Some thoughts on Weeping Window at the Imperial War Museum

In 2014 to celebrate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the Tower of London played host to an installation entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red which comprised of nearly 900,000 red ceramic poppies each representing a British and colonial soldier who died while serving at the front. Conceived by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, the installation attracted some 5 million visitors during its three month run.

Over the next three years, the installation undertook a nationwide tour and now with the centenary of the Armistice drawing near, the poppies are now currently on display at the Imperial War Museum in London under the name Weeping Window, where a cascade of poppies can be seen pouring from above to down below. I went to view the installation over this weekend and I have to say that time has not lessened their impact.

As the centenary of the First World War draws to a close, the poppies recall not only the sacrifice of those who fought, both men and women, but those they left behind; whose sacrifice was not blood and pain but tears of grief and pain for loved ones and lives changed forever.


Weeping Window is currently on at the Imperial War Museum London until 18 November 2018. For more information please visit:

The blogger visited the installation on 20 October 2018. Photos were taken by blogger.


Exhibition Review – Fashioned from Nature (V&A) and Voice & Vote (Palace of Westminster)

The natural world has always inspired fashion through patterns, prints and design as well as being a source of materials used to make clothes and accessories. Nature is an enduring theme and one that has never fallen out of fashion due to its timelessness and universality.

The V&A’s current exhibition Fashioned from Nature looks at how the natural world has influenced fashion and been a source of material for the production of clothes from the 17th century until the present – the downstairs gallery focusing on both these aspects. For centuries the demand for materials such as wool, fur and bone stimulated both domestic and foreign trade. Several places in Europe became famous for a particular product: such as England for its wool, Italy for silk and France and present day Belgium for lace. From the 17th century onwards, the establishment of global trade links and the acquisition of colonies outside Europe resulted in the introduction of materials and fabric such as cotton, pineapple fibre as well as the skins from animals such as the crocodile. The later development of faster means of transportation and production meant that such materials became more widely available and cheaper.


Another main aspect of the exhibition is with regards to the influence of nature in fashion design, with the enduring popularity of floral prints and embroidery seen in extant pieces and fabric swatches from the 17th and 18th centuries to the present day. Flowers were also popular as accessories such as hair ornaments and corsages pinned to dresses and gowns, and technological advances during the 19th century meant that the use of artificial flowers became widespread. This was especially the case for weddings where orange blossoms made of wax were a common alternative to the real thing.

Global trade and exposure also meant that materials could be sourced from abroad, whether it was new materials or as a way to top up or replace European stock. This was particularly true with fur and feathers: for instance the North American beaver was highly sought after the decline in numbers of the same animal in Europe. Exotic birds from the Americas, Asia and Africa also provided the feathers used to trim hats, fans, gowns and coats, which unsurprisingly led to issues around the environment cost and questions about the ethics of such a trade to satisfy demand for more and more fur and feathers in the name of fashion.


This brings me to the one major issue I have with this exhibition. While it was relevant to highlight the cost of fashion to the environment and wildlife, it is tackled in a heavy handed and patronising way. The sections dealing with how industrialisation and growing demand led to greater awareness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is treated in a much more backhanded manner with the implication that industrialisation was a bad thing over all. However those that deal with the present can’t resist beating the visitors over the head with shrill pronouncements about fast fashion being bad for the environment and workers’ rights in the developing world. I detect a sense of snobbery here as the exhibition’s interpretation puts the blame on the poor and those who cannot afford designer and sustainable fashion for any current environmental problems the planet is facing thanks to the rise of disposable fashion.

Overall the exhibition has a lot of offer in terms of content and information however I wish there was more about the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as they demonstrated how patient campaigning, royal patronage and generating awareness led to the egret’s numbers recovering after they were hunted to near extinction for their feathers. What was the big let-down in the end was the exhibition failing to ask and explore that all important question – shouldn’t the fashion industry and its allied sectors put its own house in order first before presuming to lecture the public on the negative impact of fashion on the environment?



As we continue to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 which gave women over 30 the right to vote, the Palace of Westminster has decided to mount its own exhibition about the tumultuous road that led to female suffrage. Westminster’s offering however goes one step further as the exhibition also delves into the 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and the 99 years since the first woman took her seat as a Member of Parliament.


Entitled Voice and Vote, the exhibition charts the history of the history of female suffrage and female participation in a chronological manner. Before the 19th century, not only were women barred from voting, they were even forbidden from entering the Houses of Parliament. After the Napoleonic Wars, a group of women managed to find a way to enter the building, watch and listen to the debates from the ventilator; this also coincided with calls for social reform and women were at the forefront of many of these campaigns which ranged from prison reform, abolition of slavery, improvement of working conditions among others.

When the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt following the 1834 fire, a Ladies’ Gallery was added so that women especially female relations of MPs could watch and follow the debates. However, heavy metal grilles were placed over the windows which obstructed the view and made the gallery hot and uncomfortable. One woman likened the Ladies’ Gallery to an eastern harem where women were literally shut up, out of sight out of mind; and eventually it became known as the “Cage” and yet another symbol of women’s lack of political and social rights.

The next two sections dealt with the struggle for women’s suffrage and while there was too much emphasis on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes on what should have been a more balanced view that included the suffragists (many of them men), it was fitting that this exhibition highlighted the stunt pulled by the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) where one of their members chained herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery, not only to submit a petition to grant women the right to vote but also to point out the hated symbolism behind the grille.

Women over 30 were finally given the right to vote in 1918 and the following year saw the election of Nancy Astor to Parliament. She was quickly allocated a space which proved to be inadequate as more women were elected as MPs and yet again highlighted that Parliament was still very much a male dominated institution. Despite the fact that women could stand for the Commons, the House of Lords was still barred to them and Viscountess Rhondda, who had inherited her father’s title, led the campaign to open the upper house to women. This was finally realised with the Life Peerages Act in 1958 while female hereditaries could take their seat from 1963.

The exhibition was on display at St Stephen’s Hall and given that the hall was undergoing repair and conservation work might account for the small space allocated – which is a shame as I believe that using the whole area would have demonstrated what major strides women had made in public life and cementing their place in history.  It may be slightly fanciful to suggest that the exhibition, by being shoved into a corner of a great public building, is symbolic in itself of the fight that women had and in many ways still do have to be taken seriously in the wider public sphere – it’s impossible to imagine new male MPs being designated as ‘Blair’s Babes’ or ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ in the trivialising and patronising way that female MPs have been. Despite the small space however they were able to recreate what it would have been like peering through the ventilator or the Ladies’ Gallery; and objects from the Parliamentary Archives and loans from other collections were able to bring to life key events in the struggle for the right to vote and participate in political life.

