Shortly after her husband’s death, Victoria was persuaded to return to London, and on 23 January she did so with Feodora, young Victoria and John Conroy. The Prince Regent eventually relented and let Victoria move into Kensington Palace with her children, although she would have to furnish it herself. Just a few days later, the ailing King George III also died, making the Prince Regent King at last. With the death of the King, young Victoria moved up in the line of succession. Only her uncles the childless Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence, whose wife was still of childbearing age, stood between her and the throne. The King fell ill almost immediately after his accession and Victoria and her young daughter were both low on the list of his priorities.
The Duke of Kent was buried on the night of 12 February in the family vault at Windsor while Victoria sat alone in Kensington Palace writing, “in my solitude here, eating my heart out.” Her brother Leopold paid for the funeral. The new King wanted Victoria to return to Amorbach as soon as possible, and she was indeed eager to return there. She had had no help – except from her brother and John Conroy. Leopold was determined that Victoria should stay in England and Victoria reluctantly stayed. Victoria borrowed money to furnish her rooms at Kensington Palace, gave up her regency in Leiningen and began to rely heavily on John Conroy saying, “I don’t know what I should do without him.” The new King argued that Leopold should care for his sister and refused to give her any money. He offered her £3,000 a year from his £50,000 a year, and Victoria additionally received the £6,000 a year that had been her husband’s. It was not much to raise a future Queen on.
The Duchess of Kent now faced an agonising wait as her daughter’s future was in no way set in stone yet. The Duchess of Clarence may yet produce an heir and childhood disease may strike at any given time. Luckily the young Princess was growing into a plump and healthy toddler, and she was already becoming quite headstrong. Victoria wrote, “She drives me at times into real desperation… Today the little mouse… was so unmanageable that I nearly cried.” Victoria lived in fear that her husband’s family would try to take her daughter from her, and she tried to prevent too much contact. Meanwhile, she had no one to trust except John Conroy, and Leopold became bored with her neediness. Victoria and John Conroy soon had one common goal – becoming regent for the young Princess Victoria.
Victoria and John Conroy began their attempt to bend the princess to their will, in a plan called “The Kensington System.” They believed that she would most luckily succeed before her 18th birthday and would require a regent, such as her mother. The whole system was “to ensure that the Duchess had such influence over her daughter that the nation should have to assign her the regency.” The Princess’s education was to be kept in the Duchess’s hands so that “nothing and no one should be able to tear the daughter away from her.” Secondly, it was to “give the Princess Victoria an upbringing which would enable her in the future to be equal of her high position” and to “win her so high a place in the hearts of her future subjects, even before her accession, that she would assume the sceptre with a popularity never yet attained and rule with commensurate power.”
The Princess was intended to become detached from her uncles King George IV and his successor King William IV but also King Leopold of Belgium, who also had his eyes on the regency. The public would need to believe that Victoria and her daughter were inseparable. In practice, this meant that the Princess was under constant surveillance, and everything was reported to John Conroy. She never saw anyone without a third person present and was never allowed to be alone. She slept in her mother’s bedchamber and her governess Lehzen sat with her until the Duchess came to bed. Victoria was constantly surrounded by John Conroy, but also his children. The Princess became quite resentful at being obliged to spent time with Victoire Conroy, whom she considered to be her social inferior and also resented her playmate’s father and her mother’s fascination with him.
Princess Victoria usually blamed the Kensington System for her unhappiness as a child. She wanted to visit her uncles and enjoy life at court. If anything, the Kensington System did succeed in making her immensely popular, and people yearned to see the little girl.
On 26 June 1830, King George IV died and was succeeded his younger brother the Duke of Clarence – the Duke of York had died in 1827 – who now became King William IV. Victoria was now first in the line of succession. By the end of 1830, Victoria had become convinced that her faithful lady-in-waiting, Baroness Späth, was spying for the King and fired her. She remained afraid that the King would try to take her child. Nevertheless, she was at odds with him over apartments on the second floor of Kensington Palace that he had refused and which she eventually took without permission. She also refused to be in the same room as King William’s illegitimate children saying, “Did I not keep this line, how would it be possible to teach Victoria the difference between Vice and Virtue?”
She also began planning a grand tour of England for her young daughter and herself. She was met with great deference everywhere she went, but Princess Victoria hated travelling. The King was furious when he read all about it. By 1831, it finally seemed certain that Princess Victoria would one day be Queen. Queen Adelaide‘s last pregnancy had ended with the stillbirth of twin boys. When the King suggested that her daughter’s name should be changed to something not so foreign as Victoria, she was outraged and refused. They were now truly at war. Victoria refused to be present for the King’s coronation and also did not allow her daughter to go, making the excuse that the long ceremony would be a strain on her health.
As the young Victoria entered her teens, her mother found a new way to control her. She gave the Princess a journal and told her that she and Louise Lehzen would read the entries. Despite the intentions, Princess Victoria took to writing in her journal and would continue to do so for the rest of her life. Victoria took her daughter on several more grand tours through the country to the disgust of the King, and he ordered that she should not be saluted by any naval ship. After Princess Victoria turned 15, her mother saw her chances of becoming regent slipping away and felt the need to present the Princess as too childish to rule alone and that she should have a regency even beyond the age of 18.
On the day of her daughter’s confirmation, Victoria gave her a letter explaining all that she had sacrificed for her. Princess Victoria wrote in her journal, “I went with the firm determination to become a true Christian, to try and comfort my dear Mamma in all her griefs, trials and anxieties, and to become a dutiful and affectionate daughter to her. Also to be obedient to dear Lehzen who has done so much for me.” When yet another tour was planned, Princess Victoria refused to go, but after an anxious letter from her mother, she capitulated. Afterwards, Princess Victoria fell terribly ill and had to beg her mother for a physician to be sent to her. Victoria seized her chance to ask her daughter to confirm John Conroy as her private secretary – she refused. She will ill for over two months and lost her hair and a lot of weight.
Victoria wanted her daughter to marry a cousin from her side of the family and invited not only Ernst and Albert – the sons of her brother the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – but also the sons of her sister Antoinette and the sons of her brother Ferdinand. Princess Victoria agreed to write to Albert but did not initially single him out for praise.
Her daughter was now almost an adult, and Victoria saw her potential power slipping away. She was publicly rebuffed for taking the empty rooms at Kensington Palace during what would be the King’s last birthday dinner. He was determined to live long enough to see his heir reach her 18th birthday and rule out Victoria’s regency. When she reached her 18th birthday, the King wrote to her offering her money and her own establishment. Victoria and her daughter entered into a bitter argument, and she forced her daughter to decline the offer.
The last month before the King’s death, Victoria’s desperation came to a head. She wrote to her daughter, “You are still very young. Do not be too sanguine in your own talents and understanding. You are untried, you are liked for your youth, your sex and the hope that is entertained, but all confidence in you comes from your mother’s reputation.”
In the early morning of 20 June 1837, King William IV died, and Victoria’s daughter succeeded as Queen. Victoria refused to let Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury see her daughter – who was still asleep – a final act of defiance. She finally woke her daughter up at six o’clock to receive the news.1