregnancy: ‘I have felt better
and stronger this time than I have ever done before.’
In her relief at having once more endured unscathed the hated business of childbirth, the Queen allowed herself a moment of hoodwinking congratulation.
But on some matters the doctors were not to be overruled and the Queen remained in bed – convalescing ‘like a prisoner’ – while Prince Albert returned to the business of state, the Queen's correspondence private and official, and the eight older royal children. On the same day as he wrote to Princess Augusta, the Prince received from the Queen's octogenarian aunt, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, a letter thanking him for the invalid's sofa he had earlier sent her, and ‘[thanking] God that dear Victoria is going on well’.
The Duchess – the last of the daughters of George III – was slipping inexorably towards death. While the Queen rested at Buckingham Palace, her husband and several of their children visited this survivor of a previous royal generation. ‘The Prince Consort and the junior members of the Royal Family have been out daily,’ reported the
Illustrated London News,
‘generally calling at Gloucester House to enquire after the illustrious and venerable Princess whose dissolution is hourly expected’.
It would be nearly two weeks before that ‘dissolution’ occurred. In the meantime, the Queen herself had visited the tall house to the west of Hyde Park, accompanied by her second daughter Princess Alice; and the royal children, disputing what their newest sister was to be called, had been given a clue to one of the infant's names.
To the last princess, though she slept in a silk-lined cradle, its canopy like the frame of a four-poster bed, with fringed silk hangings caught up by swags and knots of striped silk cord (she was photographed gazing from this cradle, a tiny baby, by Caldesi), attached none of the historical or dynastic significance of her eldest siblings. Soon the Princess Royal would marry the heir to the throne of Prussia, cementing Anglo-German amity; Bertie, the princess's eldest brother and the only heir apparent ever born to a reigning British queen, would one day succeed his mother as Edward VII. But the last princess, ninth in line to the
throne, with eight older siblings, could never expect to reign at home, and with four older sisters would hardly be wanted for a grand match abroad. Her birth gave private pleasure; despite its announcement by salutes of guns in Green Park and at the Tower of London, its public import was limited.
This was not, however, to be the line the Queen adopted concerning her youngest child. At the christening of the Prince of Wales, at St George's Chapel, Windsor in January 1842, the Queen had presided over a banquet and firework display; the christening cake had measured eight feet in diameter; the celebrations had been appropriately princely in expense and extent. For her youngest daughter, the Queen had devised an occasion she afterwards described as ‘very brilliant and nice’.
In the private chapel of Buckingham Palace, on 16 June, the last princess received from the Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted in his task by a further six clergymen including the Bishop of London, who had been present at the princess's birth, the names Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore. An anthem specially written for the occasion – ‘Princess Beatrice's Anthem’ – was sung, the start of a lifelong association with music. The baby wore the Honiton lace christening gown the Queen had commissioned for the Princess Royal's baptism in 1841 and which had been worn in turn by all of the Queen's babies; Beatrice's forehead was anointed with holy water from the font designed by her father Prince Albert, an elaborate, floriferous design made in silver gilt by London silversmiths E. J. & W. Barnard. The Queen was led into the chapel not by her husband but by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, then on a visit to England. Lunch followed in the palace ballroom. The Queen sat between her daughter's fiance, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and the same Archduke – later, with tragic consequences, Emperor of Mexico – who made on her a markedly positive impression. ‘I cannot say how much we like the Archduke,’ she wrote afterwards to her uncle Leopold, soon to be Maximilian's father-in-law. ‘He is so charming, so clever, natural, kind and amiable, so
in his feelings and likings.’
Such a liking did the Queen conceive for her Austrian guest at Beatrice's christening that, following his death in 1868, she commissioned
Albert Graefle to copy for her Maximilian's portrait by Winterhalter.