Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, Dowager Queen, Duchess of Kent, Duke of Cumberland, Ernest Augustus, King William IV of the United Kingdom and Hanover, Lord Essex, Lord Melbourne, Malta, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Queen of the United Kingdom and Hanover, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, Reform Bill, Victoria of Kent, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saafeld, Witley Court
At the time of their marriage, William, Duke of Clarence was not heir-presumptive to the throne, but became so when his brother Frederick, Duke of York, died childless in 1827. Given the small likelihood of his older brothers producing heirs, and William’s relative youth and good health, it had long been considered extremely likely that he would become king in due course.
In 1830, on the death of his elder brother, George IV, William acceded to the throne. One of King William’s first acts was to confer the Rangership of Bushy Park (for 33 years held by himself) on Queen Adelaide. This act allowed Adelaide to remain at Bushy House for her lifetime.
William and Adelaide were crowned on September 8, 1831 at Westminster Abbey. Adelaide was deeply religious and took the service very seriously. William despised the ceremony and acted throughout, it is presumed deliberately, as if he was “a character in a comic opera”, making a mockery of what he thought to be a ridiculous charade. Adelaide, alone among those attending received praise for her “dignity, repose and characteristic grace”.
Adelaide was beloved by the British people for her piety, modesty, charity, and her tragic childbirth history. A large portion of her household income was given to charitable causes. She also treated the young Princess Victoria of Kent (William’s heir presumptive and later Queen Victoria) with kindness, despite her inability to produce an heir and the open hostility between her husband and Victoria’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Kent.
Queen Adelaide refused to have women of questionable virtue attend her Court. The Clerk of the Privy Council, Charles Greville, wrote, “The Queen is a prude and refuses to have the ladies come décolletées to her parties. George IV, who liked ample expanses of that kind, would not let them be covered.”
Queen Adelaide attempted, perhaps unsuccessfully, to influence the King politically. She never spoke about politics in public; however, she was strongly Tory. It is unclear how much of William’s attitudes during the passage of the Reform Act 1832 were due to her influence.
The Press, the public, and courtiers assumed that she was agitating behind the scenes against reform, but she was careful to be non-committal in public. As a result of her alleged partiality, she became unpopular with reformers. False rumours circulated that she was having an affair with her Lord Chamberlain, the Tory Lord Howe, but almost everyone at court knew that Adelaide was inflexibly pious and was always faithful to her husband.
The Whig prime minister, Lord Grey, had Lord Howe removed from Adelaide’s household. Attempts to reinstate him after the Reform Bill had passed were not successful, as Lord Grey and Lord Howe could not agree as to how independent Howe could be of the government.
In October 1834, a great fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster, which Adelaide considered divine retribution for the vagaries of reform. When the King dismissed the Whig ministry of Lord Melbourne, The Times newspaper blamed the Queen’s influence, though she seems to have had very little to do with it. Influenced by her similarly reactionary brother-in-law, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, she did write to the King against reform of the Church of Ireland.
Both William and Adelaide were fond of their niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, and wanted her to be closer to them. Their efforts were frustrated by Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. The Duchess refused to acknowledge Adelaide’s precedence, left letters from Adelaide unanswered, and commandeered space in the royal stables and apartments for her use.
The King, aggrieved at what he took to be disrespect from the Duchess to his wife, bluntly announced in the presence of Adelaide, the Duchess, Victoria, and many guests, that the Duchess was “incompetent to act with propriety”, that he had been “grossly and continually insulted by that person”, and that he hoped to have the satisfaction of living beyond Victoria’s age of majority so that the Duchess of Kent would never be regent.
Everyone was aghast at the vehemence of the speech, and all three ladies were deeply upset. The breach between the Duchess and the King and Queen was never fully healed, but Victoria always viewed both of them with kindness.
Queen Adelaide was dangerously ill in April 1837, at around the same time that she was present at her mother’s deathbed in Meiningen, but she recovered. By June, it became evident that the King was fatally ill himself.
Adelaide stayed beside William’s deathbed devotedly, not going to bed herself for more than ten days. William IV died from heart failure in the early hours of the morning of June 20, 1837 at Windsor Castle, where he was buried. Victoria was proclaimed as queen, but subject to the rights of any issue that might be born to Adelaide on the remotely possible chance that she was pregnant.
The first queen dowager in over a century (Charles II’s widow, Catherine of Braganza, had died in 1705, and Mary of Modena, wife of the deposed James II, died in 1718), Adelaide survived her husband by twelve years.
In early October 1838, for health reasons, Adelaide travelled to Malta aboard HMS Hastings, stopping at Gibraltar on the way, and staying on Malta for three months. Lacking a Protestant church on Malta, the queen dowager paid for the construction of St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Valletta. In the summer of 1844, she paid her last visit to her native country, visiting Altenstein Palace and Meiningen.
Queen Adelaide had been given the use of Marlborough House, Pall Mall in 1831, and held it until her death in 1849. She also had the use of Bushy House and Bushy Park at Hampton Court. Suffering from chronic illness, Adelaide often moved her place of residence in a vain search for health, staying at the country houses of various British aristocracy.
Dowager Queen Adelaide became a tenant of William Ward and took up residence at the latter’s newly purchased house, Witley Court in Worcestershire, from 1842 until 1846. While at Witley Court, she had two chaplains – Rev. John Ryle Wood, Canon of Worcester and Rev. Thomas Pearson, Rector of Great Witley. She financed the first village school in Great Witley.
From 1846 to 1848, she rented Cassiobury House from Lord Essex. During her time there, she played host to Victoria and Albert. Within three years, Adelaide had moved on again, renting Bentley Priory in Stanmore from Lord Abercorn.
Semi-invalid by 1847, Adelaide was advised to try the climate of Madeira for the winter that year, for her health. She donated money to the poor of the island and paid for the construction of a road from Ribeiro Seco to Camara de Lobos.
Queen Adelaide’s last public appearance was to lay the foundation stone of the church of St John the Evangelist, Great Stanmore. She gave the font and when the church was completed after her death, the east window was dedicated to her memory.
She died during the reign of her niece Queen Victoria on December 2, 1849 of natural causes at Bentley Priory in Middlesex. She was buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. She wrote instructions for her funeral during an illness in 1841 at Sudbury Hall:
“I die in all humility … we are alike before the throne of God, and I request therefore that my mortal remains be conveyed to the grave without pomp or state … to have as private and quiet a funeral as possible. I particularly desire not to be laid out in state … I die in peace and wish to be carried to the fount in peace, and free from the vanities and pomp of this world.”