“We are all going stark, staring mad. Nothing is heard or thought of but doves and cupids, triumphal arches and whit favours, and last but not least, variegated lamps and general illuminations.”
This lament was published in the journal, The Satirist, during the frenzied preparations for Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert on 10 February 1840. Ever since their engagement had been announced the previous November, royal wedding fever had gripped the nation.
Victoria had ascended the throne in June 1837, just a month after her 18th birthday. Youthful and apparently ill-equipped for her queenly responsibilities, it was not expected that she would rule alone for long. But she herself balked at the idea of taking a husband. “I dreaded the thought of marrying,” Victoria wrote. “I was so accustomed to having my own way that I thought it was 10 to 1 that I shouldn’t agree with anybody.” Like that earlier queen regnant, Elizabeth I, she was concerned that a husband might wish to curtail her powers. She therefore proved reluctant to pursue the matter.
The same could not be said about those who surrounded her. Victoria’s family had long held the idea that she might marry her cousin, Prince Albert, son of Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and nephew of Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. He and Victoria were very close in age (Albert was just three months younger) and as well as sharing close kinship, they had been delivered by the same midwife, Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold.
Victoria had last seen Albert when he and his brother, Ernest, had paid a visit to London just before her 17th birthday, in May 1836. She had recorded in her journal that he was “extremely handsome; his hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large & blue & he has a beautiful nose & a very sweet mouth with fine teeth” and he was “full of goodness & sweetness, & very clever & intelligent”. But Albert had not been prepared for the endless round of balls and entertainments that had been arranged in the run-up to Victoria’s birthday. By the day itself (24 May), he had reached his limit. He stayed “a short while in the ball-room & having only danced twice, turned as pale as ashes” and went home early. Nevertheless, he and Victoria had got on extremely well and, when it was time for him to return to his native Germany, Victoria “cried bitterly, very bitterly”.
Even so, Victoria still showed little inclination to marry. Upon hearing that she was queen, Prince Albert wrote to congratulate her. In the rather formal letter, he wished her a “long, happy, and glorious” reign, and prayed her to think sometimes “of your cousins in Bonn”. Meanwhile, press speculation was beginning to mount about whom the young queen would marry, and this intensified when she reluctantly agreed that Albert and his brother could pay another visit. They arrived at Windsor on 10 October 1839.
Despite her reticence, Victoria was utterly captivated when she set eyes upon her cousin again for the first time in three years. “Albert’s beauty is most striking,” she enthused in her journal. “He is so amiable and unaffected – in short, very fascinating; he is excessively admired here.” Just four days later, Victoria wrote to her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, telling him that she had changed her mind about marrying. Melbourne approved of her choice, writing that Albert “seems a very agreeable young man, he is certainly is a very good looking one, and as to character, that, we must always take our chance of”.
A queen’s proposal
As the monarch, Victoria had to be the one to propose. She wasted little time in doing so. Soon after midday on 15 October, Victoria sent for Albert and asked him to marry her. When he agreed, they embraced and the young queen was overcome with joy. “Oh! How I adore and love him, I cannot say!!” she wrote in her diary that day. Albert was no less enamoured. “I have obtained the height of my desire,” he told a friend.
Together with Lord Melbourne, Victoria set about planning a lavish ceremony that would increase her already considerable popularity. Royal weddings had traditionally been small, private ceremonies held late at night, but Victoria changed all that. She was determined that her people would be able to see the bridal procession drive to St James’s Palace, where the ceremony was to be held. She also invited more guests than ever before.
When it came to her dress, Victoria had equally decided opinions. She refused to wear her crimson velvet robes of state. Instead, she opted for a dress of pure white and “simple magnificence”. This enhanced her purity and innocence, but had a more practical effect too: it made her more visible to the thousands of people who turned out to watch the procession. In so doing, she established a tradition that would be observed the world over. The queen’s dress had the added advantage of being easy to replicate, thus sparking the craze for women across the country copying royal bridal fashions.
