11 July 2016

Jewel History: In Buckingham Palace (1886)

Everard Hopkins's illustration of debutantes at Buckingham Palace, ca. 1890

"In Buckingham Palace"
(originally appeared in the Washington Post, 11 Jul 1886)

London, June 27 -- The late ball at Buckingham Palace was a magnificent sight. The invitation came on a large square card, saying, "The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by the Queen [1] to invite Mrs. ----- to a ball on Wednesday at ten o'clock. Full dress. Buckingham Palace." This, accompanied with the compliments of the American minister, reached me a week before the ball. I was permitted by courtesy of Mrs. Phelps [2] to enter the diplomatic door, and was thus saved the long waiting at the principal entrance. There was a very large attendance, owing to the fact that the Colonial Exhibition [3] is going on just now, so that waiting at the grand entrance would have necessitated a long delay. This privilege of entering by the diplomatic door also took me through a very fine gallery of portraits of the royal family in past generations.

The throne room of Buckingham Palace, ca. 1914 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But two young ladies were waiting for me to chaperon them into the presence of royalty, so I could not wait long. I therefore postponed my pleasure in these pictures -- all were historical -- and proceeded to enjoy the living, moving picture of what is today the finest sight on earth -- a ball at Buckingham Palace. The throne room is about as large as the Seventh Armory room [4], very richly decorated and hung with splendid crimson brocade. At one end is the elevated dais on which royalty sits; at the other a high gallery where the music plays. A fine band from Mr. Henry Tilney's orchestra assumed the scarlet livery for this occasion. The immense room is lighted by concealed lamps from the top, and is as light as day without heat or glare. Around the room are scarlet benches, three deep, on which sit the guests, like the spectators at a theatre. At the upper end sit the Duchesses, opposite them the Diplomatic Corps, and down the room the invited guests. After the room was pretty well filled, the band struck up the "Royal Anthem," and everyone rose. Between the rank and file of the Diplomatic Circle, who opened to receive them, came a glittering procession, and royalty enters.

First, the officers of the household of the Queen, then the officers of the household of the Prince of Wales [5], Generals, Dukes, Lords, superb men in grand full dress uniforms, then the ladies in waiting. I will mention here that I never wish to be a lady in waiting; they have a dreary time standing behind chairs. Then the Duchess of Bedford [6], Mistress of the Robes, an elderly fat lady, with her hair full of diamonds.

The Princess of Wales, ca. 1889 (Photo: Grand Ladies Site)

Then several other grand dames, then the Prince of Wales, and on his arm the lovely Princess [7]. No words can describe her beauty; it is far greater than her pictures represent. She is a slender, delicate type, and looks about twenty-four, although she is really about forty. She was dressed in lilac silk, velvet, and tulle, the same dress she had worn at the drawing room at which I was presented, minus the train.

Following her came the Princess Christian and her husband [8], then great fat Mary of Cambridge [9], a woman who weighs nearly three hundred, I should say, and the very pretty Princess Louise [10]. They all wore diamond tiaras and a number of orders in jewels. I should have mentioned that the heir apparent, Albert Victor of Wales [11], followed his royal parents, and with him were several gentlemen in waiting. The Grand Duke Michael of Russia [12] was also in this glittering throng.

All remained standing until the Princess took her seat, and slowly the others followed suit. Then the royal quadrille was formed, and one could see the most adored man in England, the Prince of Wales, dancing with the Duchess of Westminster [13], a very pretty woman, and our lovely ambassadress, Mrs. Phelps, danced with the Persian ambassador. The Princess of Wales danced with the Count Karolyi [14], the Austro-Hungarian ambassador.

Mary of Teck in a debutante portrait, 1886 (Photo: Grand Ladies Site)

The prettiest member of the party after the Princess is the daughter of the Duchess of Teck, Princess Victoria Mary of Teck [15], a very charming girl. The daughters of the Prince of Wales are all very pretty. The Duchess of Montrose [16] is one of the most beautiful women in England, and she is said to be a very amiable person.

After the royal quadrille, dancing became general, and one had time to see the great people of England. There was the Duke of Northumberland [17], with the blood of Harry Hotspur [18] in his veins, and all the great Dukes. There was the Duke of Atholl [19], a great Highland chief in full Scottish dress, with bare legs, and his dirk put into his stockings, a very dashing figure. There was the Duke of Wellington [20], not at all like his grandfather; in his veins was the blood of the peasant girl whom the "Lord of Burleigh" wedded and of whom Tennyson sings [21]. There was his Duchess [22], poor lame lady on two crutches. She has hip disease. There was the Duchess of Leeds [23] in a superb diamond tiara. There was Lady George Gordon-Lennox [24], and Lady Aveland [25], and Lady Alexander Lenson Jones. These are the new beauties: Lady Kildare [26] and Mrs. Mills, who looks like a blush rose. Lady Kildare is one of the ten famous beauties of London.

