The Last Days of Glory: The Death of Queen Victoria

The Last Days of Glory: The Death of Queen Victoria

by Tony Rennell

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Queen Victoria's death in January 1901 shook Britain to its core, and reverberated not just throughout the Commonwealth, but around the world. She was a woman in her eighties, and yet it seems no one could contemplate the end of a reign that had lasted so long. Most could not remember a time when she was not Queen, and the very stability of everyday life seemed to depend on her regency. The anxiety of the government and the royal family about the prospect of the Queen's death was such that the news of her illness was deliberately concealed from the public for more than a week. When it came, people from England to Jamaica wept in the streets, and this grief was surpassed only by fear for the future. "God help us" was the standard reaction from all strata of society.

The Last Days of Glory is the definitive account of those last 23 days in January 1901, when Victoria traveled to Osborne House to die. The momentous reaction to the Queen's passing attached to it more significance and a greater sense of change than the turn of the century had carried just a year earlier. Through the prism of those last days Tony Rennell presents us with a series of resonant and absorbing snapshots of a fading Empire at the end of the Victorian Age, and captures a nation coping with change, balancing comfortable nostalgia with the arrival of a new order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466874817
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 384 KB

About the Author

Tony Rennell was an Associate Editor of the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times before becoming a freelance writer. He lives in London.

Tony Rennell is the co-author of The Last Escape and many other books. He is a regular contributor to British newspapers and the former associate editor of The Sunday Times (London).

Read an Excerpt

Last Days of Glory

The Death of Queen Victoria

By Tony Rennell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Tony Rennell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7481-7


The Eyes Grow Dim

I cannot help feeling uneasy ...

Marie Mallet, lady-in-waiting, on the Queen's failing health

Captain Frederick Ponsonby took off his frock coat and threw it over the back of a chair, ready to be put on in an instant should he be called back into the Queen's presence. He sat at his desk and considered the problem. His handwriting for the eighty-year-old Victoria would just have to become clearer, bigger and, above all, blacker. For much of his working day in the royal palace, be it Windsor Castle on the banks of the Thames, Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands or Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, he wrote letters for his sovereign. But ordinary ink was no longer good enough for the job, and he had already had to buy in some special concoction from the stationer's – thick and syrupy and resembling blacking for boots.

But even this she could no longer see properly, and, as she squinted at the fuzzy words on the pages, the irritated demand came for him to 'write larger and blacker'. Her eyes were growing dimmer. It was a sign of old age, and a hint, though no one chose to admit it, that a long and magnificent life could not go on for ever.

She knew it, though, even if those she ruled over did not. At Osborne on 1 January 1900 she sat in the oval-shaped room at the heart of the house, unable now to take in the sweeping view across the fields and trees and down the hill to the grey waters of the Solent, but focusing as best she could on the gold-framed portraits of her children and grandchildren on her desk. On a tall pedestal by the fireplace stood a white marble bust of her long-dead husband, Prince Albert, a wreath of fresh flowers round his neck. In her journal she scrawled her gloomy thoughts: 'I begin today a new year and a new century, full of anxiety, and fear of what may be before us! May all near and dear ones be protected. I pray that God may spare me yet a short while to my children, friends and dear country, leaving me all my faculties and to a certain extent my eyesight!'

But her faculties were failing faster than she hoped, and it was Ponsonby, her assistant private secretary, who had to deal at first hand with the practicalities of her diminishing physical powers. Victoria was a prolific letter-writer – she wrote constantly and at great length, to her children, to her prime ministers and archbishops, to the members of her Household. With family she mingled gossip with imperious advice; to politicians she expressed her views, whether they liked them or not. With the staff she involved herself in the minutiae of their lives and hers.

And such minutiae for a queen and empress – as when Duncan Brown (brother of John Brown, her Highland servant who died in 1883) was being troublesome and she wrote a memorandum with elaborate instructions on how he was to be dealt with: given a post as gatekeeper at Windsor, 'where the duties are very light', but warned that he was in danger of dismissal, 'which, for the sake of his brother, I should regret, but he must promise in writing to do what are his duties; if he refuses to do so he must be pensioned'.

