This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
“It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot,” said Queen Victoria of Osborne, the palatial family home where she and Prince Albert chose to periodically retreat from the public eye to spend quality time together, and raise their children.
Tucked away on the Isle of Wight, just an hour’s ferry journey from Southampton, Osborne commands impressive panoramic views of the Solent, a prospect that is said to have reminded Albert of the Bay of Naples. The sprawling 342-acre site was purchased in 1845, with building contractor Thomas Cubitt commissioned to create a family home that could function at both a domestic and court level. By 1851, most of the house had been completed, with a central pavilion block housing the royal family’s private apartments (completed in 1846).
“Osborne was very much Albert’s pet project,” says Jane Ridley, professor of modern history at the University of Buckingham, “and he was heavily involved with its design from the outset. By 1846, when the family began visiting Osborne, Victoria had already given birth to five children in six years. This rapidly expanding royal nursery needed somewhere it could, albeit rather self-consciously, come and be a family.”
A queen on show
While Osborne’s exterior, built in an Italian ‘palazzo’ style, cannot fail to impress, it is the interior of the house that reveals the most about the tastes and relationship of the royal couple – from the way the house was run, to the image they wished to convey to the wider world.
The gold drawing room, with its marble columns, full-length mirrors and cut-glass chandeliers, tells of a queen on show. Visiting royalty were received in its sumptuous surroundings, and Victoria would have retired here after dinner to read, play cards, sing or perform on the piano. Next door, in the formal dining room, family portraits adorn the walls – a reminder, if any were required, of Victoria’s place as the ‘Grandmother of Europe’.
One painting in particular sums up the image of domestic monarchy that Albert, in particular, wished to project to the world: Franz Winterhalter’s 1846 portrait of the royal family (shown below), which hangs at the far end of the room. Victoria, dressed formally and wearing a crown, as befits her status, has been painted slightly in the background. Instead, it is Albert who is the dominant figure, leaning towards his son and heir, as founder of the dynasty, while other children play around him.
“Albert had very strong ideas as to how the royal family should be brought up,” says Ridley, “and he was keen that the new dynasty distance itself from the scandals of the regency that had preceded it. Neither Victoria, nor Albert, had enjoyed conventional or happy childhoods. Yet there they were, with nine children of their own, desperately trying to project an image of being the perfect family and be an example for everyone else to follow. It was no easy task.”
Victoria and Albert were first cousins but had had little contact as children. Although they had met briefly at celebrations for Victoria’s 17th birthday in 1836 – an encounter that had impressed neither party – it was during Albert’s trip to England in 1839 that Victoria fell for the German prince. After meeting Albert at Windsor Castle, dishevelled and windswept after his long journey to England, the young queen was instantly smitten. “It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful,” she wrote in her diary.
As a child, Victoria’s life had been controlled by her overbearing, power-hungry mother. Forced to sleep in her mother’s room and with virtually no freedom, Victoria, on her accession to the throne in 1837, was wary of diluting the power she had gained through queenship by marrying. Albert, too, had experienced an unhappy childhood, brought up in virtual seclusion with his older brother Ernest in Coburg after his mother was banished from court for adultery.
But despite her initial reservations – and perhaps deciding that marriage was preferable to remaining with her mother – Victoria proposed to Albert five days after their second meeting. The pair were married at St James’s Palace on 10 February 1840.
“Albert and Victoria’s relationship was complicated,” says Ridley. “Albert’s initial status as a relatively low-standing German prince – and one with little money at that – meant that he was very much the poor relation. But Albert wasn’t particularly interested in titles and status – his ambition was for real power and a chance to rule.
“Victoria’s feelings about her husband’s ambitions were conflicted. On the one hand she adored Albert, recognising him as her intellectual superior, and encouraging his ideas. But she also had an incredibly strong sense of her own hereditary right. She wanted to share power with Albert, but didn’t want to give it up completely.”
The dilemma was resolved in the short term when Victoria fell pregnant within months of her wedding, going on to have seven of her nine children in 10 years. With the queen pregnant or recovering from birth for most of that time, power had to be transferred to Albert.
“Albert had strong opinions about how the country should be run,” says Ridley. “His ideas about constitutional monarchy were less about creating a monarchy that was limited and controlled by parliament, and more about creating a system whereby he would be in complete control of the whole agenda of the cabinet, with Victoria acting as the official mouthpiece for his ideas.”
Albert’s status is evident when, walking up the grand staircase, visitors are greeted by a life-size statue of the prince consort in Classical armour. Meanwhile, a huge fresco at the head of the stairs depicts Neptune handing his watery empire to Britannia. Impressive though these public declarations of Victorian power are, it is in Victoria and Albert’s private apartments – just off the first-floor landing – that the nature of their relationship is most apparent.
