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January 2020 Item of the Month

Queen Victoria’s funeral: an eyewitness account

Queen Victoria’s life was one of the most documented of any monarch of this country. In the fashion of the Victorian age she defined she maintained an austere public persona. Yet anyone who has read one of her letters understands that Victoria’s emotions were expressed vehemently in her writing. Throughout her life the queen was an avid letter writer, and her last journal entry was written nine days before her death: the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle holds one hundred and forty-one of these journals, and which are available online. Words filled, shaped and documented Queen Victoria’s reign - so it is interesting to see details of her life preserved in the writing of the people she lived to serve.

An example of the impact that her death had on the nation is captured in the Headlam and Headlam-Morley Papers. The correspondence between Major-General Sir John Headlam and his wife Mary spans his service in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Mary’s vigorous correspondence with her husband spares no detail: her penchant for bicycling is chronicled alongside congratulations to her husband for receiving a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order). The queen’s death, therefore, is an event which Mary covers assiduously.

In a letter dated 22 January 1901, anticipating the queen’s imminent death (she died that very evening), Mary writes that in London “the whole air was full of suspense”. “One cannot imagine England without her. It seems as if it will be robbed of half its glory”. The monarch was such an integral part of the identity of Britain that her sudden illness marked “a personal grief for everyone as well as an untold misfortune for the country”.

Upon learning of Victoria’s death, the next day Mary wrote “one had so earnestly hoped that she would live to see peace restored to all her soldiers with her there to welcome them but she has absolutely given her life for her people. Think of the amount she has done this last year never saving herself”. Indeed, the queen’s reign was characterised by the consistent expansion of the empire and her death even took place in the midst of a second war in southern Africa. Her funeral was the largest military procession in the kingdom since that of the Duke of Wellington in 1852. The event took place on 2 February 1901 at St George’s Chapel in Windsor and is recorded by Mary in a letter written a few days later. She describes the 33,000 soldiers and dignitaries who entered the city: “It was a wonderful line of kings & crown princes that followed & their uniforms and those of their suites made a wonderful show against all the masses of black clothed people who lined the streets”.

Queen Victoria was an icon in life and death, and her state funeral was testament to the marketability of her image. Seats in windows and balconies overlooking the route were sold for 25 guineas each – the equivalent of £3,000 today. Mary testifies to purchasing them for the event – “the children, Alice and I had a window at Windsor almost opposite the castle gates and we could see the procession as it moved up from the station and came along the street below us”. There were, notably, “people of all classes” escorting the procession. Throughout her letter Mary returns to the feeling of personal loss that the queen’s death generated – a grief which rose above class division. Mary explains that “when one looked down on the crown and sceptre and the royal robes it seemed so hard to realise she had laid them aside for ever and that her great and glorious reign was over”. The most touching part of the letters, however, are the personal details recorded. Mary noticed that the queen’s son, “the Duke of Connaught looked very worn and sad”.

The Headlam letters do not just confirm the popularity of the queen and the “great catastrophe” her death signified to many, but also the importance of keeping archives. Monumental events are also preserved through personal written experiences. These fragments reveal details not always recorded by the history books.

This month’s feature was written by Esther Bancroft, formerly of St Leonard’s School, Durham, now Bristol University, also a volunteer at Palace Green Library.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.