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Queen Victoria writes letters at a table piled with despatch boxes Photo: Getty

Queen Victoria & Karim Abdul. To her great satisfaction, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876 and afterward imported an Indian flavor to her court, employing a number of Indians as her servants. Karim Abdul became a servant to the Queen’s household in 1887 and was promoted to be the Queen’s personal secretary handling matters relating to India in 1894. Victoria is shown here working on her boxes containing state papers while seated in her garden tent at Frogmore House, Windsor, with Karim Abdul attending her.

Queen Victoria

The Queen, who died in January 1901 aged 81, has always been portrayed as a sexually and emotionally repressed monarch, but Queen Victoria was actually extremely enthusiastic on both men and sex.

After marrying her cousin, Prince Albert, she recounted their passionate wedding night in a letter.

She said:

“It was a gratifying and bewildering experience. I never, never spent such an evening. His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness. He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again.”

Victoria was incredibly fond of making love to Albert.

She enjoyed the physical side of their relationship – but rarely the consequences. At one point, she had nine children under 15 and deeply resented the physical and emotional repercussions of child-bearing, because pregnancy and babies got in the way of sex.

One of the things that Albert did when he built Osborne House was to install a special bolt in their bedroom so that if they wanted to get it on, all they’d have to do is push a button by the bed and the door would be locked so no servants or children would interrupt them.

Victoria described sex as ‘heavenly love-making’. After the birth of their youngest child, Princess Beatrice, in 1857, Victoria’s doctor, Sir James Reid, gave her a stern warning against attempting any further pregnancies.

The Queen, then 38, was apparently devastated and was said to have responded: ‘Oh Sir James! Am I not to have any more fun in bed?’

Albert had a risque portrait commissioned of Victoria, which was not considered appropriate to show to the public.

To the outside world Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family seemed the embodiment of domestic bliss, but the reality was very different.

The marriage between the two first cousins – the young Queen and the clever, handsome German prince – was a love match. Over 17 years, nine children were born: four boys and five girls.

Paintings and photographs projected an image of a virtuous, devoted young couple surrounded by obedient, fair-haired children.

Though sexually infatuated, the young couple were locked into a power struggle. Albert took over more and more of Victoria’s work as queen as her pregnancies forced her to step aside. Victoria was conflicted: she admired her “angel” for his talents and ability but she deeply resented being robbed of her powers as queen.

There were terrible rows and Albert was terrified by Victoria’s temper tantrums. Always at the back of his mind was the fear she might have inherited the madness of George III. While she stormed around the palace, he was reduced to putting notes under her door.

Though she was a prolific mother, Victoria loathed being pregnant. Repeated pregnancies she considered “more like a rabbit or a guinea pig than anything else and not very nice”.

Breastfeeding she especially disliked, finding it a disgusting practice. And she was not a doting mother – she thought it her duty to be “severe”. She didn’t do affection.

Relations with her eldest son Bertie, later Edward VII, were especially fraught. From the start he was a disappointment for Victoria.

Like all the royal princes, he was educated at home with a tutor. Bertie did badly at lessons and his parents considered him a halfwit. Victoria remarked: “Handsome I cannot think him, with that painfully small and narrow head, those immense features and total want of chin.”

When Bertie was 19, he spent time training with the army in Ireland and a prostitute named Nellie Clifden was smuggled into his bed. When the story reached Albert, he was devastated and wrote Bertie a long, emotional letter lamenting his “fall”.

He visited his son at Cambridge and the two went for a long walk together in the rain. Albert returned to Windsor a sick man and three weeks later he was dead.

Albert probably died of typhoid. Another theory is that he suffered from Crohn’s disease, but for years afterwards Victoria blamed Bertie for his death. She could not bear to have him near her. “I never can or shall look at him without a shudder,” she wrote.

Victoria turned 18 on 24 May 1837. Less than a month later on 20 June 1837, her uncle William IV died at the age of 71, and she became Queen of the United Kingdom.

The British Empire was at the height of its power in Victoria’s early reign, and she ruled over 450 million people, one quarter of the world’s population.

The United Kingdom though was already an established constitutional monarchy, with the sovereign holding little political power and Victoria’s early years on the throne were spent developing her understanding of British politics. In the early part of her reign, she was influenced by two men.

At the time of her accession, the government was led by the Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne, who at once became a powerful influence on the politically inexperienced Queen.

Victoria’s reliance upon Lord Melbourne increased her support of the Whig party, and Melbourne ensured that the Queen was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting from notable Whig families, a situation that would lead to the so-called ‘bedchamber crisis’ after Melbourne, briefly, resigned in 1839.

While the Queen’s intimate friendship with Melbourne was the subject of much gossip, her reputation also suffered in 1839 when one of the court’s ladies in waiting, Lady Flora Hastings was falsely accused of becoming pregnant by Sir John Conroy, a man the Queen openly despised. When the matter became a public scandal, the Queen was accused of spreading the false rumours and her early popularity with the public was severely dented.

Victoria had met her future husband Albert at the age of 17 before ascending to the throne, when her uncle played matchmaker between the two cousins. According to Victoria’s diary, she enjoyed Albert’s company from the moment they met, but the future Queen decided that she was too young to marry.

In October 1839 Albert paid another visit, and just five days after he had arrived at Windsor, the Queen proposed.

They were married on 10 February 1840, in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace, London, with the besotted Queen writing in her diary of their wedding: ‘I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert … his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before!’

Victoria desired that Albert receive the title King Consort, but was met by opposition from British officials who refused to see a German prince assume any part of the sovereign power.

Prince Albert though was to become a hugely influential adviser to the Queen, with his interests lying in the arts, science, trade and industry. He established the Great Exhibition of 1851, the profits from which helped to establish the famed South Kensington museums in London.

Queen Victoria was the inventor of official royal biography. It was she who commissioned the monumental five-volume life of Prince Albert, a controversial and revealing work. She wrote most of the personal sections herself. She also published bestselling volumes, such as Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. She was a gifted and prolific writer, penning an estimated 2,500 words a day, every day of her adult life.

That huge output included the voluminous diary she began in 1832 aged 13. Ending 10 days before her death in January 1901 it covered more than 43,000 pages. In addition she wrote daily letters to her family, government ministers, foreign rulers, bishops, army commanders – one of whom she memorably described as “slightly off his head” – and her doctor.

She expressed herself forcefully. All nine of her children and several of her prime ministers were afraid of her and learned to dread her pungent letters with their strong opinions, blunt criticisms and under linings.

Her husband Prince Albert found her fiery temper so upsetting he preferred to settle marital arguments by letter even when they were in the same house. After Victoria’s death her youngest and favourite daughter Princess Beatrice set about editing her mother’s journal.

She spent three decades rewriting the 141 volumes, removing any parts she disapproved of and burning the originals.

She was determined to destroy anything that cast the Queen in a poor light. Beatrice removed references to Victoria and Albert’s sex life, Victoria’s trenchant views on politics and politicians and her religious prejudices (she once described bishops as “the bigots” and Catholic clergy as “atrocious”).

She also cut out accounts of Victoria’s closeness to her servants. Brought up as an only child with few friends Victoria was fascinated by the lives of her staff. It was an interest her children considered in appropriate. Most of all they feared her revelations about her unusual relationship with her bad mannered and hard-drinking Highland ghillie John Brown.

Victoria expressed herself frankly. On February 4, 1862, less than two months after her beloved Albert’s death, she wrote to the king of Prussia: “For me life came to an end on December 14.” The following year she told her diary: “Here I sit, lonely and desolate, who so needs love and tenderness.”

In May 1898 her least favourite prime minister William Gladstone died. She resisted making any public statement of condolence. “I did not like the man. How can I say I’m sorry when I’m not?” she wrote to her daughter Vicky.

Victoria’s dislikes extended to members of her family. When her son Leopold was five she wrote that he had “a most strange face”, “awful” posture and bad manners.

Later she added: “Leopold was not an ugly little baby, only as he grew older he grew plainer, that is so vexatious.” She pulled no punches in a letter written in March 1888.

She described the wife of the future Kaiser William II – Victoria’s granddaughter- in-law – as “odious”. She felt equally strongly about a range of issues from smoking, which she detested, to women’s rights and vivisection, both of which she opposed fiercely.

Her likes were as irrational as her dislikes. John Brown was rude, unsophisticated and a drunkard but when she hit rock bottom following Albert’s death he devoted himself to her wellbeing. Until his death in March 1883 he never took a single day’s holiday.

Victoria was grateful for Brown’s tireless attention. She also found him handsome and less sycophantic than her courtiers. After his death she wrote to Lord Cranbrook: “Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and loving a friendship between the sovereign and servant…

“The Queen feels that life… is become most trying and sad to bear deprived of all she so needs… the blow has fallen too heavily not to be very heavily felt.”

However, after Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria went into mourning until she employed Albert’s friend John Brown as her personal assistant. The pair’s close relationship caused the public to nickname Victoria ‘Mrs. John Brown’
Their relationship titillated a nation. For more than a century, biographers have tried to fathom the improbable friendship Queen Victoria had with her Scottish servant John Brown. It has been posited as one of the great unanswered questions of her reign. How intimate were they?
Evidence suggests that the world’s most powerful queen had a passionate relationship with Brown, a man far below her station, something not unusual today but unthinkable then. We have tended to think of Queen Victoria as strait-laced, so we may have misread the evidence. Still, whether it was ever in any way sexual, or just extremely close, is impossible to know. The evidence is intriguing, but not conclusive. More than six feet tall and seven years her junior, the handsome Brown devoted himself to his sovereign, carrying her over muddy highland paths, tackling potential assassins and pledging to be with her always. The royal household called him “the queen’s stallion.” Victoria, who was ruling the largest empire the world had ever known, awarded him, promoted him and protected him from the barbs of resentful children and snobbish courtiers. He was, she said, her dearest friend.

But was he more? Scandalmongers whispered about a secret marriage, or children, or just a rollicking affair. Queen Victoria, after all, was a lustful Hanoverian who yearned for her husband’s embrace after he died, at the age of 42, leaving her alone with an empire and nine children. She slept with a plaster cast of his hand by her side.

Historians have scrabbled through archives for the merest scraps of information about Brown, with little luck: Few mentions of him remained in Victoria’s diaries after her youngest daughter, Beatrice, edited them, and Brown’s own diaries were destroyed. So was the manuscript of the memoir Victoria wrote about him after he died; her private secretary, as well as the dean of Windsor, Randall Davidson, persuaded her to abandon the project.

Most evidence cited in support of an affair is several points removed from the original source: The claim by the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm that Brown was allowed “every conjugal privilege” was recorded by the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who was told by a friend. Another tale that emerged, of a priest’s confessing on his deathbed to marrying the pair, was recorded in 1885 in the diary of a Liberal politician, Lewis Harcourt, who was told by his father, William, then the home secretary, who claimed to have heard it from the priest’s sister. All delicious, all rumor, all too far removed.

Lady Elizabeth Longford, who in the early 1960s was the first biographer to write in detail from Victoria’s diaries and letters from the archives, has long insisted that Victoria would have had only a platonic relationship with Brown, especially given her view that widows should not remarry. She wrote in 1999 that if Brown had been Victoria’s lover, “one or other of her numerous courtiers, equerries, ladies-in-waiting, dressers, ‘rubbers’, readers or other attendants would at some point have accidentally seen something.”

But while Julia Baird was researching her own biography of Queen Victoria, she came across a startling discovery: Someone did see something:

In a little town near the southern border of the Scottish lowlands, the archives of Victoria’s trusted doctor, Sir James Reid, are kept by his descendants. They are remarkable because they are among the few original documents relating to Queen Victoria kept outside the carefully controlled Royal Archives.

The highly respected Sir James was Victoria’s doctor for 20 years; he was by her side when she died. He kept immaculate diaries in a neat hand, where he documented daily movements and medical appointments. On one day, though, he recorded a most curious sight, which has not been published before.

Opening the door to Victoria’s room on Thursday, March 22, 1883, he saw her flirting with John Brown as she “walked a little.”

Brown says to her, lifting his kilt, “Oh, I thought it was here?”

She responds, lifting up her dress, “No, it is here.”

