Princess Victoria’s accession to the throne in June 1837 brought to a close more than 120 years of dissolute, male Hanoverian rule. Britain now had a young, pretty, virginal and untainted queen of 18 years old. The press lauded her beauty, her precocious wisdom, her goodness and her self-possession in an outburst of ‘reginamania’ that swept Britain. In response, a mass of letters, some of them declaring passionate love and proposals of marriage, began pouring in from a succession of stalkers, admirers and would-be husbands who were dubbed ‘The Queen’s Lovers’ by the press.
One of the first, a man named Captain John Goode, whom the press described as labouring under the delusion that he was one day destined to possess Her Majesty’s hand, had begun stalking Queen Victoria when she was still living at Kensington Palace. He had even tailed her on holiday to Ramsgate and Hastings. On numerous occasions he was found hanging around outside Kensington Palace “inquiring at the grand entrance the state of the Queen’s health, and endeavouring to get in, for the purpose of writing his name in the visiting book”. Despite being escorted out of Kensington Gardens, Goode repeatedly made his way back in, with the hope of catching sight of Victoria. Whenever her carriage emerged through the gates, he would follow in his own phaeton. If the carriage stopped he would jump out and try to accost Victoria. After being arrested several times for harassing the Queen, in November 1837 Goode was committed to the Bethlem lunatic asylum.
Elsewhere, an ardent admirer got into the Chapel Royal in order to declare his love; another, a captain in the 15th Light Dragoons named Tom Flower, tried to infiltrate the coronation ceremony at Westminster, having failed to get into the queen’s box at the opera, and was hauled off to Tothill Fields House of Correction. Several tried to stop the Queen’s horse when she was out riding; one, Ned Hayward, did so in Hyde Park in order to hand Victoria a letter asking if she would marry him. John Stockledge, who was celebrated by the satirical press as “The Queen’s Last Lunatic Lover”, also made a nuisance of himself in the winter of 1837. On 29 November, after trying to get in to Windsor Castle, he was arrested. When questioned, Stockledge had said that “he was like all other men who wanted wives – he was looking after one” and thought the queen would fit the bill.
In reality, right from the day of Victoria’s birth on 24 May 1819, her mother and her uncle Prince Leopold had mapped her future life out for her. From the outset they set their hearts on a German prince for Victoria – and more particularly a Saxe-Coburg. The ideal candidate as far as they were concerned was Victoria’s cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who had been born only three months after Victoria in August 1819.
As Victoria entered her teens, there were of course many other possible candidates in Europe for the hand of this, the most eligible royal bride. Between the ages of 13 and 18 the young princess had several possible suitors paraded for her approval by rival camps within the royal family. It was first suggested that she should marry an English prince, such as Prince George, son of her uncle the Duke of Cumberland, but Victoria never warmed to him, nor he to her. In 1828 the Duke of Orleans was suggested, but he was a Catholic; in 1829, one of the princes of Orange. A serious onslaught of matchmaking came in 1836 when Victoria’s two Coburg cousins, Albert and his brother Ernest, as well as both princes of Orange, were all invited to England to be vetted. The latter were William IV’s favourites but Victoria didn’t fancy them, finding them too plain and too ‘Dutch’ looking. As for her Coburg cousins: on this first visit Victoria had been unimpressed by the pudgy and diffident Albert and had found his brother Ernest much more attractive.
By 1839 and now having been on the throne for two years, Victoria was coming under increasing pressure to marry. But she was still resisting, saying she wanted to wait a few more years. In May, however, she unexpectedly found herself enjoying the frisson of her first serious romantic encounter – only not with a Saxe-Coburg, but a Russian.
The visit to London of Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaevich, the heir to the Russian throne, was Victoria’s first experience of entertaining foreign royalty. She had had little warning of the visit and admitted to her prime minister Lord Melbourne that she was “quite cross about it”. She changed her tune somewhat when Alexander arrived, for he was “tall with a fine figure, a pleasing open countenance without being handsome, fine blue eyes, a short nose and a pretty mouth with a sweet smile”.
Alexander brought with him a trunkful of diamond-inlaid boxes and enormous diamond rings, which he proceeded to distribute to the great and the good. For the sake of propriety, he was mostly accommodated not by the Queen, but at Mirvat’s Hotel (now Claridge’s). When Victoria invited him to spend three days at Windsor there was considerable official disapproval.
The dashing Grand Duke Alexander, who clearly was well versed in the arts of seduction, enchanted Victoria. He flattered her and whispered sweet nothings in French in her ear, and propelled her round the dance floor till three in the morning, as she recounted in a letter to Melbourne:
“The Queen danced the first and the last dance with the Grand Duke, made him sit near her, and tried to be very civil to him, and I think we are great friends already and get on very well; I like him exceedingly.”
