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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

Chaos turned tradition: Queen Victoria’s final journey from her bed at Osborne to St George’s Chapel

Upon the death of Queen Victoria the United Kingdom fell into a deep state of mourning. Shops dressed their windows in all black before putting up black shutters as a mark of respect. While ordinary people took time to grieve their monarch, everyone in the royal household was frantically organising the Queens funeral and the proclamation of the new King. A British monarch hadn’t died since 1837 and there was no one alive that knew what should be done next. The Queens Equerry, Sir Henry Ponsoby, later wrote how they spent the whole evening of the 22nd looking for information on what was done following the deaths of King George IV and King William IV. Queen Victoria’s personal journals about her own ascension were also used as a source. Thankfully for the royal household, in 1897 Queen Victoria had written twelve pages of instructions detailing everything that should happen both before and during her funeral. In true Victoria fashion, she also changed the traditional service, parade and other ceremonies to suit her personal taste. Many of these changes have since become tradition for royal funerals.

State funeral of Queen Victoria on 2nd February processing to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Source: RIBA

Once the royal family had left the Queens body, her body was washed and lifted back onto the double bed that she had once shared with Prince Albert. Here she spent the next couple of days lying in state. Lady Susan Reid, wife of Sir James Reid, wrote ‘I was allowed to see her lying in her bed – it was so beautiful. Her face like a lovely marble statue, no sign of illness or age, and she still looked like ‘the Queen,’ her wedding veil over her face and a few loose flowers on her bed – all so simple and grand. I shall never forget it!’

The Queens eldest grandchild, Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned sculptor, Herr Fuchs, to create a plaster death mask of Victoria’s face, however this request was refused by Queen Alexandra and the Victoria’s daughters, who ‘objected most strongly’ as they believed ‘the Queen would not have liked it’. Instead, Sir Hubert Von Herkomer was commissioned to create a watercolour of the Queen lying-in-state. On 24th January, the new King requested that a Holy Communion of Celebration should be held in the Queen’s bedroom. Just before 4pm, members of the royal family squeezed together in the small bedroom ready for the Communion to begin. The Bishop of Winchester, who held the service, described the historic scene, which ‘in the centre lay the little Queen with fresh flowers arranged on the bed, the small Imperial State Cowan lying by the side, her face beginning to lose a little of the fine look it had the previous day, but most calm and peaceful.’

Watercolour of Queen Victoria on her deathbed by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, dated 24th January 1901 ©️ Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

That same day, discussions began over how the Queen should be buried. Reginald Brett, Viscount Esger ‘suggested a ‘sea procession.’ It would have been a fine thing to have brought the Queen the whole way to London by sea. However, she seems to have given certain directions which are to be followed. No black – no hearse – only a gun-carriage. A military funeral.’ This style funeral most certainly seemed fitting for a soldiers daughter, who also happened to be head of a military. This simple instruction from Victoria was one of the most moving traditions followed during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022. As Brett mentioned, there was to be no black surrounding the Queens funeral. John, Duke if Argyll, , husband of Princess Louise, wrote that Victoria ‘had always had a dislike to the black trappings commonly used, and desired that black should be avoided as far as possible in the hangings and appurtenances used at her funeral, preferring purple and white before these, and even black horses should be dispensed with.’

Of course, as the main colour of mourning black couldn’t be fully avoided, particularly amongst the public fashion. ‘The London Gazette’ released an announcement stating that everyone ‘put themselves into the deepest mourning’, which officially began on the 28th January. At first, no one was sure what the clothing procedure was but eventually the Lord Chamberlain’s Office announced that women should ‘wear black Dresses, trimmed with Crape, and black Shoes and Gloves, black Fans. Feathers, and Ornaments.’ The men were also required to wear ‘black Court Dress, with black Swords and Buckles’ this new fashion was to last until the 24th July, when women could then begin incorporating coloured decoration into their outfits. Full mourning wouldn’t end until 24th January the following year!