At present, women have occupied many of the highest political positions from being Speaker of the House of Commons to the Premiership. One leaves the exhibition thinking that women have come a long way but more needs to be done. A journalist once remarked that women would have true equality with men when they didn’t have to be at least as twice as good as men in any job to be taken seriously, and the rise to positions of power and influence of mediocre and untalented women was as taken for granted and unquestioned as that of their mediocre and untalented male counterparts. Looking around the current crop of female politicians perhaps women have achieved that true equality: no-one is really remarkable and some are outright mediocre or nonentities. No different to the vast majority of men after all.



The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 1 September 2018. Photos were taken by blogger

Fashioned from Nature is currently on at the V&A (London) until 27 January 2019. For more information, please visit this link:

Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament is on at Westminster Hall (Palace of Westminster) until 6 October 2018. For more information, please visit:

Book Review – The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy

In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt, tired of the snubs from New York society, carefully planned a ball that would finally throw open the doors of the “400” to her and her husband William Kissam Vanderbilt. She decided on a costume ball, a type of event that had not been held for years, and her guest of honour would be her dear friend, Consuelo Drogo Montagu Viscountess Mandeville and future Duchess of Manchester. The viscountess was born Consuelo Yznaga, and Alva had known her since they were children growing up in the South during the heady days before the Civil War would shatter the world they knew.

For weeks people talked about nothing but the ball and it emerged that the doyenne of New York society Mrs William Backhouse (Caroline) Astor was not invited. The reason for this is because the two women had not been formally introduced and etiquette dictated that the more senior woman would call on her junior counterpart first then a reciprocal call would follow. After learning that her granddaughter was eager to be invited and had been hard at work on her dancing lessons, Mrs Astor made the first move followed by Mrs Vanderbilt and sure enough, an invitation to the ball appeared.

The farce above demonstrated how far the likes of Alva Vanderbilt were prepared to go to break into society, and having Mrs Astor call on her was a social triumph. But for the ambitious Alva, that wasn’t enough. She also began grooming her daughter Consuelo for a grand match: and that meant following in the footsteps of her godmother Lady Mandeville who finally became Duchess of Manchester in 1890.


Alva’s machinations are one of the many case studies chronicled by Anne de Courcy in her latest book, The Husband Hunters. Subtitled Social Climbing in London and New York, not only does it deal with the well-trodden path of analysing and chronicling the numerous American heiresses who traded dollars for a title and status, but also how their parents – especially the mothers – made it their life’s mission to break into the upper echelons of American and above all New York society.

By the 1870s America was experiencing an economic boom made possible by the end of the Civil War, industrialisation and population movement to the west in search of better work prospects especially in farming, mining, herding and railways among others. Many people rose from grinding poverty to wealth beyond their wildest dreams and soon began to acquire the trappings of wealth – mansions, yachts, trips abroad, jewellery, clothes, works of art and ostentatious entertaining. It was the period of the Gilded Age where luxury, vulgarity and ostentation were watchwords.

The old rich in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York City looked on these nouveau riche arrivistes in horror. To the old guard, wealth was not to be flaunted and should be balanced by good works and serving as a pillar to the community, but these newbies believed that social acceptance could be bought if the price was right, and de Courcy describes how this was all done.

New York society was especially difficult to penetrate and even more so under Caroline Astor, its self-styled doyenne. She was aided by Ward McAllister, a journalist who became her confidant and assisted her with planning her parties and balls. Through his journalism, he penned articles advising on behaviour, etiquette, dress and deportment but today he is best remembered for coining the myth of the “400” as a reference to the number of people who could fit into Mrs Astor’s famous ballroom and which became a byword for exclusivity. It became the goal for many a pushy social climber to break into its ranks because to be invited by Mrs Astor signalled social acceptance.

One roundabout way to secure that all important invitation was to marry off a daughter to an impoverished European aristocrat. The British were preferred –  not only because of a common language but also due to the exclusivity of British titles. Thanks to primogeniture the pool of titled men (both for the peerage and baronetage) was smaller than their continental counterparts and to aristocrats in need of money the nouveau was less important than the riche. And this is precisely what happened: from the 1870s to 1910, a large percentage of the peerage married American heiresses and not even Mrs Astor would dream of snubbing a titled aristocrat and his American heiress wife.

De Courcy makes a convincing case for the appeal of the American heiress to cash-poor peers. Not only were they treated equally under American inheritance laws but they were perceived as lacking the airs and graces that were the hallmark of aristocratic society. Thanks to their father’s money, they had the best money could buy in terms of clothes, jewels and experience. Many of them were also well educated and well-travelled thus being more sophisticated, confident and more at ease in conversing with people. Others had quirks and traits that allowed them to break down social barriers such as Consuelo Duchess of Manchester who could play the banjo which enlivened many a house party or dinner.

However not all American heiresses were beautiful or sophisticated or intelligent. Looking at some of the photographs in the book, it is hard to believe that they would have turned heads by virtue of their looks. In the end, one can argue (and de Courcy does not shy away from saying) that money was the main deciding factor for these matches. If the heiress was intelligent, beautiful and talented it was seen as a bonus and an asset but these marriages were a straightforward exchange of status and cash. Happiness and compatibility were also not major concerns and unsurprisingly a lot of these transatlantic marriages were unhappy, with some ending in divorce.

While the travails and tribulations of the American heiress turned British aristocrat has been well trodden, De Courcy also trains her eye on their mothers. American society was matriarchal, the men might have made the fortunes that raised the family’s economic status but it was the women who used the money in order to cement the social standing that they believed should go hand in hand with their newfound wealth. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” springs to mind as the women vied with each other to build bigger houses; acquire jewellery, works of art and paintings; wear the latest fashions and throw the most lavish balls of the season. The men were pretty much reduced to being human cash machines and had virtually no say when it came to family matters even with their daughters’ futures. It’s not surprising that many of these millionaires resorted to escaping from their own marriages metaphorically and literally.

The fierce competition and relentless ambition became too much but as the 1890s rolled along, the criticism became much more strident and as the United States became embroiled in an economic recession, the conspicuous consumption of these Gilded Age personalities left a bitter taste in the mouth. By the beginning of the twentieth century there was a backlash against these transatlantic marriages and as America increasingly began to play a role in international affairs, more and more people began to realise that they didn’t need aristocratic marriages for social validation.

De Courcy charts the rise and fall of the transatlantic marriage and social climbing phenomenon in thorough detail. In the end while the money the American heiresses brought into their marriages did save many a crumbling estate and some were the mothers to figures who made an impact in our history, in the long run their presence did not arrest the decline and fall of the British aristocracy. Instead they served as sticking plasters, delaying the inevitable but nonetheless nothing more than a short-lived social phenomenon.

Exhibition Review – Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector (The Wallace Collection)

In 1870, Richard Wallace (1818-1890) received a windfall from his employer the 4th Marquess of Hertford which comprised an art collection consisting of Old Master paintings, 17th and 18th century furniture, snuff boxes and perhaps the second largest assembly of Sevres porcelain in Britain (all in addition to homes in Britain and France as well as land in Britain). Ostensibly the inheritance was a reward for the services Wallace had performed for the 4th Marquess as his private secretary and art advisor, but the long standing belief was that Wallace was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess by a mistress, Agnes Wallace Jackson.


Since the 4th Marquess of Hertford never married and had no legitimate children, the title and the estate passed to a nephew: however as his art collection was his private property, the 4th Marquess decided to bequeath it to Richard Wallace. The inheritance would be the bedrock of the Wallace Collection and it is fitting that the museum has decided to mark the bicentenary of its founder’s birth with an exhibition looking at Wallace’s life and interests through the objects he collected.

During his lifetime, Wallace was well known as a philanthropist – known for his work for the poor both in Britain and France as well as being an art collector. His philanthropy and collecting came together as he was a generous lender of objects from his collection to museums and art galleries and he gave money to enable museums to purchase works of art. In 1872 – by then Sir Richard Wallace – he arranged for a loan of his collection to the Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhood) with the stipulation that no admission charge would be levied. The exhibition ran until 1875 and by the time it had closed some 2.3 million people had visited.

On Wallace’s death in 1890 he left everything to his widow Lady Wallace (their only son Edmond having predeceased his parents). In 1897, Lady Wallace died and she left her husband’s art collection, papers and Hertford House to the nation on the condition that admission would be free (much like Wallace’s stipulation to the loan to Bethnal Green Museum). The Wallace Collection finally opened to the public in 1900 and since then has become well known for its stupendous collection of Dutch and British paintings, French porcelain and furniture, arms and armour.

To celebrate the bicentenary of its founder, the Wallace Collection has put up an exhibition simply entitled Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector. Featuring archival material from the collection’s files that charts key events in Wallace’s life; such as the codicil in the 4th Marquess’s will where he bequeaths his private property to Wallace, receipts that showed how much Wallace was prepared to spend to add to his collection and a catalogue for the Bethnal Green Museum exhibition.

The main highlights of the exhibition of course are the featured objects that demonstrate what kind of a collector Richard Wallace was and his main interests. Unlike the 4th Marquess who collected Old Master paintings and 18th century French porcelain, Wallace’s tastes ran more to Medieval and Renaissance decorative art, arms and armour and non-Western art. He was also particularly drawn to objects that had an interesting provenance or story behind them.

What stood out in the exhibition for me were objects that had royal provenance: such as a dagger than belonged to King Henry IV of France which was presented to him as a wedding gift (and later carried by the Emperor Napoleon as a talisman), and a pair of jewelled cups that were made for the Qianlong Emperor for the annual New Year rites. I can imagine that what attracted Wallace to acquire both was not only the craftsmanship and attention to detail that was very evident but also the fact that both were owned by monarchs and had an interesting story behind them.



The story behind an object would have most likely been a motivation for the acquisition of the Horn of St Hubert, which as tradition dictated was used by the saint while out hunting when he encountered the stag with the cross between its antlers. For many, many years it was displayed at Chauvirey-le-Châtel until the 1870s, when it was sold to Richard Wallace who paid 16,000 francs for it.


As knowledgeable as Richard Wallace was about art and although he took great care with his purchases, he was not immune to purchasing fakes and reconstituted pieces. Some of the Renaissance jewellery that he acquired were not made in the 16th century as advertised but were very clever 19th century copies or outright forgeries, but such was the craftsmanship that they quickly became works of art in their own right. Another example was a silver gilt basin that was made in Portugal in the 16th century but someone later added the coat of arms of Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) in order to increase its value and fabricate an important provenance on a well-made but obscure piece.


The exhibition is small but perfectly formed and does shine a spotlight on Richard Wallace which enables the visitor to get to know more about the man behind the collector and philanthropist. Despite the fact that his collecting slowed down in the 1880s due to being affected by the agricultural depression, Wallace remained committed to ensuring that his collection was accessible to the general public and this was finally realised in 1897 when Hertford House and its contents were given to the nation, an act of generosity which was described by a fellow collector and rival, Ferdinand de Rothschild as a “windfall…..[whose] artistic value is inestimable” and to this day it remains a jewel among Britain’s museums.


Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is on at the Wallace Collection from 20 June 2018 to 6 January 2019. Admission is free and for more information, please visit

The blogger visited the exhibition on 31 July 2018, photos also taken by blogger

Queen Victoria and India (Part 2)

As mentioned in part 1, Queen Victoria viewed India as her special fief, and while she showed little interest in the subcontinent at the beginning of her reign, this began to change from the 1840s onwards. First there was her new husband Prince Albert – in his quest to carve out a role for himself, he found himself drawn to causes which involved Britain’s growing empire, such as the abolitionist movement. Secondly, with the fall of the Whigs from power they were replaced by the Tories whose view of governing India was very different from their rivals. As governor-general in the 1840s, Lord Ellenborough undertook the unprecedented move of communicating directly with the Queen especially with regards to information that was supposedly restricted to the East India Company’s Board of Control and the Cabinet. In addition, independent of the East India Company, Ellenborough also began to establish relationships with local rulers in the Queen’s name and helped facilitate direct diplomacy between Queen Victoria and these local rulers.

