How Did Queen Victoria’s Husband Prince Albert Die?

The specter of Prince Albert’s death hath hovered over Victoria from the very beginning. Its looming presence has grown steadily throughout the show and at last became unavoidable with the royal’s dramatic collapse serving as a cliffhanger for the finale of season three.

While Albert was a productive man in life, it’s his death that he’s most remembered for in history, thanks to his widow, Queen Victoria, and the decades of public mourning she underwent in the wake of his untimely end.

So is season three’s shocking climax the last we’ll see of Tom Hughes’s Prince Albert? Or is there more to come on (possible, unconfirmed) future seasons of Victoria? While we don’t yet have details on what lies ahead for the Masterpiece show, history does offer a few clues:

When did Prince Albert die?

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Albert’s continued presence on Victoria is the timeline. In the season three finale, viewers were treated to the opening day of the Great Exhibition—a ceremony, which took place in real life on May 1, 1851. While Victoria certainly plays with timelines a bit, placing Albert’s death immediately after the opening of the Crystal Palace would short the Prince Consort a full decade of life, meaning that if the show does garner a fourth season, we’ll likely see the return of Victoria’s beloved.

As for the real Prince Albert’s death, exactly when the symptoms of his fatal illness started is not entirely clear to history—notes of purchase from both the Prince himself and the royal physicians showed orders of increasingly potent medications to deal with Albert’s long-standing digestive Issues as early as the summer of 1861—but by December of that year there could be no doubt that Albert was in serious condition.

For weeks, Albert’s health had been going downhill, devolving into fever and delirium. His doctors argued about the possible causes, citing “low” fever, a form of gastric infection, or the mundane rigors of stress and overworking himself, a trait for which he was famous in both his professional and personal circles.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, circa 1854.

Roger Fenton//Getty Images

Interestingly, he had told his wife not long before the onset of his illness, “I do not cling to life. you do; but I set no store by it. If I knew that those I love were well cared for, I should be quite ready to die tomorrow … I am sure if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity for life.”

Yet cling Albert did; for the final two weeks of his life, the Prince Consort moved from room to room in Windsor, glassy-eyed and unwell, attended regularly by his doctors as well as his third child, Alice, who served as her father’s nursemaid during his infirmity.

Even at the worst of his illness, Victoria remained stubbornly hopeful, telling one of Albert’s doctors,”My husband won’t die, for that would kill me.”

Nonetheless, after several days of alternating improvement and decline, on the evening of December 14, 1861 the Prince Consort died at the age of 42, surrounded by his family and his doting wife, Victoria.

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What caused Albert’s death?

Though Albert’s official cause of death was listed as typhoid fever, modern experts have continued to debate that diagnosis.

For a start, typhoid fever, a bacterial infection in the salmonella genus, is typically communicated through food or drink that had been exposed to the bacteria—commonly through a water supply tainted by sewage or by someone who carries the bacteria preparing or serving food without washing their hands. As a result, it was uncommon at the time for a single member of a family to be struck by typhoid while everyone else remained healthy (Mary Mallon aka Typhoid Mary was famously responsible for causing at least 51 cases of typhoid, including three deaths, in the New York area in the early 1900s.) No one else in the royal household fell ill with typhoid fever around this time, and though England had been wracked by a spate of the disease just a few years prior to Albert’s death, in December of 1861 there were relatively few cases reported.

Likewise, Albert had a long history of intermittent but significant gastrointestinal issues that have lead some scholars to suggest that the Prince Consort could have suffered from Crohn’s disease (which could also account for a number of joint issues that the Prince complained of throughout the years) or ulcerative colitis which, untreated, ultimately lead to sepsis.

Albert's Tomb

Prince Albert’s mausoleum at Frogmore.

Hulton Archives//Getty Images

Another possibility? Albert’s mother died at the age of 30 from stomach cancer, and a number of experts have argued that those earlier stomach issues were merely a symptom of cancerous growth.

While the typhoid theory has become less popular in recent years, it cannot be completely ruled out. Albert’s physician, Dr. William Jenner, was particularly well-known for his study of typhoid fever, having overseen hundreds of cases of the disease. He diagnosed Albert with the illness in early December, following the appearance of a distinctive rash on his abdomen that was considered a key symptom of typhoid fever (a blood test for typhoid wouldn’t be invented for another 30 years.)

