One of the best things about writing historical biographies is the fact that it gives me an extra reason to visit some of the amazing places associated with my subjects. While researching Marie de Guise and Margaret Tudor, I went home to Scotland in order to see Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Stirling Castle and Falkland Palace with my own eyes, while my book about Henrietta Anne Stuart gave me a really good reason to finally visit Fontainebleau and Vaux le Vicomte, although sadly her chief residence, Saint Cloud no longer exists. Therefore, when I started work on my book about Queen Victoria and Empress Alexandra, there was one place at the very top of my research wishlist – Osborne House, a location that plays a significant part in the relationship between these two remarkable women.
Located near East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the Osborne estate was purchased by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in October 1845, after which they transformed the original rather uninspiring house into a glorious Italianate mansion, inspired by the Renaissance palaces that Albert had greatly admired during youthful visits to Italy. Over the following decades, the house became a favourite summer residence for the Queen and her growing family – and then a retreat from the world after Albert died in December 1861. It was in her cluttered bedroom at Osborne that Victoria would eventually pass away in January 1901, surrounded by much of her family. Sadly, no one wanted to take the house on after her death and so it passed into the hands of the Royal Navy, although the Queen’s private rooms, including the room that she died in, were locked up so that only members of her family were able to access them.
As I was writing about the relationship between Queen Victoria, Princess Alice and Empress Alexandra, I was particularly interested in viewing parts of the house that are closely associated with them. The dining room was naturally of particular interest as it was there on 1st July 1863 that Princess Alice married Prince Louis of Hesse and by Rhine in a ceremony that was described as ‘more like a funeral’ than a wedding by her mother, who insisted upon attending in mourning as her beloved Albert had passed away only a few months earlier. Poor Alice was allowed to don a wedding dress for the day but had to return to mourning clothes the following day.
Although Princess Alice departed for Darmstadt in Germany shortly after her wedding, she would return to Britain many times over the years in order to visit her family or simply enjoy summer holidays at the seaside. Her growing brood of children would often accompany her, including her daughter Alix, the future Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, would visited Osborne on several occasions. As a small child, Alix would stay in the nursery at the top of the house, where her portrait still hangs but later she would be given one of the family bedrooms overlooking the gardens. During her holidays at Osborne, Alix would join Victoria for breakfast, which was often taken in a tent on the lawn, in the morning but was not allowed to join the party for dinner until she had been confirmed, which at the time marked her entrance to the adult world. Lessons would continue as usual, much to the despair of Alix and her brother Ernie, but there was still plenty of time to romp with the royal dogs on the lawns, enjoy the private beach or play in the pretty Swiss Cottage that Prince Albert had imported from Switzerland and where the royal children’s tools still live and you can still see the vegetable and flower plots that were marked out for each one.
Interestingly, Alix’s future husband Nicholas would also visit Osborne, just once, as a child when he accompanied his glamorous mother Maria Feodorovna (known as ‘Minnie’ within the family), who was the sister of Victoria’s daughter-in-law Alexandra, Princess of Wales there. He would return after becoming engaged to Alix and very much enjoyed his stay. The couple would return again in August 1909 when they visited Edward VII for the Cowes Regatta – thanks to security concerns, it had initially been decided that the Russian royal family should remain on their luxurious yacht, the Standardt, but an exception was made so that they could revisit Osborne House, where the Empress had spent so much time before her marriage. A memorial stone was erected in 2018 in nearby East Cowes to commemorate their visit.