Victoria was born in Coburg on August 17, 1786 in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. She was the fourth daughter and seventh child of Franz-Friedrich, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and Countess Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf. One of her brothers was Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and another brother, Leopold, future king of the Belgians, who married, in 1816, Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only legitimate daughter of the future King George IV of the United King of Great Britain and heiress presumptive to the British throne.
On December 21, 1803 at Coburg, a young Victoria married (as his second wife) Charles, Prince of Leiningen (1763–1814), whose first wife, Henrietta of Reuss-Ebersdorf, had been her aunt. The couple had two children, Prince Carl, born on September 12, 1804, and Princess Feodora of Leiningen, born on December 7, 1807.
Through her first marriage, she is a direct matrilineal ancestor to various members of royalty in Europe, including Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Felipe VI of Spain, and Constantine II of Greece.
After the death of her first spouse, she served as regent of the Principality of Leiningen during the minority of their son, Carl.
The death in 1817 of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the wife of Victoria’s brother Leopold, prompted a succession crisis. With Parliament offering them a financial incentive, three of Charlotte’s uncles, sons of George III, were prepared to marry. One of them, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767–1820) proposed to Victoria and she accepted. The couple were married on May 29 1818 at Amorbachand on 11 July 1818 at Kew, a joint ceremony at which Edward’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Princess Victoria was 32 and the Duke of Kent was 51 at the time of their marriage.
Shortly after their marriage, the Kents moved to Germany, where the cost of living would be cheaper. Soon after, Victoria became pregnant, and the Duke and Duchess, determined to have their child born in England, raced back. Arriving at Dover on April 23, 1819, they moved into Kensington Palace, where Victoria gave birth to a daughter on May 24, 1819, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, later Queen Victoria. An efficient organiser, Sir John Conroy’s planning ensured the Kents’ speedy return to England in time for the birth of their first child.
The Duke of Kent died suddenly of pneumonia in January 1820, six days before his father, King George III. His widow the Duchess had little cause to remain in the United Kingdom, since she did not speak the language and had a palace at home in Coburg where she could live cheaply on the revenues of her first husband. However, the British succession at this time was far from assured – of the three brothers older than Edward, the new king, George IV, and the Duke of York were both estranged from their wives, who were in any case past childbearing age. The third brother, the Duke of Clarence, had yet to produce any surviving children with his wife. The Duchess of Kent decided that she would do better by gambling on her daughter’s accession than by living quietly in Coburg and, having inherited her second husband’s debts, sought support from the British government. After the death of Edward and his father, the young Princess Victoria was still only third in line for the throne, and Parliament was not inclined to support yet more impoverished royalty.
In 1831, with George IV dead and the new king, William IV, over 60 and without legitimate issue, the young princess’s status as heir presumptive and the Duchess’s prospective place as regent led to major increases in British state income for the Kents. A contributing factor was Leopold’s designation as King of the Belgians, upon which he surrendered his British income.
Conroy had high hopes for his patroness and himself: He envisaged Victoria succeeding the throne at a young age, thus needing a regency government, which, following the Regency Act 1830, would be headed by the princess’s mother (who had already served in that capacity in Germany following the death of her first husband). As the personal secretary of the Duchess, Conroy would be the veritable “power behind the throne”. He had not counted on William IV surviving long enough for Victoria to succeed to the throne as an adult and consequently, while cultivating her mother, had shown little consideration for Victoria.
When Victoria succeeded as Queen of the United Kingdom, Conroy risked having no influence over her. He tried to force Victoria to agree to make him her personal secretary once she succeeded, but this plan, too, backfired. Victoria resented her mother’s support for Conroy’s schemes and being pressured by her to sign a paper declaring Conroy her personal secretary. The result was that when Victoria became queen, she relegated the Duchess to separate accommodations, away from her own.
Duchess of Kent with her grandson, Prince Alfred.
When the Queen’s first child, the Princess Royal, was born, the Duchess of Kent unexpectedly found herself welcomed back into Victoria’s inner circle. It is likely that this came about as a result of the dismissal of Baroness Lehzen at the behest of Victoria’s husband (and the Duchess’s nephew), Prince Albert. Firstly, this removed Lehzen’s influence, and Lehzen had long despised the Duchess and Conroy, suspecting them of an illicit affair. Secondly, it left the Queen wholly open to Albert’s influence, and he likely prevailed upon her to reconcile with her mother. Thirdly, Conroy by now lived in exile on the Continent and so his divisive influence was removed. The Duchess’s finances, which had been left in shambles by Conroy, were restored thanks to Victoria and her advisors. By all accounts, the Duchess became a doting grandmother and was closer to her daughter than she ever had been.
The Duchess died at 09:30 on 16 March 1861 with her daughter Victoria at her side, aged 74 years. The Queen was much affected by her mother’s death. Through reading her mother’s papers, Victoria discovered that her mother had loved her deeply; she was heart-broken, and blamed Conroy and Lehzen for “wickedly” estranging her from her mother. She is buried in the Duchess of Kent’s Mausoleum at Frogmore, Windsor Home Park, near to the royal residence Windsor Castle.