Tag Archives: Queen Victoria

Disraeli at Hughenden Manor


I can’t really leave Benjamin Disraeli without posting some more pictures from his country home, Hughenden Manor.  It’s the most quintessentially Victorian place I can think of. In those days, it must have seemed perfectly natural to hang side-by-side portraits of the Prime Minister and his Queen above the fireplace–in the bedroom Mr. Disraeli shared with his loving wife, Mary Anne.  She decorated the room herself.


In the House of Lords during the height of the British Empire, politicians wore red velvet robes on ceremonial occasions, without irony or having to wade through rude protests outside. Becoming the Earl of Beaconsfield was a proud accomplishment for a man born into a modest Jewish family in 1804.  Disraeli became an Anglican at age 12, and remained one for the rest of his long life.


We tend to think that Britain has a fairly rigid class system, but even in Victorian times it was possible for an unlikely man to rise to the height of power, through luck, connections, charm and sheer hard work.


Queen Victoria has a reputation for sternness, but she knew how to be amused, too.  And her trusted friend Benjamin Disraeli amused her.


The Queen set an example of happy, respectable family life for her subjects. Mary Anne Disraeli created a peaceful refuge at home for her busy husband.


Why did Victorians stuff their homes with so much stuff?  In a restored Victorian home like Hughenden, every surface is occupied:  baubles, bibelots, and knickknacks carefully arranged on top of curlicued whatnots. In Victorian times, minimalism was an unknown concept. And old photos seem even more crowded than restored rooms. Why? Here’s my theory: the British ruled an empire that spanned the entire globe. Victorian rooms seem crowded and stuffy to the modern sensibility, but I think all those possessions were an exuberant expression of Victorian confidence and optimism. If you’ve got it, flaunt it!


Mary Anne Disraeli presided over a lively dinner table.  She was practical, too–which her husband was not.  Household records show that after one dinner party, she sent two big unused blocks of cheese back to the cheesemonger.  Waste not, want not!

Disraeli loved trees. In fact, while Mary Anne was busy inside finding just the right places for her trinkets and doodads, Disraeli was busy outside planting trees–the more the better.  He brought in specimens from the far-flung empire and created a forest that lives on today. He spent hours walking among his trees, taking solace from their growth and variety. He once remarked, “I am not surprised that the ancients worshipped trees.”


I was so interested in the house–with its Victorian history as well as the amazing part it played in World War II–that I didn’t get into the gardens and the forest.  Next time!

The three posts just before this one described the vital history of Hughenden in more detail. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

No More Red Boxes? What Would Disraeli Say?


At Hughenden Manor last spring, I was thrilled to spot Prime Minister Disraeli’s famous “red box” in his study.  It’s a  kind of box used for the last 150 years or so by British government officials. It’s really just a briefcase, but so much more romantic–and quintessentially British. These boxes were first used in the 1860s.  They were covered in red-dyed rams’ leather, embossed with the Royal Cypher and lined with lead–reportedly so that if the carrier were captured at sea, the box would sink with all its secrets intact. The lead also made the boxes pretty strong in the event of bombing or other catastrophe. The lock is on the bottom of the box, guaranteeing that nobody will walk off without locking it. (Does anyone ever forget, grab the handle and spill the important documents?  Let’s hope not).


Photo from “Daily Mail” article cited below

Until very recently, important government officials proudly carried their red boxes wherever they went. (Naturally, a government official is always hard at work, so the box is necessary at all times). Any man or woman would walk a little taller carrying the jaunty red case. And what a status symbol to casually place on one’s table on the train!

Queen Elizabeth, like Disraeli’s Queen Victoria, receives her own royal red box daily.  It contains documents the sovereign must sign before they become law.  I’d like to think the Queen’s red box will exist for a long time.

But now, the British government is phasing out the revered symbol of power in favor of secure smartphones. For one thing, ministers have developed the wasteful habit of having their boxes shuttled from place to place in chauffeured limousines, as described in an article from The Independent. Then there’s the problem of security. A fingerprint-activated smartphone is apparently safer (at least until it’s hacked.)

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So in England, red ministerial boxes are going the way of red curbside telephone boxes.


Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli lived in a slower-moving world.  His red box came with him to his country home, where he worked in his quiet study between long walks inspecting his grounds. There was time for him to think, to read actual books, to reflect on the weighty problems of state. I fear that Britain’s government ministers will now be more like the rest of us: constantly intent on a pocket-sized screen.


Somehow, I can’t see the elegant Mr. Disrael hunched over a smartphone.

I wouldn’t give up my own smartphone for anything, of course.  It’s my only camera, as well as my window into the wider world.  I can look up most anything with a few thumbstrokes. But if I were a British government minister, I would miss my elegant red ramskin box with the Royal Cypher and the lock on the bottom.



Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!


Mary Anne Disraeli: the Woman Behind the Man

Why is a Victorian carriage door prominently displayed on a wall at Hughenden, the country home of Queen Victoria’s friend and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli? The Prime Minister himself removed it from the carriage and preserved it as a tribute to his wife, Mary Anne. One evening the ambitious politician and his doting wife set off from his London house to Parliament, where he was to deliver a very important speech.  When the carriage door was closed, it slammed shut on Mary Anne’s thumb. What did she do? She suffered in silence, all the way to Westminster. She didn’t want to upset the man before his speech. A placard next to the carriage door explains that Mary Anne said not a word until Disraeli was safely out of the carriage and on his way into the corridors of power.  The placard remarks drily that her words when her thumb was released were not recorded.

 Mary Anne was 12 years older than her husband, and the marriage began as one of convenience. But it grew into a true love match.


According to the guidebook sold at Hughenden, Disraeli was a novelist and something of a playboy in 1830s London. He had written a novel, Vivian Grey, which was a thinly veiled self-portrait of a young man on the make. His friend Bulwer-Lytton described him thus: he wore “green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low sleeves, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, his hair in ringlets.” He cut a wide swath through bohemian London salons, finally gaining an entree into the highest circles. He tried five times for a seat in Parliament before he won an election.  His maiden speech was a disaster; he was shouted down. What worked in drawing rooms did not work in the House of Commons.  He famously ended by saying, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”


Mary Anne, my photo from Hughenden guidebook


What Disraeli needed was a rich wife. He met Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1832, when she was just another older married woman he enjoyed flirting with.  He thought her “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” which according to the guidebook meant “incessant chatterer.” But her deep-pocketed husband obligingly died in 1838, leaving her a rich widow. Her appeal increased and Disraeli married her in 1839.
Disraeli soon learned what a treasure he had found.  He wrote, “There was no care which she could not mitigate, and no difficulty which she could not face. She was the most cheerful and the most courageous woman I ever knew.”  High praise indeed; Disraeli had known and depended on many, many women in his rise to power in Victorian England.


A visit to Hughenden is a window into the Victorian past.


The estate is under the care of the National Trust, and beyond the quintessentially Victorian rooms there’s a surprise, new since I first visited years ago. The estate was a secret location for surveillance work which was crucial to victory in World War II.  This work was so secret that not even the National Trust knew a thing about it until very recently.  I’ll be writing about what went on in the wartime rooms and the icehouse soon.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Victoria in her coronation regalia, public domain

Britain’s beloved Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, ending the Victorian Era. She was also Empress of India all through the heyday of the years when the sun never set on the British Empire. Her image still appears everywhere in Great Britain. The coronation portrait by George Hayter is in the Royal Collection (Public Domain now). It still appears in reproductions in some tradition-loving British homes.


Other homes display mass-produced images like the one above, spotted in the very regal Wimpole Estate.


Victoria’s image, dressed in black in her widowhood and with her little diamond crown perched on top of her head, is instantly recognizable. The little model above holds pride of place in an exhibit of military models at Blenheim Palace. That unusual crown served as a canny early version of a prominent person creating a unique brand for herself.


How did Victoria see herself?  The sketch above, Public Domain, was Victoria’s own self-portrait as a young girl. She already has some kind of little whatsit balancing on top of her head. She looks apprehensive.  But when she unexpectedly took the throne at the age of 18, after everyone else in the line of succession had died, she rose to the occasion and she kept rising. She reigned over England for over 63 years.


We tend to think of Victoria as a dour old lady.  But in fact she laughed often.  The Public Domain photo above shows her in a jolly mood, even into her old age.


A statue of Victoria stands serenely at the entrance of Windsor Castle, the thousand-year-old complex that is one of the favorite homes of the current Queen.


