Queen Victoria’s funeral ‘chaos’ and secret instructions she left

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In January 1901, the reign of Queen Victoria — Britain’s second-longest serving monarch — came to an end. Having suffered from deteriorating ill health for several months, the Queen died peacefully in her sleep aged 81. She was surrounded by her children and grandchildren, including the future King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who had travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to be with her during her final moments. However, in the next room, panic had set in for royal courtiers, who were said to be frantically trying to figure out what to do next.

According to the 2018 book, Curtain Down at Her Majesty’s, which laid out a definitive view of Victoria’s final days, the aftermath of her death and her state funeral, confusion greeted the loss of the long-reigning Queen.

Author Stewart Richards delved into the Royal Archives to find first-hand accounts from those amid the chaos.

He said that Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the Queen’s assistant private secretary, wrote: “As the last death of a Sovereign had occurred in 1837, no one seemed to know what the procedure was. We spent the evening looking up what had been done when George IV and William IV had died.”

However, with no photographs for reference, and few people who remembered the death and funeral of William IV, the royal staff’s efforts were fruitless. Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher quipped: “The ignorance of historical precedent in men whose business it is to know is wonderful.”

Victoria died at 6:30pm on January 22. Within an hour, the Queen’s eldest son — the newly-made King Edward VII — sent a telegram to the Lord Mayor of London. Subsequently, the news of the monarch’s death was read to the public.

According to Mr Ponsonby, per Mr Richards, a media frenzy ensued: “I was told the scene on the hill down to Cowes [on the Isle of Wight] was disgraceful. Reporters in carriages and on bicycles were seen racing for the post office in East Cowes, and men were shouting as they ran, ‘The Queen is dead.’”

Despite the Queen making specific demands for her funeral, from the beginning, things seemed to go wrong.

Victoria had requested that she not be embalmed, a process long been used by the Royal Family to allow for the monarch’s lying-in-state. But she made clear that she didn’t want to lie in state, instead asking for a military and state funeral.

As a result, a coffin had to be ordered quickly. However, when the undertaker’s assistant arrived — with no coffin and instead asking for the deceased Queen’s measurements — Victoria’s relatives were dismayed.

Kaiser Wilhelm, her grandson who was already disliked by the majority of his British relatives, was disgusted. According to Mr Richards, he raged: “It is always like this. When an ordinary, humble person dies, everything is arranged quite easily and with reverence and care. When a ‘personage’ dies, you fellows all lose your heads and make stupid mistakes which you ought to be ashamed of. The same happens in Germany as in England: You are all alike!”

Fueled by his outrage, the Kaiser took matters into his own hands, enlisting the help of courtiers and forbidding the assistant from touching his grandmother.

Randall Davidson, Bishop of Winchester, said: “If the occasion had been a less grave and solemn one, there would have been much that was humorous in the emperor’s harangue to the rather dull undertaker’s assistant. The emperor frightened the poor fellow into helpless obedience. The man was simply terrified.

“He was so unsuitable a person, as it appeared to me, that we declined to leave him (as he wished) in the room to take the necessary measurements, and as a matter of fact the measurements were taken by the emperor, [Sir James] Reid, and myself, under the direction of the man, who stood by and told us exactly what he wanted. It was altogether a curious scene.”

It had been planned that Victoria would be placed in an oak ‘shell’ coffin, which would then go inside an outer coffin made of mahogany. But when the outer shell did not arrive on time, shipwrights from Marvins of Cowes got to work on making a replacement.

Sir Reid, the Queen’s private doctor, “put a layer of charcoal on the floor of the coffin and then the Kaiser, King Edward, Mrs Tuck [Selina Tuck — Victoria’s head dresser] and myself lifted the Queen’s body into it. I helped Mrs Tuck put a satin dressing gown on the Queen and she arranged her hair and veil and then I packed the sides with bags of charcoal in muslin.”

Further tensions arose between Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, and Edward Hyde Villiers, Lord Chamberlain, over who had the royal right to make arrangements for the funeral.

Traditionally, the Duke of Norfolk, also the Earl Marshal, held the duty of organising state occasions such as the coronation of a monarch, the Opening of Parliament and, indeed, state funerals. Similarly, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office is responsible for ceremonial activities including state visits, investitures, garden parties, weddings and funerals.

Having rushed to London from the Isle of Wight, Mr Ponsonby — who carried out a large bulk of the planning — found “absolute chaos”. According to Mr Richards, the regiments and royal households were infighting over which aspects of the funeral they would control.

Ultimately, Henry Fitzalan-Howard prevailed. According to Mr Richards, one contemporary noted: “The Lord Chamberlain is very sorry, and is likely to decline to give assistance. Indeed, it will be lucky if these two ceremonial dignitaries don’t come to loggerheads.”

With the city already buzzed with mourners, plans for the funeral were made at a rapid pace. Consulting Victoria’s instructions, the Duke of Norfolk organised an event that would set the template for royal funerals to this day.

The Queen wanted her funeral to be done “with respect — but simply”, but some of her requests came as a surprise to her staffers.

Unexpectedly, for a monarch known as the ‘Widow at Windsor’ and who dressed only in black for the better part of her life, Victoria wanted a white funeral. She requested that her coffin be draped in white and she be dressed in a white dress and her wedding veil.

She did wanted her country to go into deep mourning, with the working-class and middle-class Brits expected to wear simple black clothes. What members of the Royal Family were expected to wear was unclear.

As the Queen’s granddaughter Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein recalled: “There was great consternation and bewilderment in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, as well as in the Royal Family, as to what was the correct mourning for the Sovereign.

“It was 64 years since such a tragic event had taken place. No one knew what should be worn; old prints and pictures of long ago were studied to see how to bring up to date and modernise the cumbersome trappings of mourning.”

As it turned out, Victoria wanted to keep some elements of her funeral hidden from her family.

Julia Baird, author of Victoria: The Queen, explained that the Queen’s love of romantic mementoes and gothic mystery had driven her to leave secret instructions for her trusted servants. Victoria left a long list of items she wanted to be buried with her; it included rings, several photographs of family members and the hair of her controversial servant John Brown.

In her book, Ms Baird wrote: “She…asked for the cast of Albert’s hand, which she had always kept near her, to be put in her coffin…She wanted one of Albert’s handkerchiefs and cloaks, a shawl made by Alice, and…a pocket handkerchief of ‘my faithful Brown, that friend who was more devoted to me than anyone, to be laid on me.’

“The Royal Family, who would soon set about destroying all record of the broad-shouldered Scot, was shielded from this sight. Dr Reid was instructed to wrap her hand in gauze after placing Brown’s hair in it, then flowers were discreetly arranged over the gauze.”

Sir Reid set to work with the Queen’s loyal courtiers to hide her treasures in the coffin. Per Mr Richards, he wrote: “I had a talk with Mrs Tuck, who, the night before, had read me the Queen’s instructions about what the Queen had ordered her to put in the coffin, some of which none of the family were to see, and as she could not carry out Her Majesty’s wishes without my help, she asked me to cooperate.”

While pandemonium continued in the capital city, peace set in on the Isle of Wight. Reporting from Osborne House, The Times described the sky as “cloudless and blue,” and said, “the Solent looked like the Mediterranean itself”.

On February 1, the Queen’s coffin, accompanied by members of her family, was transported to the royal yacht Alberta. Local mourners gathered to pay their respects as the vessel set sail for the mainland. The 40 British warships that escorted the small yacht fired their guns in their honour and Chopin’s funeral march was played on every ship.

The newspaper continued: “Hardly less solemn and striking than yesterday’s great historic Naval pageant was the night vigil on board the funeral barge, where the late Queen may almost be said to have lain in State upon the bosom of the waters over which till a few hours ago she held such regal sway.

“The coffin was guarded all night by trusty Marines … Outside the basin lay the Victoria and Albert, with the King and other royal mourners on board … beyond them the long array of warships, forming a glittering lane, scintillating with myriads of lights, and extending, as far as the eye could reach, across the still, dark waters of the Solent.”

Then, on February 2, despite the pouring rain, an “incredibly and immeasurably vast” sea of mourners crowded the streets of London to get a glimpse of and pay tribute to the Queen, according to author Henry James. Although an ample amount of soldiers were in the city, more than 1,000 spectators were injured in the rush to witness the solemn parade.

After a short train journey to Windsor, a procession from the station to St George’s Chapel began. But when the freezing horses pulling the gun carriage carrying Victoria’s coffin broke free and sprinted off, the Queen was left in the dust. Mr Ponsonby wrote: “I had contemplated all sorts of things going wrong, but such a mishap had never occurred to me.”

While the calamity had the potential to cause chaos, a solution was soon found and a royal tradition was born. Prince Louis of Battenberg, the grandfather of Prince Philip, managed to save the day when he proposed 138 naval guards pull the carriage to the chapel with ropes.

Members of the Royal Artillery, who were in charge of the offending horses, “were furious…humiliated beyond words”, according to Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Alice.

As a result of the mishap, the procession to the chapel was slowed and those waiting for the funeral to begin were reportedly restless. One guest recalled, per Mr Richards: “You could hear a band in the distance, but nothing was happening. Then Queen Alexandra came tearing out, looking this way and that way, before Clarendon persuaded her to go back into the chapel.”

When the funeral party finally arrived, the service commenced, with relatively few blunders causing further bother. The Duke of Argyll recalled: “Glorious music, beloved by the Queen, rose from organ and choristers. The white coffin, with its gleaming crown and orbs, was lifted onto the bier above the throng standing around it.

“The words of hope and peace and faith of the burial service were said; the herald proclaimed the departure of one mighty sovereign and the accession of King Edward VII, and then gradually the mourners left, and the banners in the gorgeous array above the dark carved pinnacles of the chancel walls drooped alone over the guardsmen, who, in their bearskins and with arms reversed, remained to watch over the dead.”

However, for Mr Ponsonby, the stress was not over. Embarrassed by the incident during the procession, Edward VII warned the courtier that if a similar mishap were to happen during his mother’s burial, he would never speak to him again.

In an apparent attempt to avoid further humiliation, a rehearsal was held at 11pm on February 3 — the day before the burial. Horses and soldiers practised for the upcoming event by bearing a weighted stunt coffin to the Royal Mausoleum, Frogmore in Windsor, where Prince Albert — the Queen’s loyal consort — had been buried 40 years earlier.

Victoria was laid to rest next to her beloved Albert the next day. In a final fiasco, a soldier with a suspected mental illness snuck onto the grounds of the Frogmore estate, made his way into the service and eventually had to be escorted away by Mr Ponsonby.

But as Ms Baird noted, following the simple service, the poignancy of the scene was evident. She wrote: “As her family closed the doors to the marbled grave, the sleet falling outside turned to snow, which brought stillness, silence, and the white funeral Victoria had always dreamed of.

“Her coffin was draped with white, the horses drawing her coffin were white, and the marble of her grave was white.”

Victoria: The Queen was written by Julia Baird and published by Blackfriars in November 2016, and is available here.

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