When Victoria visited Burghley

Words by:
Joanne Major
Featured in:
December 2017

‘A fine, large and handsome house’ was the future Queen Victoria’s impression of Burghley on her first visit in 1835. She would return again during her reign and archive documents help to bring these fascinating occasions to vivid life.
Burghley House near Stamford was built in the late sixteenth century by Elizabeth I’s chief advisor, Sir William Cecil, later 1st Baron Burghley and passed down to his descendants, from 1801 marquesses of Exeter. Elizabeth I never actually visited Burghley but in the nineteenth-century Victoria made not one but two visits, as both a princess and a queen. From her journals and contemporary newspaper reports, we can bring these visits to life.

In September 1835, the then 16-year-old Princess Victoria was – somewhat reluctantly – on a tour of Norfolk and the northern and midland counties of England. She was heir apparent to her uncle, William IV, and Victoria’s ambitious mother, aided by her controlling confidant and comptroller Sir John Conroy (whom Victoria hated) and in opposition to the king’s wishes, had embarked upon what amounted to a royal progress to introduce her daughter to the nobility of the country and to let the people see her. It was a whistlestop tour, often staying only a night at each destination and Victoria was sure the travelling would make her unwell.

On Monday 21st September 1835, the royal party left Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire and travelled into Lincolnshire and their next destination, the magnificent Burghley House owned by Brownlow Cecil, 2nd Marquess of Exeter and his wife Isabella, née Poyntz. It was a bright, sunny morning when Princess Victoria left Belvoir’s gates, sat with her mother in one of the three carriages that carried the entourage, but all was not well. The princess had indeed been ill during the night and still felt sickly, and the fine weather quickly turned to rain.

In Stamford the mayor and the corporation – dressed in their gowns and with their splendid regalia – together with numerous inhabitants had gathered at the town hall, all eagerly awaiting their future monarch’s arrival. In fact so eager that, despite the weather, they set out to meet the royal party early and ended up kicking their heels on a bleak hill at the northwest approach to the town for two hours while the rain soaked them to the skin. Even this did not dampen their enthusiasm and, when the carriages were spotted, they gave three rousing cheers and a band struck up the national anthem. The crowd escorted the royal cortege to Stamford, some gentlemen forming a guard of honour (both the duchess and Victoria repeatedly expressed their concern for the sodden men). Stamford’s ladies had remained indoors rather than risk the downpour and they filled the windows of the town’s houses; Victoria and her mother politely bowed their heads to them as they drove past.

Burghley has always been an impressive sight and Victoria thought it a ‘fine, large and handsome house’. As they passed through the gates, decorated for their reception, a royal salute was fired and a military band played ‘God save the King’. The civic dignitaries of Stamford followed and were received by the duchess, the princess, Lord and Lady Exeter, Sir John Conroy and about twenty other noble guests in the state room where Lord Exeter, at the mayor’s request, read out the town’s loyal address. The presumptuous Conroy answered for the duchess. A late luncheon was laid out but Victoria, exhausted and unwell, retired to her bedroom with her governess, Lehzen, and, after a little broth, rested. At the Duchess of Kent’s insistence, Victoria was sharing a suite of rooms with her mother and so, even though Victoria was the heir apparent, she was to sleep in a small ‘camp bed’ while the duchess occupied the magnificent state bed.

That evening’s dinner was a tremendous feast of thirty-six covers served on costly gold plate in Burghley’s Great Hall and attended by a multitude of titled guests and local dignitaries. A ball had been arranged for the evening’s entertainment and the renowned Litolff and Adam’s band booked to provide the music. Unfortunately, while the duchess was in her element, Victoria was tired, ill and grumpy. She knew hardly anyone there, thought the Exeter’s children (who were in attendance) were plain and she had a splitting headache. All the same, the dutiful Victoria opened the ball by dancing a quadrille with Lord Exeter, then sat and watched for an hour before retiring to her bed. The rest of the guests continued dancing, with great gusto, until 3am.

