As Queen Victoria’s diary shows, she was entranced from the moment she saw the Prince arrive at the foot of the Windsor stairs in 1839. Five days later she called him in her blue closet and proposed marriage to him. But marriage wasn’t the romantic, happy ever-ending story Victoria made up. It was a lot more complex than that.
Like all dynastic marriages, this was an alliance with a political agenda. The second son of a little German duke (Coburg is smaller than the Isle of Wight) and a mere Serene Highness, the lowest rank in the royal hierarchy, Prince Albert was Victoria’s poor relative, although the two were first cousins. But what he lacked in rank and wealth he made up for in education and self-confidence, and he had been trained from an early age by King Leopold of Belgium, the common uncle of the cousins, to marry Victoria and take the British throne.
Albert began his pursuit of power immediately after marriage. Within a few months he had placed his desk next to the Queen’s. At first, Victoria opposed Albert’s attempts to remove control of the court from her trusted governess Baroness Lehzen. But with pregnancies following in rapid succession – seven of Victoria’s nine children were born within the first 10 years of marriage – the queen was unable to resist. Albert fired Lehzen and took control of the budget, introducing much-needed reforms and savings.
King in everything but name
In November 1840, when their first child was born, Victoria gave Albert the key to the cupboard boxes. He began attending meetings with ministers, handling the queen’s correspondence, and writing business letters for the queen to copy. At dinner with politicians, Albert Victoria could be heard speaking in German before she spoke. He had now become her private secretary.
In 1850 he described his position as follows:
“As a natural head of [the queen’s] Family, steward of their household, steward of their private affairs, sole adviser in politics and sole assistant in their communication with the officials of their government, besides he is the Queen’s consort, the educator of the royal children, the private secretary of the sovereign and their permanent minister . “Albert was not only king by name, but also meddled in politics and pursued an active role in foreign policy.
Victoria said she was grateful to Albert for relieving her of the sovereign’s chore. Women, she believed, were not fit to rule. “It is a reversal of the right order of things that distresses me very much and that no one but such a perfection could endure and carry out such an angel as he is.” But Victoria had a vein of steel, and her commitment to it her birthright was absolute. She was torn between her passionate desire to be a perfect “Victorian” woman for Albert – an angel in the house, very sweet and easy – and her Hanoverian heritage.
The withdrawal of the royals
The image of the Victorian monarchy created by Albert and projected in paintings such as Winterhalter’s The Royal Family of 1846 was that of a child-centered bourgeois family on the throne. But the fact was that royal marriage was unlike any other. It took place in the special context of the court.
As a young maid of honor at the court of Victoria in the 1850s, Mary Bulteel watched the door to the Queen’s private chambers shut silently. How much she longed to meet the Queen, her employer, but Victoria rarely spoke to her.
The withdrawal of the royal family from the public space of the court to the private chambers was thanks to Albert. It meant that Victoria’s life was no longer limited by the court as it had been in the early days of her reign when her court was a Camelot, famous for its parties and youthful exuberance. The creation of a private sphere – a space devoted to domestic life – was one of the most profound changes Albert made in his quest to reform the monarchy.
Disliked London with its late nights and being ridiculed by the aristocracy as a German beggar, Albert convinced Victoria that their enjoyment of society was wrong. True happiness, he claimed, was in the country with her beloved prince and her young family. Albert designed the new family home in Osborne on the Isle of Wight, which is certainly inaccessible to the curious public. Even more remote was Balmoral, the castle he built in the Scottish Highlands, 500 miles from London.
At Osborne House or Balmoral, the family could live the simple outdoor life that Victoria later depicted in her papers from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. Victoria believed that her “happy home at home” made her more popular than any other sovereign and set a good example for her subjects.
At court, Albert introduced new rules that distanced the royal family from the household – that is, from courtiers and officials like Lord Chamberlain. He ordered that no man should sit in the presence of the queen. The Prime Ministers stood during audiences throughout Victoria’s reign; only two received the special privilege of sitting in the presence of the Queen – her favorite Disraeli, who refused the offer, and Lord Salisbury, who was too heavy to stand. The hated Gladstone was never asked to sit down, even in his eighties.
Albert forbade the ladies of honor to sit in his presence or speak to him unless they were spoken to. He went everywhere accompanied by a stable master, which underscored his royal status. Albert was cold and stiff in his relations with the courtiers of the house. “His way of issuing orders and rebukes was more like a householder scolding servants than being agreeable to those who had to listen in silence,” wrote Mary Bulteel. People noticed that the prince did not make a single friend among the ministers or in the household. Such reluctance in such a young man was “uncomfortable,” thought Mary. “It implied something of the cold egoism that seems to frighten you with all royalties.”
Court ladies’ memoirs agree that Albert was “loathed” for being “so stiff,” especially among women. Victoria, on the other hand, was revered for her disarming candor and insatiable curiosity and interest in the affairs of everyone around her.
Albert’s cool demeanor stems in part from his upbringing at the small German court in Coburg. When Mary Bulteel visited Coburg in 1860, she found the farm much stiffer than in Great Britain, and the stable masters and the household had much “collapsed before these little rulers than we did before the Queen”.
One result of the withdrawal from court was that the royal couple were closer to their ordinary servants than to the aristocratic courtiers of the house. Perhaps this is why, after Albert’s death, Victoria became intimate with her Highland servant John Brown and later with her Indian servant Abdul Karim – relationships that particularly troubled courtiers because they overturned the protocol of the court.
Behind the closed doors of private apartments, Victoria was often irritable and moody. She was bitterly angry with what she called “the dark side of marriage,” which meant pregnancy and childbirth, and suffered from postnatal depression. She didn’t like babies that she thought were “just small plants for the first six months” and “terrible when moved out” with their “big bodies and small limbs and that terrible frog-like action.”
Victoria’s “nerves” got worse and worse in the 1850s. Her last two pregnancies were marked by hysterical scenes. The royal doctors pointed out to Albert that the queen’s mood swings and violent Hanoverian temperament were symptoms of her grandfather Georg III’s madness. have inherited. Instead of getting engaged, he went away, and when his wife stormed out of the room angrily, the prince wrote letters rebuking her unreasonable behavior. “When you’re violent, I have no choice but to leave you … and retreat to my room to give you time to relax, then follow me to renew the argument and settle it all out,” he wrote .
Victoria kept a notebook in which she recorded her moods, selfishness and loss of self-control. Albert read her confession and issued her a “certificate” of improvement and checked her behavior like a child. Albert’s intentions were undoubtedly good. He was certainly a loyal and faithful husband. Victoria’s admiration for her lover was unbroken. But she was made to feel inadequate, his intellectual and moral inferiority. “I owe everything to my dearest papa,” she said to her daughter. “He was my father, my protector, my guide and advisor in everything, my mother (I could almost say that) as well as my husband.”
This was not a marriage of equals. It was as if the couple could live with the anomaly (as they saw it) that Victoria was a woman on the throne and superior in rank to her husband by making her feel that she was inferior to Albert in every other way. This trick put an unbearable burden on both of them. No wonder Victoria lost her temper every now and then.
Albert’s reaction was to take refuge in work. In the 1850s, he consistently got up early in the morning to do his growing paperwork. His involvement in politics made him unpopular in the country, and he became a lonely, unhappy figure. Photographs show him prematurely aged, bald and worn out. Queen Victoria’s tragedy was that Albert’s death at the age of 42 meant these tensions were never resolved.
Jane Ridley is Professor of History at the University of Buckingham and author of several works on the Victorian era, including Victoria (Allen Lane, 2015).
This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine