This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
The marriage of Victoria and Albert is probably one of history’s most written-about royal romances. The focus of numerous films and books, Victoria and Albert are viewed by many historians as the royal couple who helped create the modern, more accessible monarchy we see today. But theirs was not always an easy partnership.
Albert, prince of the tiny, impoverished Saxon duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was Victoria’s cousin and it was the dear wish of their mutual uncle, Leopold, king of the Belgians, and Victoria’s own mother, the Duchess of Kent, that the two would one day wed. However, the couple’s first meeting – during celebrations for Victoria’s 17th birthday – hardly suggested a match made in heaven: Albert found the social whirl of the British court exhausting and fell asleep during a ball, while Victoria found him rather dull.
“Victoria and Albert’s first meeting was not a great success,” says Kate Williams, author of Becoming Queen, which tells the story of Victoria’s troubled youth. “Victoria’s mother and uncle in particular were keen on a match with Albert, but King William IV desired an alliance with the princes of Orange. Victoria, however, had other ideas.”
On her accession to the throne in 1837, an event that effectively removed her from the clutches of her power-hungry mother, Victoria was in no hurry to marry, concerned lest her freedom be curtailed once more.
“I dreaded the thought of marrying,” wrote Victoria in her diary. “I was so accustomed to having my own way that I thought it was 10 to 1 that I shouldn’t agree with anybody.” Yet, by the time Victoria was 20, she realised she had a choice: stay with her overbearing mother and Sir John Conroy, her mother’s closest advisor, or find a husband. Marriage, it seemed, was by far the lesser of the two evils.
A second meeting between Albert and Victoria, at Windsor Castle on 10 October 1839, ensued – and this one proved far more successful. Despite a rough sea crossing, which had caused Albert much sickness, Victoria immediately fell for the prince. Describing their meeting, the queen later wrote in her diary: “I stood on the stone steps and I beheld Albert, who was beautiful.” Indeed, Leopold had done much to improve his nephew in the eyes of the young queen since their initial meeting three years earlier: Albert had been to university and had travelled extensively. Significantly, he’d been to Italy, a country Victoria had always longed to visit.
“Victoria was entranced,” says Williams, “and five days later, as was the custom for monarchs (who could not receive proposals) Victoria offered marriage to Albert.” The pair were married on 10 February 1840.
“Victoria’s wedding was a much more public affair in comparison with previous royal nuptials, and was designed to secure the nation’s affections,” says Williams. “She planned a daytime rather than an evening ceremony as she wished the people to see her driving to St James’s palace, where the ceremony took place. Rather than court dress, she wore white to accentuate her innocence and virginity. The public, who were tired of the excesses of previous monarchs, were delighted by her eagerness to share the ceremony and she set a trend for ‘white weddings’ that we still see today.”
Despite widespread excitement for the wedding, Albert was not a popular choice of husband. Many resented his foreign roots, while others were disappointed that he brought no wealth. One rhyme circulating at the time ran: “He comes to take ‘for better or for worse,’ England’s fat queen and England’s fatter purse.”
Says Williams: “For Albert, marriage to Victoria was not at all what he had expected when Victoria had proposed. Pushed by Leopold to seize power for himself, Albert demanded a large yearly allowance and a peerage. Both were refused by parliament, who did not wish to have the prince meddling in politics, and Victoria herself refused Albert’s request to appoint Germans to his household.”
Albert’s frustration at his lack of power was at the root of many of the arguments between the royal couple, but Victoria was determined to rule and firmly believed she was the only one who could do so. Albert, on the other hand, could only establish himself as head of his family of nine children and never became the king he had believed he would one day become.
“Victoria and Albert’s emphasis on family life was crucial to the success of her reign,” says Williams. “Having witnessed first-hand the excess and grandeur of monarchs such as George IV and the way that they had been caricatured and ridiculed by the public, Victoria set about creating her own domestic version of royalty, centred around the notion of a bourgeois family.
“Victoria knew that she had to earn the respect and love of her people, and her portrayal of the royal family as a typical, albeit very wealthy, bourgeois family – without pomp or circumstance – meant that the public could relate to her, and they adored her for it. It is for this, as much as for her longevity, that she is remembered.”
Kensington Palace (London)
Where Victoria spent an unhappy childhood
Victoria was born on 24 May 1819, the only child of Edward, fourth son of George III, and the German-born Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Edward died within months of his daughter’s birth, leaving his family impoverished, and Victoria was raised under the strict guidance of her mother and Sir John Conroy, once her father’s equerry. Childhood was not a happy time for Victoria. Her mother was obsessed by power and money, both of which, it was deemed, could be achieved by Victoria’s accession to the throne.
Living with her mother and Conroy at Kensington Palace, Victoria was placed on the ‘Kensington system’, living under a set of rules designed by her mother to gain power over her daughter. Victoria was watched 24 hours a day and followed a strict timetable, sleeping in her mother’s room, with few friends and no freedom.