Some of this direct diplomacy turned into friendships and a few even went further than that. In 1852, Queen Victoria received the deposed Rajah of Coorg, Chikka Virarajendra and his daughter Gouramma (1841-1864) at Buckingham Palace. The purpose of the visit was to petition the Queen for the return of his wealth which had been seized by the East India Company after his kingdom had been annexed, as well as to have his daughter educated in Britain.

Princess Gouramma was also baptised at Buckingham Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen was pleased to act as the girl’s godmother and also gave the little princess her own name and from then on she became known as Victoria Gouramma. Although the princess of Coorg was cared for by a succession of aristocratic guardians, Queen Victoria took an active interest in her education and upbringing. Victoria Gouramma was a regular guest at the various royal residences, played with the royal children and sat for the painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter and the sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti.


Victoria Gouramma grew up to be an attractive and flirtatious young woman and it was the latter that worried her guardians and the Queen. To their relief, she finally married Colonel John Campbell and they had one daughter named Edith Victoria Gouramma but tragically Princess Victoria Gouramma died at the age of 23. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery and the inscription in her gravestone was composed by the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria much like with her own children and grandchildren had hoped for a grander match for Victoria Gouramma and the young man she had in mind for her was Duleep Singh (1838-1893), the Maharajah of Punjab who also lost his kingdom after Punjab was annexed by the East India Company. Like Victoria Gouramma, he also received a Western education and converted to Christianity. He was also a regular guest at the various royal residences and maintained a close friendship with the royal family. After Queen Victoria’s efforts to marry him off to Princess Victoria Gouramma ended in failure, Duleep Singh married Bamba Muller, the illegitimate daughter of a German businessman and his Ethiopian mistress. They had five children and Duleep Singh acquired a country home in Suffolk called Elveden where he lived the life of a British aristocrat.


However his extravagant lifestyle and squabbles with the India Office among others apart from his reconversion to the Sikh faith led to his exile and estrangement from Queen Victoria. Despite all these, the Queen never wavered in her friendship and affection for Duleep Singh and they were reconciled before his death in 1893. Much like with Victoria Gouramma, the Queen acted as godmother and guardian to Duleep Singh’s five children.

Had Queen Victoria succeeded with her matchmaking plans to marry off Victoria Gouramma to Duleep Singh, it was hoped that the prospective union would lead to a new Indian Christian dynasty and would lead to the spread of the Christian faith in India although it is doubtful it would be the case even if Victoria Gouramma and Duleep Singh had married and had children.

When Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, the Indian army took a prominent role in the celebrations as soldiers from the various Indian regiments marched alongside their British counterparts, their uniforms providing a dash of colour and exoticism in the streets of London. It was also this year that two Indians joined the Royal Household – Mohammed Bukush and Abdul Karim – whose main function was to attend to the Queen during meals and undertake any other tasks Her Majesty might see fit for them to do. Four others joined the following year and they stood out in their distinct livery even when in Scotland where their Indian uniforms were made out of Balmoral tartan.

One of the Indian staff, Abdul Karim eventually stood out and he went from serving at the table to giving the Queen Hindustani lessons and finally becoming her secretary on Indian matters. To reflect this change of status, he was addressed as munshi or secretary and photographs of him waiting on the royal table were destroyed. The rest of the Household worried that they had another John Brown in their midst but as Shrabani Basu perceptively noted, the Munshi just as Prince Albert, Disraeli and Brown before him was able to tap into the Queen’s romantic side for “[a]s a Queen she lived in a man’s world and could have few women friends….and she had no one to turn to or confide in after Albert’s death…..Karim brought her close to India, the country that she had always longed to visit. A skilled raconteur, he told the Queen about his country, the religions and the culture.” (pp. 241-2)


While Victoria saw the Munshi as a romantic figure and someone she could confide to, others did not see it that way. The government was concerned over any leaks of Indian policy and as one of the Queen’s biographers Christopher Hibbert noted that the Queen due to the Munshi’s influence “was persuaded to see Indian affairs from an exclusively Muslim point of view” and which did not go down well with the government in India especially the provincial governors and civil servants. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private Secretary and Sir James Reid, physician in ordinary bore the brunt of having to mediate between the Queen, the government and the rest of the Household with regards to the Munshi. There was a mix of racism and snobbery underpinning the dramas over the Munshi but it would be simplistic to dismiss the general household attitude towards him as solely due to those two factors.

As the Queen piled on him more honours, money and gifts (among them a land and house in India), he became grander in attitude and bearing which also did not go down well with his Indian colleagues and the princes and other native dignitaries who paid visits to Victoria and the rest of the royal family. As another one of the Indian servants, Ahmed Hussain told Sir James Reid, Karim received a lot of favours from the Queen that even an Indian prince or a long standing servant of twenty years would not get. In addition, Karim was also less than honest about his background, claiming that his father was a doctor when in reality he was a lowly apothecary in India. Karim also brought his wife over from India and she lived in purdah, refusing to go out in public unless veiled – a source of much hilarity for some of his Indian colleagues who knew Mrs Karim back in India and knew that she was never in purdah.

Queen Victoria all her life had been free of racial prejudice and social snobbery and her treatment of the Munshi reflected that. But as Lord Salisbury believed, the Queen enjoyed the squabbles between the Munshi and the rest of the household since they were “the only form of excitement she can have.” That’s not necessarily the case but the issues with the Munshi also revealed the Queen’s stubborn side and her refusal to see the negative side of persons she favoured.

Longing to visit India but unable to, Queen Victoria recreated India back in Britain. This extended not only to having Indian servants and having Indian curry served at the royal table but also to commissioning a room where she could feel that India had come to her and live out her view of India.

The room in question was the Durbar Room at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. The house was acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a family home in the 1840s in lieu of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton where the couple together with their nine children could live a much more domestic lifestyle. The house was designed in the Italianate style by Prince Albert which reminded the prince of his study trips and holidays in Italy, with the building work supervised by Thomas Cubitt. Underpinning the fact that this was a family home was in Lauren Palmor’s words that “Osborne lacked the requisite amenities for conducting state affairs – there was no throne room, formal dining room or stateroom” and the opportunity to take a break from her round of official duties meant that Queen Victoria always relished her time at Osborne. As she wrote to her then prime minister Sir Robert Peel: “We are more and more delighted with this lovely spot…the combination of sea, trees…the purest air…make it a perfect Paradise.”

All of this would change after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, when Queen Victoria would spend more and more time at Osborne House, and it was then decided to extend the house in order to accommodate rooms for official entertaining. The grandest of these rooms was the Durbar Hall which was designed and executed by the team of Sir Lockwood Kipling (father of the writer Rudyard Kipling) and Bhami Ram Singh. Both men were connected to the Mayo School of Art in Lahore (now in modern day Pakistan) and this was not the first royal commission they had worked on, the first being that of a billiard room for Bagshot Park, the country home of one of Queen Victoria’s sons, Prince Arthur Duke of Connaught. The Bagshot Park commission would lead to the Osborne House assignment which was built between 1890 and 1891 and the finished room with its teak carvings and intricate plaster would be in Jeremy Musson’s words, “not a room for quiet withdrawal and relaxation but rather for state banqueting; it was designed for imperial hospitality, to impress (and even intimidate) at the highest level.”

Just as in a typical building project, the finished product isn’t always to the original design. Princess Louise, one of the queen’s daughters and a professional sculptor herself, voiced her opposition to the gallery above the fireplace, considering it heavy and suggested a peacock design instead. Her suggestion was incorporated into the final design and one that visitors will see when they step into the room. Ram Singh stayed on to oversee the work and due to the high cost of bringing workmen from India, British builders under the firm of Jackson and Sons were engaged to turn Ram Singh’s design into a reality. However there were fixtures that were made in India such as the rug woven in Agra that brought colour into a room that is predominantly white in colour scheme.


The Durbar Room was not only used for official entertaining but also for family events such as Christmas where during the festive season, the room was decorated with Christmas trees which stood on tables together with presents. This space was also used for tableaus and stage performances put on by members of the royal family and the household for Queen Victoria and her guests.



Another main function of the Durbar Room was for the display of gifts given to Queen Victoria by Indian princes and subjects. What surprises the visitor is that they do not correspond to our view of Indian opulence as this was strictly discouraged by the Queen and the government. Following her proclamation as Empress of India in 1876 and subsequent Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the Queen preferred addresses of loyalty as she wrote to the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir that “kind words from a distant friend are the most precious of all gifts.” Her Indian subjects took this maxim seriously, apart from loyal addresses she was also sent books written about her or her husband Prince Albert as well as tomes dedicated to her. Local authors also took to translating Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands in various Indian languages and sending them as gifts.

Loyal addresses were sent in cases that reflected the skill, materials and design special to a particular region or area and the result is a microcosm of the Indian subcontinent all displayed in one room. The corridor leading to the Durbar Room is a preview of the room the visitor is about to enter as it is lined with portraits of the Queen’s Indian subjects, those of her staff painted by the artist Rudolf Swoboda (which included that of Abdul Karim), the architect Bhami Ram Singh and portraits of Indian princes presented to the Queen. Also in this corridor are the portrait of Duleep Singh by Winterhalter and the bust of Victoria Gouramma by Marochetti.


So all in all, what do all these tell us about Queen Victoria? As the writer Theo Aronson mused, India held an enduring fascination for the Queen for its exoticism, mystery, excitement and colour and we can see this with the portraits and the rooms that she commissioned, not to mention the gifts she received and the uniforms worn by her Indian members of staff. As he continued:

“The Indians were a subject people, ‘belonging to me’ as she would say. More so than any of the other colonies, the Queen felt personally associated with India; she regarded herself as being directly responsible for ‘that enormous Empire which is so bright a jewel in her Crown.’” (p. 142)

However this was only one side of the story. As her relationships with Duleep Singh, Victoria Gouramma and Abdul Karim showed, the Queen was not bothered by differences in skin colour, status or religion, she was naturally a curious person and they whetted her appetite to know more about a country so different from the one she reigned over. They brought out her maternal side as well and she was prepared to overlook their caprices in a way that she would not have tolerated in her children and grandchildren.

Proclaiming Queen Victoria “Empress of India” represented a triumph of the view that Indians were different from the British and that having the British monarch as emperor or empress would appeal to the perception that Indians were very conscious of gradations in status. The Imperial title would make these distinctions clear and appeal as a symbol. In addition, it would help foster a closer bond between the monarchy and the Indian princes that would remain in force until 1947.


Further Reading:

Robert Blake. Disraeli (London, 1966)

Robert Blake. Gladstone, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria Centenary Romanes Lecture (Oxford, 1993)

C.P. Belliappa. Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg (Kolkata, 2010)

Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand. Queen Victoria’s Maharajah, Duleep Singh, 1838–93 (London, 1980)

Thomas Metcalf. Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1994)

C.C. Eldridge. England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli 1868-1880 (London, 1973)

Jan Morris. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (London, 1968)

Christopher Hibbert. Queen Victoria: A Personal History (London, 2000)

Shrabani Basu .Victoria and Abdul (London, 2010)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2011)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2012)

Hannah Pakula. The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Romania(London, 1984)

HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney. Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House (London, 1991)

Michaela Reid. Ask Sir James: The Life of Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria (London, 1987)

Kajal Meghani. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-1876 (London, 2016)

Emily Hannam. Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent (London, 2018)

William Ewart Gladstone. Midlothian Speeches 1879 (Leicester, 1971)

Milinda Banerjee. ‘Ocular Sovereignty, Acclamatory Rulership and Political Communication: Visits of Princes of Wales to Bengal’ in Frank Lorenz Műller and Heidi Mehrkens (eds) Royal Heirs and the Use of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe (London, 2016), pp. 81-100

Julius Bryant. ‘Kipling’s Royal Commissions: Bagshot Park and Osborne’ in Julius Bryant and Susan Weber (eds) John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London (London, 2016), pp. 434-467

Lauren Palmor. ‘Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room: The Imperial Museum at Home’, Past Tense: Graduate Review of History, vol. 3 no. 1 (2015), pp. 60-74

L.A. Knight. ‘The Royal Titles Act and India’, The Historical Journal, vol. 11 no. 3 (1968), pp. 488-507

Miles Taylor. ‘Queen Victoria and India, 1837-61’ Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2004), pp. 264-274

David Washbrook. ‘After the Mutiny: From Queen to Queen Empress,’ History Today 47 (1997), pp. 10-15

Cartoons taken from the

Durbar Room photos taken by blogger who visited Osborne House on 11 June 2018

Queen Victoria and India (Part 1)

One of our enduring images of Queen Victoria is the woman always dressed in black with a white widow’s cap atop her head. Her jewel are also devoid of colour, not for her coloured stones such as emeralds and rubies but always pearls and diamonds and in some portraits, she is depicted wearing a pearl and diamond bracelet with a miniature portrait of her husband Prince Albert. His untimely death in 1861 sent the Queen into mourning from which she never recovered and for the next forty years until her own death in 1901, she wore black in Albert’s memory.


