With royal succession in the news, I find myself reminded of the life of Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest child. Princess Beatrice was born in the middle of the 19th century, commonly regarded as the Victorian Age because of the towering presence of Queen Victoria who reigned for nearly 64 years, from 1837 to 1901.
Most heads of the surviving royal families of Europe are descended from Victoria and her husband Albert whom she married in 1840. This was a deliberate policy, supported and encouraged by the Queen; she thought, falsely as it turned out, that a Europe linked by royal households related to one another would be a Europe less likely to go to war. As a consequence inherited diseases such as haemophilia were passed from cousin to cousin, who from Spain in the west to Russia in the east took to their sick beds or expired. And in 1914 the cousins and the countries they ruled went to war. But this was all in the future when Victoria married Albert. Together they produced nine children before Albert, worn out and plagued by typhoid, died on 14 December 1861.
Their nine children were Victoria (the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany), Edward or Bertie (who became King Edward VII), Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. I have long been interested in Princess Beatrice, the youngest child, the daughter who was expected to stay alongside her grieving mother in the bleak years after the death of Albert, who was expected to have no life of her own, but who, in the end, did stage a minor rebellion, and married a German prince and established her own dynasty.
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I have just been to hear Anne Sebba talk about her book That Woman on the life of Wallis Simpson. This is one of a series of authors’ talks which we plan to make a more regular feature at The National Archives. Books should, and do, stand by themselves and sometimes seeing the author in the flesh can be a disappointment. Am I alone in thinking that Nigel Slater, possibly the greatest food writer today, worthy heir to Elizabeth David, should never, never be let near a television camera? However, this was a treat.
That Woman by Anne Sebba
Slightly spookily Anne’s dress almost exactly mirrored the one Wallis is wearing on the cover of the book but once over this I was captured by her words. Wallis Simpson’s story is extraordinary and Anne elaborated on her view of Wallis’ life: a tragic love story if not the one you’d expect. She read from letters Wallis wrote to her second husband Ernest at the time of the divorce which showed a woman trapped by her own schemes, horribly alone and in love with a man she can no longer have.
In putting the abdication crisis in its historical context Anne showed how horrified the royal family had been by Edward’s actions. The country had just come out of the First World War a time when the country had responded to a call to duty and paid with their lives, now ‘the family’ who have possibly the most engrained sense of duty ever, were looking to one of their own asking what they saw as a small thing and he wouldn’t do it. As you know there is nothing like the opprobrium heaped on someone by their own family if they think they are letting the side down. The mistresses, the weekend parties, the gin, the madness they could deal with all that –almost de rigeur for a king you might say- but one must step up to the plate and do your duty, not throw your toys out the pram if you can’t have ‘the woman you love’. In Anne’s final slide of Wallis’s coffin being carried out followed by members of the Royal Family, the look on the face of the Queen Mother said it all.
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