When Prince Albert breathed his last at 10.50pm on the night of Saturday 14 December 1861 at Windsor, a telegraph message was sent within the hour to the lord mayor that the great bell of St Paul’s Cathedral should toll out the news across London. Everyone knew that this sound signified one of two things: the death of a monarch or a moment of extreme national crisis such as war.
People living in the vicinity of the cathedral who had already gone to their beds that night were woken by the doleful sound; many of them dressed and began gathering outside St Paul’s to share the news with shock and incredulity. Only the previous morning the latest bulletin from Windsor had informed them that the prince, who had been unwell for the last two weeks, had rallied during the night of the 13th. The whole nation had settled down for the evening reassured, hopeful that the worst was now over.
Most of the Sunday morning papers for the 15th had already gone to press and did not carry the news, although in London one or two special broadsheets were rushed out and sold at a premium. For most ordinary British people the news of Prince Albert’s death came with the mournful sound of bells, as the message was relayed from village to village and city to city across the country’s churches.
Many still did not realise the significance until, when it came to the prayers for the royal family during morning service, the prince’s name was omitted. But it was still hard to believe. The official bulletins from Windsor had suggested only a ‘low fever’ – which in Victorian parlance could be anything from a chill to something more sinister like typhoid fever. The royal doctors had been extremely circumspect in saying what exactly was wrong, not just to the public but also Albert’s highly strung wife, and very few had any inkling of how ill he was. How could this have happened, people asked themselves; how could a vigorous man of only 42 have died without warning?
The impact of Prince Albert’s death, coming as unexpectedly as it did, was dramatic and unprecedented. The last time the nation had mourned the loss of a member of the royal family in similar circumstances had been back in 1817 when Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent – and heir to the throne failing the birth of any legitimate male heirs – had died shortly after giving birth to a still-born baby boy. Public grief at this tragedy had been enormous, and it was no less with the death of Albert.
His might not have been a young and beautiful death like Charlotte’s but its impact, both publicly and politically, was enormous. It was seen as nothing less than a national calamity, for Britain had in effect lost its king. And worse, Albert’s death had come at a time of political crisis, with the British government embroiled in a tense diplomatic standoff with the Northern states during the American Civil War. This had prompted Prince Albert’s final act of public business on 1 December. Already very sick, he had amended a belligerent despatch from Lord Palmerston following the North’s seizure of two Confederate agents from a British West Indies mail packet, the Trent. The agents were on their way to Europe to raise support for the South.
At worst, the boarding of the Trent was a breach of British neutrality. Yet, Albert had warned that to force the issue without finding a diplomatic way out would mean war – at a time when Britain had barely recovered from the disastrous campaign in the Crimea.
His intercession had helped defuse a tense political situation, a fact that prompted Prime Minister Palmerston to observe that such had become the prince’s value to the British government that it would have been “Better for England to have had a ten years’ war with America than to have lost Prince Albert”. Yet Britain had indeed lost Albert, and the prince’s death plunged the queen into grief so profound that it would dramatically alter the shape of the British monarchy, not just for the rest of Victoria’s reign but in the way in which it has come down to us today.
The public response in the days immediately afterwards bears many parallels with the outpouring of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana more than a century later. And, in a sombre precursor of princes William and Harry following Diana’s coffin in 1997, the loss was made equally poignant by the presence at Albert’s all-male funeral at Windsor of two of his young sons, Bertie (20) and Arthur (11).
The whole country was swathed in black: shops were shuttered, blinds drawn, flags at half mast, theatre performances and concerts cancelled. The middle classes put themselves and their children into black, and trade at the funeral warehouses boomed as never before. Even the poorest rural cottager donned some form of black, if only an armband. That Christmas, 1861, was one of the gloomiest ever seen in England.
It would take time, however, for the far more significant, political impact of the prince’s death to unravel. During their 21 years of marriage Victoria and Albert had done much to rescue the ailing monarchy from the lingering dissolute reputation of the Hanoverians and reinvigorate it as a democratic and moral example for the new age. The royal family had become popular again and accessible to ordinary people, thanks to the example it set of the simple domestic virtues of monogamy, bourgeois decency and family life. It was an image that Albert had assiduously promoted, right from the first popular magazine illustrations of the royal family enjoying Christmas at Windsor, German-style, with decorated fir trees.
