Death of Queen Victoria
by Claudia Willetts
On 22 January 1901, the great-great grandmother of the Queen and Prince Philip, Queen Victoria, died at her home of Osborne House. According to the foreword of John Matson’s book Dear Osborne: Queen Victoria’s Family Life in the Isle of Wight, there is a stillness and a quality of timelessness at Osborne that is immensely restful. It was here, after she died, that her coffin lay on a small dais in the dining room covered with the coronation robes, her little diamond crown and the Garter displayed on a cushion above her head. Princess Mary, the future Queen Mary, wrote: “…the feeling of peace in that room is most soothing to one’s feelings.”
After the tranquillity of the private lying-in-state, came the pageantry of transferring the coffin to Windsor. It was placed on a gun-carriage for the trip, draped with a pall of cream satin worked with the Royal Arms. The crown and Garter were removed, and the orb and sceptre of the coronation regalia lay at the foot. The carriage was brought by ship and train to London.
Sir Frederick Ponsonby relates in Recollections of Three Reigns, how at a certain moment, the horses standing ready to draw the carriage to Windsor, began to kick and plunge, breaking their traces. At Prince Louis of Battenberg’s suggestion, and with King Edward VII’s permission, the naval guard of honour was asked to haul the gun-carriage using the broken traces as ropes. The King was impressed with how well the sailors had done, and the dignity it had added to the procession. He suggested that they also pull the gun-carriage for the funeral procession, thus starting a tradition.
Lytton Strachey in Queen Victoria, discussed the apotheosis of the final years of the reign, writing that imperialism is a faith as well as a business, and as it grew, mysticism in public life grew with it. Simultaneously a new importance began to attach to the Crown. The need for “a symbol of England’s might, and extraordinary and mysterious destiny”, became felt more urgently. The Crown was that symbol, and the crown rested upon the head of Victoria, increasing the prestige of the Sovereign over the course of the century. Further, the Queen had always lived in the light of those “high beacons of duty, conscience, and morality.” She had passed her days in work and not in pleasure, in public responsibilities and family cares.
The Sovereign’s death was mourned from the highest to the lowest in her Canadian realm. In Lord Minto: A Memoir, by John Buchan, we read of a denominational difference between Lord Minto, Governor General at the time, and Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, concerning the church in which to hold the official memorial service in Ottawa. Lord Minto favoured the Church of England Cathedral, respecting the church to which the Queen had belonged, while Sir Wilfrid and other ministers attended services of their own communion.
According to Royal Observations: Canadians and Royalty, the Mail and Empire noted that the private mourning of people expressed “how near the Queen was to the hearts of her people, and how the thought of her had become part of the routine of life”.
The Queen’s reign was permanently memorialised in Canada after her death, according the Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada…1 Edward VII, 1901, (Hansard). Entries for spring 1901, record debates on the continuation of 24th May as a holiday marking the late Queen’s birthday, and its naming as Victoria Day, to distinguish it from the King’s birthday celebration to be held in November.