The year 1839 caused scandal for Queen Victoria after the death of Lady Flora Hastings – a lady-in-waiting to Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent.
The scandal, which gave the Queen a negative image, is well known, and when the first season of Victoria aired on ITV (UK) and PBS (US), it was a central plot point.
Lady Flora Hastings was the daughter of the 1st Marquess of Hastings, Francis Rawdon-Hastings and Flora Mure-Campbell. The aristocrat would enter the Royal Household as a lady-in-waiting for Victoria’s mother and would know about the Kensington System that kept then Princess Victoria isolated and under strict rules.
Well aware that Lady Flora knew about the system, Victoria viewed her with suspicion alongside Sir John Conroy, who she detested and referred to as the “devil incarnate.” Conroy served as a comptroller to Victoria and her mother.
Lady Flora was suspected of having an affair with Sir John Conroy and a swollen stomach, pain, nausea, and vomiting would be the perfect mixture for runaway rumours and theories. She met with Queen Victoria’s doctor, Sir James Clark, who wanted to examine her, but she refused. He prescribed her medicine of rhubarb and camphor. This led to him assuming she was pregnant. His suspicions were kept quiet, but the Baroness Lehzen (Queen Victoria’s governess) and the Marchioness of Tavistock (a close friend of the Queen) decided to spread rumours that she was pregnant after noticing her growing stomach.
The Queen would write in her journal that she suspected Lady Flora was pregnant by Sir John Conroy. She would write, in part, on 2 February 1839, that she suspected the Lady was “We have no doubt that she is – to use plain words – …with child!! Clark cannot deny the suspicion; the horrid cause of all this is the Monster and demon Incarnate, whose name I forbear to mention, but which is the 1st word of the 2nd line of this page.”
Lady Flora went on the defence and published an article in The Examiner denying the accusations and accusing a foreign lady (Baroness Lehzen) of spreading the false rumours.
Two weeks later, Sir James Clark told her she had to submit to an examination and that the Queen’s ladies said she should be privately married due to being pregnant out of wedlock. Only an exam would prove she was not carrying a child. Lady Flora’s mother would call this “this most revolting proposal.” Queen Victoria banned her from her court until she submitted to an examination. Lady Flora wrote, “Upon which he told me, that nothing but my submitting to a medical examination would ever satisfy them, and remove the stigma from my name. I found the subject had been brought before the Queen’s notice, and all this had been discussed, and arranged, and denounced to me, without one word having been said to my own mistress (the Duchess of Kent), one suspicion hinted, or her sanction obtained for their proposing such a thing to me… My beloved mistress, who never for one moment doubted me, told them she knew me, and my principles, and my family, too well to listen to such a charge. However, the edict was given.”
She eventually relented and had a physical examination, proving that she was not with child. According to Lady Flora, the examination was rough, prolonged and painful. It concluded that there were “no grounds for believing that pregnancy does exist, or ever has existed.” Victoria visited an agitated Lady Flora and promised to be everything behind them for the sake of her mother. Lady Flora accepted the Queen’s apology but said, “I must respectfully observe, madam, I am the first, and I trust I shall be the last, Hastings ever so treated by their Sovereign. I was treated as if guilty without a trial.”
Lady Flora wrote to her brother that “her honour had been most basely assailed” as a result of the examination by two doctors. Her brother, Lord Hastings teamed up with Sir Conroy, and together they attacked Queen Victoria and her doctor through the press for the malicious rumours that insulted Lady Flora. However, it did not work to discredit the Queen, but her approval took a dent.
Queen Victoria would visit her again on 27 June – just a few days before her death on 5 July 1839. She was mortified and wrote, “I found poor Ly. Flora stretched on a couch looking as thin as anybody can be who is still alive; literally a skeleton, but the body very much swollen like a person who is with child; a searching look in her eyes, a look rather like a person who is dying; her voice like usual, and a good deal of strength in her hands; she was friendly, said she was very comfortable & was very grateful for I had done for her & that she was glad to see me look well. I said to her; I hoped to see her again when she was better – upon which she grasped my hand as if to say ‘I shall not see you again.'” The autopsy report showed that Lady Flora had a grossly enlarged liver which was pressing on her stomach.
Queen Victoria’s approval would improve the following year after she married Prince Albert and fell pregnant. The occurrences with Lady Flora, though, would haunt the Queen for many years to come. She swore that she would never leap to such conclusions again and wrote, “I can’t think what possessed me.”