Her only concessions to colour were the orders and decorations she would wear for state portraits and occasions. These included the sash and star of the Order of the Garter and pinned on her left shoulder were the badges of the Order of Victoria and Albert and the Order of the Crown of India. The latter was established to mark Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India in 1876 and was one of the three Indian orders of chivalry that cemented the link between the British crown and her Indian subjects, most especially the various princes.

Crown of India

The insignia of the Order of the Crown of India contained the initials “VRI” which stood for “Victoria Regina Imperiatrix” (Victoria Queen Empress) and underlines Queen Victoria’s relationship with and image of India. In this blog, I will be looking at this relationship through two prisms; first with Queen as Empress of India and secondly, her fashioning an image of India based on her dealings with individual Indians and the addition of the Durbar Room at Osborne House.

Queen Victoria as Empress of India

On 27 April 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed “Empress of India” after the passage of a bill granting her the title and style of empress was passed in both Houses and received royal assent. In reality, the title was a watered down version of what Victoria originally wanted – “Empress of Great Britain, Ireland and India” which the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli with his customary tact and flattery was able to dissuade the Queen from assuming said title as well as avoid controversy by giving assurances that Britain and Ireland would not be included.

This is not to say however that the move to grant Queen Victoria the title of “Empress of India” was smooth sailing, far from it as from the moment the Queen articulated her desire for the title, most explicitly when she opened Parliament in person the year before, what became known as the Royal Titles Bill was dogged by controversy. The debates over the Royal Titles Bill not only reveals to us Queen Victoria’s view on foreign and imperial matters as well as that of the political establishment but also says a lot about how the British saw themselves and crucially how the British saw India. In many ways, the assumption of the title “Empress of India” by Queen Victoria represented the triumph of the romantic over the liberal view of India which for better or for worse has coloured British policy in India during the days of the Raj.

What were these two views? The first was influenced by late eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism which viewed that India was corrupt and decadent. Their solution lay in reforming India through education, rule of law and free trade which the Liberals believed would result into a prosperous land freed of its decadent past. To this end, officials such as Lords William Bentinck and Dalhousie presided over policies and reforms that provided infrastructure, an administrative system among other things. The most significant however came with regards to education and stamping out practices that the British found abhorrent such as sati or wife burning. Education along Western lines, a Westernised code of laws and administrative system were among those heavily promoted and enacted with the optimistic view that would result the creation of, in Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s words, “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, morals and intellect.”

This optimism was not to last however as the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 led to the Government of India Act the following year which transferred the functions of governing India from the British East India Company to the Crown. This also led to a shift in view with regards to how best approach Indian affairs. The Liberal view of a corrupt India which could be improved through education and rule of law was set aside in favour of the more romantic view that India was “unchanging” and its traditions should be cherished rather than changed or suppressed. Corollary to this was the belief that Indians were not like the British and it was unfair to treat them as such.

In February 1876, opening Parliament for the first time since the death of Prince Albert, the Queen spoke of “the hearty affection with which he has been received by my Indian subjects of all classes and races assures me that they are happy under my rule, and loyal to my throne.” This was reference to the tour of India being undertaken by her oldest son and heir Albert Edward Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) from 1875 and its success became the impetus for Queen Victoria to request Parliament to add “Empress of India” to her existing titles.

The success of the on-going tour was not the only motivation for Queen Victoria to request for the title of Empress of India. First of all, Victoria in her mind was already empress since the Government of India Act if not even earlier. This view was exploited by politicians such as Lord Ellenborough who as Governor-General in the 1840s was extending her authority in India through the annexation of territories and facilitating relationships with the various Indian princes and the Crown independent of the East India Company. These bonds were cemented with the exchange of gifts, correspondence and crucially the establishment of an honours system with the creation of the Order of the Star of India. The latter was established following the suppression of the mutiny as a way to reward the princes who remained loyal to the British. Its insignia and motto “Heaven’s Light Our Guide” was designed and conceptualised by Prince Albert and this honour could be seen as being in line with the Government of India Act’s provision for the princes becoming central to British policy in India.

Secondly was with regards to Britain’s relationship with Russia which could be described as cool even chilly due to two main issues – the so-called “Eastern Question” regarding the concerns of the European Great Powers with the Ottoman Empire’s continuing political and economic instability. Britain’s view was that the Ottoman Empire was an important buffer state in order to check Russia’s desire to exploit nationalist sentiment in the Balkans and position itself as the champion of the Slavs. The other was with regards to the “Great Game” which came about due to Russia expanding its empire into Central Asia which placed its borders next to India. There was fear on the British side about a possible Russian incursion into India while the Russians were suspicious of British commercial attempts into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The antipathy towards Russia also spilled over closer to home. In 1874, Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh successfully courted and won the hand of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. The courtship opposed by both sets of parents – Queen Victoria was a passionate Russophobe who was not thrilled with the idea of a Russian daughter-in-law while Tsar Alexander II and his wife were loath to lose their only daughter on who they relied on heavily. Despite misgivings, the marriage went ahead and there arose issues of precedence as the Duchess of Edinburgh would rank third behind the Princess of Wales and the Princess Royal. The Tsar also made matters worse by requesting that his daughter should retain her style of “Imperial Highness” which displeased Queen Victoria. In the end, a compromise was made where the new princess was styled “Her Royal and Imperial Highness the Duchess of Edinburgh.”

The question over precedence and status also played an important factor with the Queen’s desire for the title. In reality Queen Victoria was not as status conscious as her continental counterparts however she was annoyed at continental royals maintaining that her children were socially inferior to the children of a Russian tsar or an Austrian emperor. What aggrieved her further was after German unification in 1871, the new emperor Wilhelm I (father-in-law of her oldest daughter Victoria Princess Royal and Crown Princess of Germany) thought that he ranked higher than Victoria who was a mere queen.