Queen Victorias coffin Lying in state at Osborne House, dated January 1901 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

Back at Osborne House, the Queen’s body was being measured for her custom made cedar and oak coffin. That evening, Sir James Reid, Mrs Tuck and a nurse dressed the Queen in ‘a satin dressing gown and garter ribbon and star’ along with a few other unmentioned items (most likely jewellery but I’ll tell about that in a moment). They then cut off all of her hair and rearranged the flowers around her body. The following morning, they began arranging the Queen’s coffin exactly how she had described in the secret instructions she left for Dr Reid. As she hadn’t been embalmed, the lead lined coffin was first filled with coal, which was covered by one and a half inches of sentimental items selected by the Queen. These included: one of Prince Albert’s dressing gowns, a cloak that Princess Alice had made for Prince Albert, a plaster cast of Albert’s hand and several photographs of her family. ‘Over these was laid the quilted cushion made to fit the shape of the coffin, so that it looked as if nothing had been put in’ wrote Reid afterwards. The coffin was then moved next to Queen Victoria before Reid, the Queens dressers and several members of her family (all of which were oblivious to the coffins contents) lifted her into it. It was at this time that Queen Alexandra placed a small bunch of flowers and Scottish thistles on the body as a final gift to her mother-in-law. After this, the family once again left the room while Reid and the dressers rearranged Victorias dressing gown and wedding veil, which were worn by the queen as a symbol that her grief was officially over. They also filled the sides of the coffin with lace and bags of coal.

Before the family was called back in, Reid followed the final few requests from his Queen. An overwhelming amount of jewellery was placed all over her wrists, neck and hands. Rings were placed on each of her fingers, including her wedding ring from 1840 and the wedding ring that had once belonged to the mother of her highland servant, John Brown, which sat on her ring finger. On the same hand, she had asked to hold ‘a photo of Brown and his hair in a case’, which Reid ‘wrapped in tissue paper, and covered with Queen Alexandra’s flowers’ so that the family wouldn’t find out.

Queen Victorias funeral cortège setting off from Osborne House, 1st February 1901 Source: Public domain

Once he had finished, Reid called the Princesses to come and see the Queen for the final time. ‘They all came, the Princess of Wales [Queen Alexandra, who had requested to still be known as POW until after the funeral], the Duchess of Coburg and her daughter Beatrice, the Duchess of Albany, and her daughter, the Duchess of York, the Princess Christian and Thora, Princess Beatrice, Princess Louise, and Princess Ena.’ Once key members of the royal had been to pay their final respects, the Queens Munshi, Abdul Karim, was allowed to enter her room. After he left, Victorias two sons, the Kaiser and the Duke of Coburg entered the room to watch as the lid was closed and secured. Queen Victoria didn’t want a public lying-in-state so instead her coffin was carried downstairs to the Dining Room, which had been converted into a temporary chapel, with crimson velvet draped from the walls and eight candles as the only source of light. Victorias coffin was ‘covered with the coronation robes & her little diamond crown & the garter lie on a cushion above her head – 4 large Grenadiers watch there day and night’. The Queens coffin was to remain here until 1st February, when she would set off for her final journey to the mainland.

Queen Victoria’s coffin moments after leaving Sovereigns Gate, her official entrance to the Osborne estate. Dated 1st February 1901 Source: public domain

At 1:30 on 1st February, the Queens coffin, draped with white satin, was carried out of the Dining Room to the foot of the staircase opposite the royal entrance. Once members of the royal family had gathered, it was then carried by the ‘bluejackets’ from the Royal yacht and placed on the gun-carriage. ‘The winter’s sun shone brightly as the mourners formed up behind the gun-carriage […] The Princes in uniform, the Princesses walking behind them, and all on foot, passed from the door out to the long avenue of ilex the boughs of which now all but meet above the broad roadway to the entrance gates’. The cortège moved slowly as it left the Osborne estate for the final time and headed down streets lined with crowds to the banks of the Medina, where the gun-carriage boarded Queen Victoria’s small yacht, Alberta. From Portsmouth guns could be heard from Osborne, signalling ‘that the Queen’s body was being saluted by the Fleet’.

According to those that were present the journey was both somber and beautiful. The sky was clear and the water was a glistening grey/blue but the minute guns and the cloud of mourners wearing black on the shoreline was a constant reminder of all that was lost. Cosmo Lang, Vicar of Portsea later described how ‘The yacht was proceeded by six torpedo-destroyers moving black and silent like dark messengers of Death sent to summon the Queen […] I shall never forget the booming of the great guns as the little ship with its precious freight moved slowly down the lines.’

