A Royal Association: Chronicling Harriet Lane’s Connection to the Royal Family

Harriet Lane arrived in London for the first time in her life in the spring of 1854. Just one month shy of her 24th birthday, Harriet had persisted long enough for her Uncle Buchanan to give in to her wishes. Ever since her uncle’s appointment as Minister of Great Britain under President Pierce in 1853, Harriet wanted to travel to England. Buchanan, however, did not share her enthusiasm and attempted to dampen her expectations:

“I am sorry, truly sorry, that you look upon your trip to England as the ‘future realisation of a beautiful dream.’ Like all other dreams, you will be disappointed in the reality.” (Moore, John B. “The Works of James Buchanan,” Vol. IX, 1853-1855, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia & London, 1909, p.66).

Harriet remained unmoved by her uncle’s warnings. Contrary to his opinions, Harriet thrived and thoroughly enjoyed her stay in England. She socialized with high society over the season, travelled from London to Yorkshire, and was a bridesmaid tp her friend, Miss Jackson, for her wedding in 1855.

But what she may not have realized is that her trip to England would be the beginning of several royal associations over the next forty-nine years of her life.

Meeting Queen Victoria

While Harriet’s first meeting remains unknown, Queen Victoria recorded a meeting with her in February 1885. The two had dined together with several other guests. The Queen recalled her association with Harriet in her journal on 17 February 1855:

“Mr. Buchannon, [sic] & his really lovely niece, Miss Lane, (very ladylike & not at all American)— the Clarendons, Ld Hardinge & his son Arthur, (just returned from the Crimea), the Gladstones & Gen. Simpson dined. Mr. Buchannon sat next to me, & I found him quite agreeable.” (Place of Writing: (Principal Royal Residence) Buckingham Palace, Version: Princess Beatrice’s copies, Volume: 39 (1 January 1855- 30 June 1855) Volume Page Number: 108.)

Harriet also seemed to think highly of Queen Victoria and her son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. In a letter to her sister, Mary Baker, she commented on their hospitality:

“Her Majesty was very gracious… as also was the Prince.” (Harriet Lane to Mary Baker, in Bess Furman, White House Profile: A Social History of the White House, Its Occupants and Its Festivities (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1951), 163. Retrieved from https://www.whitehousehistory.org/president-buchanan-greets-a-guest-of-state.)

While Harriet Lane would not meet Queen Victoria again in person until 1898 (which we will get to in a bit), she continued to be in association with the Royal Family.

The First Lady Hosts the Prince of Wales

By the end of 1855, Harriet’s “beautiful dream” of visiting England had come to an end. She returned to the United States where she would eventually become First Lady during her uncle’s presidency from 1857-1861. One of her duties as First Lady included hosting the Prince of Wales for the very first Royal visit to America in 1860.

On 3 October 1860 at 4:00 PM, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales arrived in Washington, D.C. by train. He traveled to the White House where he was officially presented to President James Buchanan and First Lady Harriet Lane.

Harriet organized a series of appointments for the Prince. Amidst formal dinners and receptions, Harriet had arranged for a game of tenpins with the Prince of Wales, Mrs. Jacob Thompson (the Secretary of the Interior’s wife), and herself. In a more official capacity, they also visited to George Washington’s tomb via transport on a sailing vessel called The Harriet Lane.

While in America, the Prince of Wales wrote to his mother, Queen Victoria, noting:

“The President and his niece Miss Lane received us very kindly on arriving, and I did not fail to give the messages which you desired. There was a large dinner at 6:30 at which all the Ministers and their wives, and some others were invited. The President was looking very well, but has grown much stouter. I thought Miss Lane a particularly nice person, and very pretty.”  (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/president-buchanan-greets-a-guest-of-state)

Before the Prince of Wales returned to England, he left a personal gift from the Royal family to Harriet Lane with Lord Lyons, The United Kingdom’s Minister to the United States. The gift included unframed lithographs of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children.

The Johnstons and the Prince of Wales in France

Years later, Harriet took her family to vacation in Paris, France starting in April 1872. Upon hearing of her travels, the Prince of Wales arranged to meet Harriet Lane Johnston and her family in the fall of 1872. Though this meeting was not an official reception, newspapers still documented the occasion:

“During his short stay in Paris, the Prince of Wales took occasion to pay a visit to Mrs. Johnston, of Baltimore, formerly Miss Harriet Lane, who was staying for some weeks at the Hotel Westminster in that city. The compliment was not only consistent with a truly royal courtesy, but was merited by the recipient, whose claim upon the recognition of the representative of the British throne was well established during the years that she presided over the White House, at Washington, and at the residence of the American Minister in London.” (The New Northwest. (Portland Or.) 13 September 1872. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022673/1872-09-13/ed-1/seq-3/)

Meeting Queen Victoria One Last Time

At 66 years old, Harriet returned to London, England and arranged to visit with Queen Victoria. In the Queen’s Journal, dated 8 July 1898, she recorded their meeting:

“I then saw an American lady, Mrs. Johnson, [sic] whom I had known 40 years ago, as a very handsome Miss Lane, who kept house for Mr. Buchanan, the American Minister here, afterwards President.” (Queen Victoria’s Journal, ProQuest.com. (Principal Royal Residence) Windsor Castle, Version: Princess Beatrice’s copies, Volume 108 (1 July 1898 – 13 March 1899) Volume Page Numbers: 14-15.)

By this time, both Queen Victoria and Harriet would share in the mutual losses of their husbands, as well as children. It would be the last time they saw one another before the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, but it would not be Harriet’s last meeting with members of the Royal family.

Coronation Invitation

Upon the death of Queen Victoria, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, became King. His coronation took place on 9 August 1902 at Westminster Abbey. Harriet Lane Johnston was amongst the many people invited to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. At 72 years old, she crossed the Atlantic with her cousin, May Seldon Kennedy. Together, they attended the coronation of King Edward VII. According to newspaper accounts, she was personally invited by Edward VII as a way to return the favor of her hospitality years ago:

“King Edward has conferred a delicate compliment on Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnson [sic], the niece of President Buchanan, who was the Mistress of the White house when King Edward, as the Prince of Wales, was entertained there, by inviting her personally to be present at his coronation. Mrs. Johnson [sic], accompanied by her niece* [sic] Miss May Kennedy, has sailed for Europe.” (Barre evening telegram. (Barre, Vt.), 25 April 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060035/1902-04-25/ed-1/seq-1/>)

*May Seldon Kennedy was Harriet Lane Johnston’s first cousin, once removed.

The coronation of King Edward VII was the last time Harriet was in association with the Royal Family. It also was the last time she travelled to England, thereby ending what she called a “beautiful dream.” Less than one year later, Harriet Lane Johnston died at the age of 73 on 3 July 1903.

Today, when you visit Wheatland, you can see a glimpse of Harriet’s association with the Royal Family. Hanging on the wall in the Sitting Room, framed lithographs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert watch over the room. In the library, you will also find the framed lithograph of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. They reside at Wheatland as reminders of a royal association that spanned the course of forty-nine years.

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House