Queen Elizabeth II has now reigned longer than her ancestor, the redoubtable Victoria. Whatever one thinks of the institution of the monarchy, there’s no doubt that Queen Elizabeth is a cracking good Queen.  The photo above is from the shop at Sandringham, the country estate in Norfolk that Queen Victoria wisely bought as a private retreat for the Windsors. When I was there, neither the Queen nor her Corgis were in sight, but their presence was felt everywhere. There’s nothing more British than the Queen and her beloved Corgis.  I wish them all well.

Join me next time for more exploration in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!



A Royal Christening at Sandringham

DSCN7017In April I visited Sandringham, the private country home of the royal family, and was especially keen to have a look at the local parish church, where Princess Charlotte was christened yesterday.  News media reported that royal well-wishers were invited to stand in the “paddock” where folks stand every Christmas to watch the royals go in and out of church.  What’s a paddock?  It’s just a field where horses normally stand around and eat grass.  Yes, the old stone parish church is in an unassuming location with fields all around, just a short walk from the grand house. From the outside, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene looks exactly like countless other English country churches. Inside, it is the most beautiful country church I’ve ever seen–not surprising, what with the royal connection.

2015-04-23 11.16.47-2An angel holding a baby stands, appropriately, just above the entrance.

2015-04-23 11.19.51More angels minister to people inside, like this carved wooden one offering communion to a parishioner.

2015-04-23 11.20.49The church seems an especially joyful place of worship.  Sunlight streams in through stained glass.

2015-04-23 11.19.21The painted ceiling is especially beautiful and colorful. I think the church in its present form dates mostly from Victorian times.

2015-04-23 11.26.07No one seems to be buried in the church, but the walls contain exquisite memorials to various royals.  My favorite is the one of a pair of angels tenderly supporting a silhouette of Queen Victoria. I’m sure she was present in spirit to watch over the newest generation of her descendants. Did they behave themselves? That’s always the big question, as Victoria knew well from the trials of raising her own very large family.

KatePippaNews media have breathlessly reported on supposed sibling rivalry at the christening:  Pippa Middelton is accused of trying to upstage her sister Duchess Kate by wearing essentially the same outfit, and possibly wearing it better.  I reserve judgment. If there are any soap-opera goings-on among the current young royals, I prefer not to know about them. Anyway, good luck upstaging Kate.  This is the woman who left the hospital and waved to crowds the very day she gave birth in April, wearing a pretty dress, perfect hair and HIGH HEELS.  I would not care to try competing with Duchess Kate. The images of the sisters are from the Daily Mail article cited below.

2015-04-23 11.25.37Not having been one of the 25 or so people invited to the christening, I’m not sure there was a sermon or homily.  But if there was, it was delivered from this beautiful silver Victorian pulpit. Best wishes to the new Princess!


Previous posts about Sandringham are at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/07/sandringham/

and https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/04/30/the-queens-chu…at-

Why I Love England…Especially in Spring

I’ve found that April is really a better month than May in England. It actually rains less in April than in May. It’s cool, but I just wear an extra layer. No one expects to completely avoid rain in England, but sunny days are a big plus.


On a clear spring evening in Windsor, Queen Victoria stands sturdily on her pedestal and gazes majestically over the town. In this land of tradition, royalty begins to make sense even to an American puzzled by the idea of hereditary privilege. Victoria seems like a benign grandmother to one and all. No doubt she would approve of the very traditional name given to the new Princess of Cambridge, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Certainly the phenomenon that was Diana caused turmoil for the Royal Family, but then Victoria had troublesome children of her own. I imagine she took the long view.

Spring flowers are in full bloom. Lilacs are fresh and fragrant.

Stone fences neatly divide fields where every square foot has been lovingly farmed over many centuries.


Public footpaths on private lands crisscross the entire country. The British consider keeping them public to be a sacred right, open to everyone. They’re muddy in rain, but easily walkable in dry weather.


The British love their dogs (and their cats too). The little fellow above was dressed in a stylish fur-lined hoodie for a slightly chilly outing in Cambridge with his doting person.

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I get lonesome for pets left at home. B and Bs in the countryside often provide loaner pets on request, if you ask nicely. My new friend Ruby lives on a pretty farm in rural Suffolk.

