1900 had been ‘a horrible year’ filled with ‘nothing but sadness and horrors of one kind & another’ for Queen Victoria. On 30th July, her third child, Prince Alfred, died of throat cancer and October also saw the death of her grandson, Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein. The Queens eldest child, Victoria, had also been diagnosed with terminal cancer and her spirit took another hit when her close friend, Jane Churchill, died in her sleep at Osborne House on Christmas Day. Like anyone, Queen Victoria was distraught by the grief that surrounded her. Her large appetite began to disappear and by early January she was only eating ‘a tiny slice of boiled chicken’ or ‘a cut from the sirloin, which is sent from London everyday’. Before long, she had lost so much weight that she appeared ‘about one half the person she had been’.
Upon entering 1901 Queen Victoria described how she had been feeling ‘weak and unwell’, a sign she knew what was coming. Over the last few years, she had come to suffer immense pain, which limited her to a ‘rolling chair’. Along with being almost completely blind and deaf, she had a bad ortheoartheritic hump on her upper back, rheumatism caused by a fall in 1883 and also an untreated hernia that the Queen herself refused to acknowledge and treat. All of this makes it no surprise that the 81 year old struggled to enter the new year with much enthusiasm!
Over that final Christmas period Victoria had often spoken about her death, telling her granddaughter, Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein: “Do you know know I sometimes feel that when I die I shall be a little just a little nervous about meeting grandpapa for I have taken to doing a good many things that he would not quite approve of”. It had been 39 years since her beloved Albert had passed away but he was still at the forefront of all her thoughts and decisions right up until the end.
As the days passed, concern continued to grow over Victorias health. On 6th January Lady Susan Reid, wife of Dr Sir James Reid, wrote that the Queen ‘is no worse, but has ups and downs and gets very easily tired, and when so, she gets into a nervous depressed hopeless state. However, she sleeps and eats well and Jamie [Dr Reid] says that is all one can expect just now, but her family and Miss Phipps will insist (in spite of Jamie’s opinion!!) on thinking her much better than she is’. Just ten days later, the Queen took a turn for the worse and her family were forced to see what was ahead of them. Dr Reid later wrote that ‘the Queen had rather a disturbed night, but was very drowsy all forenoon, and disinclined to get up, although she kept saying in a semi-confused way that she must get up […] this was the first time I had ever [in 20 years] seen the Queen in bed. She was lying on her right side huddled up and I was struck by how small she appeared’.
Later that day, at 6pm, Queen Victoria finally managed to leave her bed but was forced to return just three hours later when she became ‘quite exhausted and as confused as ever’. While she picked up momentarily, her condition remained the same over the next couple of days. However, on the 18th, Reid recorded how ‘she took food well, mostly in liquid form. Her mind was fairly clear but there was some aphasia and the articulation was bad. The right side of her face was rather flat, and the left side drooping. She slept much and was very weak.’ Following the arrival of these new symptoms, Victoria was diagnosed with a paralytic stroke, which had mostly affected her left side. Reid, who was already concerned began losing all hope: ‘I did not at all like her condition, and thought she might be getting comatose, and might in fact die within a few days’. Princess Helena also began to step out of denial and was now fully aware of the danger her mother’s life was in. Telegrams were soon sent out for close family members to begin making their way to visit the Queen at Osborne House and as everyone began arriving on the 19th, the news of the Queens declining health was officially announced. Journalists and locals began flocking to Osbornes gates, waiting for further information.
In the evening Victoria requested that everyone leave her room beside Reid. According to his account, ‘she looked in my face and said, “I should like to live a little longer, as I have still a few things to settle. I have arranged most things, but there are a still some left, and I want to live a little longer”’. Of course, her fate wasn’t down to Reid but her fight to survive gave a small hope that she may recover.
On the 20th, a screen was put up around the Queens bed to protect her dignity while a small bed on wheels was moved into her room and assembled. The bed was then placed next to the Queen while Sir James and a nurse lifted her into it. Although she was conscious, Victoria showed little sign of any interaction or reluctance. The large double bed that she had once shared with Prince Albert was then pushed out of the way, allowing extra space for nurses to tend to her every need. By that evening, she once again had difficulty swallowing and could no longer recognise her three daughters.
