Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, were passionate lovers with a mutual physical attraction but with seemingly no understanding of family planning. The result was nine children born between 1840 and 1857. Albert, intelligent and ambitious, was determined to put this burgeoning brood to good use. He and Victoria were united in the desire that they should not just be a model, loving and happy family, but that they would also set a moral example that would redefine royalty and be the foundation of a dynasty that would stretch across Europe, bringing peace and harmony to the fractious continent.
It was a noble plan, motivated by the highest ideals, and one that was to lead to the creation of the modern idea of the royal family so familiar to us today. But like so many of the best-laid plans, human nature got in the way.
It was Albert, the intellectual, who was responsible for shaping and modernising the royal family in the 19th century; his influence would last well into the next. From the moment of his marriage to Victoria in 1840 to his untimely death 21 years later, he saw his purpose as protecting and nourishing the British monarchy at a time when political turmoil threatened at home and revolution was sweeping Europe. Albert believed that in order to survive and prosper, royalty should be presented as a respectable and close- knit, loving family. As the historian Miranda Carter says: “It’s as if Albert and Victoria are trying to reach out to their middle class subjects and say, ‘look, we are like you, trust us’.”
But of course the royal family was not like the middle class. It existed in the enclosed bubble of the court where tensions and hostilities festered and where children were fawned over and flattered from the moment they were born. Yet at the same time these youngsters were expected to be model children, utterly obedient to their parents. It was an intolerable tension.
A fraught family life was perhaps unsurprising, given the couple’s own experiences. They were both the product of unhappy childhoods. Albert’s upbringing in Germany had been overshadowed by the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. His father, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield (and then, from 1826, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) was a serial philanderer who paid little attention to his son. Albert grew up longing for his father’s love while detesting his behaviour. He was determined when the time came to be a model father and everything that his father was not. But when he became a parent the problem was that he had no example to follow.
Victoria, too, had much to react against. She had grown up secluded at Kensington Palace under the control of her domineering mother, the Duchess of Kent. Later she admitted, revealingly, “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”.
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The couple, deeply in love and physically well suited, were united in the wish to create a family that would serve not just as an escape from their own unhappy pasts, but also as a pan-European dynasty and a model for a nation.
Unsurprisingly, given the couple’s physical infatuation, their first child, Princess Victoria, called Vicky, was born nine months after their wedding. The queen was busy with her duties as monarch and could spare little time for her baby, seeing her only twice a day. Within a year of Vicky’s birth Albert Edward, known as Bertie – the future King Edward VII – was born. The queen now had a healthy male heir. “Our little boy is a wonderfully strong and large child,” she wrote proudly. “I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.” With the succession reasonably assured, it might be thought a rest from the risk of childbearing would be appropriate. Not so. Over the next five years another three children were born: Alice, Alfred and Helena.
While Queen Victoria gave birth to many children, she hated being pregnant, and historians have suggested that she may have suffered from post-natal depression. She compared pregnancy to feeling like a cow and wrote that “an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed”.
Nor did Victoria necessarily like babies. “An ugly baby is a very nasty object,” she protested, “the prettiest are frightful when undressed… as long as they have their big body and little limbs and that terrible froglike action”. Nor could she contemplate breastfeeding them, finding the whole process repulsive. A wet nurse was therefore employed for all her children, as Victoria devoted herself to Albert. The result was four more children: Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. Victoria had nine babies over 17 years – a tremendous physical feat, and a dangerous one given the high rates of maternal mortality at the time.
The model family
The royal couple set to work putting their plan for a model family into action. It was essential for them also that they were seen to be doing so. With the birth of mass communication, Albert well understood the need for the public to be made aware of the ideal for which they were striving. Under the Hanoverians the monarchy had fallen into disrepute, torn apart by feuding and scandal. Now, in countless paintings and photographs, Victoria and Albert were shown in harmonious family group portraits. Today they are a lovely record, if not a strictly true one, of the development of the royal family. The publicity worked and Victoria was delighted: “They say no Sovereign was ever more loved than I (I am bold enough to say), and this because of our happy domestic home and the good example it presents”.