Nonetheless, despite his doctor’s purported certainty, typhoid fever wasn’t officially attached to Albert’s records until seven days after his death.

Prince Albert's funeral, 1861.

Prince Albert’s funeral, 1861.

PrintCollector//Getty Images

How Albert’s death impacted the nation

Regardless of its cause, the Prince Consort’s passing had a powerful impact on England.

In addition to the enormous success of his brainchild, the Great Exhibition, which ended him to the people, it was also well known that Albert had taken an active role in the monarchy, frequently serving in the queen’s stead when she was unable to attend to state business over the course of her nine pregnancies. Shortly before his death, Albert’s last political action had helped smooth ruffled feathers over British neutrality in the American Civil War, prompting Prime Minister Palmerston to say, “Better for England to have had a ten years’ war with America than to have lost Prince Albert .”

But lose him they did. Shops closed their doors and theatrical performances canceled in honor of the royal’s death; Christmas, just over a week after Albert’s passing, was a somber affair throughout the kingdom that year.

Before Victoria’s ascended to the throne, her family house, the Hanoverians, were not popular with the masses; generations of out of control spending and debauchery had earned the royal family a less than glowing reputation. But together, Victoria and Albert has set about rehabilitating the royal image, setting themselves and their children up as icons of civility, education, and family life that made them both approachable and popular with the common people.

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Ironic, then, that it was Albert’s death that nearly undid all of his work. After his death, Victoria sunk into a deep depression, refusing to attend to public duties and prompting some to question what she was doing to earn the annual salary afforded to the crown from taxpayer funds. By the end of the 1860s, there were even calls for the Queen to abdicate and leave the throne open for her eldest son, Bertie, the future King Edward VII.

Sentiment only began to turn back in the Queen’s favor when Bertie was stricken with a serious illness on the tenth anniversary of Albert’s death, leading to rampant speculation that the heir was poised to die just as his father had. Bertie made a seemingly miraculous recovery a few weeks later, prompting Victoria to undertake a public thanksgiving service—her first official state ceremonial appearance in ten years. The tide of public favor returned to the royal widow as she herself returned to state business, and through the years she would go on to beloved symbol of England in her own right.

Why did Victoria blame her son for Albert’s death?

Despite the lingering medical mystery around Albert’s death, there is one possibility that definitely did not lead to the Prince Consort’s death, but which Victoria continued to blame for it, in part, until the end of her life: her son, Bertie.

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Prior to his death, Albert had gone to confront his eldest son and heir to the throne about a romantic entanglement that Bertie had carried on with a woman named Nellie Clifton (sometimes noted as Nelly Clifden.) The morality-minded Albert was aghast that his unmarried son would have taken a lover and also afraid that Clifton would fall pregnant or attempt to blackmail the crown, causing a shameful scandal.

It was only after returning to the royal home from this dressing down that Albert’s health took a marked turn for the worse. Victoria blamed her husband’s downfall on the stress Bertie’s behavior had put him under, refusing for a time even to see the young prince, sending him away on an extended journey abroad (ostensibly to finish his practical education) just weeks after his father’s death.

Ever the diplomat, Victoria’s uncle, King Leopold I, attempted to intercede on Bertie’s behalf, writing of his efforts that, “It is entirely her fault as the poor boy asks nothing better than to devote himself to comforting his Mother and with that object would be delighted to give up his foreign expedition but she wouldn’t hear of it and seems only anxious to get rid of him.”

Apparently confirming the sentiment, the Queen wrote to her daughter Vicky shortly after Albert’s death that, “Many wish to shake my resolution and to keep [Bertie] here,” but that to do so would “force a contact that is more than ever unbearable to me.”

Though Victoria did ultimately continue contact with Bertie throughout her life, she prevented the Prince of Wales from holding any other political position of power or influence until after her death, almost four decades later.

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Lauren Hubbard is a freelance writer and Town & Country contributor who covers beauty, shopping, entertainment, travel, home decor, wine, and cocktails.

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