“My dearest dearest dear Albert… and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness, I never could have hoped to have felt before”, wrote Queen Victoria of her wedding night. “His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness… Oh! This was the happiest day of my life”, she continued ecstatically. Coming from a woman who, from the moment she had ascended the throne in 1837, had resisted all attempts to force her into wedlock – despite some of Europe’s most eligible bachelors being paraded before her – it was clear that marriage to Albert was borne out of love rather than duty.
Albert was Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in the present-day states of Bavaria and Thuringia in Germany. He was also Victoria’s first cousin, son of her mother’s brother, Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Despite being delivered by the same midwife within three months of each other, the pair had had little contact as children, yet each knew of their family’s desire to see them married one day.
A brief encounter at celebrations for Victoria’s 17th birthday in 1836 had planted the seeds of an attraction between the pair. She writes passionately in her diary of Albert’s “beautiful nose and… sweet mouth with fine teeth” as well as the “charm of his countenance”, which she describes as being “full of goodness and sweetness, and very clever and intelligent”. But Albert, unused to the late nights and whirl of fashionable gaieties of the English court was forced to leave several balls early, feeling sleepy and faint, leaving his lively young cousin to dance on into the night.
Albert was one of several suitors introduced to Victoria in the months before she turned 18 and inherited the throne from her uncle William IV, bringing to an end more than 120 years of male Hanoverian rule. Another first cousin, Prince Augustus of Saxe-Coburg, made a favourable impression on the young princess, more so than Princes William and Alexander of Orange whom Victoria described as being “very plain”.
Cupid’s arrow strikes
By 1839, Victoria was relishing the relative freedom of being an unmarried young queen and once again declared herself reluctant to marry. But in October 1839, Albert visited England again. This time, Victoria was smitten.
“It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful”, she scribbled in her diary that night. Just five days later, on 15 October, in accordance with royal protocol, Victoria proposed, exclaiming: “Oh! to feel I was, and am, loved by such an Angel as Albert, was too great delight to describe! he is perfection; perfection in every way”.
The marriage ceremony, which took place on 10 February 1840 in the Chapel Royal at St James’s, was everything a royal wedding should be. Dressed in a white satin gown with lace veil, a wreath of orange blossom, and attended by 12 bridesmaids, Victoria married her Albert.
Victoria fell pregnant almost immediately, giving birth to their first child, Princess Victoria, nine months after the wedding. The future Edward VII (Bertie) was born the following year. The physical attraction between the pair never faded and, between 1840 and 1857, Victoria gave birth to nine children.
However, Victoria was not a natural mother. Her own childhood had been an unhappy one, kept in seclusion at Kensington Palace by her own domineering mother with little in the way of companionship or affection. The death of Victoria’s father when she was just eight months old had a profound impact and the only male influence she had had as a child was that of her mother’s despised advisor Sir John Conroy. “I had led a very unhappy life as a child – had no scope for my very violent feelings of affection… and did not know what a happy domestic life was,” admitted Victoria in later life
Albert, too, had suffered an unhappy childhood. His father had been a serial philanderer who paid little attention to either of his sons. Albert’s mother, Princess Louise, had been forced into exile following an affair and the breakdown of her marriage, and Albert had grown up determined to be the type of father he had never had.
Grandmother of Europe
Victoria and Albert were rulers of a vast empire that dominated global politics by the end of the 19th century. It included Australia, Canada, the Indian subcontinent and much of Africa. Extending British influence and keeping allegiances closer to home in Europe was an equally important, albeit more delicate matter, and was achieved through marriage. Victoria and Albert’s nine children married into royal houses across Europe – from Denmark to Russia – and Victoria was eventually grandmother to 40 grandchildren. Eight of these would eventually sit on the thrones of Britain, Prussia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Norway, Sweden and Spain.
George V of Britain, Tsarina Alexandra of Russia (wife of Tsar Nicholas II) and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm – the three warring royals of World War I – were actually all grandchildren of Victoria and Albert. During her lifetime, Victoria had successfully managed the difficult relationships between her grandchildren and their respective nations, but after her death in 1901, peace faltered and Europe began to edge closer to war. Kaiser Wilhelm is reported to have remarked that had Victoria still been alive, World War I may never have broken out – she simply would not have allowed her relatives to wage war with one another.
But Victoria and Albert shared more than just their children and grandchildren across the royal dynasties of Europe. They also introduced a devastating genetic condition. Victoria is believed to have been a carrier of haemophilia – a hereditary condition that affects the blood’s ability to clot. The couple’s eighth child, Leopold, was a haemophiliac and died aged 30 after a minor fall triggered a cerebral haemorrhage. Two of the couple’s five daughters – Alice and Beatrice – are confirmed carriers and unknowingly passed the disorder to the royal families of Spain, Germany and Russia.
Victoria and Albert were united in their desire to create a model, loving family that would set an example to the world. But neither were quite sure how to do it. Victoria hated being pregnant and found babies equally repugnant. “An ugly baby is a very nasty object; the prettiest are frightful when undressed… as long as they have their big body and little limbs and that terrible froglike action”. Breastfeeding, too, was deemed a repulsive act and a wet nurse was employed for all of her nine children, allowing Victoria more time to devote herself to matters of state, and to her beloved Albert.
Their children were spoilt and lavished with every describable luxury from birth, yet expected to adhere to their parents’ ideals of a model family. Countless works of art depicting royal domestic bliss are testament to the public relations campaign Albert sold to the world.
