A horse, a horse, my garter for a horse! When Queen Victoria met Sultan Abdul Aziz, London, 1867 – Stéphanie Prévost

While fans of the PBS Victoria series fret about the possibility of a fourth season, conjectures are building up as to its contents, notably as season 3’s cliff-hanger ending foreshadows the tragic death of Prince Albert in December 1861 and Queen Victoria’s early widowhood. How much Victoria shall leap forward in the 1860s is also under discussion…

In the margins of the 1867 Reform Act, which was eventually to grant some representation to urban skilled artisans in British politics for the first time, lies a long overlooked, yet crucial moment of Victorian diplomacy. On 12 July, 1867, Britain was to welcome the first non-Christian head of state for an official State visit on her soil: Sultan Abdul Aziz, who had inherited the Ottoman throne but six years earlier. As the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Stanley, confided in Queen Victoria’s private secretary on 22 May, 1867: ‘This visit will be memorable as the first which any sovereign of the Turkish empire has ever paid to the capitals of the West. It may also have important political results. English influence is at present greater than that of any other power at Constantinople. To maintain it is important.’1To reach that objective, Britain – in the person of her Sovereign – was to offer the Sultan a magnificent and friendly welcome during his visit (12-23 July) – that is at least as lavish as Napoleon III’s welcome to Sultan Abdul Aziz during his French visit (29 June-10 July) on the occasion of the Paris Universal Exhibition. At stake, was also the award to Sultan Abdul Aziz of the Order of the Garter, the most senior and the oldest order of knighthood in Britain, which he made a requisite of his English visit.

The investiture of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the Order of the Garter onboard the Royal Yacht on 17 July, 1867 by Queen Victoria is now best remembered due to George Housman Thomas’s representations (1867), two of which are in the Royal Collections, and a third one is on display at Weston Park (Shropshire). Little do they say about the weeks-long drama preceding the award. Queen Victoria had demurred from the minute she heard of the Sultan’s visit in May: he had invited himself at the last minute, which, to her, forbade his having any grand expectations – especially receiving the Garter, which she alone could decide to give. Indeed, the Queen felt little inclined to welcoming him at all, and arguing that her ill-health forbade it, she sent her son Prince Edward to meet him at Dover. Her government, otherwise busy with the passing of the 2nd Reform Act, urged to avoid a diplomatic fallout. Yet, but two days before the ceremony, the Queen was still very hesitant as she ‘cannot help feeling the anomaly of bestowing a Xtian order on a Mussulman [sic]’.2 The Queen asked Lord Northcote, then Secretary of State, and Lord Stanley, to consider an acceptable alternative, which the Sultan eventually turned down as inadequate (according to the Ottoman honours system). In so doing, Queen Victoria had sought to restore a more classical/Western power dynamics in ceremonial gift-giving, whereby the giver freely has the choice of the gift. It nonetheless became clear that ‘the Sultan would consider himself slighted if he were given anything but the Garter’.3 The insignia had been conferred upon his predecessor, Sultan Abdulmecid I, by the British ambassador at Constantinople, Lord Canning, there at the Embassy in 1856. Besides, the British press had also announced in June 1867 that the honour was about to be given to the Czar by Queen Victoria. Eventually conceding that it might be difficult to shrink away from bestowing the Order of the Garter upon Sultan Abdul Aziz without jeopardizing Anglo-Ottoman relations, the Queen did consent to award ‘her Oriental Brother’ this mark of special distinction.4 As his English visit came to a close, the Sultan ‘expresse[d] himself as highly pleased with his whole reception in this country which he greatly prefers to that which he met with in Paris. But nothing has given him half as much pleasure as the receipt of the garter and especially the mode in which it was conferred’.5 The investiture reasserted – at least symbolically – the status of the Ottoman Sultan as a full-fledged member of the Concert of Europe – a status stipulated in the 1856 Paris treaty, which had put an end to the Crimean War.

According to Marcel Mauss, giving necessarily entails receiving and counter-giving. Diplomatic correspondence between the Ottoman ambassador in London and the British Foreign Office reveals that Sultan Abdul Aziz intended to reciprocate by giving Queen Victoria seven purebred Arabian horses, both as acknowledgement (as from equal to equal) and display of munificence. Gifting an Arabian horse to another head of state was part of a long-standing Ottoman tradition and a highly valued one. The gift was meant to be gender-neutral, but was not read in that way by the Queen, who was about to turn down the present for fear of overarching consequences. When disclosed at the Royal Academy in May 1867, Sir Edwin Landseer’s commissioned portrait Queen Victoria at Osborne (1865-1867) had raised suspicions about the true nature of the widowed Queen’s relationship with her Scottish servant, John Brown. The Sultan’s gift was thus conceived as an embarrassment by Victoria and her entourage, who believed that accepting it would cause rumours of impropriety to resume.

To ease relations and avoid a diplomatic break, Lord Stanley worked closely with the Ottoman ambassador in London to bring the view across to the Sultan that ‘horses [were] not appropriate for her use’, but that she was not refusing the gift proper.6 Four Arabian horses were given by the Sultan to her son Prince Edward instead and were eventually accepted in November 1867.

The visit is usually regarded as a success for both Britain and the Ottoman Empire, but actually gives to see two rather asymmetrical gift-giving systems in contact on British soil and at the risk of incommensurability (e.g. over the role the Garter performed). It also shows the agency of diplomatic intermediaries in bridging it, as they acted as intercultural brokers (especially the British Foreign Secretary, the British ambassador at Constantinople, the Ottoman ambassador to St James’ Court and former Grand Vizir Fuad Pasha, who accompanied Sultan Abdul Aziz to Europe and had been secretary at the London Embassy in 1840). Finally, the episode serves to remind us that the meaning of a gift, its value and acceptability is fluid and highly context-dependent.

Stéphanie Prévost

  1. Lord Stanley to General Grey, 23 May 1867, Royal Archives (RA), Windsor, VIC/MAIN/B23, f. 69. []
  2. In Widdall to Lord Stanley, 15 July 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/H/1, f. 117. []
  3. Robert Wilson, The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, Volume 3, London : Cassell & Co., 1887, 294. []
  4. Grey to Stanley, 10 July 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/H/1, f. 111. []
  5. In Derby to Grey, 20 July 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/A/36, f. 5. []
  6. In Stanley to the Queen, 20 September 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/H/1, f. 158. []