The fashionable married young women of England do not dance; they sit about and talk to their admirers. The dancing is done mainly by the debutantes, and the waltzing is as good as in America. Whenever the Prince or his son speaks to a lady, down she goes in an old-fashioned bob-curtsy, very funny to look at. While this adoration of royalty is disagreeable to an American in one phase -- for it breeds great snobbery -- it is very pleasing in another sense, for the royalty deserve it. They are all so gracious and punctual, and so very nice to everybody.

Indeed, that prince of good fellows, our own ambassador, Mr. Phelps, says, "They are the very nicest set of people out of Burlington, Vermont." Mr. Phelps does not lose his American independence over here, while he has become the greatest favorite with royalty. What a contrast to some weak-kneed Americans who are "bowing too low" all the time and who simply gain the scorn of all good English people.

Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck (Photo: Grand Ladies Site)

The great event of the evening was when royalty walked into supper, as they passed first through a royal road made for them. I learned how beautiful a thing is respect. Everyone seemed so pleased to allow them to go, and the good-natured Prince bowed right and left, and the Princess Christian smiled recognition to a friend, and the good-natured Duchess of Teck reached out a hand to some old acquaintance as everyone curtsied and bowed. I thought it would be well if we introduced a little of this stately scene at the White House, for the respect of others is but the outcome of a proper self-respect which is, I take it, almost the best quality of refined and educated human nature.

The supper room is full of the most splendid gold plate, purchased first for George IV. The tables ran round three sides of the room. I sat on a sofa outside with a noble lady, who told me who everybody was -- a great privilege -- until royalty had supped, and then I and them all went back into the ballroom. The supper was not profuse or very elegant. The Quirinal [27] outdoes the English hospitality in this respect, and Russia outdoes both.

However, few wants were left unsupplied. Some English strawberries and a glass of soda water sufficed my modest wants. I was eating with my eyes. Really the English women, seen from such a standpoint as this, the very highest in the kingdom, are very handsome. Their proud carriage, jewels, brocades, and white necks are very superb. Of course, everyone is at her best at a Queen's ball.

Queen Victoria, ca. 1887 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Queen was not there. She had fled to Balmoral to escape fatigue and worry. Heaven knows it follows her there. As the Princess Christian said, in an informal interview which I was fortunate enough to have with her: "My mother is no longer young. She felt the journey to Liverpool very much [28], and she cannot stand as she once did." The Queen looks very well, and was, I heard, very gracious at the first drawing room; but I was presented at the second, at which the Princess of Wales represented Her Majesty. Certainly it was what the English call a very "smart" drawing room, and not so fatiguing as when one is presented to the Queen.

Knowing many of her ladies and the gentlemen of her household, I hear only most favorable accounts of the Queen; her love of fun amuses Mr. Phelps. He said she gave him a full account of Jesse Grant's "refusing to eat with the servants," they being, by the way, the best people at her Court, and insisting upon eating with her! She was pleased with the compliment the republican boy paid her, although it was rather a frightful violation of etiquette. [29]


1. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom (1819-1901), who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901. In the summer of 1886, Victoria was 67 years old.

2. Mary Haight Phelps (1827-1909), wife of Edward John Phelps (1822-1900), who was then the American ambassador to the Court of St. James.

3. The Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 was held in South Kensington. Hundreds items from the exhibition, which showcased pieces from throughout the British Empire, are held today in the collections of the British Museum.

4. The Seventh Regiment Armory was built in 1880 on Park Avenue in New York City.

5. King Edward VII of the United Kingdom (1841-1910), then the Prince of Wales. He was the heir apparent to the British throne from his birth until the age of 59. In the summer of 1886, he was 44 years old.

6. Elizabeth Russell, Duchess of Bedford (1818-1897) was the wife of the 9th Duke of Bedford. Born Lady Elizabeth Sackville-West, she was a bridesmaid at Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840. She served as Mistress of the Robes from 1880-1883 and again in 1886.

7. Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom (1844-1925), then the Princess of Wales. She was the daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and a sister of King Frederik VIII of Denmark, King George I of Greece, and Tsarina Marie Feodorovna of Russia.

8. Princess Helena of the United Kingdom (1846-1923), third daughter of Queen Victoria, and her husband, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (1831-1917). We discussed their wedding last week!

9. Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck (1833-1897). She was the daughter of Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge -- and therefore was a first cousin of Queen Victoria. Her husband, the Duke of Teck, was a minor member of the royal family of Württemberg. They were the parents of Queen Mary.

10. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (1848-1939), then Marchioness of Lorne, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. She was an accomplished artist and sculptor. She was also the only one of Victoria's children to marry an aristocrat rather than a fellow royal: the Marquess of Lorne, who became the 9th Duke of Argyll in 1900.

11. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale (1864-1892), then Prince Albert Victor of Wales, eldest child of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Contrary to what this article says, he was never heir apparent -- his father was heir apparent, and he was second in line to the throne. He died in 1892 at the age of 28, just before he was supposed to marry Princess Mary of Teck. Instead, his brother George married Mary -- and became king.

12. Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia (1861-1929), a grandson of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Michael and his morganatic wife, Countess Sophie of Merenberg, settled in England. Their daughter Nadejda ("Nada") married the 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven (brother of Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, Earl Mountbatten, and Queen Louise of Sweden); their daughter Anastasia ("Zia") married Major-General Sir Harold Werner. Zia's granddaughter Natalia is the current Duchess of Westminster; her granddaughter Alexandra is the current Duchess of Abercorn; and her granddaughter Maralyn is the current Countess of Dalhousie.

13. Katherine Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster (1857-1941), the second wife of the 1st Duke of Westminster. She was the daughter of William Cavendish, 2nd Baron Chesham. Her great-grandson is the current Duke of Westminster.

14. Count Alajos Károlyi (1825-1899) was Austria-Hungary's ambassador to the Court of St. James from 1878-88.

15. Queen Mary of the United Kingdom (1867-1953), then Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, daughter of the Duke of Teck and Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Five years after this ball, she was engaged to marry her cousin, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence; when he died only a few weeks later, she successfully transferred her affections to his younger brother, Prince George, Duke of York. They became King George V and Queen Mary in 1910.

16. Violet Graham, Duchess of Montrose (d. 1940) was the wife of the 5th Duke of Montrose. She was a granddaughter of the 12th Duke of Somerset. She had given birth to her fifth child only a few weeks before this ball.

17. Algernon Percy, 6th Duke of Northumberland (1810-1899), British peer and Conservative politician. He was made a Knight of the Garter in 1886.

18. Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403), known as "Harry Hotspur," was a nobleman in medieval England; he rebelled against King Henry IV and was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury. He's probably best known today as a) a character in Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part 1, and b) as the inspiration behind the name of Tottenham Hotspur FC.

19. John Stewart-Murray, 7th Duke of Atholl (1840-1917) was a Scottish peer. He was a soldier and an important historian of the Stewart-Murray family.

20. Henry Wellesley, 3rd Duke of Wellington (1846-1900) was a peer, a Conservative politician, and grandson of the famous Duke of Wellington, hero of the Battle of Waterloo.

21. Okay -- bear with me here. The 3rd Duke of Wellington was the son of Lord Charles Wellesley (younger son of the 1st Duke) and Augusta Pierrepont. Augusta's mother was Lady Sophia Cecil, who was the daughter of Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter and his second wife, Sarah Hoggins. Sarah was the daughter of a Shropshire farmer, Henry met her when he was living in her village under an assumed identity, and their marriage was initially bigamous. (It's a seriously long story.) Anyway -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about Henry and Sarah, called "The Lord of Burleigh," which was published in 1842.

22. Evelyn Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington (1855-1939), wife of the 3rd Duke of Wellington. She was born Evelyn Williams; her sister-in-law, Mrs. Hwfa Williams, was a great Edwardian society hostess.

23. Frances Osborne, Duchess of Leeds (1836-1896), wife of the 9th Duke of Leeds. She was the daughter of the 4th Baron Rivers.

24. Lady George Gordon-Lennox (d. 1913), nee Minnie Augusta Palmer, was the wife of Conservative politician (and younger son of the 5th Duke of Richmond) Lord George Gordon Lennox. He died only two years after they married; she remained a widow for the rest of her life.

25. Evelyn Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, Baroness Aveland (1846-1921), later Countess of Ancaster, was the wife of Gilbert Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 1st Earl of Ancaster. Her father was Charles Gordon, 10th Marquess of Huntly.

26. Hermione FitzGerald, Marchioness of Kildare (1864-1895), later Duchess of Leinster, was the wife of Gerald FitzGerald, 5th Duke of Leinster. She was the daughter of 1st Earl of Feversham. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 30, only a few years after her husband inherited the dukedom.

27.  The Quirinal Palace in Rome is now one of the official residences of the president of Italy; in 1886, it was the official royal residence of Italy's kings (at this time, Umberto I).

28. Queen Victoria opened the International Exhibition of Navigation, Commerce and Industry in Liverpool in May 1886.

29. Jesse Grant was one of the children of Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general who was the American president from 1869-1877. After his presidency ended in 1877, Grant took his family on a world tour. Nineteen-year-old Jesse accompanied his parents to meet Queen Victoria; she later referred to Jesse as a "very ill-mannered young Yankee."