At age 12, Victoria became heir to the throne and six years later, in the early hours of 20 June 1837, the archbishop of Canterbury visited Victoria at Kensington Palace to inform her that William IV had died and she was queen. The king’s demise was a turning point for Victoria and she was finally able to make her own decisions, immediately requesting her own room and an hour to herself – something she had never had – and refusing to see either her mother or Conroy.
Beaumaris Castle (Beaumaris, Isle of Anglesey)
Where Victoria began to secure the loyalty of her future subjects
Begun in 1295, Beaumaris Castle was the last castle built by King Edward I in Wales, but, despite its vast size, was never completed. It was here that the 13-year-old Victoria, then Princess of Wales, and her mother visited in August 1832, during a tour of England and Wales. A Royal Eisteddfod – a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance – was held at the castle in Victoria’s honour, despite an outbreak of cholera in the town.
Royal tours were a means of securing the loyalty of the nation and Victoria continued to make them even after she became queen. The Duchess of Kent, determined that her daughter would one day rule, took Victoria on a number of these trips.
“King William IV was furious that Victoria was being taken on tour and flaunted so openly as heir to the throne,” says Williams. “But the people greeted Victoria with great excitement, often unharnessing the horses from her coach and dragging it themselves.”
Although Victoria loved Anglesey, she also saw poverty there and later, as queen, made a point of supporting those who engaged in charitable endeavours towards the poor, such as Florence Nightingale. Beaumaris Castle, regarded by many as the finest of all the Edwardian castles in Wales, is open to the public.
Windsor Castle (Windsor, Berkshire)
Where Victoria and Albert spent their honeymoon
Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world, and has seen many royal residents in its 900-year history. Covering an area of some 26 acres, the castle is still an official royal residence of Her Majesty the Queen, and was also the location for much of the royal entertainment of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Albert and Victoria conducted their whirlwind romance at Windsor following their second meeting in October 1839, and it was here that they spent a short but happy honeymoon after their wedding. On their wedding night, overwhelmed by the day, Victoria retired with a headache, Albert by her side. She wrote later in her diary: “His excessive love and happiness I could never have hoped to have felt before.”
Says Williams: “Albert desired a honeymoon of some five or six weeks, wishing to have his wife to himself for a while, but Victoria’s many duties as sovereign meant that she was only able to spare three days. But even in this short time Victoria was unable to escape her royal obligations and, much to Albert’s dismay, was constantly interrupted by visitors and entertaining in the evenings.”
Despite this, Windsor is inextricably linked with the couple’s relationship – it was the place they met, where they spent much of their married life, and also where Albert died in 1861. Following his death, Victoria kept Albert’s rooms at Windsor exactly as they had been when he breathed his last, even sending hot water and towels every morning for shaving. Albert is buried in the Royal Mausoleum built nearby at Frogmore.
Buckingham Palace (London)
Where Albert tried to stamp his authority
Queen Victoria was the first monarch to live in the Buckingham Palace we know today. George III originally bought the property, then Buckingham House, in 1761 as a family home, and in 1762 began work on remodelling the building. However, he died before the palace was complete and it was Victoria who set up residence there in July 1837, three weeks after her accession. Albert and Victoria were never as happy at Buckingham Palace as they were in other royal residences. Extensive renovation was required to provide for their fast-growing family, a project that included moving the Marble Arch to its present location in the north-east corner of Hyde Park.
“Albert tried in vain to carve out a role for himself in the royal household at Buckingham Palace,” comments Williams. “He promoted himself as the saviour of the royal finances and attempted to make the household run more efficiently. He was fighting a losing battle, though, and was really only successful in retiring Victoria’s elderly governess, a woman he detested.”
It is at Buckingham Palace, though, that we see some of Albert’s artistic influence on Victoria. The German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter became royal painter through Albert, and was responsible for painting the royal family in more approachable, less formal settings. The composer Mendelssohn also became a friend of the royal family and helped popularise German music in Britain.
Chatsworth House (Bakewell, Derbyshire)
Where Victoria demonstrated her Whig allegiance
Victoria’s political beliefs differed greatly to those of her predecessors and she remained a Whig supporter her whole life. “Traditionally, the more conservative Tory party was the party of the aristocracy and royalty,” says Williams. “Victoria’s support of the Whigs – one of the two English political parties of the day – was a huge break from tradition, particularly after the Reform Act of 1832, which expanded the country’s electorate to men of property. This meant that it was no longer just the aristocracy who could vote, something the liberal Whigs had long campaigned for.”
