When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha on 10 February 1840, she wanted at least one year of “happy enjoyment” before starting a family. She hated and dreaded the thought of childbearing, and yet within a few weeks of her wedding she was pregnant. On 21 November that year, a child – the first of nine – was born. When the doctor informed Victoria that she had a princess, she answered firmly that “the next will be a prince”.
Despite any initial disappointment at not immediately presenting her husband and kingdom with a son and heir, Victoria was delighted to have a daughter. Later she would tell this princess – who was by then a mother herself – that “sometimes one buys experience with one’s first child and therefore a girl is sometimes better”. Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, Princess Royal – briefly nicknamed ‘Pussy’ and then a few years later ‘Vicky’ – was the delight of her parents, and would always remain her father’s favourite child.
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The queen did not intend to fulfil her promise of a prince so quickly, and was furious to discover soon after the first was christened that she was expecting again. Within less than a year, on 9 November 1841, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, joined the nursery. This time, Victoria suffered from severe postnatal depression, and many months elapsed before she became pregnant with her next child. Alice Maud Mary was born on 25 April 1843, and Alfred Ernest Albert on 6 August 1844. Two daughters followed: Helena Augusta Victoria on 25 May 1846, and Louise Caroline Alberta on 18 March 1848. The two youngest sons were Arthur William Patrick Albert, born on 1 May 1850, and Leopold George Duncan Albert, on 7 April 1853. The baby of the family was Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore, born on 14 April 1857.
Despite their differences in personality and occasional sibling jealousy, the children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert remained close. They were always mutually supportive – even after marriages to European princes and princesses sometimes led to differing national loyalties.
But how much do you know about each of Queen Victoria’s sons and daughters? Here’s a brief guide to each of the monarch’s children…
Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, Princess Royal
Born: 21 November 1840
Died: 5 August 1901 (aged 60)
Victoria and Albert’s first born, Victoria, or ‘Vicky’, was a precocious child with a passion for learning and a mischievous sense of humour – although she could also be emotional and highly-strung. She inherited her father’s analytical mind and love of reading, and always remained the apple of his eye. Although Queen Victoria was very fond of her, with characteristic honesty she admitted that her first born was sometimes a difficult daughter: “A more insubordinate and unequal-tempered child and girl I think I never saw!” the queen once wrote to a 17-year-old Vicky.
In 1858 the young Victoria married Prince Frederick William of Prussia, later German Emperor Frederick III. The marriage brought her into conflict with two of her siblings – the Prince of Wales and Alice – whose marriages into the royal and ducal families of Denmark and Hesse respectively placed them on the losing side during the wars of conquest of the Prussian minister-president and later German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Although the bonds between brother and sisters always remained strong, the division of national loyalties resulted in some painful moments during family visits when all three were staying at Windsor at the same time, to the extent that Queen Victoria sometimes had to forbid any conversation about contentious issues in her presence.
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Some 30 years after marrying Victoria, Frederick would ascend the throne while dying from throat cancer, no longer able to speak above a whisper. He died following a reign of just three months, taking with him hopes of a united liberal Germany that would be a staunch ally of Britain. In Frederik’s place came William II, Europe’s unstable bête noire, who professed to admire Britain while secretly regarding her as a rival for German supremacy in Europe. It would later be the fate of another grandson of Queen Victoria, King George V, to witness Britain and Germany declare war on each other in 1914.
When Queen Victoria died at Osborne House in January 1901, she was surrounded by most of her surviving children and several grandchildren. However, Vicky – now the widowed Empress Frederick – was notably absent from her mother’s deathbed. Suffering from cancer of the spine and too ill to travel back to England from Germany, she died seven months after her mother, on 5 August 1901.
Albert Edward, Prince of Wales
Born: 9 November 1841
Died: 6 May 1910 (aged 68)
Victoria and Albert named their second child Albert Edward, although he was known as ‘Bertie’ and then Edward VII after he succeeded the throne. As a child, Bertie was an outgoing prince who did not respond well to his lessons – much to the disappointment of his parents, who wanted him to be just like his studious, well-read father. In personality Bertie resembled his mother more, and she would lament that he was her “caricature”.
As heir to the throne, Bertie was not allowed to pursue an active career in the army, although he was granted honorary appointments and briefly attended manoeuvres in Ireland at the age of 20. While there he had a brief liaison with an actress, Nellie Clifden. When the relationship came to the notice of his parents, Prince Albert – whose morals were always above reproach –took the transgression very much to heart. Already seriously ill at the time, Prince Albert died on 14 December 1861, probably from typhoid fever. At first Victoria hysterically blamed their son for breaking his father’s heart, and relations between the pair were distant for a while. Victoria never ceased to bemoan his love of society and ‘good living’, but in time she readily admitted that he was “so full of good and amiable qualities that it makes one forget and overlook much that one would wish different”.
Following the death of his mother in 1901, Bertie – now King Edward VII – defied expectations by proving himself to be a very successful and well-loved monarch, paving the way for an alliance with France. The French had been wholeheartedly on the side of the Boers during their war with Britain at the turn of the century, but the king charmed president, ministers and citizens alike on a goodwill visit to Paris in 1903.
Notorious for his hearty appetite, King Edward was in increasingly poor health during his later years – he suffered in particular from a chronic bronchial condition – and died from heart problems in May 1910, at the age of 68.
Princess Alice Maud Mary, Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine
Born: 25 April 1843
Died: 14 December 1878 (aged 35)
From an early age, Alice was an exceptionally caring individual, always keen to help others less fortunate than herself. When the family stayed at Balmoral, their private home in the Scottish Highlands, she would sometimes visit the local cottagers, taking them food and clothing. Later, when her father, Prince Albert, was clearly dying, she spent much of her time looking after him and trying to make his last days comfortable. After his death, she provided unstinting moral support to her grief-stricken mother.
Alice married Prince Louis of Hesse and the Rhine in 1862, and in 1866 and 1870 Alice’s nursing skills were put to good use during Germany’s wars against Austria and France. A thoughtful, ever-questioning personality, she became friends with the theologian David Friedrich Strauss. His unorthodox views on Christianity made him a controversial figure, and Alice’s association with him led to her being dismissed by some as an atheist.
A combination of overwork and profound depression after the death of her young son Frederick – a haemophiliac who died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of two – left Alice world-weary and in poor health. In 1878, at the age of 35, she succumbed to diphtheria – on the anniversary of her father’s death. She was the first of Victoria and Albert’s children to die.
Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Born: 6 August 1844
Died: 30 July 1900 (aged 55)
Victoria and Albert’s second son, Alfred – or ‘Affie’ – was a cheerful, industrious boy; a keen learner who particularly liked geography and the sciences, experimenting with toys and later building his own. In letters to close family and confidantes, Prince Albert occasionally remarked with regret that this second son would never inherit the crown, unless anything happened to his elder brother. Alfred was made Duke of Edinburgh in 1866.
Having joined the navy at the age of 14 in 1858, Alfred steadily rose through the ranks to become an admiral of the fleet. In 1862, after the Greeks deposed their unpopular and childless king Otho, Alfred was overwhelmingly elected in a plebiscite to succeed him, but political considerations ruled out the possibility of a British prince accepting such a position.
Alfred shared Bertie’s taste for society life: in 1867, partly to keep him out of mischief, he was sent on an extensive round-the-world voyage during which he visited several countries as the queen’s representative. At an official function in Sydney, Australia, he almost fell victim to an assassination plot. Henry James O’Farrell – an Irishman seeking vengeance after the execution of three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood for their role in a terrorist explosion in London – shot and wounded him. Although Alfred recovered quickly, he nonetheless curtailed his world trip and was sent back to England to recover. He resumed his travels in 1868, visiting Australia again; Fiji; Japan; India and South America, returning to England nearly three years later.
Alfred played the violin throughout his life (having taught himself as a child) – although he reputedly sometimes played “with exuberant originality, but with little regard for the score”. The first member of the royal family to take an interest in postage stamps, he laid the foundations for the Royal Philatelic Collection. Having been chosen as heir to his childless uncle Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Alfred succeeded to the duchy on the latter’s death in 1893.
Alfred’s marriage to Grand Duchess Marie of Russia (whom he married in 1874) proved unhappy, and in his later life he suffered from alcoholism. He died from cancer in July 1900, predeceasing his mother by six months.
Princess Helena Augusta Victoria
Born: 25 May 1846
Died: 9 June 1923 (aged 77)
Helena, described as the plainest of Victoria and Albert’s five daughters, was a level-headed, relatively unemotional child; a tomboy who preferred outdoor life, long walks and rides, and cared little for her personal appearance. In 1866 she wed the impoverished German Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, who was content to make his home in England with her under the ever-watchful eye of Queen Victoria. As a result, Helena was spared the sadness that her sister Alice had known of living in a small defeated German state.
Helena worked extensively with a number of charities – including the Ladies’ Committee of the newly-founded British Red Cross; the Royal British Nurses’ Association; and the Royal School of Needlework – and helped to provide free dinners for children and the unemployed in the Windsor area. She also helped to write a biography of Prince Albert, translating letters from German to English for the author Charles Grey, and published an English translation of The Memoirs of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth, a distant relative.
After a severe bout of influenza and several heart attacks, she died in June 1923.
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Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Duchess of Argyll
Born: 18 March 1848
Died: 3 December 1939 (aged 91)
In contrast to Helena, Louise was considered the prettiest of Victoria’s daughters. She was always lively – sometimes sharp-tongued and moody – and was a skilled artist who excelled at drawing, painting and sculpture. She was a fervent supporter of the arts and higher education, and was in some ways the most forward-looking of the family, supporting female equality in education and employment.
