The letters of Sir Henry Ponsonby

Sir Henry Ponsonby fulfilled the role of Private Secretary to Queen Victoria from 8th April 1870 until his death in 1895 and in doing so became the main source of communication between Her Majesty and those who wished to seek her opinion or permission with regards to certain state affairs. Given the duration of his service in this position, and the level of responsibility devolved to him by the Queen, an analysis of Ponsonby’s work provides a fascinating insight into the workings of the Royal Household and its coordination with other significant bodies during this period.  In 1942, Ponsonby’s son Arthur capitalised on the wealth of information stored in their family records and compiled a biography of his father’s life based on the letters of his time in office.[1]  On completing his publication, Ponsonby the younger passed the documents of Windsor interest to the archives here, describing them as “essentially a St George’s matter”.

Ponsonby’s role was significant in managing the expectations of the Queen herself and those who wished to communicate with her. The letters provided to the archives of St George’s Chapel by Arthur Ponsonby clearly reveal the delicacy required in situations where this communication was paramount to the success of the Queen’s public image. Letters from Randall Thomas Davidson, Dean of Windsor from 1883 to 1891, in particular demonstrate the significance of Ponsonby’s role in serving as his advocate. Wishing to communicate his devotion to the Queen’s wishes, Davidson completes each of his letters without failing to include a line such as “of course, if the Queen has the slightest objection, I will rewrite it in some other way.” [SGC XVII.33.45.29]

The greatest controversy revealed through Ponsonby’s correspondence is undoubtedly that which surrounded the aftermath of the death of Napoléon, the Prince Imperial, who died while serving with the British Army in South Africa in a brutal close-hand attack by Zulu warriors, and the decision to create a memorial to commemorate this shocking event. As A.P. Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, writes to Ponsonby, the gravity of such a situation requires the appropriate action from the monarch in order to “gratify the public feeling of the country” [SGC XVII.33.45.20]. The dangers of separate bodies who manage situations such as this becomes apparent through Wellesley’s comment that “the little Dean, besides, had far too much pluck for this” [SGC XVII.33.45.24] thus demonstrating that, in acting without the coordination of superior figures, great controversy has been caused over a matter of extensive national and international significance. Wellesley writes of the need to show “the personal and private affection of the Royal Family towards [the Prince Imperial]” [SGC XVII.33.45.24], while appreciating the objection of many to the idea of a monument specifically dedicated to a member of  the (exiled) French royal family being erected in Westminster Abbey.

Ponsonby’s significance in such difficult circumstances becomes clear as he coordinates the recovery of this mistake made by the all “too plucky” Dean of Westminster. In serving as the Queen’s secretary, Ponsonby managed those involved and their decisions which aimed to resurrect the initial error of judgement. As Dean Stanley tells Ponsonby, “I wrote immediately a note to Sir Stafford Northcote offering to withdraw permission if the government thought it contrary to the public interest, or else if they wished to take no part in the question to undertake the whole responsibility” [SGC XVII.33.45.20], thus offering to salvage the reputation of the governing body by himself accepting blame. Once again, the delicacy of the situation and the necessity of Ponsonby’s role as the mediator becomes apparent as the Dean tells him, “of course if the Queen decided that it should be stopped and yet did not wish her name to appear in the matter I could then undertake the refusal.” [XVII.33.45.20] Here, Ponsonby acts as the master of communication, coordination and protection of Her Majesty’s public image. In the end, the matter was resolved when it was agreed that the monument to the Prince Imperial should go to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Initially installed in the Bray Chantry Chapel in 1881, it was relocated to its present position on the south side of the Nave in 1985.

These letters provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the Royal Household and most specifically the role of Sir Henry Ponsonby in his position as Private Secretary to the Queen. Despite the need to battle through the inadequacies of nineteenth century handwriting in order to unravel the intricacies of this relationship, the treasures hidden within the many (almost) illegible pages are well worth digging up.

Ros Leather, work experience student.

[1.] A. Ponsonby Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, Henry Ponsonby, His Life From His Letters, London Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1942

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.