Victoria – fact or fiction?

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes are back on our screens as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which means it’s time for a return to that fine old British tradition of historical nit-picking. This is our week-by-week guide to the true history behind the ITV drama.

Was Dr Brydon really the only survivor of the retreat from Kabul?

In the Victorian era, it became a well-established myth that only one man survived the disastrous retreat from Kabul: William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in General Elphinstone’s army.

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William Brydon

The late Victorian artist Elizabeth Butler’s famous painting ‘Remains of an Army’ shows Brydon alone in a desolate landscape, and ITV’s Victoria paints a similar version of events.

But the reality of the First Anglo-Afghan War was slightly complicated. Brydon was the only British soldier to make it back to Jalalabad from Kabul without being captured, but there were also several Indian soldiers (then called sepoys) from his army who achieved the same feat.

Nor were they the only survivors of the Khyber Pass massacre; more than 100 officers, women and children were taken captive, only to be later released.

But the most extraordinary part of Brydon’s story to feature in ITV’s Victoria was completely true: Brydon’s life was saved by a frozen copy of Blackwood’s Magazine which he had tucked inside his hat. In fact, the TV retelling didn’t do justice to quite how close Brydon’s scrape was; the sword-blow that cut through the magazine also shaved off a fragment of his skull.

All joking aside, what’s up with Prince Albert’s helmet?

The first episode told us (a little unnecessarily, one might add) that Prince Albert dressed “on the left” – but we don’t mean that kind of helmet.

The helmet in question is the Albert Shako, which Tom Hughes’s prince brought up almost every time he opened his mouth, throughout episode one.

Introduced in 1844 as a more practical alternative to existing military headgear, we can’t be certain that it really was designed by Albert himself. What is certain, however, is that people hated it. Regardless of who really came up with the design, the idea that Prince Albert spent his spare time faffing about with hats was just as funny to Victorians as it is to today’s ITV viewers. In 1843, the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon of “Prince Albert’s Studio”, in which the would-be hatter is shown proudly displaying his handiwork to a bemused Victoria.

Who on earth would eat that soup?

Lots of people. The departure of Victoria’s preferred chef, Charles Elmé Francatelli, meant guests at the royal table were forced to pick over a vile dinner of soup, made from leeks, prunes and (best of all) a whole boiled chicken’s head. Don’t pull that face – it’s actually rather popular.

TV chef James Martin would like you to know that cock-a-leekie soup is making a comeback, prunes and all. You can read his recipe for a modern take on the traditional Scottish dish at the BBC Good Food website. The Duchess of Bucchleuch certainly enjoys it.

How old was the Duchess of Bucchleuch really?

Much younger than she is on TV. Last night, viewers were introduced to Victoria’s new Mistress of the Robes, a fearsome Caledonian duchess played with aplomb by Diana Rigg. The real Charlotte, Duchess of Bucchleuch, was born in 1811. In 1844, when the show is set, she would have been 33 – just eight years older than Victoria.

Yes, that’s almost half a century younger than Rigg (79), but why not bend the truth if it allows for such a great bit of casting? It’s a certified historical fact that every TV show with Diana Rigg in it has been 35% better than the Rigg-less alternatives. So there.

Why did Francatelli really leave?

In the show, heartbroken Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley) left because he couldn’t bear to be near the newly promoted Mrs Skerrett (Nell Hudson), after she refused his offer of marriage back in series one.

In real life, however, the given reason for Francatelli’s abrupt departure from the palace was a fracas with another member of the household staff, Mr Norton the Clerk Comptroller. At the time, it was reported that Francatelli “took the opportunity of insulting Mr Norton in the presence of all the Pages and about 40 others”. After “high words ensued”, they called for a policeman to arrest him, but the hot-headed chef had done a runner by the time the police arrived.

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A Victorian best bettered

QueenSteamDM_468x314Queen Elizabeth II is to mark the day she becomes Britain’s longest reigning monarch by opening the UK’s biggest new railway line for more than a century.

In a choice of engagement bound to invoke parallels with the reign of Queen Victoria, she will travel by steam train from Edinburgh to Tweedbank near Galashiels on September 9 to formally open the new Borders Railway, reviving a rail tradition dating back to the 1840s.

imagesThe journey, accompanied by the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, will also be a powerful visible reminder of her love for Scotland on the day she surpasses her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s record for the longest reign.

Victorian Christmas created at Windsor

I have always imagined Queen Victoria’s Christmas would have been something to behold.

Well if you happen to be anywhere near Windsor Castle you will find that The royal residence has been transformed with decorations the monarch and her consort Prince Albert would have recognised complete with a Christmas tree suspended from the ceiling,

The ‘festive’ or Christmas tree was made popular by Queen Victoria’s consort (her husband) Prince Albert when he presented large numbers to schools and Army barracks.

In 1846 the Illustrated London News featured the above image and the tradition for the I have always imagined Queen Victoria’s Christmas would have been something to behold.

Well if you happen to be anywhere near Windsor Castle you will find that The royal residence has been transformed with decorations the monarch and her consort Prince Albert would have recognised complete with a Christmas tree suspended from the ceiling,

The ‘festive’ or Christmas tree was made popular by Queen Victoria’s consort (her husband) Prince Albert when he presented large numbers to schools and Army barracks.

In 1846 the Illustrated London News featured the above image and the tradition for the Christmas Tree became firmly established.

The exhibition will feature a tree hanging in place of a chandelier, as in Victoria’s day, in the Octagon dining room. The tree will be covered with items inspired by decorations featured on the Queen’s firs including swags (ornamental drapery) ribbons, replica candles and imitation snow and should be quite interesting and maybe present some good ideas for our own Victorian Christmas.

At Windsor two gift tables will be recreated with presents exchanged by Victoria and Albert.