Victoria’s political allegiances caused ructions early in her reign, particularly during the episode that became known as the ‘Bedchamber Affair’. Victoria refused to replace her Whig ladies-in-waiting with the wives of Tory MPs or peers following the failure of Lord Melbourne’s Whig government in 1839. The new Tory government was unable to form and Melbourne resumed his position. In a note to Melbourne, Victoria wrote triumphantly: “They [the Tories] wanted to deprive me of my Ladies, and I suppose they would deprive me next of my dressers and my housemaids; they wished to treat me like a girl, but I will show them that I am Queen of England.”
Victoria had an intense dislike for the Tory party – blaming it for the fact that Albert was not granted the money and the peerage he had requested at their engagement – and tried hard not to invite any Tories to the wedding.
Chatsworth House was home to the 6th Duke of Devonshire, one of the leading Whigs of the day. Victoria visited the house twice: once as a child with her mother in 1832; and, openly demonstrating her political views, the second time with Albert in 1843. The trees planted by Victoria and her mother on their visit can still be seen under the terrace.
Osborne House (East Cowes, Isle of Wight)
Where the royal couple created a family home
Queen Victoria fell pregnant with her first child, also named Victoria, soon after the wedding – and, from that moment, the royal family grew rapidly. Within three months of the birth, Victoria was pregnant again, this time with Prince Albert Edward, later Edward VII – the first legitimate male heir to be born to a British monarch in 80 years. The royal couple eventually had nine children but felt that the royal palaces were not suitable for their growing brood. To that end they bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, an area Victoria loved as a child.
Purchased in 1845, Osborne House was the family home Albert and Victoria longed for, and much alteration was performed on the original building, including the addition of a pair of Italianate towers overlooking the Solent, a view said to have reminded Albert of the Bay of Naples in Italy.
Says Williams: “Osborne was a house that Albert could be master in and exert the control that he lacked in other areas. He was heavily involved in much of the building’s design, including the Italian formal gardens that can still be seen today.”
A two-storey children’s cottage, built in the grounds in 1853 and affectionately named the ‘Swiss Cottage’, was designed by the couple as an educational tool for their offspring. Here, the girls learned how to cook and perform domestic chores while the boys were instructed in gardening and carpentry in the adjoining Swiss garden. A miniature mock fortress, including cannons and drawbridge, completed the children’s play area.
Balmoral Castle (Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire)
Where Albert and Victoria embraced the Scottish landscape
Like Osborne House, Balmoral was somewhere the royal couple could spend family time in a less formal environment than Buckingham Palace. Described by Victoria as “My dear paradise in the Highlands,” Balmoral was purchased in 1848 and has been the Scottish home of the royal family ever since.
Says Williams: “Both Victoria and Albert were incredibly fond of Scotland and the pair rejoiced in the scenery and cold weather. For Albert, the rolling hills of Scotland reminded him of his home country, and it was because of this that Victoria spent so much of her time at the house following Albert’s death.
“The court was not so enamoured with Scotland, though, and the queen’s ladies moaned constantly about the Scottish weather and love of porridge!”
It was at Balmoral that the queen first met John Brown, the servant on whom she relied so heavily after Albert’s death and whose relationship with the queen has been scrutinised by historians. But, just as Victoria had loathed her mother’s companion, John Conroy, so her children hated John Brown, and Edward VII destroyed many of Victoria’s memorials to him after her death.
Albert Memorial (Kensington Gardens, London)
Where a public symbol of Victoria’s grief can be seen
Victoria’s grief following the death of Albert on 14 December 1861 was profound. Albert had never been a healthy man, but his death at the age of 42 came as a shock to Victoria and the nation, and was a blow from which the queen never really recovered.
“The Victorians were great mourners”, says Williams, “and Victoria’s grief was unrelenting. She dressed head to toe in black and retreated more and more from public appearances. She was unable even to attend the wedding of her son, the future Edward VII, sitting instead in the closet of St James’s chapel weeping throughout the ceremony.” There was also a national outpouring of grief for the prince consort, and Albert became more popular in death than he had ever been when he was alive.
Despite Albert’s request to the contrary, Victoria ordered that memorials be erected in her husband’s memory, perhaps none so spectacular as the 54-metre-high Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, completed in 1875. The monument itself was designed as a celebration of Victorian achievement and Albert’s passions and interests. Marble figures representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America stand at each corner of the memorial, while figures symbolising manufacture, commerce, agriculture and engineering can be found higher up. Around the base of the memorial the Parnassus frieze depicts celebrated painters, poets, sculptors, musicians and architects, reflecting Albert’s passion for the arts.
The area around the Albert Memorial, centred around South Kensington, Kensington and Chelsea, is popularly known as Albertopolis due to the number of buildings, monuments and road names dedicated to the prince consort. They include the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Kate Williams, author of Becoming Queen (Arrow, 2009). Kate presented a BBC Timewatch documentary on Queen Victoria and also gave the historical perspective in the BBC’s coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton earlier this year.