Queen Victoria’s secret passion

Well, they certainly haven't got to this bit in Victoria. Julia Baird, authour of Victoria: The Queen, the Woman who Made the Modern World explains.

A small, crucial detail in Queen Victoria’s instructions for her own burial has been kept hidden for more than a century. It was a secret that, until recently, only her personal doctors and dressers knew.

And it is this: deep in the recesses of a vast granite tomb, curled in the palms of the tiny queen who ruled an empire for more than 60 years, lie two locks of hair of the two men she loved; Albert, and another.

Frogmore, the cross-shaped mausoleum that contains the grave of Queen Victoria and husband Albert has been closed to the public for a decade now, after having been declared structurally unsound, but it contains the key to one of the longest concealed and hotly contested controversies surrounding the British monarchy: did or could a Queen truly love a servant?

Before she was buried, almost 116 years ago, Queen Victoria asked that her dressers place photographs of her husband Albert, and clippings of his hair, in one of her hands, alongside other mementoes from their large family and nine children, jammed into her coffin.

She then asked for a lock of hair of her Scottish servant, or Highlander ghillie, John Brown, to be placed in her other hand. She also instructed her doctor to place Brown’s mother’s wedding ring on the same hand, along with photographs of him, before wrapping the entire hand in gauze and placing flowers on it, concealing them from the critical gaze of her family.

The Queen lies in state.

Victoria’s children loathed the man they called “the Queen’s stallion”, and considered him a rude, domineering, bullying drunk who was far too familiar with their mother. But Victoria adored the six foot four Scotsman who carried her across streams, steadied her pony on rocky paths, saved her from assassins (she believed), took her for long rides on the Highlands, where they picnicked and drank a little whisky, and made her laugh.

He was the only person, her secretary remarked, who could make her do something she did not want to do.

And what she wanted to do most of all after Albert’s death was spend time with Brown, even though any kind of intimacy with a servant was thought to be scandalous.

Brown had first worked as an aide to Prince Albert in Scotland, but when he died unexpectedly in 1861 at the age of 42, the Scot was soon summoned to Windsor to work for the Queen.

Victoria had always liked Brown, describing him in 1850 as “very good looking” with “fair curly hair” and “very good humoured”. Brown even teased a good-humoured Queen about her weight.

Queen Victoria’s coffin is carried into St George’s Chapel in Windsor, on February 2, 1901.

She told her eldest daughter, Vicky, in 1859, about an occasion when John Brown picked up one of her companions, Jane Churchill, and told her, “Your Ladyship is not so heavy as Her Majesty!” Victoria wrote.

“[This] made us laugh very much. I said, ‘Am I grown heavier do you think?’ ‘Well, I think you are,’ was the plain spoken reply. So I mean to be weighed, as I always thought I was light.”

What others saw as impertinence, Victoria welcomed as a refreshing lack of reserve. She promoted, decorated and rewarded him, and soon the sight of the tall, bearded man atop the carriage of the Queen was common.

Aristocrats and politicians were outraged. Lord Derby wrote disapprovingly of the Queen allowing suspicion to be cast on her with “long solitary rides, in secluded parts of the park; constant attendance upon her in her room; private messages sent by him to persons of rank; avoidance of observation while he is leading her pony or driving her little carriage; everything shows that she has selected this man for a kind of friendship which is absurd and unbecoming her position. The Princesses – perhaps unwisely – make a joke of the matter and talk of him as ‘Mamma’s lover’.

She is believed to be aware of the way she’s talked about (though this cannot be certainly known), but a wilfulness which is growing upon her prevents the knowledge having any effect.”

The rumours about John Brown and the Queen shocked and outraged artistocrats and politicians alike.

In Victoria’s eyes, Albert had been perfect and god-like, a brilliant man who schooled her and eventually took over much of her work. Brown was, by contrast, her help meet, her devoted companion, and, as she often insisted, her best friend.

By the late 1860s, the ribald jokes about “Mrs Brown” were common, shocking American visitors. It was thought he was her medium and it was whispered they had a child; the gossip even reached Europe. (One priest even confessed on his deathbed that he had married the Queen and John Brown, to his regret, but this tale was recorded by someone who was not there to hear it first-hand.)

For all the speculation, though, as her great biographer Lady Elizabeth Longford pointed out, for all of the accounts of her royal household, from ladies-in-waiting to Prime Ministers and secretaries, no one had ever burst in upon them in any compromising, affectionate or intimate display.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert depicted in the Highlands with John Brown in 1860.

And yet in writing my own biography of this sturdy, stubborn Queen, I discovered someone who did. In my bid to track down Queen Victoria’s burial instructions, I found myself in the fantastically preserved archives of her doctor, Sir James Reid, in a village in the Scottish Lowlands.

Reading through the tiny scrawl in his personal diary, I found a reference to this story. One day in March 1883, Sir James opened the door to Victoria’s room and saw something that surprised him so much he later recorded it carefully, in abbreviated script. Victoria had hurt her knee and was hobbling about. Then, Brown says to her, lifting his kilt: “Oh I thought it was here?”

She responds, laughing, and lifting up her own skirt: “No, it is here.” Of course, we do not know exactly what “it” might be. What is clear is that there was an intimacy to the relationship that far exceeded the usual boundaries between a lady and her servant, let alone a Queen. We will never know what form “it” took.

In the film Mrs Brown Judi Dench played Queen Victoria to Billy Connolly’s Brown.

When Brown died, Victoria was crushed, comparing his loss to that of Albert’s.

She wrote to the poet Tennyson: “He had no thought but for me, my welfare, my comfort, my safety, my happiness. Courageous, unselfish, totally disinterested, discreet to the highest degree, speaking the truth fearlessly and telling me what he thought and considered to be ‘just and right’, without flattery and without saying what would be pleasing if he did not think it right – and ever at hand – he was part of my life and quite invaluable! … The comfort of my daily life is gone – the void is terrible – the loss is irreparable! The most affectionate children, no lady or gentleman can do what he did.”

For a woman whose name will forever be twinned with respectability, tradition and conventionality, it was a highly unconventional love.

Her family went to great lengths to destroy any correspondence between or about them and [her son] Edward VII paid a handsome sum to a blackmailer who had a cache of letters that Sir James thought was “very compromising”.

Queen Victoria spent 18 years in Brown’s company, almost as long as she was married to Albert, relishing a closeness she refused to deny, disown or forget. And even today, in the small palms of a fabled queen, lie the secrets to a great love.

Julia Baird’s Victoria: The Queen, the Woman who Made the Modern World, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores and online.

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