Once the initial shock of Albert’s death had receded, the far more pressing question in everyone’s minds, particularly those in government, was its impact on Victoria. ‘How will the queen bear it?’ they all asked themselves; how would she cope with all her onerous duties without him? No one had any doubt about the extent of Victoria’s total dependency on her late husband, not just emotionally but also in dealing daily with the mountain of official business.
Albert had been all in all to Victoria: husband, friend, confidant, wise counsel, unofficial secretary and government minister. There was not a single aspect of her life on which she had not deferred to his advice and greater wisdom. Indeed, so reliant was she on his opinion in everything that she would even consult him on what bonnet to wear.
With time – and with his wife continually sidelined by pregnancy – Albert had become all-powerful, performing the functions of king but without the title, driving himself relentlessly through a schedule of official duties that even he admitted felt like being on a treadmill. But it is only after he died that the nation acknowledged the debt it owed him. The laments were many and profound in the acres of obituaries that filled the British press. Many of them were tinged with a profound sense of guilt that Albert had never been sufficiently valued during his lifetime for his many and notable contributions to British culture as an outstanding patron of the arts, education, science and business.
Victoria’s descent into a crippling state of unrelenting grief rapidly created problems. It soon became clear that her retreat from public view and her intense sorrow would endure well beyond the usual two years of conventional mourning. Without Albert she felt rudderless. To lose him, as she herself said, was “like tearing the flesh from my bones”. The isolation of her position as queen was profound. “There is no one to call me Victoria now,” she wept, in response to the grinding loss of intimacy, affection and physical love that she now felt.
Albert had been Victoria’s one great, abiding obsession in life. With no strong man to support her, with a feckless heir, Bertie, who had caused her nothing but anxiety, and a family of nine children to parent alone, she retreated into a state of pathological grief which nobody could penetrate and few understood. Worse, she imposed the most rigorous observance of mourning on her family and her entourage and became increasingly intractable in response to every attempt to coax her out of her self-imposed purdah. Her observance of the rituals of mourning became so fetishistic and so protracted that there was a danger of her sinking so totally into her grief that she – and the monarchy – would never recover.
The only thing that interested Victoria now was her single-handed mission to memorialise her husband in perpetuity. She did so with aplomb, turning her grieving into performance art as she instigated a range of artistic and cultural monuments commemorating Albert that would transform the British landscape and set their visual stamp not just on the second half of her reign but on our perception today of the Victorian era.
As far as Victoria was concerned, her happy life had ended the day Albert died. But by the mid-1860s her ministers – and even her own children – were becoming frantic at her continued retreat from pubic view and her dogged refusal to take part in any form of public ceremonial. Anti-monarchical feeling was growing, with regular complaints that Victoria did nothing to justify her income from the Civil List. All Albert’s hard work over 20 years in educating his wife in her performance of duty was now being dangerously undermined.
By the end of the 1860s discontent escalated into outright republican challenges and calls for Victoria’s abdication. Then, just when all seemed lost, the monarchy was rescued from disaster. The near fatal illness of the Prince of Wales in December 1871 – on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – and his miraculous recovery prompted the first piece of state ceremonial in over a decade when Queen Victoria attended a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Three days later a crude ‘assassination’ attempt against her rallied public sympathy for Victoria to unprecedented levels.
By this time the queen had begun to recover, thanks to the support of her trusted Highland servant John Brown and, in 1874, the return of her adored Disraeli as prime minister. It was by now clear that the queen would never leave off her black, but as she was coaxed back into public view, she did so as a respected figure of enduring dignity and fortitude, ageing into her familiar image of matriarchal widow, empress and ‘Grandmama of Europe’. It was only now that people started calling themselves ‘Victorians’, as the widowed queen set her stamp irrevocably on the great and final days of empire at the head of a ceremonial and constitutional monarchy that survives to this day.
Helen Rappaport is a writer and historian and the author of Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy (Hutchinson, 2011).
This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine