Despite the fact that she was quite tiny, Queen Victoria looms large over most of the 19th century. She was every bit a woman of her time, engaging in the overblown sentimentality and culture of death so pervasive during the age that bears her name. When she died at 81, the queen left secret, detailed instructions on how to handle her body and what items to place in her coffin. There are, indeed, a number of strange Queen Victoria death facts worth exploring.
Victorians had something of an obsession with death and death rituals. One reason this was true was because people of the era literally lived in close proximity to death. Aspects of the Industrial Revolution shortened life expectancy, even in an age when 40 was considered old. Dead bodies were cleaned and prepared for burial by family members, and the corpses were put in their parlors for viewing. Friends and loved ones created jewelry made from the hair of the deceased; furniture and doorways were draped in black crepe; and even photos were taken of the dead, dressed and seated in chairs with other family members, as though they were still alive. Or families would gather for photos, all dressed in black, around a portrait of the dearly departed, sorrowful looks on every face. Death and all that came with it hovered far more closely to the living than it does today.
This was also the age of Romanticism, an artistic, literary, and cultural tradition that focused on both the natural and unnatural world. Some Victorians expressed a strong interest in the paranormal, the spectral, and otherworldly. Sentimentality and emotion also held sway during the 19th century. It's no wonder, really, that Queen Victoria's death wishes were anything but simple.
At the time of her death, Queen Victoria was Britain's longest-reigning monarch. She'd lived a life full of responsibilities, loves, and intrigues. Some of the latter did not meet with her family's approval; indeed, her nine children were often in vehement opposition to some of the ways Victoria lived her life and resentful of those with whom she was closest.
So when it came time for the Queen to make her final arrangements, she knew her wishes would require an element of secrecy in order that they be observed. Chief among those carefully kept secrets were the things Queen Victoria wanted to be buried with. Luckily, those detailed instructions still exist, so the Queen's non-traditional requests didn't get interred with her. At the end of her life, Victoria summoned her secretary (who was also her chief lady-in-waiting) and dictated 12 pages of specific instructions regarding her funeral and burial. The lady-in-waiting hand delivered the instructions to the Queen's personal physician, Sir James Reid. According to author Tony Rennell, a Reid family descendant wrote a book on the doctor and his famous patient, but the contents of the secret instructions were forbidden by the Royal College censors.
When Rennell—who was also writing a book on Victoria's final years—was invited by the Reid family to research their archives, he came across the hidden instructions written just before the old Queen's death. He was able to successfully publish his research and, for the first time, Victoria's final wishes came to light. And so it was her doctor who followed through with all her wishes. He was the lone person who was there to know how Queen Victoria died. He nursed her day and night during her final days, and it was his name she spoke as she expired. And he followed through with each of her requests, no matter how bizarre.
One of the first strange items on Victoria's list was that she wished to be buried with the plaster cast of Prince Albert's hand, which was made shortly after his death. When her husband Albert died unexpectedly at age 42, Victoria was devastated. Her approach to his loss was an enormous influence for and inspiration to grieving people across the western world during the age that still bears her name.
But there was more. For years after his death, she had Albert's former servants attend to his morning rituals. Servants brought hot water, his shaving brush and cup, and towels to his room every morning. His valet also continued to bring in the suit he would wear that day. At the end of the day, the servants would return and remove the items, only to repeat the same the next day. And the next.
Victoria kept her own bedroom draped in black and decorated throughout with Albert's visage in photos and portraits. She slept nightly with the plaster cast of his hand.
In a macabre, twisted mixture of death and youth culture, Queen Victoria's secret instructions demanded her entire funeral—from horses, to mourning attire, to funeral crepe—be arrayed in white. She also insisted that she be buried wearing the white bridal veil from her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert.
After all, it was the young monarch Victoria who broke earlier traditions and began the custom of wearing entirely white wedding gowns. Her choice came partly from wanting to stress her interest in economy and partly a desire to symbolize her purity. Both she and Albert were virgins on their wedding night. Today, Victoria has a reputation for prudishness; however, this was definitely not the case. She prioritized her physical relationship with her husband over her duties as both monarch and mother.
At the end, perhaps she returned to her virginal white bridal veil as a symbol of the happiest relationship of her life and of her hope that she would join Albert in heaven as his eternal bride. Certainly, in life, she remained attached to her veil and dress, and both she and Albert posed in their wedding attire, including Victoria's veil, years after their wedding.
Here is where Victoria's instructions for what should be placed in her coffin become a little complex. While her family knew that she asked to be buried wearing her wedding ring, only the Queen's secretary and physician knew that she wanted to be buried wearing a second wedding ring on her left ring finger. This ring was given to her by a man other than her husband, a man she came to know very well during the 40 years she lived after Albert's death. Victoria's relationship with Scottish royal groom and servant, John Brown, was extremely controversial, particularly within the British royal family. She had sent for him during the early years of her widowhood, since she remembered that Prince Albert had spoken very highly of Brown.
The Queen and the Groom became close friends. He was the only person in Victoria's orbit who could get away with criticizing her and speaking to her in a familiar tone. For more than a century, historians and royal curiosity seekers puzzled over the strange relationship between monarch and servant. In recent years, historians have taken a more realistic, human approach.
Author Tony Rennell was the historian who at last brought to light the story of the second wedding ring, and more recently, historian A.N. Wilson persuasively argued that Victoria and Brown did indeed have a romantic relationship, but it was never consummated. According to Wilson, "they slept in the same bed, but just hugged on one another." Wilson also points to a deathbed confession of a Scottish minister who claimed he had secretly married the couple. Whatever their relationship or marital status, the Queen's children utterly despised Brown and were angry with their mother for the rest of her life, even long after Brown's death.
So angry was Victoria's son and heir, King Edward VII, that once his mother was good and buried, he removed or had destroyed every monument and mention of John Brown at all royal properties. What the new King did not know was that his mother was laid to rest clutching her favorite photo and a lock of hair from her beloved John Brown—and wearing Brown's mother's wedding ring on her finger.