Determined to pursue an artistic career (as much as her royal status would allow), Louise was the first member of the family to attend a public education institution – the National Art Training School. Among her greatest works are a statue of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes, erected in Kensington Gardens; a memorial on the Isle of Wight to her brother-in-law Prince Henry of Battenberg, who died from malaria in January 1896; and memorials to colonial soldiers killed in the Boer War, which can be found in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Louise married John Campbell, later the 9th Duke of Argyll, on 21 March 1871. Campbell sat at Westminster as a Liberal MP and later as a Liberal Unionist, and also served as governor general of Canada. It was a childless marriage in which they spent much time apart – although they seemed to remain good friends. Campbell was reputed to be gay, and Louise’s occasional flirtations with other men at court sometimes prompted innuendo and gossip from those who suspected she was indulging in clandestine affairs.
Louise, like her sister Helena, remained busy throughout her life with charity work. She died in 1939 at the age of 91.
Arthur William Patrick Albert
Born: 1 May 1850
Died: 16 January 1942 (aged 91)
Arthur, who later became Duke of Connaught and of Strathearn in 1874, was a strong, healthy baby who had an even temper without the irritability or tantrums of some of his siblings, and was courageous without being reckless. Always good-mannered and obedient, Arthur was said to be the queen’s favourite; when he was aged eight, Victoria wrote to her husband that Arthur was “dear, dearer than any of the others put together, thus after you he is the dearest and most precious object to me on Earth”.
As a child, Arthur said that he was going to be a soldier when he grew up – a dream that he fulfilled. He joined the army at the age of 16 and went on to have a distinguished career that included military service in South Africa, Egypt and India. He eventually became inspector-general of the British forces and finally governor general of Canada.
Throughout his life, as during childhood, Arthur rarely caused the queen any trouble or anxiety. He had a rare gift for getting on well with all members of the family, not least his nephew William, the last German Emperor, who often irritated the rest of his relations. Alfred was in Berlin in January 1901 when he learned that his mother was seriously ill, and the emperor insisted on travelling back to England with him, reportedly full of jokes and good humour, telling his suite that “Uncle Arthur is so downhearted we must cheer him up”.
Even in old age Arthur continued to serve in a military capacity, although he had largely withdrawn from public life by the time of his 80th birthday. Outliving his wife (Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia) and two of their three children, he died in 1942 at the age of 91.
Leopold George Duncan Albert
Born: 7 April 1853
Died: 28 March 1884 (aged 30)
Leopold, created Duke of Albany in 1881, was a clever, amusing child who learned to read quickly and adored music and the arts. Sadly, he was also his parents’ “child of anxiety”. At first he suffered from weak digestion and was very thin; bruised easily and suffered greatly whenever he fell over. It was later discovered that he had haemophilia, a condition that prevents blood from clotting properly, which meant that any accident could for Leopold prove fatal.
Because of his poor health, Leopold was prevented from following a service career. He was, however, allowed to study at Oxford University, later becoming a patron of the arts and literature and, for a while, unofficial secretary to his mother. Victoria always remained protective of Leopold, much to his irritation, and sometimes he openly defied her out of sheer devilry. Once, for example, he refused to accompany her on her annual visit to Balmoral, on the grounds that he was always “bored” there. His mother reluctantly allowed him to spend a few days in Paris instead, and on arrival there he announced that he would stay for a full fortnight.
Leopold surprised his mother by not only living to maturity but also marrying, his bride being Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont. The couple married in 1882 and had two children: Alice, later Countess of Athlone; and Charles, later Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Sadly, Leopold never lived to see the birth of his son, as he died suddenly at the age of 30 after a fall and subsequent brain haemorrhage.
Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore
Born: 14 April 1857
Died: 26 October 1944 (aged 87)
Beatrice, who was called ‘Baby’ by her mother well into adult life, was always treated indulgently. She was inclined to be mildly impertinent – but with a charm that allowed her to get away with it without fear of scolding. When told at the dinner table that she was not allowed certain foods, for example, she helped herself regardless, mimicking her mother’s voice as she insisted, “but she likes it, my dear”.
At the age of five, Beatrice announced that she did not like weddings and would never be married herself but would instead stay with Victoria. For the next 20 years it looked as if she might keep her promise, until in 1884 she fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg (whose elder brother Louis had recently married one of her nieces) and insisted she would become his wife. Queen Victoria was astonished, and for a number of weeks relations between mother and daughter were strained.
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However, when the rest of the family supported their sister – and told their mother that Beatrice had every right to lead her own life – Victoria relented. Beatrice was permitted to marry on condition that she and Henry lived with the queen. He agreed with good grace, but after a few years he became restless, bored with his uneventful domestic family life at court, and longed to serve his country in a more active capacity. Having joined a military expedition to Africa in 1895, he caught malaria and was sent back to England – but to the family’s devastation he died on the journey home.
Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Beatrice remained for a long time her widowed mother’s constant companion. Beatrice’s final years were clouded by ill-health, but she lived a long life and died in 1944 at the age of 87.
John Van der Kiste is the author of numerous books on Queen Victoria, including Queen Victoria’s Family (1982); Queen Victoria’s Children (1986); and Sons, Servants and Statesmen: The Men in Queen Victoria’s Life (2006).
This article was first published by History Extra in February 2019