Queen Victoria is a legendary figure, no doubt. Stories of her reign feature in movies, television shows, books, you name it. And yet despite the attention paid to her, there’s one messy scandal from her lifetime that you might not have heard about. Today we’d probably regard it as nothing more than mean-girl gossip, but it had much higher stakes.
This story doesn’t really start with Victoria herself, but with the era she was born into. It was a time with rules and standards almost unfathomable to us now. Women very much held a second-class place in society, where they were expected to toe the line and be subservient to men. Even a woman sitting on the throne didn’t fully change that.
And really no-one expected Victoria to take the throne at all. The little girl who would become one of British history’s most famous figures was born in 1819 at Kensington Palace. Back then, it was one of the least important royal residences. And the baby was delivered in the dining room no less, because it was one of the few rooms with access to water.
Yep, the people of that era didn’t enjoy the comforts we have today. And how. When Victoria was born she inherited a world that was staggeringly full of death and disease. There simply wasn’t enough knowledge of how healthcare worked. Children were fortunate if they made it to ten years old – though as a royal Victoria had far more chance than most.
Victoria’s parents were the Duke and Duchess of Kent, aka Prince Edward and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. As Edward was a son of King George III, that put Victoria in line for the throne, albeit distantly. But in this time of high mortality, all her competitors – her cousins – passed away.
So little Victoria was never supposed to be Queen, and when she was born no-one imagined that she would be. But she was. And her early childhood, which she wrote about herself in later years, set the stage for the scandal and the tragedy to come once she was monarch.
Victoria’s childhood was chaotic to say the absolute least. Unfortunately her father, the Duke of Kent, wasn’t long for this world. He died of pneumonia in 1820, while Victoria was still a baby. And to make matters worse, just six days later King George III passed away as well. Young Victoria’s father and grandfather were gone in less than a week.
That left the Duchess – who spoke very little English, only German – as sole carer to her daughter. And she’d wanted to go back to her native Germany, but her brother King Leopold insisted she stay in England. So she fell back on the advice and assistance of a man named John Conroy, who had been the equerry to her late husband. What’s an equerry you say? It’s like an officer/assistant to a royal but more prestigious.
John Conroy was tall and good-looking. And it was even thought that he and the Duchess were lovers. Whether or not they really were is lost to history. But it is known that he had a pretty strong hold over her. And if her daughter really did become Queen, he’d wield a tremendous amount of power and influence.
Conroy became the comptroller of the Duchess’s household and an unwanted surrogate parent to the young Victoria. He and the child’s mother had a plan – if Victoria would have the throne one day, they wanted in. They would devise a system for the young girl which meant throughout her life she’d be completely dependent on them.
It was called the Kensington System, with a capital S. If Victoria became Queen before her eighteenth birthday, the Duchess and Conway thought, she would have to rule alongside a regent until she came of age. Her mother could be that regent, and thus control the whole country. But Victoria would have to be made sufficiently defenseless first.
So Victoria was placed under an agonizing set of rules. She was watched constantly, her every movement reported back to Conroy. She wasn’t permitted to be alone, or even to meet anyone by herself. She was allowed to play with Conroy’s own children, but forming real friendships proved impossible.
There was more. Under the Kensington System, Victoria was not allowed to walk downstairs without holding someone’s hand and had to always sleep in the same room as her mother. It sounds like these rules were meant to protect her from harm, but obviously there was a more sinister aspect.
The young princess also had to document her daily activities in what was called a “Behavior Book.” Her mother would note which days she had behaved and which days she had been “very naughty.” And she had to be good, because Conroy would take her out on occasion and present her to crowds as their future ruler.
Victoria absolutely hated Conroy, unsurprisingly. She referred to him as “a monster” and a “devil incarnate.” And she loathed her mother as well. Like many others, she suspected the Duchess and Conroy were having an affair. The situation was ripe for disaster, and of course one would eventually come calling.
Rules regarding sex and wedlock were very different in those days. A woman caught having sex outside of marriage could expect to be shamed. And if a child was born outside of marriage, they were pretty much automatically a second-class citizen. This was what Victoria knew, and it would all factor into the tragedy to come.
The teenage Victoria had other women around her, but they too were supposed to adhere to the Kensington System and not befriend her. The one exception to this was her governess, Baroness Lehzen. Victoria appeared to care for Lehzen much more than she did her own mother, and this infuriated the Duchess.
Victoria’s mother resolved to drive a wedge between her daughter and the governess. So she decided to hire a lady-in-waiting for Victoria, Lady Flora Hastings. She was many years older than Victoria, 28-years-old to her 15 when they met. And really, her main job was to replace the Baroness Lehzen.
After a whole childhood of being manipulated by her mother and John Conroy, Victoria wasn’t up for trusting this new addition to the household. Lady Flora was a very beautiful woman, and Victoria suspected she was really a spy reporting back to Conroy. Or perhaps even doing more for him?
Eventually the day came when Victoria was finally made Queen. In 1837 when she was 18 years old, her uncle passed away, and the throne went to her. Upon learning of her new title, Victoria reportedly sobbed on her mother’s shoulder. But then she demanded her bed be moved out of the Duchess’s room. Now there’s power for you.
