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Sir John Ponsonby Conroy, first baronet (1786-1854)

This article was written by Elizabeth Longford and was published in 1993


Sir John Ponsonby Conroy, courtier, was born 21 October 1786 in Caehrun, Caernarfonshire, the eldest in the family of five sons and one daughter of John Ponsonby Conroy, barrister, and his wife Margaret Wilson, who were both Irish-born. Commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1803, he became equerry to the Duke of Kent when Edward married Princess Victoire of Leiningen in 1818 to ensure the succession, Princess (later Queen) Victoria being born in 1819. Conroy was an organizer of genius. He made it possible for the duke and his eight-months pregnant duchess to rush back from Germany to Kensington Palace for the birth, putting up the royal cavalcade at his home in Shooter’s Hill on the way. When the duke died suddenly in 1820, Conroy became comptroller of the Duchess of Kent’s household. In 1822 he retired from the army as captain on half pay.

At first Conroy shared his influence on the duchess with her brother, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, but after Leopold ascended the Belgian throne in 1830, Conroy ruled supreme. He survived the ‘Cumberland plot’ in 1829, when a rumour said to have been started by Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, circulated, saying that the Duchess of Kent was Conroy’s mistress. This was intended to discredit the duchess and have Princess Victoria removed from her care, and even, Conroy feared, killed. William IV angrily called him ‘King John’. He established the ‘Kensington system’, by which Victoria should be suitably educated as heir presumptive to the Crown, her mother should be created regent if the king died before Victoria was eighteen, Conroy should be appointed Victoria’s private secretary with a peerage, and a rival court should develop at Kensington, cut off from William IV’s Tory politics and morals. Victoria had no youthful companionship except Conroy’s daughters and no personal champion but her German governess, Baroness Lehzen, Conroy’s implacable foe. In order to make Victoria known to the people, Conroy would run her around the country on semi-royal tours, after the last of which, in 1835, she succumbed to typhoid. While still on her sick-bed, Conroy tried to force her to appoint him as her personal secretary when she became queen. Afterwards she told Lord Melbourne: ‘I resisted in spite of my illness.’

As William IV lay dying, Conroy’s final desperate attempt to coerce Victoria failed. Succeeding to the throne on 20 June 1837, she dismissed him from her household. But he continued to serve her mother, being partly responsible for the tragedy of the duchess’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, who died of a tumour while suspected of being pregnant by Conroy. The duchess, too, was reported to be Conroy’s mistress, though without evidence. However, he cannot be absolved of mismanaging her funds and those of Princess Sophia, Victoria’s aunt and Conroy’s ‘spy’, from whom he also received gifts.

In 1839 Wellington persuaded him to resign from the Duchess of Kent’s household and go abroad for a time. He had a Guelphic knighthood, an honorary DCL from Oxford, and foreign honours. He was created baronet in 1837, but Sir Robert Peel refused him the Irish peerage promised him by Melbourne. ‘JC’ was not the arch-villain Victoria painted, but the victim of his own inordinate ambition. In 1808 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Major-General Benjamin Fisher and niece of Dr John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury, who had tutored Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. They had four sons, one of whom died young, and two daughters. Conroy believed his wife to be the Duke of Kent’s natural child. This fantasy may have accounted for the arrogance of Conroy towards Queen Victoria. He died at Arborfield Hall, Berkshire, 2 March 1854. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his eldest son, Edward (born 1809).


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