The idea that Queen Victoria was absolutely inconsolable and locked away in seclusion for the rest of her life after Prince Albert’s death is a myth. It is true the Queen took residence immediately after Albert’s death in her more rural homes of Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne, and refused to appear in public for some years. Concern for her health rose, and in 1864, 3 years after the death of Prince Albert, that it was suggested that the Queens outside attendant at Balmoral, John Brown, be sent to Osborne House encourage the Queen to ride out on her pony. He arrived in December that same year, and some time after his arrival Victoria made his position permanent, presenting him the title of ‘ The Queen’s Highland Servant’.
John Brown was born in 1826, in Crathienaird, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, his father being a tenant farmer. He first came into the queens service in 1848 as a Balmoral gillie to Prince Albert, and within the next 10 years he had become her regular outside attendant, leading her pony out on the highlands and helping the royal party with their needs out on the moors, from lacing Victoria’s tea with whisky to cooking potatoes.
Although Victoria held much affection for her brash highlander, others found him rude and much jealousy surrounded him due to his relationship with the Queen; the Lord Chamberlin called him a ‘Course animal’.
John would address Victoria as ‘wumman’, whilst Victoria looked past her Highlander’s faults, saying that his independence on whisky made him ‘bashful’. Her relative seclusion and easy relationship with John led to much rumour in the 1870s to their relationship, from a secret marriage to a secret child. The name Mrs Brown was on everyone’s lips. However, the Foreign Secretary himself, the Earl of Derby did record that Victoria and John slept in adjoining rooms, ‘contrary to etiquette and even decency’. Biographer A N Wilson claims they slept together in the same bed but never consummated their relationship. Controversially, Victoria also used John for séances where they, with close courtiers, would attempt to contact the spirit of Prince Albert. These séances would go on in absolute secrecy in small closets, such as the Blue Drawing Room at Windsor Castle (where Prince Albert died) and the Horn Room at Osborne House.
Despite the rumours they faced, Victoria remained unmoving on any removal of John Brown from her side, whilst he continued his loyal and faithful service. On at least one occasion he disarmed an attacker to the Queen (in 1872) and Victoria relied on him more and more, writing –
‘I feel I have here always in the House a good, devoted soul… whose only object and interest is in my service, & God knows how much I want to be taken care of.’
For all their closeness and love, be romantic or otherwise, for one another, a life-long relationship was again not to be for Victoria. In March 1883 he caught a chill but refused to go to bed, continuing his devoted service to Victoria. Thus, on the 27th that same month, John Brown died, age 56, at Windsor Castle. Once again, Victoria found herself devastated at the death of the man she loved. She wrote –
‘It is not only the loss of a servant but of a real friend.’
Whilst her private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby wrote of Brown –
‘He was the only person who could fight and make the Queen do what she did not wish. He did not always succeed, nor was his advice always the best. But I believe he was honest, and with all his want of education, his roughness, his prejudices and his other faults, he was undoubtedly a most excellent servant to her.’
After John’s death, Victoria commissioned a life-sized statue of her Highland servant, and had it placed in the grounds of Balmoral. She remembered her faithful John until her death in 1901, leaving strict instructions that shy must be buried, among much else, with a lock of his hair, a photograph of him, and wearing a ring given to her by John, that had belonged to his mother.
Although this request had been carried out, upon her death her son the new King Edward VII destroyed much material written by Victoria about Brown, busts and photographs of him, in addition moving Victoria’s statue of John to a less conspicuous site in Balmorals grounds where it remains today. Not only did Edward destroy as much evidence of Brown’s relationship with his mother as possible, Victoria had left her many diaries to her youngest daughter Beatrice to transcribe and edit for publication. This, of course, means much on John Brown, especially if explicit or inappropriate, would have been edited and the originals all burnt.
It seems we will never know the extent of Victoria and John Brown’s relationship, but from what we can piece together Victoria took much comfort, reliance and friendship from John, whilst he was a most loyal and honest servant to her.
With the development of film production in the last few decades, the film industry has increasingly had the ability and skill to capture and retell stories, to be of easy access to anyone. From comedic to factual, here are my top 5 portrayals of Queen Victoria from film and television.
The only time the popular Blackadder series of the 80s visited the Victorian period was in the 1988 Christmas special Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. Here Victoria is portrayed hilariously as big, bubbly and buxom by Miriam Margolyes (known for her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films) who, accompanied by an enthusiastic and stereotypically-German Prince Albert (played by Jim Broadbent) head out onto the streets of London on their ‘Annual Christmas Adventure’.
On their adventure they go incognito to reward ‘the virtuous and the good’, which includes Ebenezer Blackadder who, until that day, had been the ‘kindest and loveliest man in England’. Not recognising them, he insults the disguised couple, and when he notices the resemblance to the Royal family, he berates them too. Only after they leave does Blackadder ironically learn of their true identities and how he missed out on his reward. As usual with satirised versions of history, it isn’t a very historically accurate portrayal. However, as a comedy piece with a historical basis, it is hilariously funny. This piece can be found on Netflix and usually on YouTube.
Her Majesty, Mrs Brown, 1997 – Judi Dench
It Is Not For Any Of The Queen’s Subjects To Presume To Tell Her Majesty When And Where She Should Come Out Of Mourning!
The fairly forgotten film Mrs Brown of 1997 retells the story of Queen Victoria and her relationship with John Brown, her Highland Servant. The film begins in 1863, two years since the death of Prince Albert, and Victoria (played by the legendary Dame Judi Dench) remains in seclusion at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. It is here that John Brown (played by the equal legend that is Billy Connolly), one of the Queens outdoor servants, arrives from Balmoral Castle with the Queens pony after being sent for in the hope the Queen might ride out in the grounds. Although bumpy at first, Victoria and John soon become firm friends, and Brown is given the official title of ‘The Queen’s Highland Servant’.
Throughout the course of the film the ongoing issue of the ‘inappropriacy‘ of Victoria’s relationship with John Brown becomes more urgent, in addition to her increasing pressure to return to public life and mental conflict of her loyalty to the dead Prince Albert. However, she finds peace with herself and continues her employment and friendship with John Brown. The film ends in around 1883 with John’s death of pneumonia, depicted as being caught after chasing an intruder to the royal household.
I find Mrs Brown as a whole a incredibly accurate portrayal, from capturing Victoria’s character to getting the facts right (something many portrayals lose due to creative licence), even the use of Osborne House in filming. However, it is still a film, not a back-to-books docudrama. I would definitely recommend this film to anyone interested in Queen Victoria but it is a little obscure to find, so have a look about eBay and Amazon. If you want to know more about John Brown and his relationship with Queen Victoria, I have a post on my blog titled After Albert – Victoria’s Second Love, John Brown, which you can check out if you want. In addition, later this year (what I consider to be a sequel although it isn’t) comes Victoria And Abdul, based around the later relationship of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim attendant to Victoria in her last years. Judi Dench reprises her role as the Queen, as well as the beautiful Osborne House, so keep an eye out.
Doctor Who, 2006 – Pauline Collins
I Am Quite Used To Staring Down The Barrel Of A Gun.
In science fiction, historical accuracytypicallyisn’t the primary focus, and with Doctor Who I don’t blame them. The gun-totting Queen (played by Pauline Collins) seen in the Season 2 episode Tooth And Claw is faced with ninja-like monks and an alien werewolf in the Scottish Highlands. She meets the 10th incarnation of the time-travelling Doctor and his companion Rose Tyler by chance whilst travelling to Balmoral in 1879. However, she plans to spend the night at the ‘Torchwood Estate’ nearby, supposedly favoured by the deceased Prince Albert, and is accompanied by Rose and the Doctor. Unbeknown to her, the house had been taken over by monks in disguise as servants who harbour a man in the basement who is a werewolf, in the hope of infecting the Queen and creating an ‘Empire of the Wolf’.
The trap is soon realised, and the Doctor tries to escape with his group, before discovering how to kill the wolf by combining the mysterious telescope in the house and the Queens Koh-I-Noor diamond (which actually existed) to create a concentrated light. As they recover from killing the wolf the Queen finds a cut from the chaos that she claims is a splinter, although the Doctor later reveals he thinks she was bitten by the wolf and that the Haemophilia she passed down through her family was in fact the infection of a werewolf. I find this portrayal a little Stereotyped and full of unnecessary historical exposition, but is generally quite interesting to watch and see her portrayed as a badass. This episode can be found on pretty much any video streaming site, such as Netflix and Amazon.
The Young Victoria, 2009 – Emily Blunt
I Wear The Crown! And If There Will Be Mistakes Then They Will Be My Mistakes!
The Young Victoria of 2009 was probably the beginning of the current spark of interest in the youth of Queen Victoria (you’ll notice toward the end of the list only are we seeing young portrayals). This film covers the life of Victoria from around the age of 16 to 22, arguably the most eventful and important years of her life. The film begins with a very brief retelling of Victoria’s life up until her coming to the throne, then throws you into the conflict of the royal family in around 1835. Victoria (portrayed beautifully by Emily Blunt) is shown at odds with her mother and Sir John Conroy whilst allied with her governess Letzen, Aunt Adelaide and Uncle William, as well as becoming acquainted with Lord Melbourne. Victoria also meets her cousins for the first time, Ernest and, more well known, Albert (played by the dashing Rupert Friend).
The film then follows Victoria’s rise to the throne and release as she finds freedom and independence from her mother and Conroy, and an opportunity to become better acquainted with Albert. However, her struggle soon begins, with real events such as the Bedchamber Scandal and rumours surrounding her relationship with Melbourne play out. From her recovery of these issues, the rest of the film follows Prince Albert’s relationship with Victoria; their marriage, Victoria’s subsequent pregnancy and Albert preventing Victoria’s assassination-whilst getting shot himself. The film ends with Albert recovering well and the baby being born, then a brief version of what happened in real life afterwards. Although some changes were made to timeline, such as Albert being present and the coronation and then getting wounded during the assassination attempt (when the Queen attended a private screening she wasn’t very pleased with these), I find this film a good portrayal of the real young Victoria and certainly captures Victoria’s struggles and relationships in her early days. This film will always hold a place in my heart (I know it practically word for word) because it was what sparked my interest in Queen Victoria. Its definitely worth a watch, and although it cannot be found on Netflix it is on Amazon.
Victoria, 2016 – Jenna Coleman
She Doesn’t Have A Name, She Is Doll 123.
Last year Victoria hit our screens with Doctor Who star Jenna Coleman in the staring role. As popular as it is, however, I found it difficult to watch. If your looking for historical accuracy, this probably isn’t the show for you. Victoria series one has so far covered Victoria’s life from the age of 18 to 22, and a second series is being filmed right now.
It begins right at the point of Victoria becoming Queen, dropping you into the midst of Victoria’s battle with her mother and John Conroy. It then follows her through the early days as Queen and visits the bedchamber scandal, leaning more toward the controversial death of Lady Flora Hastings. Victoria also meets and befriends Lord Melbourne. Their relationship is portrayed as being a romantically inclined one, some much to the point of Victoria proposing – although he declines. Victoria then is forced to negotiate around marriage suggestions, especially those surrounding her cousin Albert (played by Tom Hughes), who she detests – until she sees him, for the first time in years. From here their relationship develops to the point of proposal and marriage, including a curious subplot where Victoria attempts to ward off pregnancy. She fails, however, and the series ends happily with the birth of a daughter. In addition to following Victoria’s life the show also follows members of the Queen’s household, similar to Downton Abbey, and includes people like Miss Skerrett and Charles Francatelli (who were real people, although many other characters below stairs were not).
Personally, its not my cup of tea and I could pick it over all day, from costumes and characters to dates and sets. However to be fair, the show does follow a basic historical time timeline and I feel that Jenna Coleman does capture Victoria’s spirit and character. Victoria can be found on Amazon.
All viewing recommendations correct at time of writing.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married on the 10th of February 1840, their wedding was going to be nothing short of a great sceptical – and their cake was no different.
Their circular cake weighed 300 pounds and had a circumference of about 3 metres. At its highest point it was decorated with figures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dressed in ancient Greek costume, and was ornamented with orange blossom and sprigs of myrtle entwined together. The cake was served at a wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace. Despite its massive size, more than one cake was baked for the wedding as pieces were to be distributed to many, many people.
It is probably due to this that, incredibly, a piece of the cake and its packaging has survived to this day. The cake, exhibited some years ago at Windsor Castle, has recently fetched £1,500 pounds at auction. Its presentation box, inscribed with “The Queen’s Bridal Cake Buckingham Palace, Feby 10, 1840”, was also sold with the cake, along with Queen Victoria’s signature on its papers.
Surprisingly, many wedding cakes over the last few decades and centuries have survived, with cake from brides such as Princess Louise in 1871, Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and Princess Diana in 1981 all surviving to today.
Queen Victoria’s Privy Council dress and removable white cotton embroidered collar (see detail), worn on the day of her accession on the 20th June 1837. Originally black (because Victoria would have been in morning for her now dead uncle King William IV), over time the silk dress has now faded to this strange brown colour. The dress has been repeatedly recreated for film and television, in screen portrays such as The Young Victoria and Victoria (see below)