Victoria’s mother was at centre of ‘baby’ scandal that rocked Queen’s court


Queen Victoria’s popularity plummeted after a scandalous incident that involved “personal tragedy and a terrible injustice to an innocent woman”.

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Karolyn Shindler, journalist and historical author, recounted the scandal which “rocked court and government and caused Victoria’s popularity to plummet”.

“It involved sex, high politics, personal tragedy and a terrible injustice to an innocent woman,” she wrote for the Irish Times in 2009.

In 1834, three years before Victoria ascended the throne, a new lady-in-waiting joined the royal household.

Lady Flora Hastings, the unmarried daughter of the First Marquis of Hastings, was appointed lady-in-waiting to Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent.

Princess Victoria

Victoria, Duchess of Kent, with her only child Princess Victoria (Image: Getty)

Queen Victoria of England

Queen Victoria ascended the throne at the age of 18 (Image: Getty)

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A 15-year-old Victoria had endured a lonely childhood having been kept isolated by her “manipulative, politically ambitious mother”.

Victoria despised the Comptroller of the Duchess’s household, Sir John Conry, whom she described as a “monster” and “devil incarnate”. Sir John and Victoria’s mother, who were allegedly lovers, led “a tense and scheming household,” according to Ms Shindler.

Flora Hastings was brought into the circle as Victoria’s companion in an attempt to “limit confidences” between the Princess and her governess, Baroness Lehzen, who had a mutual hatred of the Duchess.

Victoria’s dislike of Lady Flora stemmed from the lady-in-waiting’s close relationship with the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy, who tried to control every aspect of her life as a Princess.

In January 1839, when Victoria had been monarch for 18 months, Flora travelled from her family home in Scotland to London, accompanied by the Comptroller. She had been suffering from nausea for some weeks, “in pain, with a swelling of the stomach”.

Upon her arrival, she consulted the court physician to Victoria and the Duchess of Kent, Sir James Clark, who “prescribed medicines of rhubarb and camphor, which had no effect”.

Flora, however, noted a slight change when writing to her uncle, Hamilton Fitzgerald. when she said: “…by dint of walking and porter I gained a little strength; and as I did so, the swelling subsided to a very remarkable degree.”


Lady Flora Hastings

Lady Flora Hastings was lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria’s mother (Image: Getty)

Nonetheless, the “swelling” had been noticed by the Queen’s ladies, and indeed, Victoria herself.

On February 2, the monarch wrote in her journal how “exceedingly suspicious” Floria’s figure looked, and that she and her Governess had no doubt that she was “…with child! Clark cannot deny the suspicion.”

According to Victoria, the father of this imagined child was the hated Sir John Conroy, said Ms Shindler, who added: “Victoria’s early court was a febrile, factionalised place, and Flora Hastings was trapped somewhere in the middle.“

Lord Melbourne, who was Prime Minister at the time of Victoria’s accession to the throne, called Flora the ugliest woman he had ever seen, while Victoria referred to her as “that nasty woman”.

Ms Shindler explained: “In addition, Queen and court ardently supported the Whig government, to the extent, wrote a contemporary observer, ‘that a Conservative cat was not permitted to mew in the precincts of the Palace.’ The Hastings family were Tories.”

Lord Melbourne (1779-1848) Instructing A Young Queen Victoria 1819-1901)

Lord Melbourne instructing a young Queen Victoria (Image: Getty)

Flora denied the accusation and, in response, Sir Clark “heatedly told her that the only way the ladies would be satisfied of her innocence was to submit to a medical examination”.

While Flora’s mother was horrified, calling it a “most revolting proposal”, the Queen’s court was insistent, and unless and until an examination took place, Flora was banned from court.

“Flora had no option,” wrote Ms Shindler. “Two doctors were involved, Sir James Clark and the Hastings’ family doctor, Sir Charles Clarke. One of Victoria’s ladies, Lady Portman, whom Flora called ‘my accuser’, was also present, and Flora’s Swiss maid, who was in tears throughout the proceedings. After the examination, the doctors signed a certificate which stated, ‘there are no grounds for believing pregnancy does exist, or ever has existed’.”

Sir John Conroy

Victoria suspected that Sir John Conroy was the father of the imagined baby (Image: Getty Images)

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The Duchess of Kent dismissed Sir Clark immediately.

Two days later, on February 19, Flora wrote to her brother informing him that “her honour had been most basely assailed”.

The Hastings family wanted a public apology from the royals, and when their demands went unanswered, they had no choice but to appeal to the public.

Concluding a detailed and moving account of the incident to her uncle Hamilton, Flora wrote: “Goodbye, my dear uncle. I blush to send you so revolting a tale, but I wished you to know the truth, the whole truth – and you are welcome to tell it right and left.”

He sent her letter to the Examiner, which published it in full.

As a result, Flora’s personal tragedy became the topic of explosive news coverage and the Queen was even accused of being responsible for the slander.

Sir James Clark

A portrait of Sir James Clark, physician to Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Kent (Image: Getty Images)

“The Queen was booed when out riding, hissed at Ascot and mocked with cries of ‘Mrs Melbourne’,” Ms Shindler wrote.

Meanwhile, Flora’s health was deteriorating. She began to lose hair and became dreadfully thin. By June 1839, she was no longer able to leave her room.

Victoria visited her a few days before her death and wrote in her journal that Flora appeared “as thin as anybody can be who is still alive, literally a skeleton . . . 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.’”

Lady Flora died on July 5. In a final demonstration of her innocence, she had insisted on a postmortem, and for its results to be published in every detail.

National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Victoria claimed Lady Flora’s death was one of four incidents that haunted her (Image: Getty)

In her 63-year reign, Victoria noted just four events that haunted her with nightmares. One was the death of her beloved husband Albert, and another was the death of Lady Flora Hastings.

Downton Abbey creator Lord Fellowes, who wrote the 2009 film The Young Victoria, said the Queen’s treatment of Lady Flora displayed her “strengths and faults”.

Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, he said: “At her own insistence, she went to see the dying Flora Hastings to ask her forgiveness, which Lady Flora gave. How many leaders these days would have the decency and the humility to do that? Not many. She had a grounding of extraordinary morality and justice.”


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