It is unclear, from the note, exactly what “it” might be. Perhaps it was a private, silly game. Perhaps they were referring to the Queen’s sore knee. What is clear is that Sir James thought this exchange significant enough to record it in his little black journal — in an abbreviated shorthand — and that it revealed an extraordinary level of intimacy. We will never know the exact nature of it, but this morsel suggests there was a closeness that exceeded not just what was normal for a lady and her servant — let alone a queen — but also for male and female friends. Just to display a limb to a man was then outrageous. It was Sir James, too, who years later, after Victoria had died, was sent to buy about 300 letters being used to blackmail Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII. The letters were between Victoria and the manager of the Balmoral estate in Scotland, who was thought to have deeply disliked Brown. Sir James spent six months negotiating for the letters; we do not know how much money he spent, just that he was successful. They were burned, as were the notes of Sir James. All we have is his short summation of the letters: They were, he wrote, “most compromising.” This was an intimate, intense relationship, more tender than torrid. Who knows what form it took: if they ever held hands, if Brown’s arm crept around the little queen as they sat on tartan blankets on a windy hill, miles out of sight as they drank whisky — or “sperruts” — or if he ever kissed her cheek, or temple.

In many ways, it does not really matter. The greater scandal was that Victoria loved him. He was the “best, the truest heart that ever beat,” she told his sister-in-law after he died, writing, “You have your husband — your support, but I have no strong arm now.” She had grown dependent on him; he was her greatest confidant, and she had furiously stared down ministers who suggested she might attend events without him. He made her laugh, called her “wumman,” spoke his mind and made her feel safe. He had given her his mother’s wedding ring to wear.

Victoria was crushed when he died. It was the second greatest blow of her life, she told her secretary, after the loss of Albert.

For all his foibles Brown was honest and trustworthy.

Victoria also had an unusual relationship with Lord Melbourne, her prime minister in the 1830s and 1840s. They had an indefinable relationship: prime minister and Queen, but also father and daughter; some said they were lovers, too. He spent every night at the palace, and she became totally obsessed with him. The public drew cartoons calling her Mrs Melbourne.

Lord Melbourne was born in 1779 as William Lamb, Lord Melbourne entered parliament in 1806 as the Whig MP for Leominster. He became prime minister in 1834 and despite having a divided Cabinet, managed to hold together support of allied Whigs, Radicals and Irish MPs.

When an 18-year-old Victoria ascended the throne, Melbourne became her tutor in government and politics, resulting in the development of their very close relationship. The young queen decided to ignore the scandalous affair surrounding his failed marriage and grew extremely reliant on his council.

The prime minister would spend four to five hours a day visiting her, sparking rumours they might marry, despite him being 40 years her senior. According to the work of political diarist Charles Greville, the queen’s feelings for Melbourne may have been sexual, “though she did not know it”. Victoria, however, said she loved him “like a father”.

When Melbourne resigned in 1839, the monarch asked Tory leader Sir Robert Peel to form a government. However, he refused when she turned down his request to dismiss the pro-Whig ladies of the bedchamber and Melbourne resumed office.

Melbourne resigned again in August 1841, by which time his role as confidante and sole trustee to Victoria had been taken by her husband, Prince Albert.

Victoria also became close to Benjamin Disraeli when he was appointed prime minister of England in 1868. She bought him many gifts, which he thanked her with through seductive poetry. Victoria’s affairs continued when she became the Empress of India at the age of 68.

Victoria’s last obsession was with servant Abdul Karim, who taught her Hindustani and cooked her curries. She made him her Indian secretary but her feelings were also romantic.

She described him as “in every way such a high-minded and excellent young man” but he was sexually promiscuous and dishonest.

He stole one of her brooches and leaked to anti-British organisations in India information about imperial policy. She refused to see his faults and vented her fury on anyone.

When she lay in her white-draped coffin, Victoria’s face was surrounded by her wedding veil. Her hands were crowded with rings from her husband and children, and her coffin bore many mementos of Albert — a cast of his hand, a cloak, a handkerchief. But in secret instructions she also asked Sir James to place Brown’s mother’s wedding ring on one of her fingers. She asked, too, for his photograph to be placed in her hand, with some of his hair, and his handkerchief to be laid upon her: “my faithful Brown, that friend who was more devoted to me than anyone.”

What is most surprising about this love is that a woman long associated with a fusty era of corsets and suffocating morality experienced a very modern kind of love.

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