Louise Lehzen : biography
Family and early life
Johanna Clara Louise Lehzen was born in Hanover on 3 October 1784, the youngest of seven daughters and two sons of Lutheran pastor Joachim Friedrich Lehzen and his wife Melusine Palm. Forced by circumstances to work for her living since she was young, Lehzen was employed by the von Marenholtzs, an aristocratic German family, where she earned glowing references.
Based on these references, Lehzen became part of the household of Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in December 1819, when she served as governess to twelve-year old Princess Feodora of Leiningen, the daughter of the princess by her first husband, the Prince of Leiningen. Princess Victoria was married to the Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, who was, at the time, fourth in line for the British throne. Lehzen and the entire household were moved to England in 1817 so that the new Duchess of Kent’s child might be born there, strengthening the child’s claim to the throne. The baby was a girl, christened "Alexandrina Victoria" after her mother and her godfather, Alexander I of Russia; she would grow up to be Queen Victoria.
Tutor to Princess Victoria
The Duke of Kent died quite suddenly in 1820, followed quickly by his father, King George III. Victoria’s uncle, the Prince Regent, ascended the throne as George IV. Victoria was now third in line for the crown, after her uncles the Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence, both of whom were well past middle age, and neither of whom had legitimate heirs. As the likely eventual heiress, Victoria had to be educated accordingly. Feodora was now 14, and no longer required the services of a governess. After the dismissal of nursemaid Mrs. Brock, Lehzen – as she was always known in the household – took over five-year old Victoria’s care in 1824. The Duchess and her comptroller, John Conroy made the appointment not only because Lehzen was German (rather than English), but also because they believed she was unlikely to operate independent of their wishes.
Twentieth century historian Christopher Hibbert describes Lehzen as "a handsome woman, despite her pointed nose and chin, clever, emotional, humourless." At first fearing Lehzen’s stern manner, "dear, good Lehzen" soon came to occupy a place in Victoria’s heart that superseded all others, including her own mother, the Duchess of Kent. Lehzen encouraged the princess to distrust her mother and her mother’s friends, and to maintain her independence. The governess was uninterested in money and lacked ambition for herself, instead choosing to devote her time and energy to the princess. Victoria took to calling Lehzen "Mother" and "dearest Daisy" in private, writing Lehzen was "the most affectionate, devoted, attached, and disinterested friend I have." As part of the controlling Kensington System devised by Conroy, after 1824 Victoria was to be accompanied by Lehzen at all times during the day; consequently Lehzen was not allowed out to leave Victoria’s side until the Duchess dismissed her at nighttime, and was required to hold the princess’ hand when Victoria descended a staircase.
King William appointed his friend, the Duchess of Northumberland, as Victoria’s official governess in 1831, but the role was mostly ceremonial, and the princess continued to depend on Lehzen. The Duchess was dismissed in 1837 by Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, for attempting to become more influential in Victoria’s education. During this time, Lehzen held no official position at court; despite her recently acquired title, her commoner status continued to be a hindrance.
The wish of the Duchess and Conroy to keep Victoria dependent on their will was circumvented by Lehzen, who wanted her charge to become a strong, informed woman. As Victoria grew older, attempts were made by Conroy and the Duchess for Lehzen’s removal, or at least the lessening of her influence. Such tactics proved unsuccessful, as the princess became more devoted to Lehzen than before, as evident in her journals. Lehzen’s only true friend in the household, Baroness Spath, had been suddenly dismissed in 1828 on the orders of Conroy; rumours abounded that the baroness witnessed "familiarities" between him and the Duchess. Members of George IV’s court speculated that Lehzen would be the next to leave, but she remained silent on the issue and preserved her position. In 1835, the Duchess of Kent wrote her daughter a stern letter demanding that Victoria develop a more formal and less intimate relationship with Lehzen. The same year (in which Victoria turned sixteen), plans to dismiss Lehzen fell apart after she devotedly nursed Victoria through a five-week illness. Lehzen aided a weakened Victoria in her refusal to sign a document prepared for her by Conroy and the Duchess that would guarantee him a position when she became queen. During her tenure, Lehzen had the support of George IV, William IV, and another of Victoria’s uncles, Leopold I of Belgium, who all believed that she was vital to the princess’ health, happiness, and continued resistance to Conroy’s influence.
The education Victoria received from Lehzen was rudimentary but solid. Contrary to the prevailing attitudes of the time, Lehzen, tutor Dr. George Davys, and others successfully encouraged Victoria to enjoy acquiring knowledge. Davys was put in charge of the "solid department of her studies", while Lehzen concentrated on the "more ornamental departments", such as dancing. Gaining an "enlightened education", the princess learned to speak French, German, Latin, and English, liked history and was taught economics, geography, mathematics, politics, art, and music. Lehzen was strict, but rewarded the princess when she was obedient. In another departure from the era, Lehzen employed little to no corporal punishment; at least, there is no record of it in the household accounts.