Victoria and Albert at Balmoral
Even before the completion of the new house, the pattern of the royal couple's life in the Highlands was soon established. Albert spent many days shooting deer and game, while Victoria took long walks of up to four hours daily. In 1849 the diarist Charles Greville described their life at Balmoral as like that of gentry rather than royalty. Victoria began a policy of commissioning artists to record Balmoral, its surroundings and its staff. Over the years, numerous painters were employed at Balmoral, including Edwin and Charles Landseer, Carl Haag, William Wyld, William Henry Fisk, and many others. The couple took great interest in their staff, and set up a lending library. During the 1850s, new plantations were established around the house, and exotic conifers were planted in the grounds. Prince Albert had an active role in these improvements, overseeing the design of parterres, the diversion the main road north of the river via a new bridge, and plans for farm buildings. These included a model dairy which he developed during 1861, the year of his death. It was completed by Victoria, who subsequently built several monuments to her husband on the estate. These included an obelisk, and a large statue of Albert by William Theed, inaugurated in 1867.
After Albert's death, Victoria spent increasing periods at Balmoral, staying up to four months a year during early summer and autumn. Few further changes were made to the grounds, with the exception of the monuments and cottages built during the remainder of the 19th century. It was during this period that Victoria began to depend on her servant John Brown, a local ghillie from Crathie who became one of her closest companions during her long mourning. Balmoral Castle was the birthplace of Victoria Eugenie of Spain, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
In September 1896, Victoria welcomed Emperor Nicholas II of Russia and Empress Alexandra to Balmoral. Four years later Victoria made her last visit, three months before her death on 22 January
John Brown (December 8, 1826 – March 27, 1883) was a Scottish personal servant and favourite of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom for many years. He was appreciated by many (including the Queen) for his competence and companionship, and resented by others for his influence and informal manner. The exact nature of his relationship with Victoria was the subject of great speculation by contemporaries, and continues to be controversial today.
Brown was born in Crathie, Aberdeenshire, to John Brown and Margaret Leys, and went to work as an outdoor servant (in Scots ghillie or gillie) at Balmoral Castle, which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased in 1853.
After Albert died in 1861, Brown became Victoria's personal servant. She was so grateful for his service (and his manner toward her, which was much less formal than that of her other servants, though extremely protective of her) that she awarded him medals and had portrait paintings and statues made of him.
Victoria's children and ministers resented the high regard she had for Brown, and, inevitably, stories circulated that there was something improper about their relationship. The Queen's daughters joked that Brown was "Mama's Lover," while Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby wrote in his diary that Brown and Victoria slept in adjoining rooms "contrary to etiquette and even decency".
The diaries of Lewis Harcourt contain a report that one of the Queen's chaplains, Rev. Norman Macleod, made a deathbed confession repenting of his action in presiding over Queen Victoria's marriage to John Brown. Debate continues over what credence to give this report. It should be emphasised that Harcourt did not receive the confession directly (he was nine at the time that Macleod died) but that it passed (if it did) from Macleod's sister to the wife of Henry Ponsonby, the Queen's private secretary, and thence to Harcourt's father Sir William Harcourt, the then Home Secretary. Sir William served as Home Secretary in the final three years of Brown's life. While it is true that some widowed monarchs (including Louis XIV of France) have contracted private marriages with their servants, there is little evidence that Victoria married Brown.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the depth of Victoria and Brown's relationship comes from the pen of the Queen herself. A recently discovered letter written by Victoria shortly after Brown's death, to Viscount Cranbrook, reveals the true extent of the loss:
'Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and loving a friendship between the sovereign and servant ... Strength of character as well as power of frame – the most fearless uprightness, kindness, sense of justice, honesty, independence and unselfishness combined with a tender, warm heart ... made him one of the most remarkable men. The Queen feels that life for the second time is become most trying and sad to bear deprived of all she so needs ... the blow has fallen too heavily not to be very heavily felt...'
The phrase 'life for the second time' relates to the death of her husband Prince Albert. The historian who discovered the letter believed that it suggested that Victoria, in her mind, equated Brown's death with Albert's, and that she therefore viewed him as more than a servant. Whether Brown and Victoria were actual lovers, however, is impossible to prove.
Those who believe that the Queen saw Brown as little more than a servant point to the fact that after his death she became similarly attached to an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (the Munshi), one of two who had come to work for her in late June 1887. She called him the Munshi, and he came to be resented even more than John Brown had been: unlike Brown, whose loyalty was without question, there was evidence that the mendacious and manipulative Karim exploited his position for personal gain and prestige.
Tony Rennell's book Last Days of Glory: The Death of Queen Victoria reveals that Victoria had entrusted detailed instructions about her burial to her doctor, Sir James Reid (in lieu of Brown himself, who had died in 1883: the Queen's wish had been for him to attend to her). These included a list of the keepsakes and mementoes, photographs and trinkets she wished to be placed into the coffin with her: along with Albert's dressing gown and a plaster cast of his hand, the Queen was buried with a lock of Brown's hair, his photograph, and a ring worn by Brown's mother and given to her by Brown, along with several of his letters. The photograph, wrapped in white tissue paper, was placed in her left hand, with flowers discreetly arranged so as to hide it from view. The ring she wore on the third finger of her right hand.
The statues and private memorials that Victoria had created for Brown were destroyed and discarded at the order of her son, Edward VII, with whom Brown had often clashed and who bitterly resented Brown for his influence on his mother.
The 1997 film Mrs. Brown is the fictionalised story of John Brown. Billy Connolly stars as Brown and Dame Judi Dench as Victoria, with Anthony Sher appearing as Benjamin Disraeli. His character, with a wink at Victoria's unspeakable grief over Albert's death, is informed that she would like to say goodbye at his deathbed. To which he replies:"Oh Lord, no. She will only want me to take a message to Albert."