All these also chimed in with the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s vision of empire which would be a source of national pride. It was during his premiership that Indian and Imperial interests became synonymous with national interest and having Queen Victoria assume the title “Empress of India” would not only appeal to the Queen’s vanity but also to put her on equal footing with the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Royal’s Russian and German in-laws respectively. As Disraeli’s biographer Robert Blake observed: “[b]asically the Royal Titles Bill, like the Prince’s visit, was a counter-blast to the threat of Russian invasion or subversion of India, a measure designed to reaffirm and symbolize British power.” (p. 562)

When the Royal Titles Bill was announced on 17 February 1876, it was greeted with derision and met with stiff opposition not helped by the fact that Disraeli had failed to inform the opposition of plans to introduce the bill through Parliament. The debates in Parliament and general public opposition to the imperial title tell us a lot about how the British saw themselves as a people. As the Liberal MP Robert Lowe pointed out, “sentiment clothes the title of emperor with bad associations” and used the Roman empire as an example which he described as “the wretches who have filled the throne of Imperial Rome, who have been often raised to their position by military violence, and who sank below ordinary human nature in debauchery and crime.”

Disraeli’s reply to Lowe’s charge of Roman emperors coming to the throne through violence was to cite the example of the Antonines or the “Five Good Emperors” who reigned from 96-180AD. And while it may be true that Rome flourished under the reigns of these five men and that the succession was peaceful, it did not detract from the fact that a cursory glance at the list of Roman emperors, the great majority obtained the throne through the sword and died by the sword.

Opposition to the title also featured in the press. The Times called the idea of Victoria as Empress of India “tawdry” while cartoonists had a field day lampooning Disraeli’s imperial pretentions. A famous cartoon by John Tenniel (who famously illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) depicted Disraeli dressed as a Jewish peddler brandishing a foreign and gaudy crown in front of the Queen who is shown carrying a much more modest crown. Captioned “New Crowns for Old Ones” it was a play on the story of Aladdin and reflected what Malvina Pollock Kalim called a “widespread concern over corrupting influences that would either degrade her as the successor to a weak and degenerate Mughal ruler or encourage her to turn to an ‘Eastern potentate’.”


The debates also showed how much Disraeli and Queen Victoria betrayed an ignorance of the British public.  They did not foresee the popular opposition to the title of Empress with its negative connotations not only to Rome but also its association with autocratic European states such as Russia, Germany and Austria as well as France with its Napoleonic past. The British were proud of their constitutional and democratic (by the standards of the time) institutions and practices which did not sit well with the “autocratic flavour” of an imperial title.  As Jan Morris mused, “in those days the word ‘Empire’ still referred in liberal British minds, to the dominions of foreign tyrants, and the idea of a British empress seemed a monstrous negation of principles.” (pp. 37-8) and this was a theme William Gladstone returned to during his famous Midlothian campaign where after dismissing the title as  “theatrical bombast and folly” asked his audience in Glasgow:

“But I will now assume that it was right; and if it was right, gentlemen, I call upon you to agree with me in this, that in order to complete the transaction, that assumption of a higher title ought to have been accompanied, in the face of the vast Indian people, by increase in franchise or of privilege, by augmentation of benefit, by redress of grievances and correction of abuse. Is that the course of government, which has since been pursued in India?”

The answer to these questions as Gladstone outlined in the rest of his speech was a resounding “no.”  In the end, the title of empress was simply in Ralph Metcalfe’s words “a determination to assert Britain’s equivalence as a major power with her European rivals” as well cement the bonds between the British crown and the Indian people and princes under the person of the British monarch.

Contrary to Queen Victoria’s view that the bill was passed by a large margin, in reality it was only a slim one and on the condition that the new title only applied to India. The Prince of Wales meanwhile only learned of the passage of the Royal Titles Act not through official channels but through the newspapers while still on tour. This was something that the press picked up on as shown in a cartoon by John Gordon Thomson for Fun magazine which depicted a bewildered Prince of Wales upon seeing his mother Queen Victoria riding in state atop an elephant and attended by the assorted paraphernalia of Indian royalty. Outwardly, the Prince received the congratulations and felicitations graciously but behind the scenes, he wrote a stinging letter to Disraeli miffed at not having been informed, stating his opposition to the title and any moves to change his style to that of “Imperial Highness.” The Prime Minister having handled the passage of the bill badly was afraid that the press and public would find out about the Prince’s opposition to his mother’s new title quickly wrote to reassure him that there would be no change to his title and the rest of the royal family.

Royal Titles Act cartoon

The Prince of Wales was partly mollified by Disraeli’s reassurance but as his recent biographer Jane Ridley wrote: “Bertie had good reason to feel ill-used by the Queen. Victoria had strenuously opposed his plan to travel to India, but when the trip succeeded, she executed a spectacular U-turn and, without consulting him, stole his glory by upstaging him with this coup de theatre. The Queen, who took a close interest in India, which she saw as her special fief, had no intention of leaving all the kudos to her son.”  (p. 181)


Further Reading:

Robert Blake. Disraeli (London, 1966)

Robert Blake. Gladstone, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria Centenary Romanes Lecture (Oxford, 1993)

C.P. Belliappa. Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg (Kolkata, 2010)

Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand. Queen Victoria’s Maharajah, Duleep Singh, 1838–93 (London, 1980)

Thomas Metcalf. Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1994)

C.C. Eldridge. England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli 1868-1880 (London, 1973)

Jan Morris. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (London, 1968)

Christopher Hibbert. Queen Victoria: A Personal History (London, 2000)

Shrabani Basu .Victoria and Abdul (London, 2010)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2011)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2012)

Hannah Pakula. The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Romania (London, 1984)

HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney. Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House (London, 1991)

Michaela Reid. Ask Sir James: The Life of Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria (London, 1987)

Kajal Meghani. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-1876 (London, 2016)

Emily Hannam. Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent (London, 2018)

William Ewart Gladstone. Midlothian Speeches 1879 (Leicester, 1971)

Milinda Banerjee. ‘Ocular Sovereignty, Acclamatory Rulership and Political Communication: Visits of Princes of Wales to Bengal’ in Frank Lorenz Műller and Heidi Mehrkens (eds) Royal Heirs and the Use of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe (London, 2016), pp. 81-100