Photo by nicogenin, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

Photo by nicogenin, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

I had never been to the area north and east of London before–it’s off the main tourist trails.  In fact Rick Steves does not even mention the area, except for Cambridge. That may change, with William and Kate settling in Anmer, close to the coast in Norfolk.  And I think I had a Johnny Depp sighting!  Rumor has it that he bought a mansion in Burnham Market, a very posh but rural little village near Anmer. I think I spotted him driving right past me in a nifty Griffith sports car.  If the “east of England” is good enough for the royals and for Johnny Depp, it’s good enough for me.

I really do love England, in any season!

The Queen’s Church at Sandringham

Every Christmas I see pictures of Britain’s Royal Family walking from Sandringham House to the local parish church, St. Mary Magdalene. They’re always beautifully turned out, of course, and there’s always at least one pretty child ready to present a bouquet to the Queen. Now I’ve seen the inside of the church, and it’s one of the most beautiful rural churches I’ve ever seen.

  The altar and ceiling are wonderfully carved and painted.  The atmosphere is full of light and joy.
 A beautifully carved angel administers Communion in the choir. There are no royal tombs here, just exquisite memorials to various Royal Family members.

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The two angels above lovingly hold a silhouette of Queen Victoria, who had the foresight to buy Sandringham House as a privately owned family retreat.

This post is an experiment–I’m trying to post from my phone. If it works, it will be a whole lot easier to post while traveling!

Queen Victoria WOULD be Amused

Prince William’s ancestor, Queen Victoria, was widely reported to have said icily, “We are not amused,” when confronted with some risque joke or other.  (She was using the royal “we,” of course). But her biographers deny she ever said it.  In fact, she was known to enjoy life and laugh uproariously when the occasion called for it.

Victoria Amused; photo in public domain

Victoria Amused; photo in public domain

Queen Victoria was known as the “Grandmother of Europe” because her sons and daughters married crowned heads all over Europe during her reign, all of the marriages judiciously arranged.  Victoria’s own marriage was semi-arranged; she was presented with various options.  She fell in love with one of the suitors, her first cousin, Albert of the Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld dynasty. (Victoria’s overbearing mother was German; actually, the present-day British royals all have mostly German ancestry).  The young Albert returned her feelings.  She made him wait, though.  He cooled his heels during various visits until she finally proposed to him.

Queen Victoria's family, public domain

Queen Victoria’s family, public domain

In a way, we can think of Queen Victoria as the “grandmother of tabloids,” because she was the first British monarch to hit on the idea of holding up the royal family as an example of virtuous family life.  This involved opening up the family to some public scrutiny, which of course carried some risks in her day, and still does.  But during Victoria’s reign, and with the capable help of her beloved Prince Albert, Britain fully became a constitutional monarchy.  No longer did the monarch have much real power; she could mostly lead only by example.  She retained “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.”

I like to think Victoria would applaud Prince WIlliam’s decision to marry for love, to take his time, and even to finally marry the commoner Kate Middleton. I was in Edinburgh a few months before the royal engagement was announced.  I read a long magazine article that disparaged “Waity Katy,” who by that time had dated Prince William on and off for years with no resolution in sight.  I cheered for her when the long-awaited engagement was announced.

We all know the British Royal Family has not been a very good example of family happiness in recent years.  Am I the only one who could see trouble coming for Prince Charles and Lady Diana right from the official engagement press conference, when they were asked whether they were in love?  She answered, “Of course.”  He moodily replied, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” Be that as it may, the monarchy is getting a new lease on life right now as the world breathlessly awaits the birth of a new heir.

While I’m waiting, I think I’ll watch again the 2009 movie The Young Victoria. It was written by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Gosford Park and is probably at this moment working on the next season of Downton Abbey. The movie shows a young Victoria who is practically kept under house arrest until she accedes to the throne at age 18.  She had to sleep in her mother’s room, and was never even allowed to walk down a flight of stairs without a trusted person holding her hand.  All that changed, though, as she grew into her role of being the Queen Victoria who ruled England for 63 years.  She was not always a dumpy and grumpy-looking old lady.

The Young Victoria, Amazon

The Young Victoria, Amazon

The lovely Emily Blunt plays Victoria and the very handsome Rupert Friend plays her beloved Albert. The movie is available at Amazon.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles, while we all wait for new history to be created!