Johanna Clara Louise Lehzen was born on the 3rd October 1784, and she is most remembered as the governess and companion of Queen Victoria.
Louise Lehzen was born in Hanover as the daughter of Joachim Friedrich Lehzen who was a Lutheran pastor and his wife, Melusine Palm. Louise was the youngest of the couple’s nine children, and although her father was well educated and respected, the family were not well-off financially. Not much is known about her younger years, but with her education behind her, Louise was sent off to work as a governess at a young age to help bring money in for the family.
Louise’s first position was with the von Marenholtz family who treated her like one of their own, welcoming her warmly. Louise cared for the family’s three daughters in this role and gained glowing references. It was these references and recommendations from others that led to Louise gaining her position in the household of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Prince Edward was the son of King George III and had recently married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Saalfeld, who was a widow with two children. Louise was hired in 1819 to care for the Duchess’ daughter Princess Feodora of Leinigen who was aged 14 at this time.
At this time, the Duke’s household was moved to England because the Duchess was pregnant and they wished to strengthen the child’s claim to the throne by raising them on English soil. On 24 May 1819, the Duke and Duchess of Kent had their first and only child together, a daughter named Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent. At the time of her birth, Alexandrina who became known as Victoria in later years was fifth in line to the throne.
Victoria’s father died suddenly in 1820, followed quickly by his father George III. Suddenly Victoria’s life seemed like it may pan out quite differently as she was third in line to the throne at this point, behind uncles who were childless and ageing. It was clear that the young princess needed a proper education and so once Feodora was too old to need a governess, Louise Lehzen took the five-year-old Victoria as her charge.
The Duchess of Kent and her private secretary Sir John Conroy tried to control every aspect of Victoria’s life, in the hope that they would hold influence if a regency should come about or that John would gain influential roles in government. It is believed that Lehzen was chosen as Victoria’s governess as she was German and may have been easier to control as she needed the position and was far from home. Luckily for Victoria, this was not the case and Lehzen as she was known always put Victoria first, making sure she was told to be wary of her mother and Conroy’s intentions.
Victoria had a very strict upbringing, in a system called the Kensington system which was devised by her mother and John Conroy. The system was an over the top set of rules and lessons that meant that Victoria was constantly occupied and was never allowed to be alone. Even when walking around the palace, the Princess had to hold her mother’s hand or Lehzen’s hand. The system was designed to give the Duchess of Kent complete control and influence over Victoria and meant that she was rarely seen in public and was not allowed to play with other children. The only companions she encountered were the daughters of Sir John, whom she disliked and her older sister Feodora who was much older than her. This meant that the princess came to rely on the company and friendship of her governess Lehzen and overtime in her diaries she even called Lehzen “mother”.
Over the years, Lehzen educated Victoria in a stern but caring manner. She wished the princess to grow into an educated and independent woman. The Duchess and Conroy did not like the closeness between Victoria and Lehzen and tried on many occasions to have the governess removed from the household but never succeeded due to Lehzen’s tact and devotion the child. Lehzen spent time with Victoria reading, dancing and playing elaborate games with Victoria’s doll collection.
When it became clear that Victoria was eventually going to be Queen, her uncle King George IV began to show more interest in her. A 6000-pound grant from parliament was provided for the girl’s education, and Rev. George Davy’s was hired as a tutor. From this point, Victoria left a lot of her more childish pursuits behind and studied extensively. In 1827, Princess Sophia, Victoria’s aunt, persuaded King George to make Lehzen a baroness so that the princess was not surrounded by commoners. Louise Lehzen became Baroness Lehzen of the Kingdom of Hanover, the only governess to ever receive such an honour.
In 1830, King William IV succeeded the throne and Victoria became the first in the line of succession. During a history lesson with Lehzen at this time, Princess Victoria looked at a genealogy table in one of the books, and it finally sank in that she was going to be Queen one day. Victoria burst into tears but then looked at Lehzen and said: “I will be good”.
On 24 May 1837, Victoria turned 18. Any hopes her mother and Conroy had of taking charge of a regency period were dashed. It was just weeks later that King William IV died and Victoria became Queen. The first thing the new Queen demanded was that her mother was removed from her room and Conroy was dismissed from her household.
Lehzen continued on as Victoria’s companion once she was too old to need a governess. She was named Victoria’s “lady attendant”, but in reality, she was much more than an attendant. Lehzen carried the household keys like a first lady of the bedchamber and controlled household finances. Lehzen had rooms which joined onto the young Queen’s and had her total confidence and respect, yet she never misused her position.
It was only when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert that things began to change. Lehzen had wished for Victoria to remain unmarried like Queen Elizabeth I and Lehzen and Albert never saw eye-to-eye. Lehzen did not like Albert and Albert did not like the influence Lehzen had on his wife, calling her ‘the hag’. After Victoria and Albert’s first child, Vicky was born, she became ill, and Lehzen was blamed for the choice of medical staff and the fact that the baby was not treated correctly. After this incident, Victoria finally gave in to Albert’s demands and dismissed Lehzen. After over two decades with Victoria, Lehzen was sadly sent back to Germany.
Queen Victoria said that it was “very painful” to be without Lehzen, a woman who had been like a mother to her. The Queen clearly loved Lehzen and provided an £800 a year pension for her to live on in Germany. Victoria and Lehzen continued to write to each other for the rest of Lehzen’s life and while in Germany, Victoria visited Lehzen on two occasions. When in 1870, Baroness Lehzen passed away aged 85, Victoria had a memorial erected in her honour and she spoke of their relationship with fondness.