She wrote at her brass-edged desk in her sitting room, squeezing space among the clutter of photographs and trinkets, her dead husband Prince Albert's writing table next to hers, his empty chair a constant reminder of the empty space in her life since his sudden death in 1861; she wrote at a field table under a canopy in the garden, her Indian servant standing guard; she wrote after dinner, often for two hours or more before going to bed. Always she sat bolt upright, telling her newly married eldest daughter, 'Don't stoop ... Remember how straight I always sit, which enables me to write without fatigue at all times.' Ream after ream of notes poured from her, memoranda, letters – all marked V.R.I. and edged in black for her years of widowhood – plus her journal, scribbled out daily in a hand that was increasingly spidery and faint and difficult to decipher. And poor Fritz, as Ponsonby was known to everyone, including the Queen, had to cope with much of the torrent.

He was, however, no mere clerk. Eton-educated, an officer in the Grenadier Guards, he was a courtier from the patrician class that still held sway in the Britain of the turn of the century. His father, Sir Henry Ponsonby, had been the Queen's private secretary for twenty-five years and much admired for the subtle way he handled his difficult and demanding employer, acting as an intermediary with her ministers in political matters, organizing her life and her Household, while never letting the inevitable irritations of his job show through, remaining unfailingly courteous to everyone, high and low. Thinking to please Sir Henry, the Queen had personally summoned his son from Bombay, where the young subaltern was aide-de-camp to the Viceroy, Lord Elgin. Fritz, as he noted whimsically in his memoirs, had hoped for active service on the North-West Frontier, fighting at the very edge of the Queen's empire. Instead he was drawn back reluctantly to its very centre, first as an equerry, then, not long after Sir Henry's death in 1895, as assistant to her new private secretary, Sir Arthur Bigge.

It was a position of trust. One task was to copy her letters, even those to her family. He found it odd seeing personal notes with remarks such as 'William is quite wrong', referring to the German Kaiser, Victoria's eldest grandson, or 'Bertie and Alix must not do this', an instruction about the Prince and Princess of Wales, all in his handwriting. But his greatest difficulty was with the telegrams in code that came flooding in from Downing Street, from family and friends, and from British envoys all over the world, encrypted so that telegraph clerks at either end of the cable could not pry into royal business.

Deciphering them was easy enough, but then they had to be copied out for Her Majesty to read, and some of them were immensely long. Ponsonby's problem was that the ink he was now having to use was so thick that it defeated all attempts to blot it. Bigge came to the rescue, inventing a special drying device – each page was placed on a small copper tray heated from beneath by a spirit lamp – but, as the royal eyes grew weaker and the ink got blacker, even this failed to do the trick. Worse still, the ink was now seeping through to the other side of each sheet. Fritz's solution was to write on one side of the paper only. This worked for a while, until the pernickety Queen complained that some of the messages she was receiving were on so many pieces of paper that she was put off reading them. It was 'very inconvenient', she said, and Captain Ponsonby would please return to writing on both sides.

Fritz tried a new tack: thicker paper, which he went to the trouble of having made specially by the Stationery Office and stamped and headed to look exactly like the normal writing paper. The subterfuge worked for a while – until she noticed and complained again. The Queen kept all her decoded telegrams in a case, which was rapidly filling up because of the bulkier paper. A message arrived with Her Majesty's insistence on a return to the ordinary paper.

Ponsonby grasped then that

it was hopeless and I consulted Sir James Reid [the Queen's doctor] as to whether it would not be possible to explain all the difficulties to her. But he said he feared her sight was going and that any explanation would therefore be useless. So I went back to the ordinary paper and ordinary ink, and of course received a message to say would I write blacker, but as it was hopeless I didn't attempt to alter anything.

None of this came as a surprise to Sir James. He had been the resident doctor at Victoria's court since 1881, first as a subordinate to the eminent Sir William Jenner, her physician-in-ordinary, who made a weekly call on his patient, leaving the younger man to minister to the Queen on other days, if necessary. To begin with she preferred to wait for Jenner's visit, but gradually her confidence grew and, when Jenner retired on health grounds in 1889, Reid stepped up to be her principal medical adviser.

He was her doctor and, increasingly, her friend and confidant. It had not always been such a close relationship. Reid, a Scot from near Aberdeen, was the son of a country doctor and part-time farmer. When he came to court he found himself in a social no man's land, lodged uneasily between the servants below stairs and the aristocratic elite – eight ladies of the bedchamber, eight women of the bedchamber, eight maids of honour, eight lords-in-waiting, eight grooms -in-waiting and eight equerries – who made up Her Majesty's Household. His memorandum of appointment made clear his position – or, rather, made clear its ambiguity. He would not, it was spelt out for him, be an official member of the Household, though he would have breakfast and lunch with its members. But emphatically not dinner. Unless, that is, the Queen herself specifically invited him to do so. Which, the note pointed out without explanation, would always be the case when they were at Balmoral.

Reid's good humour, tact and natural charm eased him through this social obstacle course. He was no country cousin but a hugely intelligent man who had started at Aberdeen University at the age of sixteen and spent three years reading arts subjects before he was old enough to begin medicine. He had also travelled in Europe, completing his medical studies in Vienna and educating himself in other ways with a job tutoring an eight-year-old Austrian aristocrat, the Count de Lodron. In the summer of 1875 he supervised his young charge on a trip round the Tyrol visiting relations in their castles. Though he did not know it, this was a foretaste, an appetizer for his future life.

How intimate a friend and adviser Reid was to be is worth considering. He kept copious notes of his years with the Queen, leaving vast scrapbooks, two hundred letters and notes he had received from her, and forty pocket diaries which he had filled to overflowing with his observations in neat, tiny writing. In these accounts, Sir James was a pivotal figure in royal events, almost a successor to the dead John Brown in winning her trust if not her affection, another Scot who spoke his mind and refused to be browbeaten by Her Majesty. He became embroiled in matters far beyond (or possibly beneath) medicine. He was called on to settle squabbles between members of the Household. He was the recipient of confidences in letters from the Queen, as when she expressed to him her peevishness about Sir Henry Ponsonby who 'has no backbone, is always placid, ... [who] agrees with me and then is talked over by others and agrees with them'. (This was a harsh judgement on a man who was only doing his job and trying to smooth out another difficulty between the constitutional sovereign and Mr Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister she utterly detested.)

On Sir Henry's death, Reid was the sounding board for everyone on who should succeed, consulted by the Queen, her daughters Princess Helena and Princess Louise, and particularly those who thought to gain by having his ear. One conspirator sent a suggestion of how the positions in the private office should be carved up, putting himself down for a promotion and a handsome £1,000 a year salary, and ending his note with the ridiculously melodramatic suggestion that Reid should 'burn it at once if you think best'. Reid's biographer, his granddaughter-in-law, Michaela Reid, wrote that 'Reid had become indispensable now, not only to the Queen but to her Household too, as being the only male member who had a ready approach to her. His importance as a liaison between the Queen and the outside world was inestimable.'

But was the small, dapper doctor – so theatrical in appearance with his balding head, bushy handlebar moustache and pince-nez glasses – really such a leading light in the drama of palace politics? We have his word for it, and from the letters of Princess Louise confirmation that she at least sought and valued his opinion. Perhaps he played up his own importance a little. But there can be no doubt that, as the Queen's doctor, he saw more and more of the monarch as her strength sapped and her health declined. And in the undoubted drama of her final days, if not before, he had a crucial role.

By then, having tended her for close on twenty years, he knew his patient's medical history well. He was less familiar with the actual body he was ministering to. Extraordinarily, he had never examined her unclothed, and never would while she was alive. But the nature of her ailments was such that he probably did not need to. For her age, she was remarkably healthy, given that she had been through childbirth nine times by the age of thirty-eight, was struck by a debilitating grief bordering on depression on being widowed at forty-two, and had thereafter eaten excessively. She was prone to indigestion and troubled by wind. She worked hard and worried a lot too – about her ever-expanding family and her ever-expanding empire. Today we would call it stress, but a hundred years ago it was dismissed as 'fits of nervousness'.