Victoria invited Alexander to the Italian opera – though protocol dictated they should sit in separate boxes. Tongues were set wagging, however, when during the interval Alexander slipped into Victoria’s box for a chat – behind a drawn curtain. Members of the Russian entourage noticed a fair degree of flirting going on between them and a dispatch was sent to Tsar Nicholas in Russia:
“The Queen is clearly enjoying the society of His Imperial Majesty. Everyone is saying they are an ideal couple. Were the Grand Duke to make a proposal to the Queen, it would be accepted without hesitation.”
In private, a tearful Victoria confided her passionate feelings for Alexander to her companion Baroness Lehzen. It was clear they were reciprocated, but there was, of course, no possibility of Victoria marrying a Russian grand duke. As heir to the throne with a duty to live in Russia, Alexander marrying Victoria was strategically, politically and geographically out of the question. And the thought of it greatly alarmed even the Tsar, who knew how impetuous his son was. He did not want Alexander even to contemplate playing second fiddle to the English queen any more than the government would have wanted Victoria to share power with a Russian. But in private the lovers both wept bitter tears over the disappointment when Tsar Nicholas ordered Alexander back to Darmstadt.
On 27 May, Alexander enjoyed a farewell dinner in the magnificent St George’s Hall in the State Apartments at Windsor. It looked beautiful, the Queen noted:
“At a little after 12 we went into the dining-room for supper; after supper they danced a Mazurka for ½ an hour, I should think nearly; the Grand-Duke asked me to take a turn, which I did […] the Grand-Duke is so very strong, that in running round, you must follow quickly, and after that you are whisked round like in a Valse, which is very pleasant […] I never enjoyed myself more. We were all so merry; I got to bed by a ¼ to 3, but could not sleep till 5.”
On leaving England, having handed out £20,000 to various charities and the needy, Alexander made one final parting gift: he donated £300 to the Jockey Club. In gratitude, the club established a race in his honour – the Cesarewitch Handicap [using the Victorian rendition of ‘tsarevich’ then in use], which has been run at Newmarket ever since. As Alexander said farewell to Victoria on 29 May, he told her how touched he was by the reception he had received in England:
“[He] trusted that all his would only tend to strengthen the ties of friendship between England and Russia… I kissed his cheek; upon which he kissed mine (cheek) in a very warm affectionate manner and we again warmly shook hands… I felt so sad to take leave of this dear amiable young man, whom I really think (talking jokingly) I was a little in love with.”
Victoria watched Alexander go with a great deal of sadness: he was so strong, so handsome in his Hussar’s uniform, and she thought she might just be in love. For days afterwards she consoled herself by playing his favourite quadrille Le Gai Loisir. A month later news came that a reluctant Alexander had become engaged to the 15-year-old Princess Mary of Darmstadt.
Never mind, there was still another candidate in the wings. That summer, Baron Stockmar, who had been entrusted with the task of grooming Prince Albert for his role as consort to a queen, declared that his protégé was now ready to fulfill his dynastic duty. Albert was, Stockmar reported to Prince Leopold, endowed with all the right qualities “likely to please the sex and that his mental qualities were also of a high order”. But Victoria at this point had dug in her heels and, after the disappointment of Grand Duke Alexander, was still insisting she was not ready to marry.
On 15 July she told her Uncle Leopold:
“Though all the reports of Albert are most favourable, and though I have little doubt I shall like him, still one can never answer beforehand for feelings, and I may not have the feeling for him which is requisite to ensure happiness. I may like him as a friend, and as a cousin and as a brother, but no more.”
While Leopold and Victoria were discussing Albert’s finer points as though he were a stallion at stud, Albert himself became annoyed and impatient. Waiting on Victoria’s decision back in Coburg, his pride was wounded and he threatened to withdraw. But he was persuaded to visit Victoria again with Ernest in October, by which time word had got back to Victoria about his reluctance. She was not amused: “I think they don’t exhibit much empressement [urgency] to come here, which rather shocks me.”
But everything changed when Albert arrived in October. All other possible suitors were forgotten in a heartbeat. Setting eyes on Prince Albert for the first time in three-and-a-half years, Victoria was stunned to see that the gawky German frog had morphed into an archetypal Prince Charming:
“At ½ p.7 I went to the top of the staircase and received my dear 2 cousins Ernest and Albert – whom I found grown and changed, and embellished. It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert.”
Thereafter, Victoria gushed in her journal about Albert’s charm and how “excessively handsome” he was. He had “such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist”. To top it all, he was a wonderful dancer. On 11 October when they danced together she gave him a flower from her bouquet. Having no buttonhole to which to fix it, Albert took out a small penknife and, cutting a slit in his uniform, placed the flower over his heart. It was enough to make any romantically minded 20-year-old girl swoon; Victoria wasted no time in making up her mind to marry and in securing Lord Melbourne’s approval. He was delighted: “I think it is a very good thing, and you’ll be much more comfortable; for a woman cannot stand alone for long, in whatever position she is,” he told her.
Helen Rappaport is author of The Victoria Letters (HarperCollins, 2016), a literary companion to the ITV series Victoria featuring extracts from Victoria’s own diaries and letters as well as historical context. Helen was the historical consultant on Victoria.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in November 2016