Among them is a painting of a young nun and her suitor by Sir Charles Eastlake. It was commissioned by Victoria in 1844 as a gift for her husband.

Christmas Tree became firmly established.

The exhibition will feature a tree hanging in place of a chandelier, as in Victoria’s day, in the Octagon dining room. The tree will be covered with items inspired by decorations featured on the Queen’s firs including swags (ornamental drapery) ribbons, replica candles and imitation snow and should be quite interesting and maybe present some good ideas for our own Victorian Christmas.

At Windsor two gift tables will be recreated with presents exchanged by Victoria and Albert.

Among them is a painting of a young nun and her suitor by Sir Charles Eastlake. It was commissioned by Victoria in 1844 as a gift for her husband.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

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This fountain is fairly near to where I live.

The stone was donated by Queen Victoria is granite and commemorates Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Clive of India (Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive, KB MP FRS (25 September 1725 – 22 November 1774) built Claremont mansion which later became a royal residence used by Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria lent Claremont to the exiled French King Louis-Philippe and his consort Queen Marie-Amelie after the revolution of 1848. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg lived there until he became King of the Belgians.

So I think we can assume that Queen Victoria knew Esher quite well and thus the drinking was erected and takes the form of a statue of Britannia with a plaque of Victoria on the base.

The Diamond Jubilee…How things have chnaged

So my final piece on the Diamond Jubilee and we’ll take a brief look what was happening when Queen Victoria reached her 60th year.

Of course Victorian England was a very different place or was it!

There was coalition government. The coalition of 1897 was made up of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Unionists, sound familiar! The Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (a man with a mighty beard) an old Etonian just like our current PM, Deputy PM and most of the rest of the government.

The Government had a foreign policy which was termed as ‘splendid isolation’ during his tenure  as Prime Minister, this mean’t we entered into no formal alliances during the last two decades of the 19th century although were  bit chummy with Germany with informal agreement with Bismarck and Germany.

In 1897 we were at war in…Afghanistan, a fact hat was not overlooked in the rather excellent BBC series Sherlock.

This war culminated in the Siege of Malakand where British troops faced a force of Pashtun tribesmen, the British forces held out in their garrison for six days against a 10,000-strong Pashtun army before being relieved and was the first action a certain Winston Churchill saw.

Britain was also facing a period of economic bust, again sound familiar! Apparently a investment boom in the 1880s fed a massive financial bubble around United States and Argentine assets. The bubble burst in the Panic of 1890, leaving banks in London exposed which led to a banking bailout, this time not by the public but by  the Bank of England and the Rothschilds.

Natty (great name!) remarked at the time that the:

“entire private banking system in London would have collapsed”

So…Victorian England was a very different place or was it!

Diamond Jubilee…1897 Memorabilia

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Having seen all sorts of tat for sale in the shops supposedly celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s diamond Jubilee (even on packets of toilet paper!) I wondered what was on sale when Queen Victoria reached her 60th year…

Quite and array of memorabilia as it turns out, so here’s a small selection that I found for sale on Ebay uk!

The Diamond Jubilee…1897

Well Queen Elizabeth will be celebrating (along with many of her subjects no doubt!) the 60th anniversary of the accession of her good self to the  throne of the British Empire as did Queen Victoria’s back in 1897.

Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth have a certain amount in common really, obviously both Queen but the only two to have reigned for 60 years and both enjoy a level of ‘esteem’ I suppose you could call it which has not always been for  the monarchy of the united Kingdom

In 1887 the British Empire was at its peak with Queen Victoria the head of a realm of 450 million people that covered all four corners of the earth, she the head of an empire that ruled a quarter of the world’s population.

Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was huge with many nationwide festivities taking place and even modern-style royal walkabouts for the elderly and less the robust monarch. Nevertheless the idea of staging celebrations from one end of the nation to the other was really rather novel, quite simply we hadn’t done it before and didn;t really see ourselves as the party nation.

Historian Prof Walter Arnstein writes:

Britons hadn’t seen themselves as very good at such things. It was the sort of thing that people in Napoleonic France or Russia had been associated with. Queen Victoria herself didn’t much care for the idea. She thought it was not altogether appropriate and had to be talked into it.

However she found it was much more than she had expected.

She enjoyed it in retrospect, but beforehand had made things quite difficult for [prime minister] Lord Salisbury at the planning stage.

In fact Queen Victoria went on to say:

The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching.

So on Tuesday 22 June, named as Jubilee Day was celebrated across the globe. Like today it was a bank holiday, not just here but in India and  Ireland.

This year we have the Royal Flotilla as the highlight, in contrast Queen Victoria’s was a procession along six miles of London streets of the extended Royal Family and the leaders of the self-governing dominions and Indian states, that must’ve been quite a sight!

The Army, Navy (of course there was no air force for sometime to come)  was accompanied by colonial forces from Canada, India, Africa and the Antipodes dolled up their most colourful dress uniforms, unfortunately the Queen (still dressed in black) had painful arthritis and couldn’t get out of the state coach.

The parade started at Buckingham Palace went via Mansion House along past The Houses of Parliament, across Westminster Bridge and then headed up to St Paul’s Cathedral for a special service. This surely was  “Queen of earthly Queens” day as it was said at the time.

The Queen at 78 wrote:

No-one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets… The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening and every face seemed to be filled with joy.

Street parties were laid on for 400,000 of London’s poorest residents and 100,000 of Manchester’s. Sir Thomas Lipton of tea fame, sponsored and supplied free bottles of ale and pipe tobacco. These continued into the late evening with a chain of beacons lit across Britain.

All the celebrations were very much focused on the empire, its success, its expansiveness and its seeming invincibility not something we can celebrate today as we have slipped to be one of the smaller players on the world stage.