However it was described, it took its toll. Politics, which she could not and would not leave alone, shredded her nerves almost as much as those of the ministers who came into her presence nervously to flatter and cajole, or to say their piece and face her peremptory disapproval. Lesser events troubled her too, and gave her headaches – saying goodbye to a favourite aide at court, posted to the fighting in Egypt, brought on neuralgia; the death of a general she barely knew led to tears. And it took only a slight roughness in the throat for her to send urgently for her doctor to deal with another outbreak of regal hypochondria. She complained a lot, and demanded the one thing her position guaranteed – instant attention.

Once when Reid dared to take a holiday (he was allowed six weeks a year – 'at Her Majesty's convenience', of course) she interrupted it with a letter recalling him to Balmoral because 'I have this tiresome huskiness which every now and then causes me to cough, and then almost immediately after you left I got this pain between my shoulders again and again which generally leaves me after a day or two but which returns again and again and which I feel right through me.'

The doctor's guess was that his sovereign was gripped by another bout of flatulence, but nonetheless he rushed off to see her. When he arrived it was her heart that she was now worrying about. He examined her as best he could, given that he was not allowed to listen to it through his stethoscope – she hated the instrument, and its use alarmed her – found nothing wrong, and prescribed soda water and ginger to settle her stomach after meals. But that was not the last interruption to his holiday. He was pursued by more letters, complaining of eye strain and a twinge of 'pain in my hip, just the sciatic nerve' when she got out of bed in the morning.

Reading the correspondence between the Queen and her doctor in all its detail, it is a surprise to realize how much of the supposedly prudish Victoria's time was apparently spent pondering the state of her stomach and her bowels. 'The bowels are right, upon the whole, but there is an inclination to griping,' she wrote to him during one of his absences from court. If that is what she confided to him in writing when he was away, one can only imagine how long and involved must have been the discussions of the subject when he was there in person for his daily doctor's call on her. And she never seems to have taken the point of his advice. She talked of 'oppression after meals' and 'a rising' and 'acidity', but chose to carry on bloating herself with her favourite food.

Eating was a royal obsession, and often carried out on the grandest of scales. In 1891, when the Prince of Naples was a guest at Windsor, the banquet began with cock-a-leekie soup, followed by whitebait and fillets of sole. Then came three different roasts – venison, beef and quail – and two puddings, one of them a vanilla meringue. And, for anyone still peckish, there was a buffet of cold chicken, tongue and beef left at a side table to top up from.

This, of course, was a state occasion. Day-to-day royal meals were not so elaborate, but they were far from frugal. There would be thick brown Windsor soup laced with wine, then boiled chicken, mutton, and haggis too at Balmoral. They were invariably eaten fast – the Queen expected to get a family dinner over in thirty minutes. She bolted her food (and, as soon as she had put down her knife and fork, the footmen leaned over and instantly removed her plate – and, to the consternation of those who had not yet finished, everyone else's as well). Reid had to deal with the after-effects. He once stayed up all night nursing her through a bad attack of indigestion until she finally managed to fall asleep at 5.30 in the morning. And all because of a heavy pudding she had had at dinner. What could he do?

He put her on a diet of Benger's Food, a concoction of cereal and milk intended as a gentle stomach-filler and a substitute for the real thing. She took the Benger's but tucked into her normal meals as well. The doctor must have despaired, as did Marie Mallet, one of her ladies-in-waiting. 'If she would follow a diet and live on Benger's Food and chicken, all would be well,' she told her husband. 'But she clings to roast beef and ices! And what can you expect then?'


Excerpted from Last Days of Glory by Tony Rennell. Copyright © 2000 Tony Rennell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. The Eyes Grow Dim,
2. Trials and Anxieties,
3. Whispers and Denials,
4. The News Breaks,
5. Clinging On,
6. Sunset,
7. A World in Shock,
8. Secret Last Wishes,
9. In Memoriam,
10. Crossing the Bar,
11. The People's Farewell,
12. Reunited,

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