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In a reversal of the typical roles of the time, Victoria devoted herself to regal duties while Albert took responsibility for the upbringing of the children. He was a new type of father, ahead of his time, with a hands-on approach to child rearing. From the beginning his relationship with his first child, Vicky, went well. Lady Lyttleton, a governess, remembered seeing him playing with her: “Albert tossed and romped with her, making her laugh and crow and kick heartily”.
Victoria, by contrast, was far more distant and guarded. She looked on as Albert took control of all aspects of the children’s development. At first Albert found this task fulfilling and stimulating, appealing to his sense of himself as an expert in human behaviour: “There is certainly a great charm, as well as deep interest, in watching the development of feelings and faculties in a little child,” he once remarked.
Albert was the product of an intensive German education that had made him into an accomplished polymath. He expected the same of his children – and more. He developed a punishing educational programme to create the model prince or princess that took little account of the abilities of an average intellect. According to Baron Stockmar, his advisor, the regime would give any child brain fever.
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The plan began when the children were infants, with the instilling of discipline. “The chief objects here,” the prince opined, “are their physical development, the actual rearing up, the training to obedience”. Corporal punishment was at the heart of this training. The children frequently received “a real punishment by whipping” if they stepped out of line and Albert himself would hit his children’s fingers during piano lessons when they played the wrong notes.
There was instruction, too, in manners and, as the children grew older, lessons in the languages of the courts of Europe, especially German and French. On top of this there was tuition in Latin, geography, maths and science. The education would have been tough even for the most able child, but for the mostly very average young princes and princesses it was purgatory. Fortunately Vicky, the eldest child, was extremely bright and the strict regime got off to a good start. She began her French lessons at the tender age of 18 months; soon she was speaking Latin and reading Shakespeare. Naturally, given her parents’ heritage, she was also fluent in German.
The queen fully backed her husband’s plan. She idolised him to the children, telling them “none of you can ever be proud enough of being the child of such a father who has not his equal in this world”. It followed that she would want them, especially the boys, to be brought up as mini-replicas of the man she adored so ardently. She prayed that her baby Bertie would grow up to “resemble his angelic dearest Father in every, every respect, both in body and mind”. Of course, life being what it is, the heir to the throne turned out in every respect to be the opposite of his father. His parents believed he could be a blank slate on which they could draw a perfect little Albert – they were utterly wrong.
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From an early age Bertie obstinately refused to conform to his father’s plan for the royal children’s education. Here was no renaissance prince in the making: despite being stuffed with facts and theory he found learning difficult and was unable to concentrate. The intense pressure on the backward young prince produced a negative reaction. His tutor Frederick Gibbs remembered the frequent schoolroom tantrums during arithmetic lessons with the Prince of Wales: “He became passionate, the pencil was flung to the end of the room, the stool was kicked away and he was hardly able to apply himself at all”.
Albert’s plan for the heir to the throne of the greatest empire the world had ever seen turned out a complete failure. Instead of the longed for polymath his son turned out to be a dunce. Victoria complained about his “systematic idleness, laziness – disregard of everything”. The worried parents consulted a phrenologist, a modish quack who claimed the shape of the head affected the brain. His diagnosis confirmed everything they feared: “The feeble quality of the brain will render the Prince highly excitable… intellectual organs are only moderately well developed. The result will be strong self-will, at times obstinacy”.
The Prince of Wales was not the only one of the nine children who played up and refused to conform to Albert’s plan for a perfect royal development. As each grew up, he or she displayed the quirks and characteristics of individual human nature. Albert was perplexed and dismayed and he came to suspect that his children were suffering from their Stuart inheritance – certainly they could not have inherited their frailties and foibles from his princely blood! But the plan had to go on.