The following day saw the arrival of the controversial Kaiser Wilhelm II; Albert Edward, Prince of Wales; Arthur, Duke of Connaught; and George, Duke of York. Each of them were allowed to enter Victorias room separately on the condition that they didn’t speak to her. At one stage she regained some consciousness, asking Reid ‘am I better at all?’ And when he responded with a simple ‘yes’, she made one simple request: ‘then can I have Turi?’ [Turi was one of her Pomeranians]. Afterwards, James Reid noted how ‘Turi was sent for and she ever held him on the bed for about an hour’.
In the early hours of the 22nd, Victoria began having difficulty breathing. She was being periodically administered oxygen but it was to make little difference. Her family was awoken and rushed to her bedside. The small room was overcrowded by royalty, none of which were wearing more than their night clothes. The names of everyone present were said out loud. All besides the Kaiser. The Queen picked up knowing everyone was there but would have been ecstatic if she knew Wilhelm was just metres away
Wilhelm was Victoria's first grandchild and most certainly her favourite. Many members of the family feared that his presence would overexcite the Queen and cause unnecessary exhaustion. They also feared that he was only there for his own political gain. The Kaiser understood that he was unwelcome and offered to go but made it clear that his intentions were simply to support his grandmother in her final moments. After this, the Prince of Wales agreed that Wilhelm could have a private visit to the Queen while everyone else was distracted getting dressed. Although she struggled to communicate, Victoria’s spirits immediately lifted upon hearing his name and it’s said that the two were able to have a short five minute conversation.
At 9.30am it looked like the end was near, and the Royal Family rushed to her first-floor bedroom from different parts of the house, congregating around her bed. Family members were surprised to see that the Queen had been moved from her regular large bed to a smaller temporary bed to make it easier to nurse her. As they congregated, Randall Davidson, the Bishop of Winchester and later Archbishop of Canterbury, began to say prayers in a corner of the room, facing the small bed. Princesses Helena, Louise and Beatrice, the Queen’s three youngest daughters, began to tell their mother who was in the room, and people responded in turn by calling out their names to let the Queen know where they were since Victoria’s eyesight had failed like the rest of her body.
By noon, the reality of the Queens imminent death had sunk in and members of the Royal Household began to panic. A British monarch hadn’t died since 1837 and there were no living souls that knew how to proclaim a new monarch. Knowing they didn’t have long, they began searching through Victorias own personal journals to find out what happened on the day of her ascension. From there they could read her detailed account and gain a clear understanding of what they should do following her death. [Queen Victoria’s journal: her ascension to the throne, 20th June 1837]
By about 1.30pm, Victoria had rallied so much since the morning that her physician thought she might actually recover. Dr Reid wrote “I can’t help admiring her determination not to give up the struggle... I hardly dare to hope she might yet win.” By 2pm, however, she was failing again. As her son-in-law, the Duke of Argyll, famously said later, she sank into death like a great three-decker ship, sinking, then rallying, then sinking again. The family assembled again in her bedroom waiting for the end in silence at first, broken only by the sobs of nineyear-old Prince Maurice, Victoria’s youngest grandchild, who had to be taken out of the room when his crying became uncontrollable.
Soon Bishop Davidson began to recite prayers and hymns. Victoria looked increasingly weak and unconscious, but Davidson and others noted that as he was reading one of her favourite hymns, ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ by John Henry Newman, the Queen smiled when she heard the verses “And with the morn, angel faces smile / which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.” Still, Victoria kept hanging on to life, her descent into death kept stalling. At 3.30pm Dr Reid asked for everyone to leave the room so that the Queen could be re-positioned in her small bed to make her more comfortable.
When the Prince of Wales went in to see the Queen she became conscious for a moment and recognized him. She put out her arms and said 'Bertie', whereupon he embraced her and broke down completely. After the Prince of Wales left, Mrs Tuck and Sir James Reid went to The Queens bedside. Victoria took Sir Reid's hand and repeatedly kissed it. She evidently in her semi-conscious state did not realise the Prince had gone, and thought it was his hand she was kissing. Mrs Tuck, realising this, asked her if she still wanted the Prince of Wales, and she said 'yes'. The Prince returned to her bedside and spoke to her and she said to him 'Kiss my face.'
