Did Queen Victoria really say “We are not amused?”

The monarch’s most famous remark, as uttered by Jenna Coleman in tonight’s episode of ITV's Victoria, has some mystery behind it

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This week’s Victoria contains a bit of an in-joke for viewers, with Jenna Coleman’s young monarch delivering one of the real-life queen’s most famous quotes – “We are not amused” – after hearing a joke read by Tom Hughes’ Prince Albert.

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One of the best-known quotes in history, the line sums up Queen Victoria and the no-nonsense, slightly stuffy stereotype of her era to the majority of people, and is a brilliant wink to viewers of the TV series. But the real-life origins of “We are not amused” are actually rather complicated – because it’s possible she never actually made the remark at all.

Various historical stories have attributed the quotation to Victoria, with varying details about how it came about. In Victorian noblewoman Caroline Holland’s 1878-1903 diaries (published posthumously as Notebooks of a Spinster Lady in 1919), it was noted about Victoria that “Her remarks can freeze as well as crystallise. There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. ‘We are not amused,’ said the Queen when he had finished.”

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However, other accounts assign the response to a risqué story told by groom-in-waiting the Hon. Alexander Grantham Yorke, or a production of HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan, or a different theatrical performance put on BY Yorke. 

Another book attributes the quote to Victoria in a different way again, with 1887 work Royal Girls and Royal Courts by Mary Sherwood sharing this anecdote apparently told by Victoria’s secretary Arthur Helps:

“Sir Arthur Helps, however, told a different story. Sitting low down the table, he described the members of the household as chatting and laughing, when the Queen—looking grimly at them—remarked, ‘We are not amused!’ which must have had a cooling effect.” The Yale Book of Quotations also tells a similar tale, apparently based off an 1887 newspaper article where Helps was the source.

And yet even earlier than this it seems that the phrase was associated with the queen, with 1885 novel The Talk of the Town apparently using Victoria’s remark as a comparison to an event in the book where character William Henry is cut off mid-story.

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As author James Payn wrote:

“There was once a young gentleman who was endeavouring to make himself agreeable as a raconteur in the presence of Royalty. When he had done his story, the Royal lips let fall these terrible words: ‘We are not amused.’ Poor William Henry found himself in much the same position.”

And that’s not the end of it – according to official biographer AN Wilson, who served as a consultant to the ITV series, the quote was actually aimed at a courtier who was supposedly having an affair with Victoria’s daughter Louise.

“The ‘We are not amused’ remark came about when her wayward daughter Louise was having an affair with the courtier Sir Arthur Bigge,” Wilson told The Sunday Times’ Culture magazine earlier this year, also suggesting her children had invented an alternate anecdote of her making the remark to imply she had no sense of humour.

“Bigge liked telling smutty jokes. He was doing this one evening and embarrassing everyone present, male and female.

“The queen looked sharply down at the table and said: ‘Sir Arthur we are not amused.’

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“She was not using the royal ‘we’: she meant that nobody present thought he was being funny.”

The list of such anecdotes just goes on. So what is the real truth?

Well, based on the sheer number of stories here it seems perfectly possible that Victoria said the line at least once, as the “raconteur” explanation appears in a few different guises, which could mean an original story was twisted. Hell, it could even be that she said “We are not amused” more than once, as her reputation suggests, meaning a few of the stories could be true. 

However, some historians now think that the quote may have been something misattributed to Victoria that was actually said by Queen Elizabeth I, and without clear evidence it’s impossible to tell if Victoria ever said it or whether all these stories are apocryphal.

In fact, according to Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone in a 1976 interview (below at 5.56), Victoria herself maintained that she never uttered the immortal line at all.

“You know, I’m so disappointed,” the princess said. “I asked her, and she never said it.”

And by contrast, in her diaries Victoria was more likely to express her delight at the experiences she had (particularly as a young woman), with her once exclaiming “I was very much amused indeed!” after watching Giuli Grisi play Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello on stage, muddying the waters further.

So in conclusion, maybe she said it or maybe she didn’t – but you shouldn’t believe all you hear, read or see on TV anyway. You’ll look much cleverer that way. 

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Victoria will return for a second series in 2017