Behind closed doors, however, royal relationships were often strained – none more so than that of Victoria and Albert.
Albert was not a popular choice of husband for Victoria with the British public. He had come to the marriage an impoverished and relatively low-standing prince, despite his royal connections. And he was German to boot. “He comes to take for ‘better or for worse’ / England’s fat queen and England’s fatter purse” were two lines from a popular, if insulting, song of the day.
The traditional sum of £50,000 as an allowance for the consort of a monarch was reduced to £30,000 for Albert by Robert Peel’s Conservative party – the smallest sum ever to be offered. He was refused both a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords – a mixture of anti-German sentiment and an attempt to limit Albert’s political power. In fact, it was not until 1857 that Albert was finally granted the title of Prince Consort.
As a champion of the rights of workers, improvements in social welfare, education, the abolition of slavery, as well as a patron of the arts and technology, Albert must have been bitterly disappointed not to have had a bigger say in government affairs.
With his wife distracted by regal duties and himself lacking a formal role, it was Albert, then, who initially took on much of the responsibility for the upbringing of their children. But from the start he wanted more.
“The difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, not the master in the house”, Albert is said to have uttered to his university friend William von Lowenstein. And he was right. Albert entered a royal household that was governed by his wife and run by her former governess, Baroness Lehzen.
But within a couple of months of the wedding, Victoria reluctantly began to hand some of her official duties over to Albert as she was forced by continued pregnancies to take more of a backseat. Privately, he became her most trusted advisor and the pair worked side by side attending to royal business.
Albert was Victoria’s rock and she looked up to him as her intellectual superior, encouraging his ideas. But although she was happy to share power with her husband – within reason – Victoria had a strong sense of her own hereditary right and resented having to hand over her powers while restricted by childbirth.
Behind the public image
The issue of sharing power was a constant thorn in the marriage. Albert was an accomplished polymath with deep interests in the arts, science and new technologies of the day. He used his influence as Victoria’s husband to further some of his passions, adding President of the Society for the Extinction of Slavery and Chancellor of Cambridge University to his titles. He was the driving force behind the Great Exhibition of 1851, which shone a light on British engineering and technology, and was a staunch promoter of British manufacturing.
But behind closed doors, the carefully crafted public image of the perfect family was showing signs of strain. Locked in an endless power struggle, terrible rows broke out between the lovers. For his part, Albert was terrified of Victoria’s violent outbursts, fearing that she had inherited the madness of her grandfather George III, whose near 60-year reign was peppered with periods of mental ill health. Advised by the royal doctor not to argue with his wife in case his fears proved true, Albert was forced to communicate during her periods of rage by means of handwritten notes meekly posted under her door.
Life after Albert: what happened when he died?
After Albert’s death, Victoria fell into a deep depression and mourned her husband for the rest of her long life. But, as the decades passed, she did find solace in the company and friendships of several men.
One notably close relationship was with her servant John Brown, the hard-drinking, bearded son of a Scottish crofter. The controversial friendship between queen and servant caused great rifts in the royal family, and Brown’s influence over Victoria was much criticised. Some have speculated that the relationship was more than platonic with a supposed deathbed confession from Scottish clergyman Norman Macleod that he had married the pair.
Victoria’s passion for India and her longing for Albert saw her strike up an intimate friendship with another servant, 24-yearold Abdul Karim, a young Indian man who had arrived in England for Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 to wait on tables and attend the Indian princes in residence for the celebrations. Arriving as he did some four years after John Brown’s death, Karim instantly charmed the Queen. Within a year, he had become Victoria’s teacher, instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs, introducing her to curry and, like Brown, becoming one of her closest confidants. Lavished with gifts and promotions, Karim became even more hated by the royal family than Brown. After Victoria’s death, her eldest son, Bertie, ordered all records of their relationship, including correspondence and photographs, to be destroyed.
The couple’s eldest son Bertie, the future Edward VII, also caused tension within the family and was something of a disappointment to his parents. Neither gifted intellectually nor especially handsome – his own mother described him as having a “painfully small and narrow head, those immense features and total want of chin” – Bertie rebelled against his parents’ grand expectations for him. The young prince devoted himself to a life of pleasure and, when word of their son’s tryst with ‘a lady of easy virtue’ reached his parent’s ears, Albert took it upon himself to meet with his wayward son to deal with his reckless behaviour before it became public knowledge. It would be the last time father and son would ever meet – feverish, racked with pain in his legs and wet through from their long walk in the rain, Albert returned to Windsor where, just weeks later, he died. He was aged just 42.
Victoria never fully recovered from Albert’s death. For the rest of her life, she dressed in black and appeared infrequently in public. She surrounded herself with memorabilia to remind her of her beloved husband, taking his dressing gown to bed with her each night and continuing to have hot water for shaving brought up on a daily basis, as it had been when he was alive.
Albert had been everything to Victoria – confidant, husband, lover, closest advisor – and his death dealt a devastating blow to the Queen and the British monarchy. After his death, Victoria papered over the cracks in their marriage, memorialising her husband as an almost saintly figure. In a letter written 15 months after Albert’s death, Victoria wrote: “The poor Queen… can only hope never to live to old age but be allowed to rejoin her beloved great and loyal husband before many years elapse”. It was a wish that would be denied her.
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed magazine
This article was first published in the June 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed