The future Queen Victoria was born on 24 May 1819 to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George III, and the widowed Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She had come ahead in the unexpected baby race between her uncles, following the death of the future King George IV’s only legitimate child, Charlotte of Wales, in childbirth. Her father died quite suddenly on 23 January 1820, leaving behind a wife who barely spoke English. Shortly before becoming King, the Prince Regent invited the widowed Duchess of Kent to come live at Kensington Palace. He realised all too well that refusing the Duchess and the Princess would be an unpopular decision. The Duchess of Kent arrived at Kensington Palace on the day that King George III died, and the Prince Regent became King George IV. Her little daughter was now third in line to the throne.
The Duchess of Kent wanted nothing more than to return to Germany, where she at least spoke the language but her brother Leopold, who had become the King of the Belgians, was determined that she should stay in England. King George IV refused to give her any money, believing the responsibility lay with her own family. She was also pressed to stay by John Conroy, her husband’s equerry, who became her comptroller. Leopold, as Princess Charlotte’s widower, was still receiving £50,000 a year of which he offered just £3,000 to his sister. In addition, she also received £6,000 a year that had been her husband’s. It was a meagre sum for the raising of a future Queen.
The Duchess of Kent and John Conroy began their attempt to bend Victoria to their will, in a plan called “The Kensington System.” They believed that Victoria 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.” Victoria’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.”
Victoria 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 mother were inseparable. In practice, this meant that Victoria 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. Victoria became quite resentful at being obliged to spent time with Victoire Conroy, whom she considered to be her social inferior. Victoria also resented her playmate’s father and her mother’s fascination with him.
Victoria usually blamed the Kensington System for her unhappiness as a child. She wanted to visit her uncles and enjoy the life at court. If anything, the Kensington System did succeed in making Victoria immensely popular, and people yearned to see the little girl.1