As time passed, eight of the children were married off to European princes and princesses, in order that a pan-European dynasty be created. First to go was Princess Victoria, the eldest, to Fritz of Prussia. Both parents were devastated to lose their 17-year-old, especially Albert who wrote “the pang of parting was great on all sides, and the void which Vicky has left in our household and family circle will stand gaping for many a day”. But dynastic duty had to override human feeling, and his favourite daughter was taken away to a new and bewildering life in the Prussian court.
The pressure on Albert to carry out all his many royal duties and to bring up the family according to his plan was immense. He found his work exhausting. In 1860 he compared himself to a donkey on a treadmill, complaining: “He, too, would rather munch thistles in the castle moat. Small are the thanks he gets for his labour”. Victoria, ever self-centred and emotional, came to resent the attention he paid to the children. There were frequent outbursts and marital rows. The strain took its toll on the Prince Consort’s health. He suffered toothache, insomnia and fits of shivering. The doctors were mystified, unable to make a proper diagnosis. Victoria failed to empathise with her husband. In one of her many letters to her daughter Vicky, she wrote: “Dear Papa never allows he is any better or will try to get over it, but makes such a miserable face that people always think he is very ill”.
Albert soldiered on, desperate to realise his vision for the royal family. In 1860 he arranged the key dynastic marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. In a changing world it was crucial that this be portrayed both as a worthwhile diplomatic alliance (which it was), and a love match. The Victorian public, in an era of pious rectitude, demanded a pure marriage in which the heir to the throne appeared to be virtuous and chaste.
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The Prince of Wales, however, was anything but chaste. His life from an early age was devoted to pleasure, much to his parent’s desperate alarm. In the summer of 1861 Bertie attended a training camp with Grenadier Guards in Dublin. His fellow officers arranged for a ‘lady of easy virtue’ to join him for the night. The story of the prince’s trysts got back to his parents and provoked in Albert a furious, almost hysterical, response. How could his son, he demanded, “thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated in the sacred mysteries of creation?”. Everything that Albert had been working for seemed threatened. He warned Bertie that “you must not, you dare not be lost; the consequences for this country and the world at large would be too dreadful”.
A tragic death
Albert’s plan for perfect children seemed to have failed utterly. Sickening and feverish, Albert travelled to meet the Prince of Wales at Cambridge to harangue him on the error of his ways. Father and son went for a long walk in the rain. Bertie apologised, Albert forgave and then returned to Windsor wet through, racked with pain in his legs and suffering from fever. He retired to bed, where his symptoms worsened. In December 1861, aged only 42, he died. Queen Victoria’s grief was so great that it would dominate her family and the nation for decades to come. And of course she blamed her eldest son Bertie for her beloved’s death. For years she could hardly bear to bring herself even to look at him.
With Albert’s death the idea of raising perfect children died too. Victoria managed as best she could, relying on her position as queen and her domineering character to make her children bend to her will. In this she was generally successful, though she and the Prince of Wales gave each other a wide berth. And her many letters show she was – if a mixture of egocentric martinet and self-pitying widow – always at heart a loving mother.
Like all parents before and after, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert learned that children have an extraordinary ability to perplex, frustrate and amaze at their individuality and their obstinate refusal to turn into little paragons. Years later Victoria was honest enough to say this herself in a surprising yet characteristic admission: “You will find as your children grow up that as a rule your children are a bitter disappointment – their greatest object being to do precisely what their parents do not wish and have anxiously tried to prevent”. The great matriarch concluded with an eternal truth that it had taken her years to come to appreciate that “often when children have been less watched and less taken care of – the better they turn out! This is inexplicable and very annoying!”.
Certainly her own children, in the main, turned out well enough despite the untimely death of their father and the failure of his plan. Even Bertie, a libertine and prince of pleasure, was as Edward VII a very successful king whose easy charm and diplomatic skills ensured the continuing popularity of the British royal family and brought Britain closer to France on the eve of the catastrophe of the First World War. In a surprising and all too human way, Albert’s plan had worked out after all.
Denys Blakeway is a documentary producer and writer. He was the executive producer of Queen Victoria’s Children, a three-part series made for BBC Two that aired in 2016.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2016