Today, I am very pleased to welcome historians Joanne Major and Sarah Murden with a wonderful guest post on Queen Victoria’s first visits to the London theatres upon her ascension to the throne in 1837!
Queen Victoria ascended the throne in June 1837 upon the death of her uncle, William IV. She was just eighteen years of age and her youth symbolised a new beginning. We wanted to share the details of the first visit to the two main London theatres by the young queen as a reigning monarch, not least because there are some wonderful images of Victoria on those two evenings.
Victoria had loved attending the theatre as a princess; her sketchbooks were full of drawings she had made of the actors, actresses and dancers of the day in a variety of roles in plays and ballets. It was no surprise then that she intended to continue her enjoyment of this entertainment once she was monarch.
The QUEEN has been pleased to express her commands that a private box should be reserved for her use for the ensuing season at Covent-garden theatre, and, in consequence, one is now being fitted up in the most tasteful manner for her MAJESTY’S occupation.
On Wednesday 15th November 1837, Queen Victoria made her first to the Drury Lane Theatre since she had ascended the throne and the surrounding roads were thronged with people hours before the doors opened, all hoping to either gain a seat inside or see the seven carriages containing their new young queen and her party pass by. Inside, the theatre was soon filled to the rafters.
The pit displayed a mass of human beings, influenced and kept up by strong excitement, but gay and delighted notwithstanding the severe pressure occasioned by numbers.
The royal box was to the left of the stage, draped in crimson with the royal arms and the initials V.R. embroidered in gold upon them. A figure of Victory could be seen on the canopy. Victoria, wearing a white dress with a scarf of black net over her shoulders and an elegant tiara which sparkled with diamonds, received a rapturous applause and shouts of “huzzah” on her entrance.
After a rousing rendition of ‘God save the Queen’ the company settled down to watch the performances, The Siege of Rochelle and, as Victoria thought, the ‘somewhat vulgar’ farce of Simpson & Co. Although Victoria enjoyed the former, she thought the latter ill-acted on the whole and generally she appeared uncomposed and nervous. It was thought that her nerves may have sprung from the fact she was isolated at the front of her box with her attendants placed standing behind her, and her maids of honour in the next box. Victoria left the theatre a little early but to applause and a rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’.
Two days later, on Friday 17th November, Victoria attended a performance of Lord Byron’s tragedy of Werner (Victoria thought it a dreadful tragedy!) and the first act of the opera Fra Diavolo at the rival Covent Garden Theatre. Again, the streets leading to the theatre and the theatre itself were crowded when the queen and her attendants arrived in the royal box at 7pm. Victoria wore a light coloured dress, again with a black lace scarf over her shoulders and her diamond tiara; her hair was simply parted over her forehead.
The royal box in the Covent Garden theatre was the first box on the dress circle off the stage, and had pale pink and crimson draperies and a richly furnished ante-room. With the queen in her box were her mother, the Duchess of Kent, the Marquess of Conyngham, the Duke of Argyle, the Earl of Abemarle and Lord Hill, and two of her ladies, the Duchess of Sutherland and the Marchioness of Tavistock; as Victoria was able to sit next to her mother she was less nervous. The queen’s maids of honour sat in the next box which had been decorated with light blue silk draperies.
The scene at this moment was animated beyond description. The waving of hats in the pit, the flourishing of handkerchiefs in the boxes, and the sturdy shouts from the galleries, indicated a joyfulness of feeling not very far removed from delirium. Her Majesty curtseyed lowly and repeatedly, as the rolling cheer gathered and multiplied around her. This tumult of acclamation lasted for a considerable time.
Victoria, perhaps having learnt what to expect from her trip to the Drury Lane theatre two days earlier, was noticeably more composed and looked ‘most happy… and went through the ceremony without those symptoms of weakness which she exhibited [at Drury Lane]’. However, the performance itself was something of a shambles, to the despair of the theatre managers, as the pit was overcrowded and cries of “Manager, manager! Too full! Off, off!” could be heard ringing out. In the end the stage-manager offered to refund the ticket money to anyone who chose to leave the house; he was met with cheers and the play was allowed to proceed. Victoria recorded the event in her journal.
I met with the same brilliant reception, the house being so full that there was a great piece of work for want of room, and many people had to be pulled out of the Pit by their wrists and arms into the Dress Circle. I never saw such an exhibition; it was the oddest thing I ever saw.
At the end Victoria, as she left, was once more assailed with applause and the house singing ‘Rule Britannia’. A troop of the Blues escorted the party to and from the theatre.
While the streets of London rang to adulation for the new queen, in Oxford a young couple were also exploring new beginnings and romantic possibilities, and challenging the social norms of the day. The aristocratic and well-connected Charles (Charley) Cavendish Bentinck had gone up to Oxford University in the dying days of William IV’s reign; Charley was the grandson of Marquess Wellesley, grandson and nephew to two successive Dukes of Portland and great-nephew to the famed Duke of Wellington. He intended to take Holy Orders once he had obtained his degree and a lucrative living held by his family was earmarked for him. In time, it was assumed, he would make an eligible (and wealthy) young lady his bride. Instead, Charley fell head-over-heels in love with a captivatingly beautiful girl from the Oxfordshire countryside, one from a working-class family who had, moreover, a gypsy heritage. He married her, a union which had to be kept secret from his family but one which, when it was discovered, led to devastating consequences.
Charley’s family had long been close to the royal family; his father (who had caused a scandal with his own marriage) had been a friend to George IV (and Treasurer of the Royal Household) and his half-sister had moved in royal circles, dining with William IV and his queen, Adelaide. He would have taken a great interest in the new Queen Victoria who was only two years younger than he was, but little did Charley know that, in time, his descendants would become inextricably woven with those of his new queen and that his great-granddaughter would herself sit upon the throne.
Our book, A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, recounts the marriages of both Charley and his parents as well as looking at the descendants of these two unions. We also co-author the blog All Things Georgian.
Almost two books in one, A Right Royal Scandal recounts the fascinating history of the irregular love matches contracted by two successive generations of the Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of the British Royal Family. The first part of this intriguing book looks at the scandal that erupted in Regency London, just months after the Battle of Waterloo, when the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece. A messy divorce and a swift marriage followed, complicated by an unseemly tug-of-war over Lord Charles’ infant daughter from his first union. Over two decades later and while at Oxford University, Lord Charles’ eldest son, known to his family as Charley, fell in love with a beautiful gypsy girl, and secretly married her. He kept this union hidden from his family, in particular his uncle, William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, upon whose patronage he relied. When his alliance was discovered, Charley was cast adrift by his family, with devastating consequences.
A love story as well as a brilliantly researched historical biography, this is a continuation of Joanne and Sarah’s first biography, An Infamous Mistress, about the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose daughter was the first wife of Lord Charles Bentinck. The book ends by showing how, if not for a young gypsy and her tragic life, the British monarchy would look very different today.
Morning Chronicle, 28th September 1837
Morning Advertiser, 16th November 1837
London Evening Standard, 18th November 1837
Queen Victoria’s Journals (www.queenvictoriasjournals.org)