Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was born on 17 August 1786 as the daughter of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and Countess Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf. Her parents had a total of ten children, of which seven survived to adulthood. Victoria’s sister Juliane married Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia, while another sister named Antoinette married Duke Alexander of Württemberg. Her eldest brother was Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (having received Gotha in 1826) while another brother named Leopold had married Princess Charlotte of Wales and later became King of the Belgians. Her eldest sister Sophie married Emmanuel, Count of Mensdorff-Pouilly and another brother named Ferdinand married Maria Antonia Koháry de Csábrág who became the parents of King Ferdinand II of Portugal. All in all, the family was quite well-connected.
Victoria herself married at the age of 17 to the widowed Emich Carl, 2nd Prince of Leiningen who was then 40 years old and had previously been married to Victoria’s aunt Henriette of Reuss-Ebersdorf. He was not at all excited about the prospect of marrying again, declaring that he never would have done so if his first wife had not died. When he succeeded to the principality of Leiningen, it was largely occupied by Napoleon and he effectively only ruled a small area with only 15,000 inhabitants. He spent much time away from Victoria, though they did have two children together: Charles in 1804 and Feodora in 1807. Victoria spent most of her time with her lady-in-waiting, Baroness Späth. Her husband’s death in 1814 probably came as a relief to her and Victoria welcomed her newfound independence.
Her brother Leopold had other plans. The death of his wife Charlotte – heir to King George IV – had thrown the British succession wide open. George’s brother the Duke of Kent had been living with his mistress Madame de St Laurent but soon realised he would have to marry. Leopold praised Victoria’s beauty and her gentle character, and the Duke was soon convinced to win her hand in marriage. He went to visit her at Amorbach, and after just two days, he proposed – only to be refused. Victoria had no desire to marry him – she did not even speak English, and he was hardly appealing. Leopold did not take no for an answer so easily and urged his sister to reconsider. She could become Queen in due time. In January 1818, the Duke of Kent wrote to Victoria, asking for an answer. She was finally persuaded after she was promised that she would remain guardian of her two children, and the Duke agreed to spend part of every year in Germany. She wrote back to him, “I am leaving an agreeable, independent position in the hope that your affection will be my reward.” He was delighted and wrote back, “I want you to know, my very dear Princess, that I am nothing more than a soldier, 50 years old and after 32 years of service not very fitted to captivate the heart of a young and charming Princess, who is 19 years younger.” It was honest, at least. Their engagement was met with enthusiasm.
On 29 May 1818 at half-past eight in the evening, the couple had their first wedding ceremony at the Ehrenburg Palace in Coburg. Victoria wore a white dress with roses and orange blossom. A second – double – wedding ceremony took place in July at Kew Palace. Victoria’s mother hoped that her daughter would “find in this second marriage a happiness she never found in her first.” Two months after their second wedding ceremony, the couple returned to Amorbach where the cost of living would be cheaper. There they lived with Feodora, Baroness Späth and Sir John Conroy, whom the Duke had taken on as a military equerry. Their domestic happiness was soon complete when Victoria learned she was pregnant.
The Duke was convinced that his child would have a good chance of inheriting the throne, and he was determined to have her born on British soil. On New Year’s Eve in 1818, the Duke wrote to his wife, “This evening will put an end, dear beloved Victoire, to the year 1818, which saw the birth of my happiness by giving you to me as my guardian angel… all my efforts are directed to one end, the preservation of your death health and the birth of a child who will resemble you, and if Heaven will give me these two blessings I shall be consoled for all my misfortunes and disappointments, with which my life has been marked.” They managed to find their way back to England just in time for the birth of their daughter, the future Queen Victoria on 24 May 1819. The Duke of Kent had been with Victoria throughout the labour. He wrote to his mother-in-law, “Thank God, the dear mother and child are doing marvellously well.” Victoria wanted to feed her daughter herself and wrote, “I would have been desperate to see my little darling on someone else’s breast.” The Duke could only watch on in fascination.
Victoria had wanted to name her daughter Victoire Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta but the future King George IV – then still Prince Regent – was not satisfied. He finally declared that her name would be Alexandrina, but the Duke of Kent requested another name and asked for Elizabeth. Victoria had burst into tears, and the Prince Regent then added, “Give her the mother’s name also then, but it cannot precede that of the Emperor.” And so she became Alexandrina Victoria.
The Duke of Kent decided to take an inexpensive house by the sea after the birth of his daughter. Louise Lehzen was selected as a governess for the 12-year-old Feodora who went with them while Charles was at boarding school. On 2 November 1819, the Duke celebrated his 52nd birthday. The winter would be very cold, and the Duke soon caught a heavy cold. He refused to rest and went on long sea walks. By 12 January, he was delirious and having chest pains. Victoria nursed him to the best of her abilities, but she was helpless. He was bled several times, and he was tormented with “cupping” for several hours. She wrote, “It is too dreadful. There is hardly a spot on his dear body which has not been touched by cupping, blisters or bleeding. He was terribly exhausted yesterday after all that had been done to him by those cruel doctors.”
Prince Leopold hurried to his sister’s side and arrived just in time to see the Duke ask for his will to be drawn up. He bequeathed everything to his wife, although it was pretty much a mountain of debt. He died the following morning at ten o’clock, holding his wife’s hand. She wrote, “I am hopelessly lost without my dearest Edward, who thought of everything and always shielded me. Whatever shall I do without his strong support?”1