Julius Bryant. ‘Kipling’s Royal Commissions: Bagshot Park and Osborne’ in Julius Bryant and Susan Weber (eds) John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London (London, 2016), pp. 434-467

Lauren Palmor. ‘Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room: The Imperial Museum at Home’, Past Tense: Graduate Review of History, vol. 3 no. 1 (2015), pp. 60-74

L.A. Knight. ‘The Royal Titles Act and India’, The Historical Journal, vol. 11 no. 3 (1968), pp. 488-507

Miles Taylor. ‘Queen Victoria and India, 1837-61’ Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2004), pp. 264-274

David Washbrook. ‘After the Mutiny: From Queen to Queen Empress,’ History Today 47 (1997), pp. 10-15

Cartoons taken from the

Durbar Room photos taken by blogger who visited Osborne House on 11 June 2018





Book Review: Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 not only resulted into a deluge of books, films, articles, blogs, exhibitions and documentaries about the events leading to the war but also a reappraisal and revisiting of Queen Victoria’s role as the “Grandmother of Europe.” Eight of her nine children married into the various royal houses of Europe and this complicated network of family ties was intertwined with international affairs, which in some way were one of the causes that led to the Great War.

This network of family ties was part and parcel Prince Albert’s vision of Europe as a family of nations unified by peace and liberalism and held together by Britain and a unified and liberal Germany. This idea was not new however as Victoria and Albert’s Uncle Leopold (later King of the Belgians) always nurtured a dream of having a Coburg on every throne in Europe – a dream which Albert carried on by marrying off his oldest daughter Vicky to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. Through Vicky and Fritz, Albert hoped that Prussia and later Germany could be transformed into a liberal state, made in the image of Britain. However this plan unravelled quickly with the early death of Frederick after a brief reign as Kaiser and never came to fruition.

Queen Victoria and grandchildren

Queen Victoria viewed every pronouncement and scheme from her beloved Albert as akin to holy writ and as Deborah Cadbury shows in her recent work, her matchmaking would not only apply to her children but also extended to her grandchildren. Amidst the backdrop of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 and its aftermath, Cadbury charts the Queen’s machinations as she tried to prop up Albert’s vision through her grandchildren.

These machinations often did not go according to plan as the Queen was frustrated in her attempts to block the marriages of her Hessian grandchildren Ella and Alix  into the Russian imperial family. Victoria was a passionate Russophobe, her view of Russia partly coloured by the two countries’ disagreements over the Ottoman Empire and the on going “Great Game” over Central Asia and India. She also viewed the country as unsafe and admitted to feeling her blood feeling cold over the idea of “gentle, simple Alicky” as tsarina.

Another one of Victoria’s schemes that failed was marrying off one of her grandsons, Prince Eddy the Duke of Clarence. First on the list was his first cousin Alix of Hesse but she refused him, then Eddy himself fell in love with Helene of Orleans, who despite being Catholic was willing to convert to the Anglican faith to marry him. Despite the Queen’s support and her father’s eagerness to see his daughter as a potential queen consort, Pope Leo XIII threw a spanner into the works of the proposed marriage by refusing the princess a dispensation to convert to Anglicanism. Undeterred, Queen Victoria proposed as fiancée May of Teck, a distant relation with a flawed pedigree, but unfortunately it was not going to be third time lucky for Eddy as not long after the engagement, he caught influenza and died. After a suitable period of mourning, May was then engaged to Eddy’s younger brother George, who was also nursing a broken heart after the Duchess of Edinburgh put a stop to any moves to marry off her daughter Marie to the smitten George. Instead “Missy” was married off by her mother to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania.

Bubbling under the surface of these entanglements was the constant threat of assassination attempts and violence from revolutionary and anarchist groups. Ella’s gilded bubble was shattered when her husband Sergei was assassinated in 1905, while another of Victoria’s granddaughters, Ena of Battenberg survived one as she and her new husband King Alfonso XIII of Spain were in their carriage following their wedding in 1906. These incidents among others were a harbinger of what was to come especially in the wake of the First World War: but Queen Victoria and her son and successor King Edward VII clung naively to Albert’s vision and maintained that peace could be achieved through strengthening the family bonds between the various monarchies of Europe.

Cadbury writes in a brisk and conversational style that is readable and she has helpfully drawn up a handy dramatis personae at the beginning to help the reader through the myriad of names and nicknames that are scattered throughout the narrative. While the popular press then and hagiographers write about these royal marriages as love matches, Cadbury disagrees and presents the reality behind these marriages. The story of Nicholas II and Alexandra (Alix)’s marriage is one of love and tragedy but Cadbury does not ignore the fact that despite their personal happiness both were temperamentally unsuited to the roles they had been destined to fulfill. If Nicholas was not suited to be the autocrat like his father, Alexandra despite her royal blood and impeccable family connections was not the right consort for Nicholas. Her unwillingness to follow well-meaning advice from family and friends not to mention her defence of autocracy with the same zeal that led her to wholeheartedly embrace the Russian Orthodox faith had disastrous consequences for her family and her adopted country.

The same is true with George V and Mary and I wish that the author had explored more of their married life, as there were already signs from the engagement that the marriage was not one of love as presented to the public but more of duty. One can only speculate what the former May of Teck thought and felt as she was shut out of even something as mundane as decorating her own home and her individuality all her life repressed and subordinate to George’s will and limitations. One of her earliest biographers perceptively noted that for May there was no higher calling than to be royal and perhaps that overrode any other considerations for her.

Apart from the narration, this book’s other main strength is with regards to pointing out strongly Queen Victoria’s weakness – her naïve view that foreign policy issues could be solved between families, not really realising that growing movements of nationalism, national identity and national interest were stronger than family ties. This was something her two successors – Edward VII to a lesser extent and George V to a greater extent understood, this played a part with the establishment of the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia in 1907 and later withdrawing the offer of asylum to Nicholas II and his family in 1918.

In the end, as Cadbury shrewdly observed, royal cousinhood would prove to be powerless against the tide of change and in the end also sowed its own seeds of destruction. After the First World War, the political power of monarchy was all but destroyed and never again would “equal” royal marriages be encouraged and viewed as tools of political alliances. A popular saying goes that “blood is thicker than water” but as this tome demonstrates, blood ties would be meaningless against a cataclysmic world war.