At 4pm, as the sun began to wane in the January sky, the last public bulletin was issued. In stark, terrible simplicity it just said: “The Queen is slowly sinking”. Victoria had once written to her eldest daughter Vicky that she did not want a crowd around her deathbed: “That I shall insist is never the case if I’m dying. It is awful.” But a crowd she got anyway. As the family streamed back into her bedroom everyone assumed places that most people remembered afterwards. The Prince of Wales sat by the right side of her bed, his wife Alexandra sat on the opposite side; Princesses Helena and Beatrice stood in front of the bed; Princess Louise knelt on the floor on the right of Victoria’s head; and other members of the Royal Family found spaces around the room. Among them were Victoria’s only other living son, Prince Arthur; the Duke and Duchess of York, future King George V and Queen Mary; Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, Victoria’s cousin and the only member of the Royal Family older than her; Princess Victoria of Hesse, the Queen’s favourite granddaughter; and Princess Victoria Eugenie, the future Queen of Spain.
Silence reigned between 4pm and 6pm, sometimes broken by muffled crying and by Victoria occasionally looking at Dr Reid and saying “I’m very ill…I’m very ill…” to which Dr Reid answered each time “Your Majesty will soon be better.” By 6pm, it was clear now the end was close. Among the flickering gas lamps and candles in the bedroom (Victoria had refused to install electric lights at Osborne as she did not like their glare), the Royal Family began once again to utter their names as if to make their individual farewells. Dr Reid and the Kaiser were still holding Victoria up with their arms. Her breathing became more laboured. Bishop Davidson began once again to recite prayers. During the intervals, Victoria was not obviously responsive to the words said but certain things, and specially the last verse of Lead, Kindly Light' seemed to catch her attention, and she showed that she followed it.
During his litanies, Sir James Reid noticed how Victoria’s eyes moved to the right and upward to a large painting of the Deposition of Christ on the wall. She opened her eyes wide and, according to Princess Helena, seemed to be seeing ‘beyond the borderland’. She then uttered her last word: “Bertie…” though her voice was so weak that some thought she may have said ‘Albert’.
Bishop Davidson was finishing his prayers by reciting the Aaronic Blessing from the Bible’s Book of Numbers (6:25-26): “…The Lord make His face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.” A few instants after he uttered these words, Victoria quietly drew a last breath and died, her eyes still open, looking beyond the borderland. Dr Reid let go of her hand, he and the Kaiser finally released her down on the pillow. The Prince of Wales, his face wet with tears, then reached over and, in his first moments as the new monarch, closed his mother’s eyes. Queen Victoria was no more.
At 6:30pm Dr Reid kissed the Queens hand before gently placing it on the bed. ‘Her pulse kept beating well till the end’ he later remembered. Everyone in the room was in shock. They had just witnessed the end of a record breaking reign, and with it the era that Victoria had dutifully given her life to. As with Queen Elizabeth II, there were few people alive that could remember a time where Victoria didn’t sit on the throne. Everyone that wasn’t related left the room, leaving the royal family to grieve their loss. Victoria had been such a big character that hadn’t always got along with her family but now she was gone, they longed to hear her angelic voice once more.
Over the next few days, her body lay in state on hers and Albert’s bed, with his picture hanging above her head just as it had for the last 39 years. As requested, she was wearing all white, along with the Honiton lace wedding veil that she wore back in 1840. After being a grieving widow for so many years, she was finally able to greet Albert at the alter of death as his eternal bride. Victoria’s body was then transferred into a lead lined coffin, which was filled with sentimental items such as: personal belongings, jewellery and photographs. The last person to ever see her body before the coffin was closed for the final time was the Queens Indian servant and Munshi, Abdul Karim.
After lying in state in the Dining Room at Osborne, Victoria left her beloved home one final time on 1st February before heading to St George’s Chapel in Windsor, where her funeral was held the following day. Two days later, on 4th February, she was laid to rest next to her beloved Albert in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. The room where she died was kept as a shrine for the family to visit and remember. Large gates were installed at both ends of Victoria and Albert’s private apartments, sealing them off to anyone that wasn’t family. The rooms were eventually opened to the public by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 and can still be seen exactly how Victoria left them all those years ago.