Lady Flora and John Conroy remained members of the household, despite Victoria’s dislike for both of them. And as she adjusted to her position on the throne, something happened that suddenly made her seat there much less comfortable. It all began in the most innocuous way possible, with a carriage ride.
In 1839 Lady Flora decided to go to Scotland to see her family. If not for what happened afterwards that would be a minor event completely forgotten by history, but something did happen. Lady Flora returned from her trip with John Conroy. And unlike the young Victoria, she had no chaperone supervising.
On its own that probably would have passed without comment. But not long after returning to England, Lady Flora was heard to complain about a pain in her stomach. Her belly grew and grew until those around her couldn’t avoid what seemed like an obvious situation: she was pregnant. And unmarried.
So Rumors quickly spread that Conroy, whom Flora had after all been alone with, was the father. In February of that year Victoria noted in her diary how “exceedingly suspicious” Flora’s body suddenly looked. Baroness Lehzen, who had no love lost for the lady-in-waiting either, was said to agree with her.
Lady Flora frantically denied she was pregnant. How could she be? She’d never even had sex. The official court doctor, James Clark, got involved. Flora later wrote about that incident in her diary, and she seemed downright angry about it. It was her standing and reputation that was on the line, after all.
Flora wrote in her diary, “On my emphatic denial [Clark] became excited, urged me to confess as the only thing to save me…. it occurred to him at the first that no one could look at me and doubt it, and remarks even more coarse.” What those remarks were Flora didn’t record, but they were probably pretty nasty by Victorian standards.
Clark being so sure of it made things much worse for poor Lady Flora. One woman in particular, Lady Portman, especially came out against her. Flora was outright banned from the court, by order of Queen Victoria herself, until she could prove she wasn’t pregnant. And in the days of no ultrasound, that was pretty hard to do.
It was actually only Victoria’s mother who was on Flora’s side. The lady-in-waiting wrote in her diary, “My beloved mistress [the Duchess of Kent], 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.”
The “edict” was this: Lady Flora had to undergo an examination to prove her “innocence.” Yet no evidence of a pregnancy could be found. Lady Flora also noted in her diary, “In the evening Lady Portman came to me to express her regret for having been the most violent against me. She acknowledged that she had several times spoken a great deal to the Queen on the subject, especially when she found it was the Queen’s own idea.” Cat out the bag!
Victoria had essentially helped drag someone’s name through the mud for no reason, and it would quickly come back to haunt her. For a start, news of what had happened quickly reached Flora’s family. She sent her brother the Marquis of Hastings a letter saying that her honor, “had been most basely assailed.” He furiously stormed down to London to see the Queen.
And Queen Victoria assured the angry Hastings that his sister was once more welcome in the royal court, but that was it. The family couldn’t sue, but they could use their status to get public opinion on their side, rallying against the Queen. Think the nineteenth-century equivalent of a Twitter cancellation.
A letter from Flora helped considerably in that regard. She had written a letter to her uncle detailing the whole “revolting” story, and informed him, “You are welcome to tell it right and left.” He did, and how. He sent Flora’s letter to a British newspaper, the Examiner, and soon the whole country was able to read it.
Plus it definitely provoked outrage. How dare the new Queen be involved in something so horrible? Plus Britain was already divided between those who supported the monarchy and those who didn’t. Queen Victoria was suddenly booed and mocked by her citizens when she rode a horse in Ascot, for example.
To be fair to Victoria, she did try and make amends. She visited Lady Flora and apologized, but in return Flora told her, “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.” And it would have been hard to argue with that.
But if Lady Flora wasn’t pregnant, what caused the swelling in her stomach? It was, sadly, a tumor. Flora had cancer of the liver, and it was not only enlarging her belly but killing her. Although it might have been too late to save her anyway, the doctors of Victoria’s court should have known cancer was another explanation.
Queen Victoria visited Flora again just a few days before she passed away. She noted that her old lady-in-waiting had a, “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.”
Flora actually seemed to forgive Victoria in her last days. Victoria also noted that the dying woman, “Said she was very comfortable and was very grateful for [what] I had done for her and 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.’”
Flora died on July 5, 1839, and Queen Victoria reportedly sobbed upon hearing the news. She vowed that the woman she’d mistreated would get the finest funeral available. Yet because of the scandal and the outcry which had surrounded her, police were actually ordered to line the streets on the day.
It took a while for Queen Victoria’s reputation to recover. But it was partly her giving birth which helped restore her in the public eye. Once she was settled down with Prince Albert and producing heirs, the scandal faded away. Yet her becoming a parent kickstarted a depressing cycle, because just like her own mother, Victoria was strict and aloof.
Plus Albert once wrote to Victoria regarding her parenting skills, “The root of the trouble lies in the mistaken notion that the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding, ordering them about and organizing their activities. It is not possible to be on happy friendly terms with people you have just been scolding.” And that could sum up the ill-fated relationship between Victoria and Lady Flora as well.