The four rooms are small, simple and relatively self-contained. The sitting room boasts some of the best views across the Solent the house has to offer. According to Victoria’s journal she and Albert would stand on the balcony to watch the moonlight shining on the water and listen to the nightingales singing in the trees below.
During the day, the royal couple would sit side by side at two desks, working through the many red boxes of correspondence that regularly arrived from London. The smaller, left-hand desk, still cluttered with photo frames and trinkets, was Victoria’s. “These items,” says Ridley, “were swept angrily to the floor when the queen was in a temper. But it is the image of the two desks, placed side by side, that encapsulates the nature of Victoria and Albert’s monarchy.”
Albert’s fascination with new technology is apparent throughout Osborne – from the use of fireproof construction, to the plumbed-in bath, lavatory and shower that can be seen in Albert’s bathroom. His progressive ideas are also present elsewhere, most notably in the prefabricated Swiss cottage, which was erected in the grounds and fitted with child-sized furniture and a fully-working kitchen, complete with state-of-the-art equipment. Here, the royal children learnt to cook, preparing meals for their parents, and tending to the vegetables in their own little garden.
Monarchy in mourning
Victoria was utterly devastated when Albert died in December 1861 and sank into a deep depression. Albert’s bathroom and dressing room were kept almost exactly as they had been during his life. Hot water for shaving was brought up on a daily basis and the queen kept his dressing gown in bed with her as she slept, surrounding herself with various pieces of memorabilia as constant reminders of her beloved husband.
“As Albert’s lifeless body was interred in the vault at Windsor, a grief-stricken Victoria fled to Osborne where she remained for several months,” says Ridley. “For the first 10 years after Albert’s death, the queen refused to appear at any social or public function, instead choosing to remain in seclusion at Osborne, Windsor or Balmoral.”
At first it was deemed appropriate for the queen to withdraw, but by 1871 Victoria’s persistent invisibility had thrown the monarchy into a crisis, and the beginnings of a republican movement were starting to surface. But grief suited Victoria to a degree, allowing her the privacy she craved, and an excuse to avoid the public appearances she found so nerve-wracking. “She stubbornly refused to change her behaviour,” says Ridley, “and it was only when the Prince of Wales [the future Edward VII] fell seriously ill that the tide turned in favour of the royal family once more.”
Victoria never remarried after Albert’s death, and was incredibly lonely. Two friendships she formed in widowhood did much to revive her low spirits but caused friction within her immediate family. Highlander John Brown, with his gruff manner and lack of deference, took the queen riding in the hills around Balmoral but was hated by the royal children. Similarly, Victoria’s Indian servant Abdul Karim – whose portrait (shown below) hangs in the Durbar Wing – was resented for his close relationship with the queen.
Osborne was an integral part of the queen’s life until her death at the age of 81. In fact, it was in her bedroom here that she breathed her last – not, as Ridley puts it, “in the bed she had shared with her beloved Albert but in a small bed in the middle of the room, surrounded by her family.”
For all that, Osborne remains a permanent snapshot of the private lives of one of Britain’s most formidable royal couples.
Victoria and Albert: Five more places to visit
1) Kensington Palace, London Where a princess became queen
Victoria was born at Kensington in 1819 and grew up there under the watchful eye of her mother and her father’s former equerry, John Conroy, a man the young princess despised. On 20 June 1837 Victoria was visited at the palace by the archbishop of Canterbury who informed her that she was queen. 2) Beaumaris Castle, Isle of Anglesey Where Victoria was greeted with joy
In August 1832, 13-year-old Victoria, then Princess of Wales, visited Beaumaris as part of a tour of England and Wales. Despite an outbreak of cholera in the town, Victoria was greeted with much excitement and a festival of literature, music and performance was held at the castle in her honour. 3) Windsor Castle, Windsor Where Victoria and Albert honeymooned
Still an official royal residence, Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest-occupied castle in the world. It was here, in 1839, that Victoria and Albert had their significant second meeting, and where they spent a three-day honeymoon after a whirlwind romance. The royal couple are buried in the Royal Mausoleum built nearby at Frogmore. 4) Buckingham Palace, London Where the royal family set up home
Victoria was the first monarch to use Buckingham Palace as the official royal residence and moved into the building in 1837. Today’s front wing of the palace was added in the 1840s to accommodate Victoria and Albert’s rapidly expanding family. 5) Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire Where the queen mourned in private
Balmoral was a popular base for the royal family and was described by Victoria as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”. The scenery is said to have reminded Albert of his home country. The queen spent much of her time here after his death, often in the company of her Highland servant, John Brown. Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Professor Jane Ridley, historian and broadcaster. Jane’s most recent book is Victoria (Penguin Monarchs, 2015).
You can join BBC History Magazine for a day of talks about the Victorian period at Bristol’s M Shed on 25 February 2017. Click here to find out more.