The next morning, in contrast to the previous day, the weather was bright and sunny with a clear blue sky. After a brief tour of Burghley, the princess, her mother and attendants took their seats in their carriages and departed Stamford, heading south. It will come as no surprise to any Lincolnshire yellowbelly to learn that when Victoria recorded her impression of the landscape in her journal, she particularly noted that ‘the country was very flat’.

It was only a short visit but Victoria had noted the kindness of her hosts. Nine years later, on 12th November 1844, she returned as Queen Victoria, for a longer visit. The Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter’s youngest daughter (born in 1843) had, at Prince Albert’s suggestion, been named Victoria in the queen’s honour and the prince stood as godfather. A second baptism ceremony was to be held during the royal visit and many illustrious guests had been invited to Burghley besides the royal couple, including the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel.

The royal party – the queen and Prince Albert together with their chamberlain, two ladies in waiting and an assortment of equerries – travelled to Northamptonshire by train where Lord Exeter met them and they continued the journey by post chaise. The weather provided a reminder of Victoria’s previous arrival in Stamford; once again it rained for most of the day.

It was dark when they arrived in Stamford but this made the illuminations which bedecked the town all the more impressive. The mayor and the corporation met the carriage and – despite the rain – conducted them to Burghley’s gates. The young queen was delighted to find that she was staying in the same suite of rooms in which she had passed the night in 1835 but this time she had the use of the magnificent state bed which had been given to her mother. The smaller bed which had been Victoria’s on that previous visit was, she noted with pleasure, tucked away in the drawing room which she was to use as a dressing room. The rooms had been redecorated in honour of her visit; Old Master’s adorned the walls and ornaments graced every surface.

There was little improvement in the weather the next day. The queen and her husband attended prayers in the Chapel Room, breakfasted alone and passed the morning examining the paintings in their rooms. After lunch they toured the house until finally, around 4pm, the rain ceased and Lord Exeter took Prince Albert to inspect Burghley’s fine cattle.

Victoria and Albert were in mourning for Albert’s father but a christening ceremony called for different attire and so the queen and her ladies dressed in white silk and satin gowns. The Bishop of Peterborough officiated at the service which was held in Burghley’s private chapel and Victoria kissed her little namesake while Albert presented the infant with a gold cup inscribed, ‘To Lady Victoria Cecil, from her godfather’. A firework display concluded the event, only slightly marred by the earlier rain. The park around Burghley – landscaped by the famed Capability Brown – was thronged with Stamford townsfolk and the portals of the lodge gate were decorated with lamps spelling out ‘Long live the Queen’.

Victoria and Albert watched the display from the windows of their bedroom and the finale was spectacular, a whole volcano of combustible matter shooting up in meteors, bursting into many coloured fire-balls, whirling round and round in sparkling rings and lighting up the surrounding woodland. The broken turreted outline of Burghley House, with its pillar like chimneys and numerous minarets was seen – for a moment and no more – silhouetted in the lurid blue glare, a stunning and memorable sight for the assembled crowds.

While Victoria dined in the Great Hall at Burghley that evening, dinner parties in private houses took place all over Stamford in celebration of the queen’s visit and a public dinner was held at the George Inn.

The royal party awoke the following morning to a fine autumnal day; the sun even managed to peep out from behind the clouds at intervals. Prince Albert joined a shooting party while Lady Exeter escorted Queen Victoria and her ladies on a tour of the gardens. Lord Exeter’s dairy cows, renowned for their breed and beauty, were driven onto the lawns before the south front of the house so the queen could admire them. After lunch they departed Burghley in a procession of carriages to travel through Stamford; people had gathered during the morning around every gate at Burghley in the hope of seeing their monarch. Church bells rang out in merry peals and Stamford – which Victoria thought picturesque – was decorated with flags and bunting. They visited Lord Exeter’s stud on the way back and Victoria and Albert each planted a tree in front of Burghley’s state rooms, an oak and a lime which now dominate the gardens.

A grand ball was held in the evening after dinner but as the queen and Albert were in mourning they did not dance and, after supper, retired to their rooms. The next day Queen Victoria presented Lady Exeter with a bracelet as a souvenir of her visit, and left Burghley House and Stamford with real regret.

Queen Victoria’s journals can be read online (www.queenvictoriasjournals.org).

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