With such a large cortège everyone was forced to travel on separate vessels. Both Sir James Reid and Sir Fredrick Ponsonby were on board the Osborne, while the King, Kaiser and other royals were onboard the Victoria and Albert. The journey across the water was slow and according to Dr Reid, they didn’t arrive at Portsmouth until 4:45. Everyone, including the Queen’s coffin, remained on board until the following morning.

Queen Victorias coffin as it traveled through East Cowes, 1st February 1901 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

In the early hours of the 2nd February, the royal family began preparing for the long journey to Windsor. A short service was held by Lang before officers of the Navy and Army formed a Guard of Honour as the Queen’s coffin was transferred from the Alberta to the train through a long canopy. At 11am the train carrying the Queen’s body arrived Victoria Station. Men of the Coldstream carried the coffin from the train and on to the gun-carriage. Half an hour later, the ‘extraordinarily slow’ march to Paddington Station began.

Mary Monkswell described how the Queen’s coffin ‘stood high on the gun carriage drawn by the eight cream-coloured ponies. It was covered by a magnificent white satin pall, edged with gold, & embroidered with the Crown & Arms of England. The flag lay over part of it, & on it was the Crown, the Sceptre, & the Orb. Behind it, the Royal Standard was carried, hung with crepe.’

Queen Victoria’s funeral procession arriving at St George’s Chapel, 2nd February 1901 Source: public domain

The streets were hung with evergreen garlands and ‘purple cloth stuck up on balconies’ as a symbol of people’s grief and respect for their late Queen. Thousands of people of all classes travelled to the capital to see their Queen one last time. To accommodate them (and to also make a profit) many shops and buildings emptied their windows and balconies before building temporary wooden seating that was then rented by onlookers. Neighbouring hotels that overlooked the procession rout increased the prices of their rooms to extortionate rates, with ‘The Times’ reporting that some people had paid around £500 to gain access! Many onlookers described how the large crowds stood in silence, ‘the only sounds were the band playing the Funeral March & the trampling of the horses’ wrote one. They also mention how, besides the coffin, the main focus was on the King and the Kaiser.

Queen Victoria’s coffin lying in state in the Albert Memorial Chapel, Windsor, Ist February 1901 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

Roughly two hours later the procession reached the station, where the Queen’s coffin, cortège, and other royal guests boarded the final train of the journey and headed to Windsor. When the eight carriages had arrived and everyone was in position, Sir Frederick Ponsonby gave his orders for the procession to begin. With the ‘Dead March’ playing (despite Victoria detesting the piece of music), everyone started moving but Ponsonby was soon faced with an unexpected problem. ‘The horses on the gun-carriage had, however, been standing in the cold for some time, and as the lieutenant in charge never gave the command ‘Walk march’, the two wheelers suddenly started off before the leaders, and finding an unusually heavy load, began to kick and plunge. Away flew the traces and the gun-carriage remained still.’ Unaware of what was happening, the front part of the procession continued and had already turned the corner before they were stopped. Unsure of what to do, Prince Louis of Battenberg suggested that they ‘take out the horses and let the men of the naval guard of honour drag the gun carriage’. Upon hearing this idea, the King agreed and this has since become a tradition for royal funerals.

Effigies of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Royal Mausoleum, Frogmore © The Royal Family website

Upon reaching a royalty filled St George’s Chapel, the Queen’s coffin was carried up the steps and through the West Doors. ‘The coffin was placed in the centre just outside the rails and the Princes and Kings came in behind, in rows of 3’ wrote Edmund H. fellowes, a minor Canon at St George’s Chapel. Following the service, ‘all the Foreign Sovereigns, Princes and Representatives went up to the Castle, where there was a stand-up buffet’.

For the next two days Queen Victoria’s coffin lay-in-state in the Albert Memorial Chapel at St George’s, surrounded by guards just as when she was at Osborne House. On 4th February, Victoria’s heavy coffin was taken from St George’s for the last leg of her journey. This time, she would be interred beside her beloved Albert in their specially built mausoleum at Frogmore, where one final memorial service was held.

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