Victoria also chose white as the colour for her 12 bridesmaids. But deciding who should fulfil this role proved problematic, thanks to Albert’s demand that they should each be born of a mother of spotless character. This was all very well in theory, but in practice many court ladies had enjoyed affairs with Victoria’s “wicked uncles”, all of whom had preferred mistresses to wives. Further problems were presented by the fact that the Chapel Royal at St James’s could only accommodate 300 people (at a push), so whittling down the guest list was a challenge. Victoria also courted controversy by only inviting five Tories – and then begrudgingly – which betrayed her bias towards the Whig party.
When the wedding day finally dawned, the bride awoke to pouring rain. But this did nothing to dampen her spirits. “How are you today and have you slept well?” she wrote cheerfully to her bridegroom. Outside, the crowds had been braving the rain since eight o’clock. They cheered when they saw the young queen pass by in her carriage, wearing her beautiful but simple white gown and a diamond necklace, and a sapphire broach that “my Angel” Albert had given her. Despite being dressed in the scarlet and white uniform of a British field marshal, the groom apparently failed to make a favourable impression. Florence Nightingale, in the crowd, observed that he appeared to be wearing clothes “no doubt borrowed to be married in”.
Victoria’s father had died when she was a baby, so she was given away by the Duke of Sussex. As they processed through the State Rooms to the Chapel Royal, the bridesmaids – whom one guest complained were dressed so simply that they looked like “village girls” – struggled to cope with Victoria’s 18ft-long train and kept treading on each other’s feet. But the bride was delighted with them and recorded that they made “a beautiful effect” in their white dresses adorned with white roses.
Despite her earlier concerns about marriage eroding her power, the queen insisted on keeping the vow ‘to obey’. This sparked concerns about Albert’s political role, although it would soon become obvious that Victoria was unwilling to obey anybody. In her journal, she described the ceremony as “very imposing and fine and simple, and I think ought to make an everlasting impression on everyone who promises at the Altar to keep what he or she promises”.
The wedding breakfast was held at Buckingham Palace. Before it started, the newlyweds stole half an hour alone together. Victoria gave Albert a ring and he told her that they should never keep any secrets from each other. The couple had ordered a hundred cakes to be eaten on the day and the rest to be distributed among relations, ambassadors, household and state officials. The wedding cake itself was a gargantuan creation, weighing in at 300lbs, 9ft in circumference and 16 inches high. Little wonder that it took four men to carry it. It was decorated with a figure of Britannia, flanked by cupids, one holding a book bearing the date of the wedding. The Times reported: “We are assured that not one of the cherubs on the royal wedding cake was intended to represent Lord Palmerston. The resemblance therefore pointed out… must be purely accidental.”
As soon as the banquet was over, the queen changed into a white silk travelling gown and set off with her new husband for Windsor Castle. The diarist Charles Greville grumbled that the coach was shabby and they had only a small escort. But, as Victoria had predicted, her choice pleased a people weary of the excess of her uncles. She wrote that there was “an immense crowd… quite deafening us” all the way to Windsor.
By the time they finally arrived at seven o’clock that evening, the young queen had a headache and had to lie down. Her attentive new husband sat by her side, and she enthused that, “His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before!” The brief repose restored Victoria’s energy and she later boasted that neither she nor Albert had any sleep on their wedding night. Within weeks of the wedding, Victoria was pregnant. The child, Victoria (Vicky), was the first of nine that the marriage would produce.
Victoria and Albert’s wedding had been a triumph. “Nothing could have gone off better,” declared Lord Melbourne. The newspapers agreed that the young queen had conducted matters perfectly. In doing so, Victoria had established an array of traditions still observed in weddings – royal and otherwise – to this day, from white wedding dresses to ostentatious cakes. Victoria had the myrtle from her bouquet planted and a sprig from the bush was later carried by the future Queen Elizabeth II on her wedding day. Above all, though, Victoria raised the profile of royal weddings to an unprecedented degree. Never again would a queen or king marry in private, late at night. The royal wedding ceremony had become an important part of securing the loyalties of the public. As recent royal weddings have proved, this is still very much the case today.
Tracy Borman is a bestselling author and historian. She co-authored The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011. Tracy is also joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, which will be marking the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth with a major new exhibition at Kensington Palace.